Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Diversity in the Dollhouse

Note: I've been away for the last month helping family across the country with various projects, but I'm back now. To get into the swing of things again, I decided to write a fun post. Enjoy!

It wasn't entirely helpful that when I searched for "Rebecca Rubin" on Google, the first result was "Federal Buereau of Investigation Featured Fugitive - Rebecca J. Rubin". In fact, it's rather unfortunate since that's the name of American Girl's newest historical character doll.

I grew up with American Girl dolls, and as an anthropologist, I now look back at my childhood playthings with a new interest. I'm fascinated by the amount of research put into these dolls, and how ethnicity (and now religion) are being negotiated into a marketable doll. Compared to Bratz (which in my opinion, is like comparing apples to McDonald's Happy Meals - feel free to guess which is which) American Girl dolls are a realistic and refreshing. My only real issue with them is the cost - I wish they were more affordable so that a truly wide range of children could enjoy these toys. But on to my point...

This isn't the first time, nor probably the last time, that American Girl dolls have raised questions about toys and race. Most notably was in 1993, when the first African American character, Addy (an escaped slave) was introduced. Critics argued that she should instead be a post-slavery African American character. But why shouldn't she be a slave? The vast majority of African Americans are direct descendants of slaves, and it's an absolutely critical part of our history that should be discussed. I remember reading 'Meet Addy' as a very young, solidly middle class white girl. I felt the complete horror of her story: her father and brother are sold to another plantation owner, Addy and her mother escape to the North, forced to leave her baby sister behind. It was the first time I actively engaged with the idea of race relations in America, and it was through the story of a girl who was my own age. Sure, it wasn't "Roots", but it was certainly age appropriate exposure to a really important historical topic.

Thankfully, the doll characters come from a wide range of economic classes. Not all of the Caucasian characters are wealthy and not all of the ethnic characters are poor. The newest character, Rebecca Rubin, is a Russian-Jewish girl growing up on the Lower East Side tenements of New York City in the early 1900's with her immigrant family. Clearly not a 'priviledged' background, nor one without struggle and hardship. However, something unique about Rebecca Rubin is her character is the first to clearly deal with religion. There are reports of meetings conducted by American Girl on her books, over whether her father would work on a Saturday. It was decided that he would, because the pressure to integrate on a new immigrant family sometimes trumps religious obligations. Surely this will cause outcry from some, but I'm rather impressed that American Girl has that level of awareness at all.

One of the most interesting issues that has been raised in some articles is what should a Jewish doll look like? One blogger at Double X clearly didn't do her research when she wrote that the dolls all have "uniformly cabbage-like heads, button noses, and slight overbites". In fact, there are several different face molds for the dolls. Notably is Kaya, the Nez Perce character who has her own face mold with Native American features, and is the only doll who doesn't smile showing her teeth, as doing so is (apparently) considered offensive in Nez Perce culture. Rebecca will share a face mold with the Hispanic Josefina character, and have medium brown curly hair with russet highlights, and hazel eyes.

So does she look Jewish? I think that will be up to the eye of the beholder, but kudos again to American Girl for not running to stereotypes. Personally, I'm so excited to imagine children playing with the Rebecca doll and learning as first-hand as they can about immigration, Judaism, the history of Russian Jews, and the impact of the labor movement during this time period (a key part of her story). And hopefully, for some children, Rebecca will be a doll that they can really identify with on some level.

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