At a recent birthday, my daughter became the proud owner of the much coveted American Girl doll. We had vaguely supported her strong desire to have an American Girl doll. We knew that the doll would come with books that told the girl's story, that the dolls were of a decent quality, and that...well...they weren't Barbies.
Parents of girls are known to experience moments of elation when their daughters show interest in dolls that are not Barbie.
We all know about Barbie. She's got that impossible figure, the deformed feet, the big hair, the gravity-defying breasts. No matter what version you buy -- and there are many! -- Barbie always looks the same without her clothes on. That's why even though the 90s has brought us the Paleontologist Barbie, the Barbie Dentist, the Movin' and Groovin' Barbie, as well as a nurturing big brother Ken who comes boxed with his little brother, an African American version of Barbie and Ken named Imani and Menelik -- both dressed in African garb, and a Barbie-type doll in a wheelchair named "Share a Smile Becky," feminist parents hate Barbie.
My daughter's brand new "Kirsten" - the American pioneer girl from the mid-1800s - doesn't have a cinched waist, but my relief about that was short-lived. As it turns out, we had introduced racialized nationalism in the form of a blond-haired, blue-eyed pioneer doll.
The Pleasant Company, makers of the American Girl dolls and accessories collection, thinks "being an American Girl is great -- something to stand up and shout about." The home page of their web site features a fair-skinned girl, looking straight at you, hands on hips. Her t-shirt is decorated with stars and exclaims, "Proud to be an American Girl!"
Pleasant Rowland, founder of the Pleasant Company, has the laudable goal of providing girls with quality books and dolls, each representing a different period of U.S. history. She wants to give girls an "understanding of America's past and a sense of pride in the traditions they share with girls of yesterday."
Grateful for stories about girls that focus on their courage and spunk and adventurous spirit, and intrigued by history lessons that come through in the "historically accurate" depictions of the girls' lives, parents love to see their daughters' interest in American Girl dolls.
These dolls do give our daughters positive role models. All six American Girl dolls -- Felicity (1774), Josefina (1824), Kirsten (1854), Addy (1864), Samantha (1904) and Molly (1944) -- are brave, thoughtful, struggling, girls with real-life problems and triumphs. Nodding to multiculturalism, there is even an African American and a Hispanic doll.
But taken as a whole, the American Girl Collection gives us unbridled patriotism and the victors' version of history.
Even using the word "American" to describe the collection should give us pause. Since the Americas make up two full continents of which the United States is only a small part, and since millions of Native people once inhabited the Americas and might accurately be called Americans, it's a bit of a leap to pose our pioneer girl as the quintessential American Girl.
But it's too late to worry about all this now. The doll is being carried all around the house. Pleasant Company catalogs are arriving at a fast and furious pace. Each full-color 85-page tome provides my daughter with a minimum of a half-hour of thorough absorption. She barely blinks as she scans the pages, admiring the high-quality, high-priced American Girl sidelines. There are more historically accurate dresses and nightgowns to purchase. Assorted socks, shoes, picnic baskets, and miniature American flags. There's Kirsten's own hand-painted trunk for $155 and her matching bed "with its charming design" for $55.
"Mom, I need more stuff for Kirsten so I can play with her better."
To distract her from this mail-order reverie, I suggest we read one of the Kirsten books. We end up getting a grossly misrepresented slice of American history.
Kirsten, we learn, is a pioneer girl "of strength and spirit." Her family comes from Sweden to begin farming in Minnesota. The fact that the pioneer presence in the area, made possible by fraudulent U.S. treaties with the various Ojibwe bands, leads to the displacement of most of the Native people is treated as a neutral bit of bad luck for Indians.
According to the Pleasant Company, the European immigrants' conflict with the Indians does not result in bloody battles, disease, economic warfare and the near decimation of the Native population. Seen through the eyes of the innocent Kirsten, who, in one of the books Kirsten Learns a Lesson, actually befriends a Native girl her age, it's simply a sad twist of fate that Singing Bird is hungry and must go West with her tribe in search of food.
For a brief moment, Kirsten entertains the idea of joining her. "Come, sister," Singing Bird says.
"Kirsten remembered the warm tepee where Singing Bird lived. She imagined herself sleeping by Singing Bird's side under the buffalo hides. If she lived with Singing Bird she would be free to roam the woods all day. Brave Elk would be good to her. He was the chief, and Kirsten would be his yellow-haired daughter. She and Singing Bird would always be together."
Kirsten's flight of fancy about running away with Singing Bird does not stray much from the standard Eurocentric romaniticization of Native life. Contrasted as it is in Kirsten Learns a Lesson with Kirsten's tortuous hours in the school house with her severe teacher who commands her students not to act like savages, the dream of running away with the "Indians" symbolizes a break from civilization. Of course, Kirsten chooses not to follow Singing Bird. A wise choice, as history shows. Had she joined the Indians, Kirsten would not have spent a lot of time roaming the woods and sleeping on buffalo hides. She would have surely gone to her death with a doomed people and a way of life that would be extinct in the next few decades. Kirsten bids a sad farewell to her Indian friend and returns home to find she has won a "Reward of Merit" for properly reciting an English-language verse.
But in the process she has learned another important lesson as well: that Minnesota is her home. "She wasn't sure when this place had become her own, but she belonged here now," the book tells us. The illustration shows the backs of the Native people as they leave their homeland.
Moms and Dads of daughters: we have our work cut out for us. The doll options for our children run the gamut between pointy-breasted paleontologists and patriotic blond-haired pioneers. Perhaps we should be grateful that spunk and courage are attributes ascribed to girls, and that the occasional career girl makes her way into the line-up. Perhaps we should be appreciative of the ubiquitous blond giving way to the occasional brunette, and even brown-skinned doll. Perhaps we should feel hopeful that in addition to having happy-sex-object-homemaker role models for dolls, our daughters also have feisty-patriot role models who sometimes get into trouble but who always emerge victorious, thus easing our children's acceptance of the great and inevitable American way of life.
I am not comforted.
The experts say to buy toys that emphasize creative play and to avoid the toys that only do one thing. Thus, your child will benefit from freer play that is less scripted and directed by exacting toys and their attachments. I would add that we should also beware of the "educational" books that offer fine-tuned justifications for dominant institutions past and present. These books may appeal to our children's intellect, but they represent an early start to the process of inculcating kids with the values and norms that they'll need to rationalize an unjust world.
Consider also, in the world beyond your child's playroom, how you can help build and support the institutions and communities that offer an alternative to the dominant ones. Creating spaces that emphasize care over consumption, continuity over disposability, and diversity over universality will expose all children to values they won't find in the mainstream.
And finally, a query for Howard Zinn (you have read my commentary about dolls all the way to the end, haven't you?): You write in a number of different genres. I've read your excellent books, essays, and plays. Why not try your hand at the historical novel geared for the 7-12 year old set? A sort of a merging of A People's History and the Pleasant Company - complete with politically correct historical fiction, multicultural dolls, and anti-capitalist accessories. Could be the sideline that lifts some lefty publishing company out of the red and politicizes pre-adolescents the world over. Think about it.