Friday, June 15, 2007

American Girls - the store in north Chicago

Earlier this week I was in downtown Chicago, just walking, with dear friend Jean Mendoza. We walked past the American Girls store and decided to stop in and see the Kaya doll. Neither of us had been there prior to this.

Our first stop was the displays there on the ground floor. All kinds of products. Puzzle books, paper dolls, non-fiction, fiction... as many of you know, American Girl is a huge business success.

I learned that Kirsten has a "secret Sioux friend, Singing Bird." I never paid much attention to all the books, but probably ought to look into the ways that American Indians are presented in the historical dolls stories. Kirsten's stories are set in 1854 in Minnesota. My quick look into the Lakota history (in Duane Champagne's Native America: Portrait of the Peoples) says "By the early 1800s, many Sioux bands moved onto the Plains from their original woodland homes in Minnesota..." (p. 163). It was primarily Ojibwe's (Chippewa's) in Minnesota in the 1800s and now.

This is only a quick look into dates/tribes of Minnesota during the time of Kirsten. More extensive research could (and should) be done. Any teachers out there willing to take a class through such a study?

The historical dolls are displayed in the basement floor, so we went there next. First diorama to our right were things of Kaya's tribe (Nez Perce). Nearby was a diorama of Josefina. I noted the presentation of the horno (outdoor oven). There was a (fake) fire inside, and a loaf of bread on a paddle placed as though it had just come out of the oven. Thing is, when you actually cook bread in these ovens (we Pueblo Indians use them, too; our Tewa word for oven is panteh--can't put the correct mark over the a in this blogger software), the fire is completely extinguished and ashes cleaned out before the bread is placed in the oven. It would be better if American Girl removed the fake fire from the oven.

In the center of that floor section was a table on which Kaya and a tipi (spelled tepee) were displayed. She's almost as tall as her tipi, which is an error in scale. Same with her pony. The small scale of the tipi reminds me of the ways that igloos are typically shown in children's books. In truth, they were and are rather large. Again and again, however, they're shown to be about the size of a doghouse. That's a tangent, though. Back to American Girls.

Further along the way was a theater where stage shows (musicals) are presented several times a day. There were large posters of some child actors and scenes from the historical dolls. I didn't see one of Kaya. I asked a salesperson in that section about the shows. He said they do a musical that includes all the historical dolls as characters. He handed me a brochure. I studied it and said "I don't see a girl who is dressed as Kaya." He pointed to one and said "That's her. She does more than one character." He also talked about their other shows, with "bitty characters" and described, with great enthusiasm, the products for toddlers, how they're child-safe, and how they are designed to introduce children to American Girl. (This is when I really started feeling grossed out by the place.)

We went into the larger room with displays of the dolls and their things. In that area there were 15 foot-long (or thereabouts) displays for all dolls, except for Kaya. I asked the sales clerk (and there are many, all through the store) where the Kaya display was. She said it was around the corner, over in the other room. I asked why it wasn't with the others in the big room. She said they didn't have enough space, and decided to put her out there, because she didn't have as many accessories as the other dolls.

I replied that it was pretty typical, actually, to marginalize Native Americans, put them elsewhere, not in the mix, as it were.

She went on to say that they were trying to be authentic. According to her (or her script), American Girl has decided that, to be authentic, Kaya has to have little in the way of accessories. Clothes, furniture, etc.

Hmmm... I thought to myself. I guess all the other girls, according to this salesperson, had more in the way of material goods. The pioneer girl, the immigrant, etc. etc., they all had plenty of goods. How accurate is that?

The salesperson then said that Kaya would be in with the rest of the girls when they move to their larger building.

By then I was utterly disgusted with the entire place. I thanked the salesperson, and we left. I wasn't confrontational.

I should remind readers that, while I did ask questions that may have suggested I felt that Kaya ought to be in the big room with the other girls, that exclusion/inclusion/marginalization is just one slice of this discussion. Several weeks ago, I posted a review (read it here) that points to the multiple errors and flaws in the Kaya books. American Girl could do better, and you, as a consumer, can find much better books about American Indians for the children you work with, or parent, or teach....

(Note to Jean: If you want to add anything, please do!)

And, those of you who have more knowledge of the American Girl books, please comment, share what you know about the ways that American Indian characters are presented in the stories.

Note at 9:01 PM---Roger Sutton noted my post here over at Read Roger. Follow comments there, which are about the commercialization aspects of AG.
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6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi,

As I understand it the original mission was to place the "Girls" in the appropriate historical context. There was always an effort to involve members of the cultures represented when creating the original dolls. I would encourage anyone, and everyone, who can credibly identify the inaccuracies in the representation of Kaya, Josefina, the other AG dolls or characters in their stories to contact The Pleasant Company or Mattel. I believe they would welcome the information and ammend the dolls story or offerings.

As for the size of the tipi, all the doll accessories are small. Better to fit in a closet or storage box that way!

Kristin

Katie said...

I highly doubt they would amend anything. I'm sure they would be courteous to you, were you to call them and give them information, but it's far too expensive to change millions of books and thousands of toys. Mattel (who owns and operates American Girl) has their eye on the bottom line (as any toy company in that profit margin does) and they just won't care that much unless it's affecting sales, which clearly this isn't. These dolls and books sell like crazy. They're making money hand over fist with this stuff, changing it because of some historical inaccuracies just isn't worth it for them. It would be nice, but it's not going to happen. Sorry.

And as to scale - most of the accessories are in pretty good scale with the dolls. Even the furniture is well scaled, and hard to store as a result. I can see the argument that they might have made it smaller to make it easier to store, but making it easy to fold up or something would have been a much better solution. If Samantha and Felicity can have carriages built for two and Molly can have a stage and theater seating, surely Kaya can have a tipi she could fit into.

Jean Mendoza said...

Adding a bit to Deb's account of our foray into AG World:

The very polite and enthusiastic young man who told us about the AG theater productions did not use the term “branding” but he described it perfectly – the process undertaken by corporations of getting people VERY young to believe that products with particular brand names are among life’s essentials.

I’ve often wondered if the corporate world’s use of that term isn’t deliberately, sadistically ironic, given that “branding” is also something that’s done to livestock with a piece of hot metal to reduce the chances that the critters will end up in somebody else’s pasture. Then there was a 1960’s Western TV drama called Branded, in which some guy was given a prominent (and painful) brand/burn to punish him for being cowardly in battle. “What do you do when you’re branded? Do you fight for your name?” went the theme song, more or less.

Anyway, branding is what the “Bitties” are quite obviously, unabashedly all about. Get ‘em while they’re babies so someone else won’t easily steal ‘em away.

As the young man spoke, my cognitive-dissonance detector worked diligently to find any indication that he saw even a bit of weirdness in what he was telling us, but no. The young woman Debbie talked to about the placement of the Kaya display also seemed relentlessly cheerful, and agreed with a smile when Debbie noted that even the white historical dolls would probably not have had as many fancy possessions as the AG s do. Right, we just want to believe they had all of that stuff. Not a bit apologetic about the anomalies nestled within the company’s supposed efforts to seem historically correct.

AG seems clearly in line with what was pioneered (so to speak) by the Barbie doll, in terms of material possessions, but with more backstory so they seem perhaps to be almost Educational. Maybe the sensible Grandma who won’t buy her granddaughter the doll will buy the books. …

It really would be worthwhile research to go through all of the books and find references to Native Americans. Where are they, and where are they NOT?

One place Native people are NOT is the stage show, apparently. As Debbie indicates, the girl who plays Kaya also plays a few other non-Native characters. Somewhere is a contemporary native – perhaps even Nez Perce – girl who can sing and act and who might bring some authenticity to the role of Kaya. Somewhere, but not on the American Girl stage.

Like katie, I believe that Mattel is not likely to be amenable to the changes, subtle or substantial, that would need to be made to bring Kaya or any of the dolls into sharper alignment with historical reality.

bookbk said...

I went to the American Girl Place in Los Angeles a few months ago and am now racking my brain to try & remember whether Kaya had her own display there. I believe she did, because my daughter was fascinated by the Kaya doll and spent a fair bit of time casting longing looks at her and her stuff. Can't remember anything about the proportions of the tipi, or even if there was one, unfortunately. If we go back I'll definitely watch for it.

Anonymous said...

The Kaya series in the American Girl books is not perfect, but what is unfortunte is that the American Girl books were created to help kids enjoy reading, learn about history, and for girls to feel good about themselves. It was a way to emphasize the role of girls and women throughout history, for girls and boys to learn about other cultures and time periods in a fun way. That girls have always played a crucial role in history despite the fact that they wore corsets and didn't have the vote. The focus was on education and reading. Now it seems it is as much about selling things to kids -merchandise rather than education. The Kaya series could be a great starting point for discussion in classrooms, and it is unfortunate that it could not be more accurate. It is a disservice to kids. They deserve better.

Heather said...

I read American Girl books when I was a little girl--I read all of the ones that were available and the line was considerably smaller than. I didn't even know that there was a Kaya doll and I don't recall Kirsten having any sort of 'secret friend.' She was my favorite because my Grandma is a Swedish immigrant and loved her. Furthermore, I was raised in northern Wisconsin but we did EVERYTHING in Minnesota -- so I felt that sort of connection too.

Oh yeah. And Kirsten and I share a last name.

And a Swedish immigrant girl would not have had many things. I know my Grandma didn't. I wish I'd taken better care of my Kirsten junk because they don't make the period-appropriate pieces anymore.

I REALLY did used to think that I learned a lot from American Girl books too. And from Laura Ingalls Wilder and the like -- and I still think I did and that I do, but it's maybe not so "real" and more a very specific, constructed imaginary.

I guess I'm kind of thankful, period, that American Girl as a series has started to include more girls of color.

And if I ever have girls, I will probably talk to them about inaccuracies in things they consume and read because it's really a rampant problem in general--but one that is especially difficult for women of color because the misconceptions are sometimes the only thing that exists on a pervasive level. For instance, I had to do outside reading in high school and go to college to learn a lot of the things that I've found genuinely useful in understanding the world around me.