Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Rethinking Schools article on AMERICAN GIRLS

Elizabeth Marshall, a former elementary schoolteacher, has a terrific article on the Rethinking Schools site. Titled "Marketing American Girlhood" she makes excellent points again and again about what this well-marketed series hides or glosses over. Here's a paragraph about Josefina:

Josefina's story takes place on a rancho near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1824 before the Mexican-American War. The nonfictional "Looking Back: America in 1824" at the end of Meet Josefina dilutes this colonial history by limiting discussion to two sentences about the Mexican-American War and pointing out that when it ended in 1848, America "claimed most of the land that is now the southwestern United States" (Tripp, 1997, p. 83). The author of this history then moves on to describe the benefits of this war. "Although Josefina would never have imagined it when she was 9 years old, she would one day be an American — and the cultures and traditions of the New Mexican settlers and their Pueblo neighbors would become part of America, too" (p. 83). It is important to note that this loss of sovereignty was especially significant for New Mexican women, who had many more rights as Mexicans than they had as Americans — like the right to own their own property. The creators at American Girl favor a whitewashed version of this history, and Josefina's narrative reads as a melting pot story in which difference is assimilated into a larger American girlhood identity. Like Meet Josefina, each of the historical fictions takes place in the past and in this way allows issues such as racism, colonization, and war to be presented as things that America has overcome.

In 2006, one of my students brought Josefina's World, 1824: Growing up on America's Southwest Frontier to class. Marshall quotes from Beverly Slapin's review of Kaya. A couple of years ago, Jean Mendoza and I visited the AG store in Chicago. I wrote about that visit, and Roger Sutton, editor at Horn Book, blogged about the series, too.

During our visit, Jean and I wondered about the stage performance they do there but didn't want to rearrange our visit to see it. There is, however, a review in Theatre Journal [to read the entire review, see Theatre Journal 60.2 (2008): 303-306]. The author of the review is Matt Omasta from Arizona State University. Do click on his name to read about him. He's doing some fascinating work, including a stage adaptation of Lois Lowry's Gathering Blue. Here's some excerpts from his review of the American Girls production. He begins with:

I believe that Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) is a cultural pedagogue. As corporations further their reach into today's world, I am interested in interrogating what these companies "teach" young people vis-a-vis their popular performances like The American Girls Revue. Viewing the production confirmed my suspicion that children would be indoctrinated into consumer identities and encouraged to avail themselves of the plethora of American Girl products available in the adjoining shop. More surprising and perhaps more troubling for me was the Revue's implicit yet deeply embedded hegemonic discourse that prescribed social roles based on children's race, class, and gender.

In the Revue, a group of girls show another how to play American Girl. Each one picks her favorite girl and acts out a scene. Omasta described three of them-- Felicity, Josefina, and Addy--and the scenes they act out. Then, he writes:

I see a troubling dichotomy when I consider these stories: affluent white people are encouraged to break free from their hegemonic roles, while impoverished minorities should rely instead on inner peace, since attempts at material social change will prove futile.

Of the males in the production, he writes:

With the exception of one kindly avuncular figure, males appeared only in apathetic or aggressive/hostile roles: a confederate soldier, a cruel animal-abuser, a drum-beating Native American who paid no heed to the troubles of his tribe.

Thank goodness, the shows are shutting down. The economy is probably the reason. Wouldn't it be great if they were going dark due to objections from the public? From teachers?

Omasta concludes his review saying that the Revue is the rule, not the exception, in theater for young audiences. Sounds a lot like children's and young adult literature. While some say American Girl is invested in diversity, we have to pay attention to what that diversity is. If it is just decoration, it's not real. It just lets people feel like they're living a liberal or progressive politic.

In short, in "American Girls" there's a lot to think about.

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