Monday, June 14, 2010

Nostalgia and the American Girls

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about sessions I'd attended at the 37th annual conference of the Children's Literature Association. This is a follow-up to that post.

On Saturday afternoon I attended a session called "American Dolls". The first paper was on Disney characters. The third paper, given by Bethany Dailey Tisdale, was "What Dolls Eat: The Fixation on Food for American Girls". Tisdale did a close analysis of food, class and period across several of the dolls. I wonder if she's published a paper on the topic? It was a thoughtful presentation.

This post is about the second paper, Suzanne Rahn's "Felicity, Addy, Molly, Josefina: Books for American Girls".  A retired professor, Rahn is now an independent scholar.  Her "An Evolving Past: The Story of Historical Fiction and Nonfiction for Children" was published in The Lion and the Unicorn in June, 1991 (Volume 15, Number 1, pp. 1-26). The article is a survey of historical fiction for children and young adults. She begins by praising older works of historical fiction, writing at length of the ways they preserved tradition and history and made it engaging to the reader.

But then the 60s happened...  Rahn writes (p. 17):
[T]he most powerful currents of the revolutionary sixties were set in active opposition to the past, and the historical novel was bound to suffer for it. In the 1950s, the genre had been valued for giving young people the security of tradition in a fast-changing world, but in the late sixties tradition was exactly what the young hoped to be liberated from. Teenagers warned each other not to trust anyone over thirty. Cigarette ads began assuring women, "You've come a long way, baby," making it seem (once more) a fate worse than death to be Victorian. History was, at best, not "relevant." At worst, it seemed inextricably associated with authority and the lies told by those in power--in the distortions and omissions of American history textbooks, for example. By the early 1970s, the historical novel had already plummeted to the low point of popularity from which it has still not fully recovered. Even historical novels and biographies which had been praised for featuring minorities in leading roles were under attack for racism.
The novels she says were under attack are Amos Fortune, Free Man, by Elizabeth Yates; I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, and, The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox.  She doesn't say much about why they were critiqued, noting only that  The Slave Dancer "paints a darker picture of the slave trade than children had been allowed to see" (p. 18). I imagine she thinks the darker picture is a good thing, and while it IS important for children to have that darker picture, the scholars who objected to it argued that Fox excuses the whites in the story and their roles in slavery, and blames Africans for what happened. (If interested in the critiques, see Sharon Bell Mathis's "The Slave Dancer is an Insult to Black Children" and Binnie Tate's "Racist and Distortions Pervade The Slave Dancer" --- both available in MacCann and Woodard's Cultural Conformity in Books for Children: Further Readings in Racism published in 1977 by Scarecrow Press.) It seems to me that Rahn is somewhat displeased with critiques of those books, but its more than just critical discussions of race that she objects to...

She writes that Johnny Tremain emphasized ideals of the Revolution and presented war as just and necessary, and that My Brother Sam Is Dead (written by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier in 1985) is more cynical. She says that books published during and after the 70s provide "bleak" views of life in historical time periods that are are intent on refuting portrayals in older works. She says (p. 19):
Unlike the authors of the forties and fifties, who tried to make the past appeal to children, Skurzynaski, Conrad, and the Colliers seem to dislike the cultures they describe. The past, from this perspective, can be neither enjoyable for its own sake nor a source of alternative solutions--only a storehouse of folly that may enable us to perceive more clearly the follies of our own time.
Conrad wrote Prairie Songs in 1985. Rahn prefers the prairie life presented by Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House on the Prairie.  Near the end of her article, Rahn happily says that good novels of the fifties are being republished, and, she points to a then-new series, the Americans Girls dolls and books. I provide these excerpts (above) from Rahn's article because of what she said in her session on the American Girl dolls. Nearly twenty years have passed, and Rahn's views have not changed. Here's a few items from her presentation last week:
  • She began her talk by holding up Josefina, the Mexican American doll. She invited us (the audience) to come up after the session if we wanted to "cuddle" Josefina. 
  • She talked about Rebecca Rubin, the Jewish doll who, Rahn said, has to learn "how to cope with being Jewish". 
Before that, however, she said that the dolls and books are "historically accurate" and can teach children about history. They, she said, are like Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn because they educate and teach children how to be tolerant. She went on at great length about them, and it sounded more like a sales pitch than a conference paper.

She obviously likes the dolls and books very much.

That was clear when she referred to Roger Sutton's editorial about the American Girls catalog as "absurd". When I asked her to elaborate, she said that his mind had been twisted or warped (can't recall which word she used) by being at a conference about pornography. The editorial she was referencing is Roger's Dolls at a Distance where he said that he'd been at a conference where they pondered children's access to pornography on the Internet and he thought browsing the American Girls catalog would ameliorate his unsettled state of mind. Instead, the catalog gave him the creeps for the many ways its contents and presentation of the dolls is a lot like pornography.

As Rahn talked, I was aware of a lot of shifts in body language (my own, but others in the room, too). During the Q&A, she had several tough questions from people who don't see the dolls and books with the same warmth as she does. She's a fighter, however, and didn't yield at all.  I think she'd like to see the United States go back in time and be what it was before all of us radicals starting saying HEY and WTF? Is she in the minority? I don't know, but I hope so. Over at Shelf Talker (a blog on the Publisher's Weekly website), Elizabeth Bluemle's The Elephant in the Room suggests that a lot of people are paying attention to how white the children's literature profession is. Rahn's praise for American Girl may not seem like the same thing, but I think it is. The issue is power and control, who says what, what they say, and how they say it.

I did not like Rahn talking about "cuddling" Josefina, and said so in my comment to her. Cuddling Josefina, or Addy, or Kaya may feel like a "tolerant" thing to do, but Latino/a Americans, Blacks, and American Indians don't want to be cuddled by affluent members of society. We want respect for who we are. We want our history, our viewpoints, and our ideas to be treated with respect. Returning to the mindset and books of the fifties is not the way to get there.

For further reading, see:
Rethinking Schools article on AMERICAN GIRLS

American Girls Collection: Kaya


Sarah Park said...

I was really surprised when you told me about this session, but perhaps I shouldn't have been, given that my own students have been resistant to criticism regarding the American Dolls too. Some people who have grown up with them are very invested in depoliticizing the stories and their attendant material consumerables.

I'm most mortified by the invitation to "cuddle" with the dolls and totally agree with your comments at the bottom of your post. It reminds me of people going up to black folks and just reaching out to touch their hair.

Lya said...

Thank you for this post, and especially for the Elephant in the Room article which was just a treasure trove of links!

macon d said...

Wow, what an awful presentation! Almost chilling in its whitened, cocooned oblivion. Thank you, though, for reporting on it.