Selling American Girlhood: The American Girl Phenomenon

rethinkingschoolsmarketingYour daughter/niece/friend’s child wants a doll, and although you have fond memories of the exploits of Ken and Barbie from your own childhood, you realize that Barbie really isn’t the best role model. And, of course, those brazen, anorexic Bratz things are out of the question. So, you turn to something like the American Girl dolls. Those seem pretty girl-power focused. Plus, they have dolls of different ethnicities. And, there’s a magazine and a series of historical books about each girl, so they inspire reading and learning about history.  So, it seems like a pretty safe, pro-girl choice, event if AG does promote a lot of products, right? Not so fast.

The latest issue of Rethinking Schools magazine has a terrific analysis of the American Girl doll/book/movie/products/girl culture phenomenon. “Marketing American Girlhood“, by Elizabeth Marshall, searches underneath the initial layer of “girl power” and diversity that American Girl purports to promote and examines the actual messages and intentions. Here are three short excerpts from the article to tempt you to read the article:

“However, any potential ‘girl-power’ lessons are short-circuited in these books through the use of historical fiction to deliver traditional lessons about what girls can and should do. While the stories take place in key historical moments, such as the Civil War, and World War II, the girls rarely participate in historical events in any substantial way.”

“The American Girl historical girl collection also purports to be multicultural and includes African American (Addy), Latina (Josefina), and Native American (Kaya) characters. However, this inclusion is superficial and represents the ways in which ‘difference,’ like ‘girl power,’ has become a commodity that American Girl markets to its consumers.”

“Some might argue that American Girl is not as bad as other materials on the market, or as offensive as Barbie or Bratz dolls. This argument misses the key features of what makes this phenomenon so insidious: how corporations play on the feminist and /or educative aspirations of parents, teachers, girls, and young women and turn these toward consumption. American Girl is less about strong girls, diversity or history than about marketing girlhood, about hooking girls, their parents and grandparents into buying the American Girl products and experience.”

As a former youth librarian, when the AG books first came out, I was happy to see something to counteract the lure of licensed-character books and other stuff. Sure, they weren’t meaningful literature, but they had a positive spin and attracted a large number of readers. But then came the stuff: the magazine, the doll accessories that cost more than some real accessories, more dolls, more stuff. Under the guise of girl-power, AG is grooming another generation to become happy consumers,  who don’t question the impact of all that stuff or the messages behind them. Check out the article and share it with parents and friends.

~ Marsha

Kids Books to Give Thanks For

In the U.S., November often brings tales of pilgrims, Indians, turkeys for dinner and the “First Thanksgiving” to children in schools and library storytimes. If you want to celebrate the season with kids, but prefer stories reflecting more compassionate food choices  and/or want a more accurate portrayal of the relationship between colonialists and natives, look to titles like these to share with your young ones, or their teachers:

In A Turkey for Thanksgiving by Eve Bunting, Mrs. Moose asks her husband to bring home a turkey for Thanksgiving, but what they turkey doesn’t understand is that they want him to join them FOR dinner, not BE the dinner.

‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey follows what happens when a group of school children visit a turkey farm and decide that the turkeys shouldn’t become anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner.

You can also look for books that are about harvest or that focus on particular fall foods, such as pumpkins.

There are a slew of “First Thanksgiving” children’s books available, but most of them are from a “colonialist” perspective. Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin have written an article deconstructing myths about “The First Thanksgiving.”

They also offer recommendations of books by Native authors to use during Thanksgiving time, including:

Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac, which tells the tale more accurately from Squanto’s viewpoint.

1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine Grace O’Neill and Margaret M. Bruchac, which provides a view of the “first thanksgiving” from a Wampanoag perspective.

Dow and Slapin also recommend other books that focus on Native thanksgiving and harvest, such as:

Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition by Sally Hunter, which follows a young Winnebago boy through the year as he learns about his people’s relationship with corn.

The Sacred Harvest: Ojibway Wild Rice Gathering
by Gordon Reqquinti, which follows an Ojibway wild rice harvest.

Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message
by Jake Swamp, which offers up a message of thanksgiving to Mother Earth.

Ininatig’s Gift of Sugar: Traditional Native Sugarmaking by Laura Waterman Wittstock, which follows a young boy who learns the traditions of tapping trees to make sugar.

~ Marsha

Image courtesy of justjennifer.

(Reprinted from the Institute for Humane Education’s November 2008 Humane Edge E-News.)