Wednesday, June 08, 2005

American Girl 

Got a call today asking if I knew of any anti-Japanese, American toys produced during World War II. My resource books only depict a few racist shooting gallery toys and Bo-Lem-Ova, a bowling game guaranteed to 'KO' the Axis. Most of the unflattering images were specific - Tojo, Hitler, and Mussolini - rather than generic ethnic stereotypes. And Hitler was featured more often than anyone else, possibly a reflection of the fact that many of the large American toy companies at the time were owned by Jewish people.

Positive ethnic representation has always been scarce in the American toy world. In the case of black stereotypes, negative examples abound prior to the 50s. When it became politically incorrect, ethnic toys (especially dolls) virtually disappeared until the late 60s and early 70s.

I read recently that Mattel is finally opening an American Girls store in Los Angeles. It will be at the Grove in the old F.A.O. Schwarz space. And while I am interested in all toys, dolls have held a special place in my heart. I am after all, a mid-century girl (see my 'no trains' comment in last blog entry), born to grow into the gender-neutral-toy generation of parents.

When my daughter was born, we gave her cars and building toys. And you couldn’t get more gender-neutral than furry old Grover. But she was born a year after American Girls. It wasn't long before the catalogs started arriving in the mail. Looking through each catalog stirred something in me. I wanted everything - the dolls, the clothes, the accessories. I could hardly wait until my daughter was old enough to leaf through the catalog with me.

For her seventh birthday, my daughter received a Samantha doll. Her generous aunties made sure that she was well-equipped with many outfits and accessories. At least Samantha had dark hair, but I secretly wished that my daughter had asked for an Addy doll - the escaped slave child who found freedom and a new life in the North. I wanted an Addy doll because it was the only ethnic doll in the American Girl series at the time. (There was an Asian baby doll, but it wasn't the same as having a story book character girl)

Eventually Addy was joined by Josefina, the Mexican American girl, and more recently Kaya, a Nez Perce Indian. There is also a series of 18 American Girl Today dolls, of which two are black, one Hispanic (remember there was already a Josefina doll), and ONE is Asian. When you consider that one out of five people in the world is Chinese, well the odds seem rather skewed.

Every year since 1995 I have been attending the San Francisco Gift Fair. Twice a year I would go to the American Girl booth and lobby for an Asian American Girl. I even put together a historical story for a girl friend for Molly, the World War II era AG. Masako (or May, her American name) would be dressed in a navy overcoat and wear an identification tag hanging from her front button just like the girls in the famous Dorothea Lange WPA photo. She would have one small suitcase (only what she could carry) and be ready for a long trip to Manzanar. When her family relocates to Chicago rather than spending the war in camp, Masako would meet Molly (she lives somewhere in Illinois - I am guessing Chicago, since that is where the original AG Store is located).

How much more American can you get? This is an American story full of history. But every time I pitched the story to the people in the AG booth, I would get an incredibly tepid reaction, followed by a polite reply that AG did not accept cold solicitations.

At first I thought that it might be too depressing a premise for a doll story. But then what could be more depressing than slavery? Addy certainly survived a terrible period in history. Then I wondered whether AG felt that the Asian market was too small. Or maybe it was too large? Maybe AG was afraid that soon Asian Americans would demand Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, and Hmong hyphenate American Girls. Because of course they don't all look alike. Maybe Asians need a celebrity advocate, like Oprah to get recognition.

I'm very happy that American Girl continues to give positive ethnic and gender representation in the toy market. But if someone from Mattel is out there is listening, call me about Masako...

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