Sara Smolinsky v. Rebecca Rubin

“When you choose an American Girl doll, you’ll discover a new world of imagination. That’s because each character stars in unique stories of courage, loyalty, compassion, and leadership. Learn how the challenges and joys of growing up in another era still relate to girls in 2010. Explore books and products developed to encourage play and creativity. And, find inspiration in the stories that celebrate girls and all that they can be.” [1]

When I arrived home this week I noticed several American Girl doll catalogs laying around and decided to peruse the bright, cheery images of the latest in doll fashions.  I grew up during the first generation of American Girl dolls, when there were only three to choose from.  Now, the company offers eight different signature dolls that represent America from 1764 to 1974.  All of the signature dolls have side-kick friends and then there are the customized dolls with their pets and accessories, providing almost infinite options for the young female consumer. 

I was immediately struck by the Rebecca Rubin doll and some similarities to Bread Giver’s Sara Smolinksy.  She represents the year 1914, after her family made the “long journey from Russia to Ellis Island.”  Rebecca lives in a New York City apartment with three generations of her family, enjoys “observing the Sabbath with her extended Jewish family,” wants to become a successful independent woman, and has discovered that “it’s possible to honor family traditions and celebrate what it means to be an American.” [2]

That’s pretty much where the similarities end though.  While Sara lived a life of hardships and struggles, Rebecca appears fresh-faced, with a lovely herringbone dress and a beautiful scarf and gold barrette.  Rebecca has fun adventures and enjoys playing dress up, unlike Sara who sold herring on the streets and was working in a garment factory ten hours a day.  Rebecca seems to have no problems or conflicts fitting in with her new American surrounding while staying connected and true to her old world traditions. 

Our discussion in class about how to communicate complex social issues to children also came back to me as I was looking through the American Girl catalog.  I could not help but notice that the company has marketed specific dolls to certain time periods.  Kaya, an “adventurous” girl of the Nez Perce, represents 1764.  Addy Walker, a “courageous” African American girl, represents 1864. And then of course, there is Rebecca in 1914 New York City. [3]  Is this a good way to impart American social history on young girls today?  Or is this just a sugar coated gimmick to sell expensive dolls and high end consumerism?  Is it irresponsible of the company to ignore the real complexities of the time periods in which their fictional characters were living?  Or are the American Girl dolls a positive gateway for young girls to further investigate the realities of these represented time periods?

[1] American Girl, March 2010 catalog, page 2.

[2] American Girl, March 2010 catalog, page 36-37.

[3] American Girl, January 2010 catalog, page 2-3.

11 thoughts on “Sara Smolinsky v. Rebecca Rubin

  1. Great post. I must admit that I myself have three American Girl dolls – Kirsten (the Swedish immigrant to Minnesota kid), Kit (the Great Depression kid), and Molly (the World War II kid) – are all still seated in a corner of my room. So, in my biased opinion, I think they’re a great way to get kids interested in history. At least it alerts elementary schoolers to the fact there is a history.

    The stories do gloss over many of the problems facing Americans. And the dolls are expensive! I think what we need to focus on is children’s development. How could they possibly understand the intricacies of American thought without first knowing just the basics? I really don’t think kids need to be confronted with the complexities of society early on – what are they going to do with it? Leave that to college.

    I for one read the American Girl books and became interested in history because of them – and eventually found out that Addy Walker couldn’t possibly do all of the things she did because she was an African American female in a racist society. I also credit American Girls for getting me to visit museums – each Am. Girl had a program at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, NH, where I learned a lot about each time period; I especially remember that Felicity (the Revolutionary War kid) and those that lived during her time only washed themselves twice a year. Interesting stuff.

    Anyway, it’s better than buying a little girl a Malibu Beach Barbie and having her assume that that’s the toy she should learn from.

  2. I, too, had an American Girl doll. My doll was Kirsten, the Swedish, blond hair, blue eyed pioneer girl. But, I never wanted her.

    I wanted Addy, a fugitive slave girl whose family escaped to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the Civil War. I still remember the day my dad acquiesced to order her. We were on our way to a family reunion and I brought the American Girl catalogue with me since he was allowing me to get the doll, plus one outfit. As I sat away in my corner, debating on whether or not to get Addy’s “party” dress or her “holiday” dress, my Great-aunts, who I saw once a year, came over to me and asked me what I was doing. I told them about dad letting get a doll and I showed them a picture of the one I wanted.

    “You don’t want that one,” Great-aunt Joyce said.

    “I don’t?”

    “No, you don’t,” Great-aunt Norma said, snatching the catalogue out of my hand.

    “But, I like Addy! I like the Civil War!”

    “You don’t want that one!” Aunt Joyce was practically screaming at me.

    “Here,” Aunt Norma said, slapping the catalogue down on the table. “You want that one.”

    She had picked out Kirsten. I hadn’t even given Kirsten a second thought, since, well, she was just so boring.

    “Why can’t I have Addy?”

    “She’s got black skin.” Aunt Joyce said. I still remember how she said it, too: simply, plainly.

    I reeled. Race is something that never, ever was an issue in my family. In the highly white, homogenous town of Dover, Ohio, my father and mother were friends with several of the African American families in the area. Some of my best friends at school were Black.

    I had never, ever considered skin color in selecting an American Girl doll. For me, it was the story. I simply liked Addy’s story the best.

    But, as my dad sat filling out the catalogue at the kitchen table that night, I stopped him. He had heard my endless prattling about how excited I was about getting Addy, that when I asked him to erase Addy’s name and put down Kristen’s, he looked at me as asked me why. I told him I didn’t know. When that wasn’t good enough for him, I told him I found her more interesting. He didn’t buy it, but he filled it out anyway.

    In truth, I ultimately got Kirsten because she looked like me. Skin color, race were never things that I had considered in getting an American doll, but, in the end, what my Aunt had said so simply and matter-of-fact back at the reunion has stuck with me—Addy’s skin was black; Kristen looked like me. I should want Kristen.

    I didn’t. I never did. I got her anyway, though. Oh, I played with her, but I never loved her like I always loved Addy.

    Every time I met another girl with an American Girl doll, I asked her how she picked her dolls. “Because she looked like me!”

    I hope, today, that young girls pick that dolls that interest them the most, but, instead, I have a feeling that what girls are really looking for when they pick their American Girl dolls is themselves: “Because she looked like me!”

    I like your point about social history, but I think it goes deeper than that—I think that American Girl dolls are about race and identity. In the last decade, the brand that is American Girl has looked to diversify their collection of “Girls” culturally: a Native American girl (I love how one tribe is seen as anomalous for an entire culture of people), a Mexican-American girl, a Jewish girl, girls who are rich, and girls who are poor, etc. What I want to know is if girls are picking dolls that reinforce their own identity or dolls that interest them? Do they have to be the same thing, or can they reinforce different aspects of a girls character? What do American Girl dolls teach children about race and culture? Are they reinforcing assimilation and preconceived notions of culture and race? Or, by offering a wide array (the weakness of such which can be debated at a later time) of different races/cultures, has the company done their duty? Is it then in the hands of the parents to teach their children about identity and culture?

    1. Thank you Audrey for bringing up these points, and now that I think about it, I completely agree with your hypothesis that the dolls are most often purchased as identity reinforcement. I personally never had an American Girl doll (they added the horse and accessories only recently so I was never really interested in owning one), but after talking to family members who did get one as a child it seemed unanimous that the choice was based on “she looked like you.” In fact I think this is the company’s main overall goal. They have the very large line of personalized dolls that the catalogue even markets as “Bring home a friend that’s Just Like You.” Then there are the matching outfits for girls and dolls, and the Bitty Baby line that also reinforces identity connections between the girls and the dolls. So I think inevitably this also bleeds over into the historical dolls. I’m not sure which doll I would have wanted as a child now. Hmmmm.

    2. Dear Audrey,
      I really enjoyed your comment, I bought my seven year old daughter Rebecca Rubin last year because she looked like her. She loves the doll but never really got into her story (even though part of my family is in fact Jewish). She came across an old Samantha book and that’s when she fell in love. I have a used Samantha waiting for her in my closet since she in no longer available through AG. I wish I could go back and pay more attention to the story, and not the looks!
      And your right, Addy has the best story and the best outfits, hands down!

      1. Dear RobynMom4,
        Thanks so much for your comment. I’ve passed it on to Audrey. I’m glad someone else appreciated her amazing story!
        CRG@CGP Editor

  3. I love that you posted this, Amy!

    Also interesting to note is that in May 2009, not only did they release the Rebecca doll, but they also discontinued the Samantha series. For those who don’t know, Samantha was one of the original three “American Girls” (first released in 1986). Her story took place in 1904 New York; she lived with her grandmother after her parents died in a boating accident.

    Looking back, in most respects, she was…well, pretty WASP-y. I kind of wonder if they replaced her with the Rebecca doll in order to represent roughly the same time period but to get a different perspective from Samantha’s upper middle class lifestyle.

  4. Reading this post and the comments, I have to wonder: how drastically did the Pleasant Company and its mission change after it was bought out by Matel in 1998?

    I was a Samantha girl. I don’t remember if it was because we both have dark hair, or I just wanted to have themed tea parties. One year for my birthday party, I even made all my friends act out the Samantha-themed play, “Actions Speak Louder Than Words.” All joking aside, she was probably my favorite because I identified with her in some way, now lost to me.

    I think that the early books DO address the real complexities of the time periods – in a simplified manner to girls ages 8-12. To be fair, I haven’t read them in years. But Samantha is an orphan, she befriends a servant girl named Nellie (an Irish immigrant) and their friendship is complicated due to the class differences. I wonder if Samantha was “archived” not to offer a different perspective but to present a more sugarcoated version of early 1900s New York.

    (On the American Girl website, they refer to both Samantha and Kirsten as being “archived,” rather than retired or discontinued, using that word choice as a marketing tool to play into the historical aspect of the dolls.)

    A final note is that while the official website doesn’t address this, a short blurb on Wikipedia (questionable, I know) does state that the series was originally founded for girls ages 8-12 to offset other popular dolls promoting mothering or traditional domestic norms. Apparently the founder visited Colonial Williamsburg and came away wanting to make history more accessible to young girls. At least in that context, the original intent of the company seems to be a feminist, pro-history response to an otherwise very gendered toy. But – was it? Did it work? And especially with Matel “archiving” the original dolls, is that successful with girls 8-12 now?

  5. To answer the writer’s question, yes the American Girl dolls gloss over some of the hardships that girls of their era face, but they also give girls an idea of what history was like that’s even more fascinating than just reading history books since the characters are relatable.

    I’m most likely reiterating what cynwalker posted, but keep in mind that these are preteens, who aren’t ready to know all the gory details about history, which, like cynwalker said, are best left for college, when they are mature enough to handle the complexities of history.

    I agree with Audrey Wolfe when she said that girls of this generation are encouraged to get dolls that look just like them, it says so when advertising American Girl Today dolls, they even have a limited selection, which I find sad. Now, I know that having every face shape, hair, and eye color feature of human beings are impossible on dolls, but I still wish there can be a wider range of selection. I also like how Audrey Wolfe brought up the question of race and culture, I’m sorry that you had to go through the experience of finding out family’s biased opinions at such an early age, Audrey Wolfe. Not to sound better than anyone else, but your story makes me relieved that my family wasn’t racist when I was growing up.

    I wonder the same thing, clairegrothe. Personally, I loved the Samantha doll because she was so popular due to her outfits and story, and was sad that the American Girl company discontinued her, just like they did with Kristen and Felicity. Why can’t American Girl have All of the Historical Girls available and not just some of them?

    Having read and replied to the posts and comments, I think American Girl and its mission has changed after it was bought out by Matel in 1998, ameydrake. Has anyone else noticed that not long after Mate l bought Pleasant Company, the new company began retiring the historical American Girl dolls? I wonder if Matel will take out all the historically represented dolls out one by one, starting with the “more expensive” or “less popular” ones and moving on to the favorites until there’s only Bitty Baby and American Girl Today product lines. I remember my grandma and I would each read a page of Felicity Learns A Lesson when I was eight, back in 1995, which showed me both how to read and about history all at the same time. As I’ve said before, to add a new point to the subject, I wanted Samantha, because of her popularity due to her fancy clothes, accessories and furniture along with her great stories. I’ve since noticed that the Samantha books are one of the few that have happy endings as far as friendship goes, granted I haven’t read ALL of the historical girl stories, I’m just commenting on the ones I’ve read. Personal memories aside, as I’ve stated above, the American Girl books addressed real issues in historical settings that were just right for girls eight to twelve.

    I love how the founder was inspired by Colonial Williamsburg to make history come alive for girls by using dolls, no wonder American Girl before 1998 was such a hit! I have an idea, maybe we can all write to the American Girl company and tell them that we want things back to the way they were before Matel bought Pleasant Company.

  6. Joy-Thanks so much for your great comment. As the blog administrator, I’ll pass it on to the writers who were originally involved in this discussion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s