The XX Factor

What Does American Girl Know that Disney Doesn’t?

Here in XX-ville, we’ve long been fascinated by American Girl , the upscale doll company-excuse me, “premiere lifestyle brand”-that sells morals and history lessons alongside its hundred-dollar dolls (and their similarly expensive pinafores, trestle tables, chifferobes, and other painstakingly detailed accouterments). The New York Times ran an article this weekend about Rebecca Rubin, the newest American Girl , which (who?) goes on sale this Sunday. The piece describes the years of work and research that went into creating Rebecca-not just so that she’d be historically accurate, but also so that she’d be culturally sensitive. For example: Since “Jewish” is a religious category and not a racial one, what should a Jewish doll look like? (In as much as she’ll look any different from the other Historical Characters, with their uniformly cabbage-like heads, button noses, and slight overbites .) What time period should she be from? (Which carries with it the awkward, unspoken question: At what point in America’s history did Jews “matter most”?) And just how observant should Rebecca be?

I’ve always felt a little conflicted about the “ethnic” American Girls. On one hand, awesome! Ethnic dolls! But while every AG historical doll is a kind of cipher or avatar for a huge swath of something -you read about and play with Kirsten to learn something about “pioneer days”; Kit teaches you about “the Depression”-there’s something that feels a little more essentialist about the ethnic ones. Maybe it’s just because you know that they’re probably going to be one-offs-now that we have Kaya , a Nez Perce girl, do we need a Sioux, too?-so each one has to stand for everyone who looks like her. (Isn’t that always the trouble facing the model minority?)

It’s clear from the article, though, that Rebecca has pre-emptively passed muster with most critics and watchdog groups. Contrast that with Disney’s first African-American “princess” film, The Princess and the Frog , which doesn’t open until December but has been getting slammed for months whenever new information leaks. (Dayo and I discussed the issue of not-black-enough prince Naveen in March.) The raw, passionate conversations that erupt on Jezebel whenever an editor posts on Princess are truly something to behold-you could write a whole American Studies dissertation on them.

So what does American Girl know about placating an audience that Disney doesn’t? Is it simply because Disney is more of a behemoth, already saddled with a reputation for cultural insiduousness, that it’s just a walking target? Are the issues involved in creating a Jewish character and an African-American one so different? And would we even be talking about them if Disney’s Tiana and American Girl’s Rebecca were toys for boys?