Musings on Rebecca Rubin, Our Jewish American Girl
After years in the making, she's finally arrived: The Jewish American Girl Doll. We've been hearing a lot about her over the past week and, on Sunday, she hit the store shelves. In case you've been out of the loop, here's a recap: Her name is Rebecca Rubin (not to be confused with Rebecca Rubin, the fugitive, indicted for arson in 2006 according to her FBI WANTED poster), a 9-year-old girl living on the Lower East Side in 1914. She comes from a Russian-Jewish immigrant family and her grandmother is known lovingly as "Bubbie." Despite the fact that Rebecca is poor, the doll herself is worth a chunk of change: she costs $95.00, not including accessories like a sideboard with challah.
The ethnicity of American Girl Doll's first Jew, Lindsey Bergman, was pretty much limited to describing a matzo ball being thrown across a room (you know, that "slippery, dumpling-like blob of mush that floats around in chicken soup."). Stung, perhaps, by criticism from organizations like the Jewish Women's Archive who asked why the company couldn't come up with a more meaningful role model for today's Jewish and non-Jewish young women, this time around, the American Girl company engaged in serious historical inquiry and careful consideration of cultural trends and sensitivities in constructing Rebecca's identity.
According to the New York Times, "The company's research had found that Rebecca's Russian-Jewish descent allowed a range of physical characteristics, creating a wide palette of choices ... Facial structure is not typically an issue because the company generally chooses from an existing set of molds. Hair color was a big issue, debated for years. At first it was a dark auburn, but it was thought that might be too untypical ... Then dark brown, the most common hair color for Russian-Jewish immigrants, was discussed. But perhaps that would be too typical, too predictable, failing to show girls there is not one color that represents all Jewish immigrants."
It's good that the company consulted history, but interesting to see the challenges that history presents. Perhaps it's impressive that in defining Rebecca's appearance, American Girl was cautious not to be "too typical." But "too typical" on whose terms? According to whose Jewish history? What exactly does Jewish "look like" anyway? The company also didn't want to recreate whatever the "wasp" norm is. And so, we've ended up with a doll that is something of a homogenized "ethnic." The truth is, Rebecca doesn't look a whole lot different from Molly, a World War II-era Irish immigrant.
Nonetheless, I suppose the sexiness of "ethnic" does offer us some comic relief. As the New York Times noted: "If a blond Christian girl in North Dakota enjoys pretending she is living in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1914, helping her Bubbie make latkes for Hanukkah, American Girl will be happy to sell her a toy menorah."