Your Best American Girl
The summer after first grade, my mom and I made a deal: If I read 40 books over the summer, I could get an American Girl doll. I went to work right away, and after a dutiful summer of reading, I got one.
As an avid reader on a mission during that summer, I was naturally drawn to the novel series accompanying each historical American Girl doll. My favorite was the Rebecca series about Rebecca Rubin, a fictional Jewish girl living on the Lower East Side in 1914 whose family immigrated to America from Russia. The stories detail Rebecca’s resourceful endeavors to earn money, her passion for acting, her loyalty to her family, and her can-do attitude. I was ecstatic to see a clever Jewish girl reflected in my own favorite media. It wasn’t hard to imagine how I could have been Rebecca had I been alive in 1914.
As I’ve grown, though, I’ve realized that Rebecca, the product, is the very antithesis of everything she meant to me. American Girl packaged her resourceful spunk, flattened and commodified that resilient Jewish spirit into something they could sell and only a privileged few could buy.
Recently, the historical-fiction narratives of American Girl dolls have been nostalgically recast in the public eye with the creation of the American Girls podcast, a book-by-book exploration of the historical and cultural impact of the various series. In a gushing New York Times review, author Margaret Lyons reflects that the podcast “recontextualize[s] the abundant doll joys of [her] youth.”
I have also been recontextualizing my relationship with these stories.
Lyon writes that the podcast has helped her “unpack how the historical doll and book series inspired a creative adulthood.” But as I look back on my doll phase, I realize that I matured into a creative adult in spite of these stories rather than because of them.
I’ve come to see how Rebecca’s narrative is a little too accessible. In retrospect, the whole set-up looks more commercial than empathetic; I feel sort of used. American Girl was capitalizing on Rebecca’s identity, using her relatable allure to sell a doll-sized $36 menorah and dreidel set. (Was the double-chai price tag a coincidence? Of course not.)
Eventually, many of my non-Jewish friends had Rebecca dolls and it felt like everyone had a doll whom they could pretend was cooking latkes with their grandmothers. Rebecca and her stories were no longer just for me, and that American Jewish experience didn’t feel as special, as cherished, as mine.
According to the American Girl website Rebecca “exemplifies the Jewish tradition of helping others.” She inspires girls to imbue their lives with “integrity,” “compassion” and “chutzpah,” which they loosely translate to “confidence.”
Is chutzpah a universally applicable quality? Can young girls learn to go against the grain by reading highly-commercialized mainstream media? Is there anything Jewish about a Jewish doll if her Jewishness is reduced to nothing but expensive accessories and banal adjectives?
If Rebecca were real, she wouldn’t have had an American Girl Doll. She played pretend by acting, with herself as the protagonist. I like to think that Rebecca had actual chutzpah, true, unscripted audacity. No book or doll taught her bravery. Jewish girls in tenements in the early 1900s played their own games—they wrote their own stories. Rebecca had no $70 miniature “Sabbath Set.” Her family was poor. Her parents probably gave her gelt for Hanukkah, surely not a $100 doll. And if we’re going to be honest here, nobody would have had to bribe her to get her to read all summer.
Half a lifetime since my American Girl obsession, I now see how the franchise was hacking away at the very heritage and plucky resourceful attitude it celebrated. When you bought the doll, Rebecca’s words were already written, her accessories already manufactured, her destiny predetermined. Her story followed the same script as all the other dolls’ (make a friend, confront a bully, celebrate a birthday, realize a passion, etc.), except a Hanukkah story was subbed in for the signature Christmas book, of course.
Now, as a young woman who is realizing her own creative potential—who leads a newspaper, builds furniture, paints portraits—I see Rebecca differently. Her ready-to purchase individuality feels more generalizing and insulting than the original flattery I felt at being seen. As I’ve grown, I see this piece of media as a reminder that nobody gets to tell me what an “American Girl” thinks or says or likes or values. We are the American girls. We are not dolls.
How to cite this page
Weiner, Molly. "Your Best American Girl." 14 November 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 25, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/your-best-american-girl>.