What a 'Mes'

May Brings a New American Girl Doll, Sonia Sotomayor and More on Prop 8

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Rochelle Newman-Carrasco Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
I never liked dolls. I was a stuffed-animal kid. Never had a Barbie (until recently that is, as I couldn't resist the urge to buy Puerto Rican Barbie, Mexican Barbie and Cinco de Mayo Barbie for the camp value of the stilted copy that's written on the back of each box).

But Mattel has done it again. Only this time she's not Barbie. She's $95 dollars instead of $25 dollars. And my attraction has more to do with a personal and specific connection to story than it does to cultural camp value. The doll is Rebecca Rubin, the new American Girl. She's a Lower East Side Jewish girl with reddish hair and a desire to act. For those of you who don't know anything about me, let's just say Rebecca Rubin could very well have been me, had I been 10 in 1914.

I am a product of the Lower East Side, with ancestors that lived in tenement buildings and observed the Jewish Sabbath and kosher laws. Only my Lower East Side, the Lower East Side of the '60s and later, was a multilingual Lower East Side that fused together Chinatown, Little Italy, the area once known as the Jewish Ghetto and the Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican community. Seemingly the only Lower East Side kids whose parents or grandparents spoke English as a first language were the African-Americans who were also a vibrant part of the Lower East Side. It was multicultural before anyone knew what that word meant. And, although there must have been a WASP or two in the mix, they had to have been a statistical minority in this mostly immigrant neighborhood.

Brilliant marketers that they are (and if you have a young daughter or niece you were likely a contributor to their $463 million in revenue last year), American Girl marked the Jewish doll's official debut day on May 31 with an array of activities at the store and at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. In June, you can go on an AG New York City harbor cruise and dinner -- kosher-style, with glatt-kosher available.

Some of the headlines announcing Rebecca Rubin's arrival make me laugh. "She's Jewish, she's poor and her name is Rebecca," announces one, as if somewhat relieved that the story centers around Jewish poverty instead of Jewish wealth for a change.

And several articles tip-toe around the fact that the physical characteristics of the American Girl doll don't emphasize certain traits (think Barbra Streisand) that are often connected with the Jewish American profile (having had rhinoplasty at the tender age of 16, I believe I am speaking from a place of sensitivity and not stereotyping).

Actually, in trying to emphasize how right they believe they have gotten this American Girl, and in being so focused on how no one should be offended, I found certain aspects of a New York Times article about the doll to be seriously out of touch. For example, in order to explain how important it was for the 23-year-old Mattel-owned American Girl company to get positive reviews on this endeavor the article makes the following assertions:

"In 1993 critics attacked the company for making Addy a slave at the start of her stories, wondering why the company could not have chosen a post-slavery era for its African-American doll. And in 2005, Marisol, from the Girl of the Year line, was criticized for a passage in her book that was negative toward an urban Hispanic neighborhood.

Although Addy's story was not revised and the company says Marisol sold well for the year she was available, a Jewish doll presents her own set of potential pitfalls. While other dolls represented ethnic backgrounds with distinctive visual characteristics, what constitutes a Jewish girl's appearance is much more open for debate.

The goal is that no one be offended and that Jewish and non-Jewish little girls alike will want to play tenement house with their new toy, which costs $95 -- plus more for accessories like a sideboard with a challah resting on it."
Distinctive visual characteristics? Has anyone at American Girl looked at a Latina lately? Have they not witnessed the wide-ranging diversity in hair color, eye color, bone structure and you name it that exists across the community? Can you really look at the First Family and see only one set of visual characteristics amongst African Americans that are so homogeneous they remove the need or desire for debate? There are those who will tell you what the stereotypical Jewish girl looks like, and it might make you cringe. But so too should we cringe if the sole definition of modeling a Latina or African-American child is based on dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin.

However, in spite of chastising the New York Times reporter, I'm hopeful that the folks at American Girl did get the story of Rebecca Rubin right. And what makes me believe they did was the thumbs up the doll got from Elie Rosenfeld, the chief operating officer of Joseph Jacob Advertising, whose firm was hired to help market Rebecca through Jewish publications and direct mailings to Jewish households.

For me, the discovery of Joseph Jacobs Advertising holds even greater meaning than the American Girl decision to market a Jewish doll. Who knew? Right on the Lower East Side (or at least until they moved uptown), since 1919, there has been an advertising agency specializing in marketing to Jews. For over 70 years, they have produced the Maxwell House Passover Hagaddah, which they state on their website is the longest running promotion in advertising history. And which they also state has helped to make Maxwell House the preferred coffee in Jewish households across America.

The American Girl series will surely benefit from the addition of Rebecca, attracting Jews and non-Jews alike.

And here is where this story could end, but I could not help but realize that the news of this doll came to me right on the heels of two other pieces of news that in some strange way I find related. One is the "American Girl" story of Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who was inspired by Nancy Drew books (as was I). The advertising created to highlight her professional achievements uses her personal story as a critical connecting point. And it is that story and her own comments about it that has drawn the wrath of those who would like to paint her as a racist.

A tribe-ist, maybe. But aren't we all, and is that such a bad thing? And while I don't believe there are very many Tom Tancredos reading this blog, it has to be said that to associate the National Council of La Raza with the KKK is pure ignorance. It shows little understanding of the Latino-American civil rights community and little understanding of the meaning of the word "raza" when used by native Spanish speakers. It comes from the phrase La Raza Cosmica, which embodies the notion that traditional, exclusive concepts of race and nationality can be transcended in the name of humanity's common destiny.

Finally, and most unfortunately, these last days of May also included the California high court upholding Prop. 8, a proposition on which the Latino community is basically split. Interestingly, a study in 2008 by Social Work Today found that Latino gay and lesbian couples have higher adoption rates than other same-sex couples. That same study found the following:

  • Male same-sex couples where both partners are Hispanic raise children at more than three times the rate (58%) of white, non-Hispanic male same-sex couples (19%).
  • Female same-sex couples in which both partners are Hispanic raise children at more than twice the rate (66%) of white, non-Hispanic female same-sex couples (32%).
  • More Hispanic female same-sex couples report raising at least one child under the age of 18, compared with Hispanic, married opposite-sex couples and Hispanic, cohabiting opposite-sex couples.

Therefore, it's not surprising that among the TV spots that Equality California is airing, one features a Latino same-sex couple and the children they love. Who knows? Maybe one day they'll be writing an article about the American Girl doll who grew up with two mommies or two daddies and how proud they were of that, even if there's a New York Times article about the doll that makes them cringe just a little.

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