A caveat: I don’t have kids. I do have a niece and three nephews and I spent yesterday with them and their new toys. I’m curious what you all think about the kinds of toys you give to children and the gender distinctions that go with them. When I was thinking about trying for kids a few years ago, I read a ton about gender expectations placed on children. Some of that was about the “princess” trend. Is it a wonderful celebration of femininity? An empowerment of girl decision making (there are few princes in the princess world–it’s all about the girls and their choices)? Or a kind of scary expectation that girls be hyper feminine? Or something in between? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
I got my niece an American girl doll for Christmas. I probably shouldn’t have spent the money, but I had always wanted one as a girl (my uncle got me one of the sets of the books, and I loved them) and it was so exciting to have someone to buy it for. I had a bit of a funny shopping experience with it and in the spirit of Christmas week, I’ll be a bit more informal on the blog and tell it to you. I had to go to Minneapolis to fly out to my parents home in Phoenix. In order to get cheap parking, I had to spend the night at a hotel. I decided to spend the extra few hours I had a the Mall of America. I walked through the doors, passed a few oh-so-typical stores, turned a corner and there in all its maroon glory was the American Girl Store! I quickly texted my mom (she’s been wishing we could get an American girl for my niece as well). I wandered through the store in a daze. The clothes! The history! The clothes! The sweet little girl faces and the crazed look in mom and dad’s eyes as they shopped. I finally decided to get two books, a catalog, and a pair of glasses and tell my niece she could decide which doll she wanted for her birthday. I texted mom that. Then I sent my brother the info and told him I’d love to get my niece a doll, but didn’t feel like I could spend that much on all the boys. He texted back that it was ok not to spend an even amount on them all and I should get the doll if I felt like I had the money. So I went back inside and wandered around again, this with that expectation of purchase that can be so much more intense than the simple gaze of appreciation and longing. I texted back and forth with my mom and she said she really thought my niece would prefer a contemporary doll over a historical doll. I wanted to not make this about me, but about my niece, so I finally thought yes, maybe I should get the contemporary doll (but then do I get a doll that looks like her or one that is a different ethnicity? Given who I am, I preferred the beautiful black dolls, but would she?). I had five minutes to make up my mind before the store closed, so I grabbed a contemporary doll that looked like my niece, exchanged her for the books, and left.
I kept the glasses because one of the reasons I wanted to get a doll was to help my niece become a little more in favor of her own glasses. For whatever reason (I don’t live close enough to spend enough time with her to know), she hates her glasses. I was hoping that seeing a doll wearing glasses would help her see that the could be beautiful too.
The next morning my phone was dead and the nearest phone store was in the Mall of America. I realized, you know, the reason I love the American girl dolls is because of the history and the stories that accompany them. So I took the contemporary doll with me and decided to exchange her for Molly–a little 1940s doll with glasses.
Yesterday afternoon, we arrived with doll, legos, and cars in tow. I was probably more excited than the kids, but also knew I couldn’t push it. She had to like and accept the doll without any pressure from me. But after she unwrapped it, she sat and listened with rapt attention while I read the first chapter of the book. And then later she changed the clothes into the little dress mom and I made for her. I went into her room and was glad to see she had been playing with the doll on her own, but sad to see the glasses flung off. She came in and said, oh, here’s her pink glasses! I was going to put them on with her other dress. Then, while she was telling me how to style Molly’s hair, she picked up the book and started reading it for herself! (She’s only six and it’s a book for an 8 year old). She very carefully put a bookmark in the book when she was done.
Ok, so why am I telling you all this, other than that it is the day after Christmas and this is what I’m thinking about rather than historical scholarship (which I intend to do later today)? I write a lot here about teaching undergraduates about history, but I’m curious what you mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, godparents think about teaching kids about history. Is the American Girl doll a good way to teach history? Is there something similar for boys? Is there any way to escape the incessant urge for girls to be homemakers and boys to be violent in the toy aisles? The comments are open!!
Oh, and here’s one of the articles I read about the princess culture and a feminist mom.