(Brace yourself, this is a long one.)
I've struggled with whether or not I should write this post.
I haven't read reaction posts to Melody specifically
because I didn't want other people's writings to change my own thoughts.
I have stuff I've been thinking, but I'm not sure I should say it.
I'm not black.
I've never been black.
And I'll probably not be black in the future.
So it has never seemed like my topic to write about.
But I've spent a good chunk of my life studying
racial issues because of what my Ph.D. is in - African art.
Which is a field that sort of fell upon me.
I didn't seek it out, it seemed to seek me out instead.
I'm not using my Ph.D. in African art as a "get out of race free" card -
i.e. I'm white, but I study black stuff, so that makes it okay for me to write about this.
"I'm cool man! I can hang with y'alls!"
No, I am fully aware that I'm white and not black
and it's weird for me to write about this stuff.
But I wanted to write about my dissertation topic because no one else was.
So I did.
For my dissertation I studied images of African art in
LIFE magazine (and other sources of popular media) in the 20th century.
The dissertation topic is a lot more complicated and specific than that ^
(because nothing in academia is ever simple)...
but for the purposes of this post - you should know that I spent a long time looking at LIFE magazine, and looking for images of black people and black art in its pages.
Eventually my eyes fell upon Gordon Parks'
August 25, 1952 "photoessay" on Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man."
So I studied this as much as I could, to understand it, as much as I could.
(Which probably ended up being a
very small amount of understanding, haha.)
And when it was announced that the 1960s black doll would be called Melody Ellison,
the last name Ellison immediately brought my mind to Ralph.
And I thought to myself - that can't be a mistake, they must know what they have done.
And in my mind - what they had done was tie this little girl's character to very powerful and complex writings on what it means to be a black man in America in the twentieth century.
It kinda seemed like too big of a leap for American Girl to make.
But they must know.
I mean it's not like they named her Malcolmina X.
But they must know.
After all, there was a panel of six people collaborating on this doll - historians and educators - including the famous Civil Rights activist Julian Bond, who was also featured in my dissertation - and whom American Girl wants to make sure that you know he was on the panel.
That panel must know who Ralph Ellison was.
If a numbskull like me knew who he was - that panel sure did, too.
But despite the fact that Ellison's 1952 novel "The Invisible Man" is assigned reading
at some high school English classes - I'd like to know which schools,
because certainly not any I went to when I was growing up -
this is not a book for nine and ten year olds.
Most of what Ralph Ellison wrote was not "safe" for nine and ten year olds.
But then again, 99% of history is not "safe" for nine and ten year olds.
And, of course, that is a fact ^^^ that American Girl has to deal
with every time they want to make a new historical doll.
So I will tell you to look up Ralph Ellison, and to look up "The Invisible Man."
But perhaps not if you are nine or ten years old....
(And no, don't look up the H.G. Wells "Invisible Man" - though clearly Ellison is referencing that whole concept in his novel.)
I'm not going to recount Ellison's novel for you here, as you can read it for free yourself online:
(But I would say it's for adults or those with mature sensibilities.)
What I wanted to do here was to note the parallel between
Ellison's main premise - that the black man is invisible in America - and how the black doll is invisible in the American Girl company.
Which may seem really kind of soft, fluffy, and meaningless as far as a comparison.
How dare you compare great literature of the Civil Rights movement to a toy?!?!
But we all know how much toys can reflect - and shape - our society.
The white world, white society, ignores the black man's existence
and even wishes he weren't there at all.
That is Ellison's point.
If the black man simply disappeared,
American society wouldn't have a problem with that.
American Girl dances around the issue of race,
obviously wishing it wasn't an issue at all.
If the issue of a black doll simply disappeared,
American Girl wouldn't have a problem with that.
You could probably hear the collective sigh of relief
from toy companies around the world.
And that is just so painful.
This is what Ellison writes about - the pain and psychological damage of being erased from existence, while still having to live your life.
Society can erase you.
But you can also become so hateful of yourself because of society's hate that you erase yourself.
And that is the essence of "The Invisible Man."
And it is so painfully clear to me, maybe not to others, but to me - that the American Girl company just wishes it didn't even have to address the "black doll thing."
"Can't y'alls just go away and let us make French bakeries, clothing with cupcakes, fluffy sloths, rainforest huts, parrot pajamas, and crap like that???"
-The Progressive World Cries Out-
"No! We want your dolls to have actual meaning!"
Brace yourselves, I'm about to use the word 'negro' in a historical context.
"The Negro Problem" is something that was often written about in
America in the late 1800s through the mid-twentieth century - both by white and black authors.
(Though the black authors rarely called it "The Negro Problem," for obvious reasons.)
Authors had many meanings for this "problem" -
but you can see how this whole section of humanity
was treated just by the use of the word "problem."
(There was also a lot of writings on "The Jewish Problem" -
and you can see what that led to.)
The basis of the "issue" was (and still is)
the fact that white civilization brought a whole bunch (scientific measurement there)
of black people over here without their permission,
and eventually (after a war) freed them.
And now we all live together.
And how is that supposed to work?
Especially given the awful, base inequality and
inhumanity that this all started with.
And given the fact that most of white society in the late 1800s
through the mid-twentieth century - and arguably, even up to today -
was never going to think of black people as equals.
Our whole society was built upon an understanding - on both sides - of inherent inequality.
(I'm not condoning this.
Don't get confused.
I'm just trying to explain our unpleasant history/present.)
Given the situation, how are we all supposed to function
together as a healthy society and culture?
Well, it doesn't always work out well.
As you can probably tell by now by our current society.
So I watched this video:
And Ellison's "Invisible Man" danced through my head, and "The Negro Problem" that I had studied so much for my work also reappeared.
And the video does a lot of work to say:
Melody isn't "invisible."
Her story is not the "problem."
She has been made "visible" by American Girl.
Her story has been written - so it's no longer a "problem" for the company.
That box has been checked off.
*AG pats itself on the back*
But - there is still an 'invisible doll.'
"The Invisible Doll" is the GOTY of Color.
"The Negro Problem" - and hopefully you are understanding
that I am not using this in a racist way - I am using it to point out the history of our society
and how history (as Ellison wrote) is a "boomerang" - "The Negro Problem" still exists and every so often it comes back around to smack us in the head like a boomerang.
We still do not know how to deal with racial issues in our own society.
All we do is dance around it with nice words.
How does American Girl deal with the issue of black dolls?
You see the inherent problem of that ^^^ statement?
That it is something that has to be "dealt" with.
Like it is a chore.
But it doesn't have to be.
It doesn't have to be.
It only is a chore if you make it that way.
If that is the attitude you take.
And American Girl has made it a chore for itself.
Especially because it has been sitting in pool of diversity criticism for awhile now.
Now it has a diversity "to-do" list, whether it likes it or not.
Everyone in that video ^ chooses their words very, very carefully.
Everyone tries to be civil, and polite, and sail within the mainstream.
But the undercurrent for the whole thing is that diversity "to-do" list.
"What is it about American Girl?" the interviewer asks.
The vice president of marketing answers,
"I think it's that we've stayed true to our mission and our purpose, and while it would be really easy to call us a doll company, we've always seen ourselves as storytellers....We put at the center - stories, and advice, for girls that really are intended to help them be their personal best."
And I'm thinking at this point --
"Alright. Good idea...but.... their personal best for white girls?
Or for everybody?"
My pondering mind ponders:
American Girl wants their stories to "speak" to little girls.
But does that girl in that story have to have the
same skin tone as the real little girl for that story to speak to her fully?
I'm not sure.
As again, I'm white.
So I've never had that problem when it came to the GOTY stories.
And all of the first AG historical characters.
They were/are white.
I am white.
Can it be argued that Kaya's story
didn't speak to me as fully because I'm not Nez Perce?
I'm not sure.
Especially because I never questioned whether
these stories were actually meant for me to consume and appreciate.
It was "my" face in all the catalogs, holding the dolls, playing with them.
The catalogs were full of tiny white girls with red hair and dumb grins plastered on their faces.
And that was certainly me.
But if I was a black girl, I'm assuming - and yes, this is a big assumption, because again, I'm not black - that sometimes when I was faced with white society's products, I would wonder if these stories, these dolls, were actually meant for me to consume and appreciate.
You see the difference?
You see the issue?
Is this really for me?
Can this be mine too?
Now you may be thinking - "Don't imagine yourself as a black girl,
you can never understand what it is like to be a black girl,
so don't even try, ya dumbass."
But. But. BUT.
In my work, I often have to think that way -
What would I think if I saw this and I was black?
What if I was a black person, in the United States, in the 1950s, seeing traditional, centuries-old, made-by-my-ancestors African art for the first time?
What would this mean to me?
It can't just be - what if a black person saw this?
No, it has to be about feelings, instinct, the core of your personal identity.
Would I feel pride?
Would I feel connection?
I was studying how the "packaging" of African art in
popular media would impact whether someone
would feel pride for their African culture, or whether they'd want to ignore it out of shame.
So I often had to think: "What if that was me?"
I know it sounds stupid.
And sorta pointless.
When you are whitey.
But I believe, and I could be wrong - I will admit that - but I believe that the only way that our society's race issues will be solved is if we start thinking - "What if that was me?" - more often.
I think we need to put ourselves in other people's shoes more.
I don't think we do it enough.
We need more empathy in this world, and less of Group A vs. Group B.
And the point of these American Girl historical stories
is for us to be able to put ourselves in other little girl's shoes throughout history.
To live their lives with them, through them.
To learn the answer to - "What if that was me?"
But the company seems to be missing the point that the
modern stories should also be fully representative.
The modern stories should also be diverse.
The modern stories should also be about - "What if that was me?"
The interviewer in the video continues -
"What role do you think the doll industry has in
making sure there's diversity? Making sure little girls see that at a very early age?"
The vice president emphatically nods her head.
(Although the fear in her eyes at this inevitable question
from a black reporter about a black doll is palpable.)
"I think the doll industry has a veeery
heavy responsibility of reflecting, um, what is true about our society."
What is true about our society?
What is this truth?
What isn't being said? Where's the rest of that answer?
And what about - as I said above - shaping our society?
Does a doll company have a responsibility to help shape our society?
I think so.
Especially when these 'toys' are supposed to be educational for the 'young people'
who will shape our society in the coming generations.
What about being progressive?
And not just, um, reflecting, um, society when people, um, ask you to.
The vice president is cut off as the interviewer voice-over discusses
the archival of many diverse AG dolls -- including Cecile and Ivy.
"The company was criticized for discontinuing four characters. Two were minorities...."
Dun dun dunnnnnnnn!!!!
And then we return to the interviewer and the vice president.
And the next inevitability occurs:
Why has the company designed over 20 character dolls but only 3 of them have been black?
"Why is that?" the interviewer asks.
The vice president, probably by now sweating through her suit, and cursing the president-of-marketing-person who made her do this interview in their place...
"Umm-hmmm. When we launched Addy the universal feeling was that we needed to address the very difficult topic of slavery before we addressed any other experience in black history."
The voice-over cuts in "This summer American Girl is addressing another chapter of black history with the release of Melody Ellison."
By now, you're probably thinking - "Girrrrllll, I can watch the dang video myself -
you don't have to re-type it all here!!!"
I know. I know.
But I am re-typing these sections to point out certain things.
Which is what one does when one writes dissertations, haha.
So bear with me.
The immediate mention of Addy is a classic re-direct non-answer.
No answer as to why there aren't more black historical dolls.
(Which was the question.)
No answer as to why there were clear race issues that are really, really difficult to address in a toy line without shooting yourself in the foot and losing money.
No mention of perhaps how the company hasn't seen them as marketable.
(That would be a marketing disaster right there.)
The answer instead is: 'Look! We have a slave doll though! Look!
Weee! We covered that topic! Give us a gold star!!!!'
Am I giving American Girl too much of a social burden?
Am I expecting too much of a 'storytelling company'?
No, because they clearly - as you can tell by the vice president's answer - know that what they do as a 'storytelling company' "has a veeery
heavy responsibility of reflecting, um, what is true about our society."
They know what they do has meaning.
And they know that we, the consumers, know it has meaning.
Neither party to this conversation is stupid.
And yet, we can't seem to have an intelligent conversation.
Back to the interviewer:
"Why did it take til 2016 to see a doll that is representative of arguably what is one of the most important periods for African Americans today?"
The camera is on the vice president as the question ends.
You can sort of see tears start to well up in her eyes.
And her head nods, but it has that sort of tilt to it that your Mom gets when you are asking her questions about things she doesn't want to talk about.
Like the burden of your questions is making
her head weigh more and her neck strain under the stress.
And her eyebrows are trying to escape her forehead in shock/worry/distress.
Honestly if you are reading this Madame Vice President -
which I'm pretty sure you are not - I'm not making fun of you.
I'm pointing out how uncomfortable you look during this whole interview for a reason - that this is how our society still deals with this issue.
With wide-eyed, head-nodding, panicked, non-answers.
Because we don't know how to deal with it in any other way.
Everything has just become politeness -
and in that politeness we lose real discussion about issues of race.
We all know there is a whole conversation missing from this interview.
One that the interviewer is trying to bring out.
But the toy company representative is not paid to discuss.
She is paid to dance around it in nice little ways.
But not to actually say anything of significance.
She is there to say nothing.
Saying "nothing" will keep the company safe.
Her non-answer to the interviewer's question:
"We do approach every character very thoughtfully. So this isn't something that we rush into. We're not looking to address critical demand (weird inserted smile and direct gaze at the interviewer) - we're looking to tell stories in the most authentic and genuine way that we possibly can."
And most of the time she is talking here ^ - she isn't looking at the camera, and she isn't looking at the interviewer. She's more looking at the floor.
Here is my translation of her answer:
We wanted to tell a well-written and accurate story and not 'eff' this thing up. We didn't want to do anything that might get us in trouble with the political correctness police. We needed a panel of black people to approve her to count as the collective black people stamp of approval. So that's why it took us 30 years. Don't rush us, man. We're here to make money, not support moral agendas. I'm already sweating to death over here and just praying to all of the gods in the universe, not just Jesus, that this doll is successful. Please buy 10 Melody Ellison dolls on the day she is released.
Hugs and Kisses, The VP
The clinical psychologist then shows up - a black woman - who supports "what American girl is doing, but stresses the importance of more
modern stories for African American dolls," the voice-over says.
Dr. Jackson states: "As we encourage our children to learn about their history, we want also to teach them and show them that who they are right now in 2016 is fabulous as well."
i.e. Why isn't there a black GOTY doll?
Why hasn't there been?
Why is there no modern black girl with an American Girl story of her own?
Like, duh - this new historical is great, but there's still that "Invisible Doll" out there.
Where is "The Invisible Doll" AG?
Will she always be "invisible"?
I won't go too much into the rest of the video.
Because this post is already a dissertation by itself.
But please note three more things which
amused me greatly because I am evil:
1) Where the historian talks about how the Civil Rights movement "was led and driven by average, ordinary (slight pause) Americans, like Melody."
You know he was about to say black Americans.
Or African Americans.
You can see it on his face.
You can see it almost come out of his mouth.
But he doesn't say it.
Maybe he thinks - "Yes, white people helped the Civil Rights movement too,
so I shouldn't just say black."
But I doubt that - I think it was more of the 'Oh crap, I'm a white guy, talking to a black woman about the Civil Rights movement -- and should I say African-Americans or black Americans? Or should I even address race here in this conversation???? Oh crap. Oh crap.'
2) And how the texture of Melody's hair was "panel-approved."
That's very important.
*American Girl pats itself on the back*
And it couldn't be more obvious.
And 3) How awkward the news anchors are at the end.
"We like Melody."
"Very cute hairdo."
If I was a news anchor in this room:
"Thank Gawd they finally made a Civil Rights era black doll, amiright?!?!?
Can I get a 'hell-yeah'?
It's about effin' time, American Girl.
Also, where is the black GOTY?
What are you guys?
Or just scared?"
And that would be probably my last day as a news anchor.
Feel free to write in your own responses to the video, or your responses to this long dissertation, in the comment section below.
Thank you for reading,
if you managed to get through it all, haha.
And hopefully it wasn't the wrong decision to write it.
*ironic fist bump*
*waves goodbye to all the readers I just insulted with this post*