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As a doll enthusiast and a longtime history nerd, the only thing about the American Girl doll line that has always intrigued me was the BeForever historical dolls. (I could care less about the modern dolls, to be honest.) I was already an adult when they first came out but I always thought that it was a totally cool concept when I first read about them in mainstream newspapers like The Washington Post: A doll representing a certain era in American history would be released with clothes and accessories that reflected that era and corresponding books designed to give the young reader an idea of what it was like to be a young girl growing up in that era.

I was apprehensive when American Girl announced the archival of Caroline Abbott, the War of 1812 doll, so she could make way for a new historical doll named Maryellen who would reflect the 1950’s. Okay, I’ll admit that I live in a state (Maryland) which was literally Ground Zero for the War of 1812 (the Battle of Bladensburg and Fort McHenry—the latter of which led to Francis Scott Key penning a poem that later became the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”) so I’m totally biased towards keeping Caroline on the shelves for a while longer (even though I never got around to buying her mainly because her long blonde hair reminded me too much of another American Girl doll that I already own, Julie Albright, and the fact that her War of 1812 story took place in Upstate New York near the Canadian border instead of Maryland).

Another reason why I was apprehensive about the upcoming 1950’s doll is because, as a kid growing up in the 1970’s, I was inundated with 1950’s nostalgia via the hit TV show Happy Days, the hit 1950’s nostalgia group Sha Na Na Na (who received their own TV series at one point), and the hit movie musical Grease. Then there were the re-runs of actual vintage 1950’s sitcoms. While I enjoyed some of them (especially The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy), the bulk of them were ones like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, which emphasized the so-called idyllic wholesome times of living in the suburbs complete with father working at his job and mother cheerfully working inside the home while wearing her impeccable dress with pearls and high heels. In addition, the local Baltimore Top 40 music station used to have “Greaser Weekends” a few times a year where you’d hear a playlist of nothing but hit songs from the 1950’s from late Friday afternoon until late Sunday night. While that station played a few gems (like Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock”) the vast majority of the vintage Top 40 pop songs that station played during those “Greaser Weekends” were pretty lame and forgettable. All those constant pop culture references painted the 1950’s as some sort of mythical Shangri-La where everyone happily lived in the suburbs and it’s too bad that people like me were born too late to participate in it because they were such an awesome decade so it sucks to be me.

I have a mother who grew up poor in Baltimore during that same era so I knew that the 1950’s weren’t what was described in the mainstream media. (And, yes, my mother is living proof there were poor white people who grew up in the 1950’s.) It wasn’t until high school at the earliest when I began to learn the full story of how the 1950’s weren’t really the Utopia Land of Milk and Honey as Happy Days would lead you to believe.

If you were poor or an African-American, the 1950’s weren’t so lovely because poverty and race greatly reduced the chance that you would ever move to the suburban area of your choice. If you were an unmarried teen girl or woman who unexpectedly got pregnant, you were pressured to either get married or give your baby up for adoption regardless of whether you were really ready for marriage or how fit you really would’ve been as a single parent. Abortion was illegal and there were plenty of women who sought an illegal back-alley abortion only to die or become seriously injured. Birth control was severely limited in much of the country and sex education was nonexistent. If you were an abused spouse or someone whose spouse constantly cheated on you or a person married to an alcoholic, you were expected to put up and shut up because there were no domestic violence shelters and divorce was very difficult and expensive to obtain. If you were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, you pretty much didn’t officially exist because such topics weren’t discussed in “polite” company. Your gender dysphoria or sexual orientation could get you legally fired from your job and a landlord could deny you an apartment. I knew a couple of gay men through my Unitarian Universalist congregation who married women back in the 1950’s and even had children because they tried to hide their true sexual orientation and simply wanted to blend in with the rest of society. (Those marriages ultimately ended in divorce.) It also sucked if you were a woman who had other ambitions besides being a housewife and mother since those were the prescribed roles for women. Even jobs for women outside the home were limited to retail sales clerk, teacher, social worker, nurse, flight attendant, and secretary. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those jobs if one freely chooses one of those occupations. It’s only wrong if people are limited to just those positions because of gender.) Those positions even tended to be limited to single women and once they were married, they were expected to quit to become full-time housewives while waiting for that first pregnancy. And that’s not to mention people who would’ve preferred to be lifelong bachelors and/or to be childless but got married and had families anyway because it was expected of them by society.

And that’s not to mention that there are a lot of people out there who want to go back to the way everything was in the 1950’s complete with a return to the features of that era that discriminated against those who weren’t born middle-class white straight males. Just a few months ago a white elementary school teacher in Texas posted on her Facebook page her wish that segregation would return to the U.S. just like in the 1950’s. She ultimately lost her job due to that post but, sadly, there are a lot of other Americans with her mindset.

I think all of the pop culture references of the 1950’s as being this perfect nirvana was a disservice because it totally glossed over some less savory aspects of that era, like Senator Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, which ruined the reputations of scores of innocent people and it affected their abilities to get jobs and housing. Then there was the start of the Cold War, which led to Senator McCarthy accusing various people of being communists. That Cold War would last decades and it would lead both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries (like El Salvador and Czechoslovakia) on a regular basis and the nuclear arms race. The film The Atomic Cafe did a great job of explaining the effects that the arms race had on American culture in the 1950’s.

I know I shouldn’t be so apprehensive about a 1950’s doll because it was an era where my own parents came of age. I also met people in my Unitarian Universalist congregation who went to college/got married/started families while helping with starting that congregation (it was founded in 1954) during that decade and they used to tell me stories about how that congregation was a literally a refuge from the straight-laced and conservative mainstream society that existed all around them because it was only when they were in church where they could metaphorically let their hair down and be themselves without worrying about facing the disapproval of a neighbor or coworker or having someone accuse them of being a “communist”. (Many of them were either the same age or older than my own parents. Sadly many of them have since died or moved out of the area to retirement communities.)

As a child and teen who was spoon-fed so much pop culture propaganda about how wonderfully idyllic those years were until I grew sick of hearing all about it, you could say that I have a legitimate reason why I’m not exactly cheering this new doll’s arrival.

Given the apprehension I felt about the new American Girl 1950’s doll, when I first heard rumors about this new doll, I immediately thought about four different story scenarios for the 1950’s character that the company could use—three of which would work really well if they were actually used.

1. Maryellen is in a family who have to rebuild their lives after her father lost his job when he was falsely accused of being a communist in the wake of Senator McCarthy’s Red Scare. She could face being teased in school by classmates calling her “Commie Girl” or some other nasty name. Her mother could get a job or start her own business outside the home to make ends meet despite the enormous societal pressure on her to stay home and take care of her husband and children. This scenario could provide a lesson in how troubles can strengthen an already close-knit family in the long run as well as the devastating consequences the Red Scare had on scores of innocent people all across the U.S. simply because someone decided to accuse them of being a member of the Communist Party.

2. Maryellen is in a family who has to deal with the absence of her father because he was drafted to serve in the Korean War. For more drama, she could deal with a difficult classmate who lords it over her the fact that her father’s job with a defense contractor earned him a deferment so he didn’t have to get drafted and leave the family (which was actually how my ex-husband’s father managed to avoid being sent to Korea back then simply because he was lucky enough to snag a high-tech job with a government contractor known as Sperry). The first half of the book could deal with the girl worrying about whether she will ever see her father alive again. The second half of the book could have the father return but ends up struggling with what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how this affects the girl and her relationship with her father. That would be a great topic because the Korean War has been called The Forgotten War and it could shed some light on the effects of that conflict on the United States.

3. Maryellen is an African American girl growing up in the Deep South who starts to attend a formerly all-white elementary school in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision. She could face going to school every day with hostile white adults hurling epithets (and things like eggs and tomatoes) at her, having white classmates who are equally hostile towards her, and worrying about whether her new white teacher would even fully accept her as a student capable of getting grades of C or above. It would provide an eye-opening lesson on the legacy of racism and Jim Crow.

4. Maryellen is a normal middle class white girl growing up in the suburbs in a perfectly happy family with very few cares in the world. Her books would have plots that could’ve been straight out of various episodes of Leave It to Beaver.

The first three scenarios could be interesting and provide a real lesson for kids about the 1950’s. The last scenario would be boring and lame but I considered it to be the most likely one because it’s such a “safe” topic so the company wouldn’t have to deal with controversy or worry about boycotts or things like that.

When I first saw the leaked cover of the first Maryellen book online, I knew that scenario number 3 would be out since she would be a white girl. (Which is too bad because I think having an African American girl desegregating a formerly all-white school would’ve gone a long way towards American Girl proving to its critics that it is not a racist company who sends out subliminal messages that white dolls are superior.) But I was still hoping for one of the first two scenarios.

But then the descriptions for the upcoming books came out and it seems like the stories will follow scenario number 4, something that’s relatively dull and predictable and could’ve come from a 1950’s era family sitcom. Here is what the description of the first Maryellen book, The One and Only: A Maryellen Classic 1, says about Maryellen Larkin’s story:

Maryellen Larkin is nine years old and longs to stand out, but in a family with five brothers and sisters it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle! A painting mishap gains her some attention, but not the kind she’s been longing for. Being invited to stay in at recess and practice her handwriting earns Maryellen a new friend, but what does that mean for her old friendships? Then, Maryellen is wishing for a white Christmas like the ones in the movies (not very likely in Florida!). Will she find a way to make her dream come true?

Yep, it sounds like an episode of Leave It to Beaver if Beaver Cleaver had been a girl instead of a boy. As for wishing for a white Christmas, yeah, I’ve been there because I grew up in Maryland (a state that gets a white Christmas maybe once every 20 years or more) but I dealt with it and I focused on other things around the holidays (like presents) so that was never a big deal with me. The issue of a white Christmas being among Maryellen’s problems and concerns seems so lame to me. At least Julie Albright had to spend her growing up years in the 1970’s dealing with her parents’ divorce while fighting her school for the right to play on the basketball team. Here’s the synopsis of the second book, Taking Off: A Maryellen Classic 2:

Turning ten is a big deal, and Maryellen Larkin wants to celebrate it in a very special way. Will she choose a western theme or decide on a superstar celebration, or will the event turn out to be something even Maryellen doesn’t expect? And which party participant surprises her the most? Then, Dad comes home with a silver surprise and big plans for a family vacation. On the trip, what will Maryellen discover about Joan and her wedding plans? What will Maryellen decide about her own plans and “flying high?”

American Girl is retiring Caroline Abbott, the War of 1812 doll whose character had to deal with her father being captured by the British, for THIS?!? But—wait!—there’s more! Here’s the synopsis of the third book titled The Sky’s the Limit: My Journey With Maryellen:

What if you suddenly found yourself in Maryellen’s world during the 1950s? How would your life be changed, what would you do to fit in—and, more importantly, what would you do to stand out? Join Maryellen on an adventure where the two of you can put on poodle skirts and head to a school dance (they were called sock hops back then!), enter a contest, or take a trip in a streamlined silver camper that looks like a rocket ship! Your journey back in time can take whatever twists and turns you choose, as you select from a variety of exciting options in this multiple-ending story.

Once again the 1950’s are being whitewashed as this incredibly idyllic time where everyone was happy, nothing ever went wrong, and females of all ages wore poodle skirts. I can only imagine how the people I knew through my Unitarian Universalist congregation who came of age in the 1950’s would think of these books.

Reading the write ups for these books, it seems like American Girl is reaching out less to its usual target audience of 8-12 year old girls and more to adults who grew up in the suburbs in white middle class families with little to no major drama (like the Red Scare and/or the Korean War) back in the 1950’s—the very kind of people who would look at that era with rose-colored glasses. I knew that American Girl would’ve avoided more adult topics like the rise of the Beat Generation or the widespread unhappiness women felt at being housewives (which Betty Friedan described as “the problem with no name”). But American Girl has dealt with the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War II in the past and it would really be bad if the Korean War or the Cold War were given short shrift in favor of being a glorified Leave It to Beaver in order to please adults instead of children. But it looks like American Girl is going in that direction and that’s too bad. And the Korean War will continue to be The Forgotten War, at least as far as American Girl is concerned.

Since Maryellen is described as growing up in Florida, it’s possible that she may have to deal with her elementary school being integrated and she starts to meet black kids for the first time. But, seriously, I’m not holding my breath on that one based on the write ups. If that topic is even mentioned, it’ll probably be given one or two sentences then swept under the rug. Besides, I think the subject of desegregation would be more effective if the character is an African American girl who experiences it directly than through the eyes of a white child who grew up relatively privileged compared to people of other races.

Considering the fact that the doll (which comes with the first book) will cost $115 and her clothes will probably start at $30 with larger accessories (like furniture) starting at $100, it would be way cheaper to watch reruns of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Sure one could just buy the books (or borrow them from the library) but it would still be cheaper and easier to just watch those vintage 1950’s sitcoms.

At least my wallet will be safe for the near future because I don’t feel tempted by Maryellen Larkin in the least bit. I probably will get around to making another trip to the American Girl Place in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia at some time in the near future (probably once the new school year starts so I can arrive on one of the store’s less crowded days) to see the doll in person but it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever buy her.


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