Until There’s an Arab-“American Girl”

This essay was read on WYPR’s weekly show, “The Signal,” produced by Aaron Henkin.

This Christmas, I’m surprising myself.

I’ve just purchased a doll for my daughter that costs more than any outfit I have ever purchased for myself. In fact, it costs more than I’ve ever paid for leather boots, a college textbook, a handbag, or a color-cut-and-blowdry. It costs more than any gift I certainly received as a child.

Why am I doing this? It goes against every fiber of my avoid-materialism-at-all-costs core.

But I’m doing it. I’ve entered my Mastercard digits and the 18-inch doll is on its way. The reasons are multiple:

Number 1: My daughter wants it. She’s been asking for one for almost a year.

Number 2: My daughter is an awesome, sweet, smart kid.  (Obvious.)

Number 3: I have, till now, denied her most girly-girl doll toys. And I’ve always felt conflicted and guilty about this. My daughter has spent half of her life (about 3.5 years) wanting a Barbie doll, and I have always said “no.” I’ve also generally staved off the Disney Princess mania. We have only seen one princess movie, Beauty and the Beast, because it was on TV one afternoon, but I have resisted buying things emblazoned with the faces of Belle, Cinderella, Aurora, and the rest of the gang (thanks to Disney, by the way, for making the only Arab girl doll – Jasmine – look like a harem kitten and therefore un-buyable for my child).

My house is not Princess-free, however: I admit that, as author Peggy Orenstein noted in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, princess stuff has somehow made it into our home – we have at least 10 or 12 princess items, including a coat, a stationery set, a lunch bag, jumbo crayons, a pillow and sleeping bag, and other things. However, I’ve generally been vigilant, explaining to her that I don’t like the way some Barbies are dressed, that a little girl doll shouldn’t be wearing so much makeup, as well as other things. My poor daughter has never dared ask for a Bratz or a Monster High doll (don’t get me started), but she does have some of the other staples of girlhood – a couple of tea sets, a chest of dress-up clothes, fairy wands and wings, etc.

Oh, and we did take her to see Brave and Tangled, so we are reasonable people.

Number 4: Like losing presidential candidates, like desktop computers, like books in print, I am trying to stay relevant.

In trying to stay ahead of negative influences on my daughter, I have had to say “no” to a lot of things. I wouldn’t let her watch Hannah Montana, for example, when a lot of her friends were doing so (although I am vindicated by recent news that Miss Miley Cyrus is trying to stay relevant herself by dancing with strippers at a recent performance).  I don’t want my daughter immersed or sucked in a culture that tells her that her worth is based on her looks and her appearance: to this end, I rarely let her paint her nails or wear makeup other than lip gloss or some blush during her dress-up sessions. Like many parents, I compliment her for her strength when she gets across the monkey bars, and for her cleverness when she figures out a challenging puzzle.

But I do say “no” a lot, and I worry that “no” is getting old – it’s not my fault that our commercialized culture is actively marketing to kids, but I have to find ways to stay ahead of the game, to let her know that I understand how hard it is to be a kid these days.

And so we’re now into American Girl dolls. There is really not much I can say “no” to – they are even accompanied by a book, for Christ’s sake.  They are well-made, interesting, and sweet. I don’t care for how expensive they are, but then again, I realize that harem-kitten Jasmine costs a mere $10. Recently, in reading some online discussion postings by some American Girl moms, I was turned off by an argument a few were having: Some moms were complaining about the company’s lack of free shipping on Cyber Monday. They got some rude responses: one mom indignantly told the others that “American Girl dolls are not for everyone” and – to paraphrase – “If you can’t afford one, then there are other, cheaper versions available for you and your budget.” Seriously? Did I want to enter this world?

Despite the attitude of this and a few other moms, who were getting way too invested, I decided to just buy one. This was the easy part: We’d been getting the catalogs since she was practically born, and rather than throw them in the recycling bin, I kept one and asked her to look through it. Her eyes lit up like those of a starving man who’s just spotted a five-star buffet. Clothes, hats, shoes, beds, matching pajamas!

“Which one will you ask Santa for?” I asked her, amazed by the selection. “Molly? Cecile? Jenna?”  There was no Arab American doll, of course, which brought back my own childhood memories of seeing endless rows of blonde Barbies and her blonde friends – there was no doll who looked like me, and PJ just didn’t cut it.

After three days of careful deliberation, my daughter picked her doll. From the catalog, she selected Rebecca Rubin, who “loves to celebrate the traditions of her Russian-Jewish family.”

“Are you sure you want Rebecca?” I asked her, utterly confused.

She lifted her beautiful brown eyes to gaze at me solemnly: “Mama, Rebecca looks like me.”

And, of course, she does.

So, this Christmas, my Arab-American daughter will be the proud “parent” of a Jewish-American girl doll, Miss Rebecca Rubin, with whom she will share matching pajamas. It seems fair: if Israelis can pretend that hummus and falafel are their cultural foods, our family can pretend that Rebecca is an Arab doll.

As Langston Hughes once wrote, “… you are a part of me, as I am a part of you. /That’s American.”

Merry Christmas, and peace to the world.