“Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down”–or Can You?

The song I used to title this post is one of my favorites, by Sista Monica, a blues singer, powerhouse lady, and veteran of the cancer wars. I play it when I need inspiration or a shot in the arm–or when inspiration has struck, as it did for this double-feature post. (Sometimes I can’t keep away from this blog!) This post is about something else I love–and something about that thing I love, that’s worrying me.

I love–strike that, LOVE–American Girl. The books, the dolls, everything (except the exorbitant prices for, say, a doll bed or a doll-size stuffed pet). I was first introduced to these girls at age 9, back in 1995, with Kirsten (the original lineup: Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly. I have all five dolls, plus the later addition of Josefina, but haven’t added to my collection for over a decade). I adored the books, and the dolls were my friends and students (yes, we played school). I even pretended to be an American Girl and make up my own stories, with mixed results. And I was thrilled when the Pleasant Company came out with American Girl of Today. I owned one–whose name I changed at least 14 times before she got to my house–and wish I owned the current one, who you can play with online.

American Girl has updated itself and added a lot since the ’90s–most notably, historical girls Kit, Kaya, Julie, and Rebecca, and their Girls of the Year. These girls are from the present, and each has her own story, at least two books, and at least one doll (Chrissa, the 2010 GOTY, had two additional dolls in her collection, Sonali and Gwen, who served as “best friend dolls.”) Usually, I’m vicariously happy for the young girls who will meet the new Girl each year. But this year, I’m disturbed at the addition of 2012’s Girl, McKenna Brooks.

McKenna is a wonderful character in that she represents many characteristics of today’s young lady in the 9-12 age range. According to the Chicago Tribune website, McKenna is a gifted gymnast, which reflects many girls’ interest in the sport. She’s also experiencing the “fourth grade slump, when focus shifts from learning to read to reading to learn…and uses her strengths to overcome” (Chicago Tribune). No problem there. None. But I do have a problem with the person McKenna turns to, to overcome her reading issues.

McKenna’s reading tutor is a girl her age named Josie. From news blurbs and websites, including amazon.com’s description of McKenna’s first book, that’s all we know about this girl. Oh, except, she’s “confined to a wheelchair,” sometimes graded down to “wheelchair-bound.”

Say WHAT?

Okay, first of all, let’s deal with the language here. “Confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound” makes Josie sound like she’s literally tied or chained to the thing–and that language does chain her to the wheelchair, because those who use it, consciously or not, paint her as a victim. Someone who “suffers” from having to use a wheelchair. But what if she’s not suffering? What if there’s more going on than her chair?

And that’s point #2–why are you, Mary Casanova (author of the McKenna books), and writers of these blurbs, focusing first on what Josie cannot do? Sure, she obviously has strengths in reading, but why do those come after the wheelchair? I will also note that amazon.com lets us know that McKenna is “sidelined by an injury” in the first book. I have to wonder, within that experience, will she end up seeing Josie as “brave,” or end up learning from her how to cope with a “handicap?” That is, will Josie be a political correctness prop?

Let’s not leave it at Josie, either. American Girl’s Girls of the Year have, since 2005 (there was a gap between ’01 and ’05), included a surfer (Kailey), a dancer (Marisol), a skater (Mia), a swimmer (Chrissa), and an outdoor enthusiast (Lanie). Nothing wrong with these things. And the girls were given other interests–but they were secondary interests, or treated as such, if not placed on a par with the sport (for example, Chrissa loved pottery, but equally loved swimming). I have to wonder two things. One: must every one of these girls be heavily involved in a sport? And two: If they must, why have none of the athletes had disabilities and participated along with the other girls (rather than, hypothetically, in Special Olympics?) Were I ten years old right now, I would not be able to identify much with any of these girls, and they might in fact get on my nerves. Again, why can’t we have a strong, courageous girl athlete who happens to have a disability–or one who does not have a disability and is not athletic–or has one, and is not? I realize we’re in the middle of an obesity epidemic, and girls need to be encouraged to be just as active as boys. But as a woman, gotta tell ya–we’re not all athletes. (In fact, could we have an American Girl who’s overweight, whose story does not revolve solely around losing the poundage? Never happened before).

In 2005, when Marisol’s family was described as moving from the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago because it was “dangerous,” Latino groups raised red flags, and people listened. The same happened when advocates for people who are homeless questioned the portrayal of Gwen Thompson, 2010 GOTY Chrissa’s friend who is homeless. African-Americans raised red flags when Addy, the line’s first and so far only black protagonist, was portrayed as an escaped slave.

But so far, no one seems to be questioning the secondary, “wheelchair-bound,” disability-only based portrayal of Josie. Maybe we should. Because if we do, maybe our girls with disabilities will see they can be strong, courageous, and smart, too. Let’s help some good young women get up–wheelchairs and all.

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