Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Representation Skeptic: The American Girl Edition

American Girl inspired star wall decoration.
Julia's old bedroom has about twenty of these stars which
were traced on the wall (by me) and filled in by shaky hand.
I've since acquired much better painting skills, but this room
will stay AG pink for a long time owing to how much trouble
these stupid stars gave me.
American Girl dolls had a few years of being the thing in our house. Julia started at a very young age with my own original Pleasant Company (before it was owned by Mattel) Molly McIntyre doll. I'd never figured out what to do with poor Molly. She was a gift from my aunt when I was 11 and on the cusp of being what I thought was too old for dolls. Molly spent about sixteen years in her box with her extra outfit and its matching green hair ribbons carefully packed in their original Pleasant Company garment bag.

Julia took possession of Molly when she was four-years-old. The old doll didn't take much abuse before her hair formed itself into a wiry mess. Molly was eventually sent away for a head replacement that resulted in a completely new doll because what came back in a hospital gown was not remotely the Molly we sent away.

Even after 2011 Girl of the Year Kanani  Akina joined our family, Molly was still preferred. When we found out AG dolls could have hearing aids, it was Molly that had the honor.

Molly's hot pink hearing aids went in and owing to their mode of attachment (a sort of piercing right in the canal), never came out. Julia's bedroom was painted bright pink with AG stars. Pap Pap made two sets of doll bunk beds and a little table and chairs. Santa's elves constructed a homemade gymnastics set because gosh, that "authentic" stuff is expensive. American Girls took over a big portion of the playroom before moving into a corner of the bedroom and finally going to rest once again in their boxes. Even if Molly never sees daylight again, this time she rests knowing that she's lived!

I tried to unsubscribe from the American Girl catalog last year and maybe I was successful because I only learned of the 2020 Doll of the Year, Joss Kendrick, in my news feed. Profoundly deaf in one ear with significant hearing loss in the other, Joss wears one hearing aid and enjoys surfing. 

The press release momentarily made me think that this doll, Joss, should join the others in the closet. It's groundbreaking representation! It's a doll almost sorta just like Julia!

Julia is 14 now and when we talked about Joss, our conversation was deeper than just acknowledging that the time for American Girl dolls has passed. It was an opportunity to talk about our skepticism and recurring disappointment at the representation of kids and adults that are deaf or hard of hearing.

We were reminded that there was a time when it was enough just to see someone with hearing aids. We were thrilled to see a little boy with hearing aids in Spy Kids 4. He was actually wearing a cochlear implant processor and hearing aids don't really give a person super spy hearing, but he was there onscreen. It was enough.

We punched bright pink plastic hearing aids into Molly's ears. We couldn't take the hearing aids out ever because then she'd have weird holes drilled right in the middle of her ears, but she could have hearing aids. It was enough.

But we got older. Our family looked for more media portrayals of people with hearing loss. Julia learned that Hawkeye (the Marvel Comics hero played by Jeremy Renner) was Deaf in the comic books. Deadpool, that horrible, foul-mouthed, red-suited, anti-hero, signs and lifts his mask so Hawkeye can read his lips in the comic books. None of this made it into the movies, much like Auggie Pullman's hearing aid was left out of the Wonder film.

We watched A Quiet Place and puzzled over why the cochlear implant was squealing like a hearing aid. If the feedback was a plot point, why not give the character hearing aids instead of cochlear implants?

Wonderstruck turned deafness into a weird, jaunty silent film.

Even General Amaya in The Dragon Prince using really well-done ASL made us wonder how she knows what's going on when people aren't signing or even facing her. Sometimes the speaker is behind her and she still responds as though she heard everything. We spent several episodes debating whether she was Deaf or possibly mute.

American Sign Language is having a moment, so much so that the Mandolorian can sign well enough to negotiate passage across a random Star Wars planet. This is worlds better than just a short time ago when tv shows used fake sign language and hearing aids that acted like supersonic listening instruments, but there's still work to be done in the details.

Joss Kendrick, the 2020 American Girl Doll of the Year, was developed with the input of "Gallaudet University’s Dr. Sharon Pajka, who specializes in portrayals of deaf characters in adolescent literature, and several other experts in surfing, competitive cheerleading, and hearing loss." (citation) I'm hopeful that Joss is more than just a doll with a hearing aid. Someday when I read her story, I hope to be impressed and maybe even learn how she keeps the sand out her hearing aid when she's on the beach.