What does an “American Girl” look like?

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It is a necessity when writing historical fiction to immerse yourself in a time period in order to write a story set with that backdrop. My current work in progress is set in the midst of World War 2, and as I wasn’t alive in the 1940s (I’m sure my children will be shocked to realize this!), I rely on research to paint a picture of daily life in that era. I came across the magazine cover for The American Girl, a publication of the Girl Scouts. One of the characters in my novel is a young girl who is interned in Arkansas with her family due to their Japanese heritage. As she is adjusting to her new life away from California, she sees this magazine cover (see picture at top of post). I tried to put myself in her place and see the cover through her eyes–someone who is mistrusted because of how she looks.

If your features are those of Japanese ancestry, how would looking at the features and coloring of these young girls make you feel? Would my character feel like she would fit right in with these two, or would she feel too different in physical appearance to feel “included”? Another interesting aspect of the historical backdrop for my novel is the setting. Arkansas during the 1940s was under Jim Crow laws. It wouldn’t only have been the young girls of Japanese ancestry who wouldn’t see any resemblance to themselves in this cover image.

Obviously in 2015 our culture is much more aware of portraying a variety of ethnicity on magazine covers, books, movies, etc. Thankfully every young American girl doesn’t grow up with only Barbie for a role model. There is even a series of books (complete with dolls, outfits and accessories) called American Girl books. I read these books with my daughter years ago and they do include some characters that are “non-white” among the majority that are some variety of Caucasian.

Seeing this magazine cover made me ask myself, “What does an American Girl look like?” I can’t think of one image in my mind. We come from so many different backgrounds and regions of the world and therefore we all look different from each other. Personally, I like the differences. I would hate to live in a place where everyone looked like slightly varied copies of one basic original specimen. It would be rather like the clone army in Star Wars where everyone looked just like Boba Fett!

Still I wonder if little girls that are African American ,Indian, Asian or Hispanic would look at a cover like this one and feel like my character Michi felt. I hope not, and I am charging myself to be more aware of magazine covers and movie posters around me. I recently heard about a controversy involving a major retailer using a white girl to promote a clothing line for a movie with an African American as the main character.

I would love some feedback from people who might relate to the character in my novel, or from anyone who has an answer for my question in the title of this post.

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2 thoughts on “What does an “American Girl” look like?

  1. I am certainly not a girl but when I was growing up, I grew up American. When I was maybe eight or so, I used to read the “Sgt. Rock” comic books. I would make believe I was him. I never saw him as a Caucasian nor realized I was of Asian blood. As I got into junior high school, I became conscious of my heritage as a good number of chapters in our history books contained material about WWII. Dad never talked about the camps nor did mom talk about the firebombing of Tokyo.

    1. I’m so glad you commented on this post because my character is in high school when she has this realization that she “looks” nothing like the “American Girls” featured on the magazine cover. We definitely have more diversity now and magazine covers and in advertising in general. In 2015, one would be hard pressed to describe what an American looks like. Through my research, it seems to be the case with many people of your parent’s age group…they moved on after the war and didn’t discuss these matters. Maybe they didn’t want to burden their children with them, or maybe it was easier to try to move on and forget. I’m really grateful that oral histories are being collected now though, because nothing is better than a first hand account in helping us understand what life was like for them.

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