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Canadian dolls for Canadian girls

2014-08-24 12.21.56As a tangent to this project’s exploration of performing children, I’ve become fascinated with contemporary children’s performances , not so much performances by professional child actors or singers but performances of consumption by “average” children. I’ve been working on an essay on American Girl’s May 2014 arrival in Canada, focusing on the “haul” videos made to celebrate the day, and I’m likewise interested in the popularity of Maplelea Girls, a Canadian alternative to American Girl.

Last weekend, I visited Maplelea’s first “meet up” held at Black Creek Pioneer Village, near York U, where I work. I was curious to see how many children (girls mostly) and their parents would show up and was surprised to see hundreds there, with their dolls and doll backpacks. In addition to hosting a doll tea and other arts and crafts tables throughout the village, the Ontario-based company operated a “pop up” shop in the Village’s conference meeting room, where they displayed  many of their best selling dolls, including Saila, a doll from Iqaluit. My son was delighted by the display of doll-sized hockey equipment, complete with helmet, stick, puck, and hockey bag – definitely Canadian culture on display! There was even a ringette set… I was entranced with Saila and her projection of Inuit “indigeneity” and so I purchased her (for research purposes, of course, though my inner-little-girl was undeniably excited by the displays  -a remembrance of Cabbage Patch Kids past)….

I’m not sure when I’ll have an opportunity to write about Maplelea and Saila and the particular brand of nationalism they promote through their dolls (each of the six main dolls promotes a specific region of the country and undertakes activities that convey some aspect of “Canadian” life) but the visit to Black Creek Pioneer Village offered a potent example of how children are called upon to labour (through play) on behalf of national, racial, and class ideologies. This is not to suggest that the girl (or boy for that matter) who buys a Maplelea doll today ($99 each)  is labouring in the same way that a child performer playing before colonial audiences in the nineteenth century laboured – but it is to suggest that both have/do play valuable roles in much larger cultural projects.