The American Girl company produces magazines, books, films, and a series of historical-character dolls. American Girl magazine also used to transform real-life girls into paper dolls, including this editor, who was the “centerfold” of the August/September 1995 issue.

The two-dimensional me wore an orange swimsuit and came with a series of outfits representing the “costumes” of my maternal ancestors. Each dress had explanatory text, as did the doll itself.

I was the first Indian-American paper doll. Unlike my predecessors, many of whom traced their roots to the Mayflower, I didn’t wear nativity in my pigments. So my doll proved her Americanness differently: by claiming the Babysitter’s Club as a favorite book. In ’95, I loved Enid Blyton and Greek mythology, so why mention books I found patently vacuous? I recall my child-self’s rationale: “If anyone doubts the Americanness of my face, my professed reading habits will do the trick.”

Today, I’m not as anxious about performing recognizable Americanness, but we’ve all shared similar identitarian concerns. You may, for example, be Indian by birth, but how do you become like an Indian? How do you look like one? How do you signal that you are an Indian in some deep-seated, lived, and legible way?

Economic protectionists would have us believe that “buying American” is a key component of being American. Indeed, we see this impulse in immigrants as they assimilate. Ethnic minorities—with our mythologized homes and inscrutable names—never fully “look like.” But in the moment of market participation—watching football, eating Thin Mints, wielding dollars as IDs—we become as American as Barbie, the most American girl of all.

Calls to “Buy American” have taken on particular urgency since the financial meltdown. But it seems to me that the frequent advocacy of tariffs and subsidies is as much about policing identities as protecting American companies. After all, President Obama rejected components of the “Buy American” provision in the stimulus package, and most American economic policy-makers favor free trade.

So why the pressure to “Buy American,” when clearly the U.S. will continue to import goods and commodities, while outsourcing jobs? Are we, in the moment of global crisis, being asked not to stimulate our country’s economy, but rather to wave a discursive flag? Is “Buy American” a rhetorical concession to the magnitude of our dependence on other nations? Is the aspiration of authentic Americanness—in which we hyphenated Americans are always implicated—actually a farce?

As Patricia Marx asks in a recent piece for the New Yorker, “[what] looks like an American, dresses like an American, [and] has lived through the American Revolution?” The American Girl company’s Felicity doll.

She’s 100 percent American. Made in China.

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.
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