Making history less dull with a doll.

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July 7 2008 10:23 AM

All About the Story or All About the Outfits?

Making history less dull with a doll.

A group of females: Girls can choose one to identify with, and it could be Samantha. In the light of the new movie, is it all about the story or all about the outfits? Is it empowering to women or does it teach them the wrong lesson? Does the thinking feminist love them or hate them? We've been here before, and not that long ago, but this time it's not Sex and the City, it's American Girl (AG) dolls, discussed in a recent "IM" article.

We have mentioned that Slate's Fray team divides up the work very easily and casually, but American Girl was always going to be mine. This one is personal: I'm an even-handed defender of Barbies in Slate, but still, my daughter learned to read with a Samantha book because it was the only way to make me buy her the doll. On a recent trip to Manhattan, we spent an unplanned morning entirely at American Girl Place. I finally said that I would buy her—she's now 16—something for old time's sake. But the only thing she wanted was the (free) catalog—and that's going to resonate with the Fray posters because it featured in so many reminiscences: poring over the catalog comes up over and over.

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Nancyh posted a good analysis of ways to empower your daughters and resist consumerism, and it would take a mean-minded cynic to smile when she revealed that her daughter is all of 5 years old. Oh the years lie ahead, Nancy. Revrick posed a question: "Does such a thing as responsible consumerism exist … ? Consumerism, by its very nature, it seems to me, bulldozes right through such prudent concepts [as saving and budgeting]." He was roundly told off by alittlesense:

Yes, Heaven forfend! Buying a doll, the gateway to vice of all sorts. The only bulldozing I see is the idea that everyone except the posters here at the Fray are weak-minded fools who can't be trusted with a burnt-out match, much less money, dietary habits, voting habits, fireworks, the internet ... the list goes on and on and becomes more dreary with every issue of Slate.

Treefitz was one of many who wanted to share her memories with other readers, in this case of how the whole family got involved: "AG dolls are not just about little girls ... they are about mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters. They are about shaping human culture." Rather sadly, Fridhem wrote back to say:

You seem to be under a misconception of today's mother. Most of us aren't able to have all that time to spend making and creating the trunks, clothes, etc. ... in today's economy, most of us have to work just to make ends meet ... barely meet. I'm happy for you that your family sounds as though it was well off enough for you to have that extra time. Rare few do these days. … We are still shaping, just in a different way, dealing with the constraints we are given.

Jmv told us about a craze for customizing dolls:

More compelling is the DIY crowd that seeks to rebrand dolls to their own taste, or create special OOAK (one of a kind) editions, at times with completely home-made clothes. … Just search for OOAK. ... and you'll see a unique universe of personal creations.

Frankly I can't recommend this—looking at a page of these creations made me jump back in my seat in horror. But in terms of creativity, it's surprising the AG magazine wasn't mentioned more: It is a wonderful thing, completely unlike any other magazine for young girls. It has sensible advice, features about high-achieving girls, and terrific ideas for low-cost items to make, and cheap and easy ways to entertain.

Bookmama had her own money-saving idea:

They are dolls. Children have imaginations. Why not buy just one and a set of clothes from different eras? Why can't a Samantha doll dress up in Depression Era clothes?

—and she also says that the dolls do help children learn about history and women's rights.

For amhuy, "It was all about the story. Like others who posted here, I was also obsessed with any story containing any independent girl fighting for it: Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Secret Garden. …" A related point came from RW99:

The lasting appeal of the dolls went beyond the cute outfits and accessories, it was directly related to the stories told in their books, the ways in which these girls faced problems and challenges and overcame them with the help of their family and friends. Besides my everlasting idol, Laura Ingalls, they were the only female role models who stood out for me at that age (I'm talking 8-10 years old) as more than just the typical "helpless girl," who usually had a brother who got to do all the cool stuff.

We know all about that in my house. My son, aged about 6, once complained that his sister had hit him with her doll. It sounded so funny that we laughed, at which he said, "Yes but Samantha is very solid." That became a family joke, but hey, maybe there's something to it.  MR3:30 p.m. GMT

Wednesday, July 02,  2008

Any day now we're going to make  list of the words and phrases that strike dread into the heart of a Fray editor. A personal favorite would be "causation and correlation—don't you realize they're different?" Yes, we do, everyone does, could we start from that and move on? (This week it was the article on movie critics.) And how can we describe the Fray on the Catholic Church? Un-Christian, that's it. Mean-spirited is another phrase that came to mind. But we liked TheStranger's theory, here, that the Fray is like the Bardo from the Tibetan Book of the Dead—a place, apparently, where you fight demons, under the impression they are from outside. In fact, they are your own personal demons: "you cannot fight them but negotiate with them until you find the right light to follow to non-birth. Maybe this forum is the Bardo and we are all dead. Let's negotiate."

Good luck with that. In the meantime we may as well stay on the dark side and go with a list of some of the prize insults offered in the Fray in the recent past:

"No one has ever questioned my abilities in quite your patronizing manner. Hats off to your level of condescension."—Aizmap

[To a poster calling for lower speed limits] "Get off the road Granny"—tjcerveza

"I've seen Fray arguments using four-letter words that were better reasoned [than this article]."—Pryoslice

[On Tolstoy's Anna Karenina] "That the reviewers were so eager to accept [Anna's] narcissism and wrong behavior shows only that … they find her to be like their friends and acquaintances: morbidly self-obsessed."—Tresor

[Addressing the argument that the childless will need others' children to look after them] "What makes you think I want your insipid childcare-raised kids diapering me when I am old? I'd sooner euthanize myself than be forcibly tranquilized by the autocratic zealots in aged care that call mass forced tranquilization 'nursing'."—billodowd

None of them seemed to be in the Fray to make friends. Any of their comments might have been a candidate for Fray post of the week. But that prize, if it existed, would certainly go to Zuko—to a post with the unlikely name "The Fray grows up." In a touching and bravura performance, he told us:

The little blond haired girl I loved in the front row married the wrong guy, twice, and now she sells real estate; a few years later, another one, a little brown-haired girl, broke my heart completely in two. We didn't get flying cars, OJ did it, Britney got fat and went nuts. I don't live in a thatched hut in Polynesia attended by sloe-eyed, pastel-lipped, beauties of Gaugin, the Red Sox finally won one. I didn't get what I expected and I have more than deserve. No mysteries left to solve.

But still, cheerfulness broke out, and he had good predictions for the Fray. The post should really be read in full, here. And as TheSranger said, "Let's negotiate." –MR ... 9.30 p.m. GMT

Friday, June 27,  2008

Either everyone in the Fray went to the same school, or else those pesky English professors have a lot to answer for—a surprising number of posters say their teacher told them not to use the semi-colon, the punctuation mark fighting for its life in Paul Collins "Culturebox" article here. Karlilfishnu's professor said that three semi-colons was a lifetime's supply. John123 wasn't having any nonsense after hearing about similar views: "I think what your professor really meant was, that semi-colons promote a clear grasp of logic and complex thinking; which should be avoided at all costs."

Anyone worried that no-one cares about correct punctuation any more would be greatly cheered by reading the Fray—this was a popular subject, and very few people were arguing for more laxity. There were plenty of jokes about colons: our favorite was Arlington's "What about Condi Rice? Isn't she a kind of semi-Colin Powell?" In the important view of the Fray Editor, a colon appears in the previous sentence because the second part exemplifies the first. If the second part had been a contrast, something like "but others thought the subject far too serious for jokes" then a semi-colon would have been necessary. Many others wanted to discuss correct usage—Nemesis was short and to the point:

The nearest explanation I can articulate is that the semicolon puts related ideas together in the same sentence when a comma wouldn't do and a period would require repetition in the next sentence.

and Earlybird gives an excellent full explanation here, with examples.

There was a curious quality of found poetry in this entry from Kemper—it doesn't follow the rules but it's vivid and you know what it means:

I was taught not to use the semicolon unless the boat was sinking and you had no other way to; for god sake save the sentence or as a continue of the same sentence but why would you do that for goodness sake. I am not great at writing but find it useful yet; hold up every time tempted; yes so tempted, to continue a thought yet finish one, giving pause to the forementioned thought.

And perhaps more intended poetry here, from Chroniccommentator:

Semi-colons hang in a sentence like the scent of jasmine you inhale before you walk on to another part of the garden. They let you linger for a moment, and then you move to another flower--but still in the same garden.

Demilune had other things on his/her mind, and clear views:

Love the little buggers [semi-colons]. Don't use them a lot. Matter of respect, you know. Now, on the subject of which/that, isn't there a nice philanthropist out there who will donate a copy of Strunk & White['s Elements of Style] to all writers everywhere?

Which (that?) brought a sigh to this particular writer, whose former editor at Slate used to complain about her which/that usage, and wasn't convinced by the wild claim that British rules are different. Still, there were never any complaints about the semi-colons, and we even managed to get one into a "Best of Fray" headline once... "Tolerance, yes; respect, no."  The subject matter that time was actually eating dogs, but the phrase does  describe perfectly the attitude of the punctuation mavens to those who misuse or ignore the semi-colon. MR3:30 p.m. GMT

Monday, June 23,  2008

You try to write about the candidates and their policies, and what do you get from the readers? Those readers who are always asking for more straight talk and less gossip? Well, you get the candidates' wives.

John Dickerson's "Politics" article on "The Flip-Flop Brothers" dealt with Barack Obama's campaign finance decision and John McCain's views on oil-drilling. Really, one can only admire NightSwimmer's ability to bring in other matters.

So [Obama] changed his mind. It was a smart move. I hope it won't make John McCain cry—like his first wife did when he dumped her for a young heiress. That's an important vow. Agreeing to negotiate campaign financing is not on that level.

Scoot'r-d, too, moved smoothly from Obama—politics as usual—to "Michelle Obama is being remade into a perky combination of Donna Reed and Lucille Ball to soften her intemperate gaffes." Nope, said middleview, it's Cindy McCain who is Donna Reed. And back cameScoot'r-d: At least McCain wasn't having an "Angela Davis to Mary Tyler Moore makeover."

The political issues got a good (and long) hammering out in a thread called "McCain the Victim":

He is too level-headed to be a committed Democrat, and he is too intelligent to be a fanatical Republican. The man is exactly what the United States needs: a rational, experienced, patriotic centrist who has America's best interests at heart. … Is John McCain the best all around candidate? Yes. Does John McCain have the best chance of winning? No. Democrats are ready to back Obama 100%, many Republicans will not back McCain. The unfortunate thing is that for the same reasons he is the best choice he is also the worst candidate.

That was msuumo, attracting a lot of interest—more than 40 entries in the thread.

Genevieve01 had a reasonable argument:

Why is it when a candidate or representative adjusts their position to fit the desires of the people or the circumstances everyone wants to jump up and say they flip-flop? ... Everyone … knows that our lives and this country are not static and what a candidate said 5, 10, 20 years ago does not mean it has to be the same today. I am sure we can all come up with situations in which our stance or views have altered in a month or year's time.

—although she seemed to think this applied only to McCain, not Obama.

Morty Causa wanted to distinguish among different kinds of promises—"This was not a death-bed promise. … A promise doesn't have to be a suicide pact"—and had a rather splendid line about "moral tinhorns [who] insist on playing one-upmanship."

We don't think Thrasymachus is the first person to come up with "Barackiavellian"—plenty of chances to look for it here in Slate's new book of Obamamania!—but he did a great job on it:

Adj. Displaying or implying any willingness, on the part of Senator Obama, to engage in the kind of ruthless, unscrupulous, deceptive political conduct that we expect from almost everyone else seeking national office, but which Obama is ostensibly supposed to be running against.

Then he discussed Machiavelli at some length with artandsoul—an argument that may be unique in bulletin board history because both posters actually seem to have read and even studied The Prince. Arguing from facts and knowledge? Whatever next?—MR ...4 p.m. GMT

Wednesday, June 18,  2008

Where do Slate readers stand on obituaries? As of today, in two camps, snarling across the Potomac at each other about Tim Russert. One tendency dislikes the way the magazine's admittedly irreverent tone will not be toned down for a death, and the fact that Slate will highlight—in "Recycled"—older and often deeply uncomplimentary articles on the dead person. Recently this happened with Sydney Pollack—an archived and rather grumpy "Assessment" was paired with a more respectful "Obit," and some readers were unimpressed. When the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, died, and Slate published an unfavorable commentary, we had to devote a whole "Fraywatch," to reader reaction ("don't mess with the game people" we concluded). But then, there's another whole army of readers who say that that's what they come to Slate for—a contrarian view, a refreshing and unsentimental look at what's happening. That's not how the other side describes it, of course.

So, to Tim Russert. First there was a "Recycled" item linking to past articles on him: Several readers said how inappropriate they found that. Then, Jack Shafer wrote a "Press Box" about the eulogies on Tim Russert. Too much, he said. Readers responded—boy did they respond.  More than 200 posts on the topic, proving at the very least that Russert's death touched a nerve—though also proving the second rule of Fray responses: Get featured on the MSN home page and a lot of non-Slate regulars will read the article, and comment.

A few careful readers appreciated the observation made by Right By Choice: "I didn't see an unkind word in the whole article about Russert himself"—but for most people this was neither noticed nor relevant. More to the point was Lucabrasi's phrase "Canonization, backlash, backlash-backlash," which summed up the situation so well that we're using it to define the responses.

Canonization: An outside observer (like your foreign Fray Editor) might be surprised by the number of readers saying how much they identified with Russert—"My entire family reacted to Tim's death as though we had lost a member of our family" as JoAnn put it, a thought repeated by many others. He was "someone of blue collar roots who used his position as the moderator of Meet the Press to engage in a dialog with prominent politicians and get straight answers for mainstream America" according to Slate1234.

There were tributes from those likeRithorn, who admits to "Potomac fever" and says "We out here in the hinterland came to look forward to his observations and commentary." JTully was firm: "I am the common man ... [the coverage] was for all of us, I frankly, didn't miss a minute of it … Tim Russert was fair … brilliant, and yet a common man from a common background." Many, like AberdeenJessica, wanted to mention their own working-class roots while praising "his ability to keep a foot proudly in two worlds."

The Backlash community—Shafer's supporters—comes with this bracing comment from mdfine: "I have been a Slate reader and occasional poster for some time now and I can honestly say that I have never agreed with a single thing that Jack Shafer has written until now." HebrewHammer says his piece with grace: "I don't want to seem cold, but it seems to me that we used to embrace a tragedy with quiet grace and self-reflection. Now we flaunt it by showing the people around us how much we can mourn." WhiteCamry was sharper: "Tim Russert's middle name wasn't Diana, was it?"

There were other comments on Russert: TheRealRML said "He was the Elvis of political commentators: He was everywhere and even his competitors wanted to capture his qualities"; GregLDixon went with the "he was everywhere" theme too: "Russert, champion of time management." And we (respectfully) laughed at TheMexican's comment: "He was a great guy, let's name a potato after him!"

Then there was the Backlash-Backlash: people who saw the point of the article but had another take. The question of what the Russert coverage displaced on the news channels was much mulled over, and Dbguy asked "You really missed folks pontificating as to how Obama would do with Hillary women in November that much? We'll know that soon enough." Another reader, nancyacramer, said that "on some level, for many of us, actors, broadcasters, and personalities of every sort find their way into the fabric of our lives more deeply than we realize" and went on to tell us that some friends who'd felt Russert's loss deeply had then been glad to be able to watch Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open golf tournament. Esteban had a peace-making suggestion: "How about an 'in the ground' rule in which all would be fair in love, war, and media criticism after the funeral?"

There's one more post we really want to feature: from Schoolie, who says he liked Russert, but "I've never seen a bigger celebration of banality in my life than last weekend on the TV news. Dad! Football! Jesus! I generally hope for more secret perversity in my public figures." We've said it before: It's hard to define our ideal Slate/Fray reader, but we know him when we find him.—MR ... 4 p.m. GMT

Geoffrey Andersen, co-editor of the Fray, is a law student based in California.