Let's Talk About 'Changes For Julie'... (Or, Disability Representation in the Media)
To all of you guys, I am your friendly neighborhood blogger. I'm in love with American Girl dolls, have other interests and passions too, and am working towards my dream of becoming a film director one day. But there's one thing about me that could change someone's view of me (if they were ableist): I am disabled. I have autism, type 1 diabetes and scoliosis.
I'd be the first one to admit that living with a disability isn't glamorous. It's never fun to get sensory overload in the middle of the store or have my blood sugar drop so low that I feel dizzy or have my back ache so badly that I can't get out of bed. But over time, I've become proud of who I am, and have worked hard to make sure that people like me are represented not just as walking caricatures of 'a disabled person', but real people with interests and dreams, just like me.
Sadly, I've been noticing that most disabled characters fall into harmful stereotypes, including Julie's friend from her final book, Joy Jenner.
If you don't remember Changes for Julie and Joy, let me explain. In Changes for Julie, after Julie and her friend Joy are sent to detention, Julie decides to run for student council president so she can change the detention policies, and she picks Joy to be her vice president. Joy is deaf and faces bullying from the mean girls in school, the Water Fountain Girls. Obviously, Julie's choice doesn't go over well with them, but there are other nuances in this story that make Joy a not-so-great representation of what it's like to live with a disability.
-First, let's talk about the reason why Joy and Julie were sent to detention in the first place. They were sent for passing notes in class, so Julie could help Joy understand the class. But by 1976, when the story takes place, there are laws in place to ensure students like Joy were accommodated in school. In reality, Joy would not be sent to detention for passing notes with Julie, because Julie wouldn't need to help her in the first place. If this school was really doing that, then it would be totally ableist and Joy's parents could sue them.
-Speaking of which, a major issue in this book is Julie herself. As early as Chapter 1, she wonders what's it like to 'read lips'. This was probably written with the intention of empathy, but in reality, pitying the disabled because of their disability is a harmful microaggression against them. It limits Joy to a curiosity- despite the fact that she's just as much as a character as Julie is. (I can confirm: I can't count how many times people have asked 'what's this' about my insulin pump and feel bad for me about my autism. It gets on my nerves.)
Throughout the book, Julie pities Joy many times because of her disability and only engages in other activities with Joy when it benefits her personally. And when other kids make fun of Joy for her disability, Julie doesn't do anything about it: she just forces Joy to do her bidding and considers dropping Joy from her campaign. This shows that deep down, Julie only cares about her own status as a candidate and doesn't treat Joy with the respect she treats other characters with. And yet, Joy admires Julie because she's doing the bare minimum to get people to understand her, which is a harmful trope in itself. Books for Littles explains it better than I could: "Sometimes non-disabled saviors are celebrated not just for helping and including disabled siblings and peers, but just for being around them and not throwing a temper tantrum for no longer being the center of attention."
-And lastly, Joy. Her only personality traits are "deaf" and "likes animals". While it's decent that she has more than just her disability, it would be annoying if an able-bodied person's only personality trait was "likes animals". She frequently comments that she wishes she wasn't deaf, her vice president debate speech is about being deaf, and she submits to Julie for the majority of the book, silencing her personality even more. Disabled characters should be written to the same standard as able-bodied ones, and Joy was sadly not.
I didn't post this to harm or 'cancel' American Girl, but I just wanted to talk about this because disabled representation is important: and it's even more important that it's done well. With Joy, feel as if AG created her to check off the 'disabled rights movement' box in Julie's stories as a representation of the 1970's. And that's not cool. To be honest, I'd like it if AG just focused more on Julie's character instead of positioning her as an 'able-bodied savior' for a book. I'm not deaf or hard-of-hearing, so you shouldn't take my views as the correct one, but as a disabled AG fan, I felt it was important for me to share my thoughts on Joy.
American Girl has gotten better at portraying disabled characters with Josie in McKenna's books, Maryellen, Gabriela, and of course, Joss. But it's important to reflect on what American Girl got wrong that one time, and make sure that a disabled character is never treated like Joy was in an AG book ever again.
What are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments below.