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Insider: March 26, 2021 — American Girls: The Dolls, the Expats, and the ones Steeling the Spotlight


Hey hey, Nick here, butting in for a hot second with a brief news blurb.

Google Podcasts under New York Times scrutiny. Yesterday, the Times ran a story on its front page about a “buffet of hate” that currently flourishes on Google Podcasts, referencing the fact that podcasts by white supremacists and Neo-Nazis appear to be flowing freely through Google’s podcast infrastructure.

The piece strikes me as a little iffy. Let me first say: the phenomenon of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis — and QAnon types, let’s not forget them — using podcasts as a mean of disseminating views and information is a very real one going back years. I’ve been following this thread for a bit, which has been well reported out by other news organizations like The Daily Beast and, most recently, the Associated Press.

But in my reading, the Times piece overplays the prominence of the Google Podcast app within the podcast ecosystem a little bit. Apptopia may well claim that the app has been downloaded more than 19 million times, but I think it remains a fair question as to whether the app actually drives anything more than marginal usage at this point in time. Since its unveiling, the Google Podcast alternative has largely struck me as being a non-issue as far as podcast listening is concerned.

I may be mistaken, but if I’m not, I think Google Podcasts’ non-issue is a meaningful point to raise for this reason: it lopsides the attention a little too much away from dominant podcast listening platforms — in particular, Apple — where extremist content does continue to flow quite freely. At this writing, you can easily access several prominent, and many more not so prominent, QAnon-affiliated podcasts on Apple Podcasts, and therefore on the many third-party podcast apps whose inventory indexing is structurally tethered to the Apple Podcast platform.

In any case, setting aside its emphasis of Google Podcasts — and therefore, the possible ways in which Google Podcasts helps to radicalize extremists — the Times piece does get at one of the fundamental problems about Google Podcasts: it still doesn’t seem to know what it is, how it’s supposed to fit into the use case of the everyday consumer, and how it’s supposed to be structurally differentiated from other podcast platforms. And if you don’t know that about yourself, you’re probably not going to have a clear head as to how to build and communicate policies implemented upon yourself.

Okay, that’s it from me. Onto Aria.Podcast hosts host a workshop to make podcasting work. Whew. Over the weekend, Allison Horrocks and Mary Mahoney, hosts of the chatcast American Girls, conducted a small workshop for humanities grad students at the University of Florida. It was informed by their experience as trained, professional, practicing historians who happen to have a podcast — and happen to talk about dolls.

The workshop was a sort of preemptive warning, that the world of podcasting can yield a lot of the same experiences faced by certain folks (i.e. not white men) in historical academia: not being taken seriously, which can be exacerbated by the tools they use in their work or the subject matter they discuss.

In the case of Horrocks and Mahoney, the subject matter is a historical fiction series and its corresponding foot-and-a half-tall figurines.

Aria note: Man, the American Girl books were really something. I remember first learning about a victory garden, and literally the entire concept of world war, from Molly: An American Girl, which I loaned from the library in elementary school. The franchise’s non-historically oriented books were also great — characteristically diverse and thorough. I loved them; the rotating rack of American Girl books at Barnes and Noble was my favorite place in the world. The books taught me about babysitting, puberty, and poverty. They were for and about girls, which is what made them both radical (though less so in recent years*) and ridiculed.

Horrocks and Mahoney have heard the jeers before. They acknowledge them now as practicing historians, and they were subjected to them back in grad school, when, as Mahoney described to me over email, they would analyze tabloids as rigorously as they did academic materials.

“This type of response carried with it the biases against women as experts in history, archaic investments in divides between so-called high and low culture, and all kinds of gatekeeping that keep people from pursuing various career paths and interests,” wrote Mahoney. “We have always rejected this.”

As such, for the historians-in-training that Horrocks and Mahoney addressed on Saturday, their advice was this: Take up space, and really, fully use the platform that podcasting offers. “This workshop was partially a demonstration,” Horrocks wrote, “and another way to break down some of the barriers that people encounter when entering the world of podcasting.” She then went on to describe the particular barriers that she and Mahoney, who both hold Ph.Ds (and whose show, for what it’s worth, also gets 30,000 monthly downloads) have faced.

“Many people have a set idea of what a [h]istory podcast should sound like and what the hosts should do. That idea doesn’t usually involve dolls,” she wrote. “We reject the notion that we are somehow less serious about our work as historians simply because we also talk about pop culture, celebrity memoirs, toys, puzzle kits, and the many other things that are part of the American Girl fandom.”

Podcasting, with its technically easy-to-access, low-threshold requirements, can literally pass the mic to those who haven’t held it; alternatively, it can operate as many other fields of work do and shut out existingly marginalized people, particularly if those people can’t access exactly the right training, networks, or tools. It often, paradoxically, does both.

Mahoney pointed out the parallel barriers between academia and audio — “do you have a Ph.D? do you know Pro Tools?” These, to be fair, aren’t guaranteed to be nonstarters in academic or audio settings, but the point is, a relatively privileged person might find that, if they answer “no,” it’s more likely to be excused.

Despite this, while Horrocks and Mahoney might critique the white-centric housing dynamic in a particular American Girl scene by pointing out that Black women comprised the majority of domestic workers at that time, they also might find relevance in Britney Spears.

“On our show, we model a certain kind of historical analysis, and we examine why stories and things matter to us. That’s what all historians do,” wrote Horrocks. “Our work just happens to involve 18” sidekicks.”

*The contemporary version of American Girl is trying for more representation, with the storyline and book that accompany the most recently released doll being the first to feature queer characters. And though this change is, as expected, much to the chagrin of homophobic customers, this TikToker makes me feel a little better about the company’s continued clientelle.Flourish is flourishing. I’ve been tracking the evolution of the interview podcast Flourish in the Foreign since host (and producer, and promoter, and creator) Christine Job announced the show in a listserv. Job, a Black American who moved abroad, created the show specifically for Black women looking to do the same, but listening to it myself has also been a welcome escape from the confines of my town and a pragmatic toolbox for imagining a life beyond it.

Job has been increasingly expanding offerings for the show’s Patreon subscribers, making her model look a lot like that of The Writers’ Co-op, which I profiled a few weeks back. She’s released free resources, like this how-to guide for creating expat-friendly business models, as well as “coffee chats” for patrons of a certain tier. This builds on her existing career as a business strategy consultant, and I find the podcast to be an interesting way to do that, as I did with Co-op.A foot(ball) in the door. SteelerNation (self described as “the biggest Pittsburgh Steelers fan site in the world”) just launched Yinzhers, an interview podcast hosted by three female staffers. Those hosts, Jordan DeFigio, Samantha James, and Morgan Urtso, who are geographically scattered across the country, specifically bring on women in the football industry, such as sports reporters and family members of NFL players. On a local level, this seems to be making a splash, with the area CBS affiliate highlighting the show’s potential “to break [the] mold of how Pittsburgh sports media sounds and looks.”

Also, Yinzhers is a play on “yinzers,” which is apparently what you call people from Pittsburgh — who knew? (Lots of people knew, Aria.)Revolving Door. Got a new job? Tell me — would love to Let The People Know.