On Golliwogs and Barbie dolls – and liberal double standards

Nip it in the bud. It’s a good principle, when it comes to expressions of injustice in general – and the Golliwog dolls recently resurfaced in a store on Waiheke island, New Zealand, in particular. While Golliwog dolls are not exactly a norm in New Zealand the way they are in, say, the Netherlands – we don’t want them back. Resisting them is also a way to remember their history, their connections to the institution of slavery, and their real symbolism and its impacts. This conversation not only keeps the dolls out of circulation, it makes us more sensitive to the racist caricature generally. So let’s have it.

At the same time, I cock my head sideways at liberals who love these conversations because of how comfortable they are, considering that we tend to think of the Golliwog doll as a bygone product of a bygone era. Boy does a liberal like to signal his distaste for practices that can easily be condemned, because they are not culturally embedded. I dare anyone to try to start a conversation about the use of “blackface” among members of the Dutch community – you will not make friends suggesting to Dutch men that dressing up as “Black Peter” to jibe and scare children in the lead up to Sinterklaas every year is racist. The Dutch are attached to this practice, and the backlash is something to behold. For that very reason it is a necessary conversation, because as a widely accepted practice, the Dutch “Zwarte Piet” routine has immeasurable repurcussions.

Let me illustrate my point about comfortable and uncomfortable conversations a bit more clearly by substituting the Golliwog doll for something more everyday. Can someone explain to me, for instance, what the valley of difference is between a girl Golliwog doll and a black Barbie? How are these so opposite that the Golliwog should never find a place on any toy shop shelf, but black barbie dolls must be promoted in the name of diversity? Why is one of these dolls condemned, and the other celebrated?


I think we can explore this question by looking at the same things we have examined recently in relation to the Golliwog dolls: their history, connections to institutions based on enslavement, symbolism, impacts. Then we can make a comparison between the Golliwog and the Barbie, to determine if they are so different that one should never be seen in our country while the other remains as standard in toy shops as bread and milk are in the dairy.

Christine Ammunson, who raised her objections to the Waiheke island stockists of Golliwog dolls, relates the history of the Golliwog doll to the history of “blackface” caricatures performed as white entertainment. They are

icons of a time when white people lampooning black people as stupid, ugly and evil was normal, entertaining and acceptable. These symbols were born in the United States during slavery and transported as popular culture across the Western world to countries like the UK and New Zealand.

Ammunson’s piece explains this well, and her take is well enough accepted that it needn’t be rehashed here.

Let’s compare this outline to the history of the Barbie doll, which was originally pitched to Mattel by Ruth Handler in the 1950s. Handler’s daughter had taken a shine to a German doll called Bild Lilli while mother and daughter holidayed in Switzerland. Bild Lilli was not actually distributed for children – these dolls were for men. They dangled from car mirrors and were gifted as gags at bachelor parties. Both a fetish and a gag, like a miniature sex doll, Bild Lilli was based on Reinhard Beuthien’s newspaper caricature of ‘Lilli’, a hypersexed woman broadcast and consumed for male entertainment. One cartoon shows Lilli in a bikini being told by a policeman that two-piece swimsuits are illegal. “Oh, and in your opinion, which part should I take off?” she replies.


The Barbie we know today is still, for many girls, an early introduction to female sexual servitude. She is all too often a domestic slave, coming with kitchen accessories; she is physically emaciated, as are too many of the world’s women, no thanks to this prop. She is pornographic in design and origin, and she doesn’t think: she has a head for make-up and accessories and a mouth for smiling. Her feet are moulded to slide into small stilletos, and however many dolls produced in the name of “diversity”, Barbie is white.

Barbie Kitchen.jpgBoth Golliwog dolls and Barbie dolls are derived from and depict caricatures of a group of people relegated to servitude. They derive from stereotypes produced for the entertainment of white men, but wound up being distributed to children, who internalise their messages. These messages are based on a kind of dominance and submission which worst affects women of colour, who nevertheless constitute a silence in the conversation about both kinds of dolls. The Golliwog we condemn as the racist caricature of a black man (the doll is normally depicted as male); the Barbie we accept as a normal representation of a white woman. By the same token, the pornstar is most often imagined as a white woman, and the institution of slavery typically characterised by the image of a black male.

Yet as Angela Davis says of slavery in Women, Race and Class, women were treated as men when it came to the work of slavery: the day was just as long, and the work just as back breaking. Women were just dished out routine sexual violation in addition to the unrelenting labour.

Expediency governed the slaveholders’ posture toward female slaves: when it was profitable to exploit them as if they were men, they were regarded, in effect, as genderless, but when they could be exploited, punished and repressed in ways suited only for women, they were locked in their exclusively female roles…

As females, slave women were inherently vulnerable to all forms of sexual coercion. If the most violent punishments of men consisted in floggings and mutilations, women were flogged and mutilated, as well as raped.

Women in slavery, says Davis, were furthermore “classified as “breeders” as opposed to “mothers,” their infant children could be sold away from them like calves from cows.” This is still the case today. One need only look into the global surrogacy trade and surrogacy clinics, notably in India (try watching Google Baby), to see that women of colour are still treated and traded all too literally as “breeders” – often, now, of white babies produced through artificial insemination and eggs harvested from white women selected for genetic desirability.Nazi

It becomes relevant to note here that the German cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien made his Lilli comic just after the conclusion of the second world war. Under Nazi Germany, the image of the white woman as a vessel for the production of blonde, blue-eyed children was heavily promoted – and this was the climate in which Beuthien produced Lilli, the precursor to the Barbie doll, the quintessential representation of woman-as-sex-object.

This brings us to a point made by Catherine MacKinnon, in her essay What is a White Woman, Anyway?. Minimising the harm created by the image of a sexually subservient white woman, like Barbie, does no woman any favours. Allowed to circulate, these tropes only get racialised to worse effect. “What is done to white women is a kind of floor”, MacKinnon says, here speaking specifically of pornography.

What is done to white women is a kind of floor; it is the best anyone is treated and it runs from Playboy through sadomasochism to snuff. What is done to white women can be done to any woman, and then some. This does not make white women the essence of womanhood. It is a reality to observe that this is what can be done and is done to the most privileged of women. This is what privilege as a woman gets you: most valued as dead meat.

The exploitation of women in colour in surrogacy and prostitution is no less of an atrocity than the exploitation of women in the slave trades that Davis describes, yet:

It seems that if your oppression is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed, as opposed to inferior. Once a group is seen as putatively human, a process helped by including men in it, an oppressed man falls from a human standard. A woman is just a woman – the ontological victim – so not victimized at all.

This explains why Golliwogs are condemned while barbies are not – men suffer from the circulation of the Golliwog, but not from the normalisation of the Barbie. We see the same dynamic in discussions of sex trafficking. It is in the context of reports on human trafficking – human because it includes men – trafficking into prostitution is recognised most plainly as exploitative. Otherwise, it is increasingly minimised as a form of exploitation through language like “migrant sex work”, which names it as a mere way of life for women – even a celebrated one.

In her essay Prostitution and the new slavery, Breaking Free founder Vednita Carter discusses her own inquiries into the abuse and depiction of black women in pornography. She first discovers, predictably, that “there was nothing at all specifically about black women and pornography to be found at the public libraries.” This silence impels her to the primary material, the porn stores. “I saw my sisters,” she writes,

beautiful Black women – nameless and often faceless, plastered on the covers of magazines with names like Chocolate Pleasure, Black on Black, Black Sugar, and Bound Black Beauties. Many were restrained and all of them were made to appear as if they were ‘asking for it’ – screaming and moaning with desire.

My heart fell to my feet… All of these Black women for sale… seeing these Black women shackled, spread-eagle, or hog-tied made it seem as though this part of history – the history of my family’s enslavement – was repeating itself all over again.

hip hop barbieJust as slavery is sexualised for black women, as Davis points out, in pornography, sexism is racialised for black women. “African-American women are featured in bondage, struggling, in cages, as animals, insatiable,” MacKinnon writes. “Asian women are passive, inert, as if dead, tortured unspeakably. Latinas are hot mommas. Fill in the rest from every demeaning and hostile racial stereotype you know; it is sex here.” Pornography is slavery based on sexual subservience, but it is still slavery, it is still brutal, and it is still real. What’s more it is still parodied, promoted and trivialised with a doll we give to children regardless of its toll on them – the Barbie, sexist equivalent of the Golliwog.

Barbie is not recognised as equally harmful, though – likely because she depicts, she “is” a white woman, a creature not considered “genuinely” oppressed. Be warned: “Beneath the trivialization of the white woman’s subordination implicit in the dismissive sneer “straight white economically-privileged women”,” says MacKinnon, “lies the notion that there is no such thing as the oppression of women as such.”

This creature is not poor, not battered, not raped (not really), not molested as a child, not pregnant as a teenager, not prostituted, not coerced into pornography, not a welfare mother, and not economically exploited. She doesn’t work. She is either the white man’s image of her – effete, pampered, privileged, protected, flighty, and self-indulgent – or the Black man’s imageof her – all that, plus the “pretty white girl” (meaning ugly as sin but regarded as the ultimate in beauty because she is white). She is Miss Anne of the kitchen, she puts Frederick Douglass to the lash, she cries rape when Emmett Till looks at her sideways, she manipulates white men’s very real power with the lifting of her very well-manicured little finger. She makes an appearance in Baraka’s “rape the white girl,” as Cleaver’s real thing after target practice on Black women, as Helmut Newton’s glossy upscale hard-edged, distanced, vamp, and as the Central Park Jogger, the classy white madonna who got herself raped and beaten nearly to death. She flings her hair, feels beautiful all the time, complains about the colored help, tips badly, can’t do anything, doesn’t do anything, doesn’t know anything, and alternates fantasizing about fucking Black men with accusing them of raping her… On top of all of this, out of impudence, imitativeness, pique, and a simple lack of anything meaningful to do, she thinks she needs to be liberated. Her feminist incarnation is all of the above, and guilty about every single bit of it, having by dint of repetition refined saying “I’m sorry” to a high form of art. She can’t even make up her own songs.barbie

This stereotype is dangerous because of its function in silencing women as a whole – again, “what is done to white women is a kind of floor”.

Unlike other women, the white woman who is not poor or working class or lesbian or Jewish or disabled or old or young does not share her oppression with any man. That does not make her condition any more definitive of the meaning of “women” than the condition of any other woman is. But trivializing her oppression, because it is not even potentially racist or class-biased or heterosexist or anti-Semitic, does define the meaning of being “anti-woman” with a special clarity. How the white woman is imagined and constructed and treated becomes a particularly sensitive indicator of the degree to which women, as such, are despised.

The standards we accept for “white women” – including the silencing standard, and the dolls we think are fine to give to her daughters – will always be felt more harshly by women of colour. Something as obvious as the increasing popularity of skin lightening creams testifies to this, but again, MacKinnon discusses the trivialisation of the “white woman” as

a vehicle for sexualized infantilization, a virginal set-up for rape by men who enjoy violating the pure, and a myth with which to try to control Black women. (See, if you would lie down and be quiet and not move, we would revere you, too.)

This caricature is racialised as animalistic by a white society that continues to engage in “blackface” parodies – like that of the German woman who goes by the name “Martina Big”. Her surgical reconstruction of herself in the image of a racialised sexist parody is clearly inextricable from the Golliwog, the Barbie, and industries based on slavery, including prostitution, surrogacy and domestic servitude. This is clear to see.

White German woman
“Martina Big”

It is easy to recognise this caricature as foul, as has been outlined, because it engages racism to which men are also victim. Martina Big is obscene because she evokes the Black and White Minstrels, and what’s more, she does so as a woman. A black man can decide to reconstruct himself according to the same caricature, and it is not only okay – it is “brave”, “inspirational”, and a cause to rally around. When Bruce Jenner appeared at a Glamour ceremony dressed like a Barbie and stating that “hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear”, this was also okay. This is just Bruce – sorry, “Caitlyn” – expressing his identity. Nothing like Martina Big or the Black and White Minstrel Show.


At the editorial level, outlets like Spinoff are hypocritical when they cry blue murder about a Golliwog doll spotted on Waiheke, when they at the same time consistently  support men who demand the right to redefine womanhood on the basis of the same kind of caricaturing, for their own purposes, at women’s expense. Caricatures of womanhood flaunted by men like Cox and Jenner are just as deeply founded in degradation as the Golliwog doll – associated with pornography, abuse, and anorexia nervosa – but they are far more prevalent, culturally accepted, and immediately threatening.

This brings me back to my original point about “nipping it in the bud” – and about liberal virtue signalling. By objecting to Golliwog dolls stocked in one store in Waiheke island, the New Zealand left cultivates an image of itself as having a “zero tolerance” approach to racist caricature. Yet the Barbie doll is – and is appropriated – everywhere, all the time, not just sporadically – to the detriment of women and girls across race and class. It is inextricably associated with the abuses of slavery and sexual violence, pornography, prostitution, surrogacy, and domestic servitude – not to mention anorexia nervosa – and always racialised. It is a caricature that is increasingly adopted by men – mainly white men – for their own purposes, whilst being distributed to children to their detriment. So there it is: I’m calling bluff on this white liberal “zero tolerance” signalling.

If you liked this article feel free to leave a tip.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $2.00

7 thoughts on “On Golliwogs and Barbie dolls – and liberal double standards”

  1. It’s an interesting thing alright …
    I think sometimes the ‘scraps we get given’ eg a black / brown barbie, ends up being part of that whole ‘at least its something and it’s better than nothing’ syndrome. So your points are spot on re nipping it ‘all’ in the bud … but the black / brown thing is something that ‘we’ have to grasp as well, and it’s sadly a syndrome thats deeply imbedded within the cultures / ethnicities .. .whereby we’ve believed the lies we’ve been told, about our intelligence / our way of being, for way to long. Whereby we believe we can only move forward with the discards we get given.

    1. I totally understand what you mean. I relate to things like fighting for marriage equality or the “right” for women to enlist in the military. These institutions are all violently sexist, it is so dehumanising to find yourself rallying for access. But what else? In any case – here’s to no longer believing the lies!

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top