Friday, 13 February 2009

The Golliwog

Subtitle - is Carol Thatcher a racist or does she have anything to apologise for?

Answer - in my view, no.

There are maybe 2 issues at the heart of this scenario, not including whether or not "green room" conversations are in any sense privileged. The 2 issues are:

  • Is the golliwog intrinsically offensive?
  • Is comparing someone to a golliwog offensive?
Addressing the first point, well clearly a wide selection of commentators think so, for example:

Telegraph Comment

Note that in this case there is no argument presented, it's just stated that golliwog is an offensive term, and herein lies part (if not all) of the problem - there is no debate, it is just assumed or stated as fact that such a thing must be offensive. So lets be grown-ups and have some debate.

What is a golliwog? Well it's a doll, particularly popularised by the jam maker Robertson's. It isn't the only doll you may or may not be surprised to know, there are others out there, and they often have exaggerated features or proportions. For example the Barbie doll has particularly long limbs; the Bratz dolls have big eyes etc etc. However it is just a doll and as such it is widely considered an item of affection. My own sister, as I recall, had a golliwog and there are many women of her generation, and before and after, who will have fond recollections of their dolls, the golliwogs included. So is a golliwog intrinsically offensive? Well no, how could it be..?

If we generalise here, the question is, "is a doll intrinsically offensive?" Well clearly a doll could be offensive but this isn't necessarily the case. Is a doll of a black person offensive? Well, no, not because the doll is black (it might be offensive for other reasons, but the colour can't be the issue). Put another way, is a doll of a white person offensive? Is a Barbie doll offensive? Is a Bratz doll offensive? Is Action Man offensive? Would a black Action Man be offensive? Is a doll intrinsically offensive because its a doll of a minority? The answer to all these is no.

But what about the exaggerated features (the hair particularly)? Well, as observed above, lots of dolls (and seemingly the more popular ones) have exaggerated features, but I don't see people pulling Bratz dolls from their product lines because they have big eyes!

So is a golliwog intrinsically offensive? No, it's a doll and the object of wide affection, it's no more offensive than a Barbie doll or a Bratz doll.

The second point, is comparing someone to a golliwog offensive? Considering the linked item above, at one point the author says:
At what point did comparing a black person to a doll, initially described by its creator as 'a horrid sight, the blackest gnome', become okay?"
Well this is typical of the lack of debate we have. If we dissect this comment a little we get:

"At what point did comparing a black person to a doll ... , become okay?"
Well at what point did it become not OK? Given that a doll is generally an item of affection, why would comparing anyone to such an item be offensive? You'll note that I've omitted what at first sight is the key phrase, but here the author is guilty of selective quotation (and here I'll admit to using Wikipedia as my reference, but the wording is so similar that you'd have to think that the author did the same). The full quotation is:
"a horrid sight, the blackest gnome, but who quickly turned out to be a friendly character ..."
So the above should read:
"At what point did comparing a black person to a doll, initially described by its creator as a horrid sight, the blackest gnome, but who quickly turns out to be a friendly character, become okay?"
Now I think the argument behind the whole article is exposed as being superficial, shall we say (I'm being kind). Is comparing someone to a friendly character offensive? Wouldn't that be a strange world. Is comparing someone to an object of affection offensive? Again, no.

Could comparing someone to a doll be offensive? Well yes, but you'd need to consider the context and the particular circumstances. In particular you need to consider the validity of the comparison; if the comparison is valid then how is it offensive? The truth does not offend, not in this context anyway. Anne Hathaway (the American actress) to my mind has particularly big eyes, I think she looks like a Bratz doll. Have I insulted her, I don't think so, the comparison is valid, what's the problem..?

So lets grow up and debate these issues. Racism is a problem, but bad journalism makes it worse not better.

(Anne, if you are offended, I'm more than willing to apologise over dinner next time you're over here.)

(This post refers to an incident where Carol Thatcher made an off-camera remark comparing a tennis player to a golliwog and got banned by the BBC when she refused to apologise, broadly speaking.)


  1. Dear sir,

    While the appearance of the doll may not be offensive the name could be construed as such. The term WOG means wiley oriental gentleman which is obviously not meant as a compliment.

    The 'Independent Thinker' fails to appreciate that 'golliwog' can be offensive simply because it is thought to be so, just as any other word inherits its meaning from society's use of it. He thus demonstrates a worrying insensitivity to the feeling of others.

    The Troubles

  2. The origin or meaning of "wog" is in fact unclear, with one theory being that it is derived from golliwog; thus golliwog cannot be offensive just because wog is. In addition "wog" is a much newer word than golliwog.

    How is "wiley oriental gentleman" offensive? None of the 3 terms are themselves offensive in any context that I know of, in fact "gentleman" is generally a compliment, so the 3 in combinbation cannot be offensive.

    "wog" is its current use is derogatory, but that isn't the point of the piece.

    Finally the position that something is offensive because it is thought to be offensive is an argument without foundation. Offense is determined by the underlying intent of the speaker, words themselves are either neutral or only have weight within a particular context.