Last time on Paper Doll Principles, we discussed Playability. Today, I am going to talk about Diversity.
As I explained in my first post, here are the “commandments” of my paper doll world:
- Playability: Every paper doll must be a functional toy.
- Artistic Quality: All paper dolls must be beautiful before and after they are cut out.
- Diversity: Every person deserves a paper doll that affirms their existence.
Now, let’s talk about paper doll diversity.
Paper Doll Diversity
Seven or eight years ago, back when PTP was just a thought in my head, I was looking through my own paper doll collection and I discovered that I owned no black paper dolls that were not either paper dolls of actual people (like Dover’s excellent Famous African-American Women) or paper dolls of ethnic dress (like Traditional African Costumes Paper Dolls ). I don’t recall what made me dig through them looking for one, but I remember being surprised by this discovery. I also didn’t see a single Asian paper doll that wasn’t wearing ethnic clothing, like Dover’s beautiful Japanese Kimono Paper Dolls or were of specific people. Now, my own collection is a small sample of the paper dolls created in this world, but it very much struck me at the time.
I believe the omission of brown skin and Asian features from paper dolls is largely because in the United States, we default to the assumption that people are white. So, that is someone’s skin-tone or ethnicity is not stated, than white skin becomes the default. This is a phenomena which can be seen in more things than just paper dolls, but since this is a paper doll blog that’s what I’m focusing on.
In recent years there have been several paper doll sets published by major publishers that have challenged this phenomena, including Dover’s Ballet Dancer Paper Dolls, Teen Pop Stars and Fashion Models paper dolls, all of which feature four dolls in four different skin-tones by Elieen Russel Miller. China Town Paper Dolls by Kwei-lin Lum is another excellent set that celebrates the history of Chinese Americans in this country. I’m sure there are more, but these are the ones that I am currently aware of. While I would still like to see more of this, I do think it’s a wonderful sign that this might be changing for a more diverse paper doll world.
When as an artist, I depict people who are not like me, I believe I have a huge responsibility to do so with respect and care. There have been many unfortunate paper doll depictions of African-Americans in this country. Arabella Grayson, a passionate collector of black paper dolls, writes about this on her wonderful website 200 Years of Black Paper Dolls. I am unaware of a similar project documenting paper dolls of other ethnic groups, but if anyone knows of one, do tell. I am not perfect in this regard, but I decided years ago that I was going to try to create paper dolls that didn’t default to white. So, if you want a brown skinned paper doll wearing 1910s suits, I can hook you up. If you want a curvy, Asian, post-apocalyptic paper doll, I got that too.
But there are also times when the best of intentions, can become problematic. Cultural appropriation is a complex, nuanced, and often very difficult world to navigate. So, I am going to talk about not my successes in paper doll diversity, but what I think of as one of my failures.
The Parable of the African Fantasy Set
This could totally be subtitled, “One Paper Doll Rachel Kinda Regrets”.
So, back in 2011, I drew a paper doll called Inspired by Africa. At the time, I had been asked to do an African inspired fantasy set by a reader.
Naively, I drew the set, not really knowing what I was doing and then proceeded to post about it, making it as clear as I could that it was a fantasy set.
And I moved on with my life and kinda forgot about it.
Two years later, in 2013, I noticed that Inspired By Africa had been linked on a forum for homeschooling stating that it was a paper doll of African ethnic costume and I couldn’t have been more mortified. To make matters worse, when I followed the link from the forum post to the original site, I found a webpage where someone had made the same statement and provided a link to the paper doll.
So, I emailed the site owner and asked to have the descriptive text changed to “fantasy”.
Even after all of that, when I look at that paper doll set, I have reservations about it.
First, I think her outfits are stereotypical. I worry that when I made her, I was doing the same thing people do when they throw buckskin on a paper doll and call it “Native American”. (Problem A)
I also know that one of the big issues Africa faces is that it is NOT one country, but many and am I supporting the view of a monolithic place when in reality it is not? (Problem B)
Further more, the paper dolls outfits are distinctly primitive. Am I promoting the idea that African is primitive and therefore inferior? (Problem C)
Despite all those second thoughts and worries, I haven’t taken her down, because one of the comments on that post came from a young girl living in Nigeria who said she loved the set.
And yet, I don’t know what I would say to someone if they asked me too remove it or told me it was stereotypical and problematic, because it is.
Moral of the Story: This stuff is WAY more complex than just throwing some brown skin on a princess and calling it good. The way people are depicted does matter, and as artists, we are responsible for our art. We are also responsible for recognizing that our art has a life of its own. Once created, our audience is not obligated to come back to us and ask what we meant. The art will be, and should be, judged on its qualities and not the intention of the artist.
In short, it doesn’t matter what you “meant” it matters what you did.
So, after all that, I am curious what y’all think…
Should I take down "Inspired By Africa"?
- No (88%, 50 Votes)
- I don't know (11%, 6 Votes)
- Yes (2%, 1 Votes)
Total Voters: 57
Edit: There was a problem with the poll this morning, I thought I had it fixed, but I was wrong. It is now officially fixed. Sorry about that, but thank you to everyone who commented.
Comments? Questions? Have you ever drawn something you regretted? What did you do about it? What responsibilities do we as artists have to the ethnicities and races we depict?