Paper Doll Principles: Diversity

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

Dover’s excellent book about Famous African-American women.

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 DollsTeen 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.

The Inspired By Africa set which I worry is promoting stereotypes about Africa.

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

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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?



  1. Why not make another page of outfits for her? Only this time they could be more specific to a particular ethnic group?

    1. So, the reason I don’t draw “ethnic” dress (and I could do a whole rant about how much I hate the term “ethnic dress”, but that’s a rant for another day) is because I don’t know enough about it. In order to draw a paper doll, you are always choosing to omit certain details or make changes to deal with your paper dolls specific perameters and I don’t know enough about the dress of cultural groups to even begin to try to guess what is safe to “omit”. Let’s look at Native American Tlingit regalia, only because I grew up in Juneau, Alaska, surrounded by it. In Tlingit culture symbols are actually “owned” by specif families or groups and to recreate them without permission is theft. So, I would never draw a Tlingit crest without specific permission of the owner of the design. Now, I know that because I grew up around the Tlingit, but I didn’t grow up around African native groups. How can I even begin to guess what would or would not be appropriate? And how arrogant is it to assume that it is “okay” simply, because I think it is okay? So, that’s why I don’t draw “ethnic” dress.

  2. Tried voting but the button didn’t work.
    I vote “No” – don’t take it down. As you say, it is “African inspired fantasy set” – not reality.
    For example, it would be possible to do a “European Princess” fantasy doll which could take it’s ideas from various historical sources in Europe and could tend to look at bit Nordic I imagine. As an English person, I wouldn’t be offended by that generalisation.

  3. Please don’t take this set down, but please do make others. It will be a fantastic opportunity to ask your friends who have different cultural backgrounds and skin colours what dolls they dream about having, and what their favourite fantasy outfits might be. Dream big, I love what you do. I’m always looking for redheads myself, and I don’t care if they’re in Ireland or Norway or North America. Freckles a plus.

  4. Also, if it inspires you, Ben Aaronovitch has written a brilliant series of fantasy books, beginning with Rivers of London. In his universe, the rivers of London (the Thames, Fleet, Tyburn, etc) all have goddesses of different African origins – Mother Thames is Nigerian. Tyburn has an Oxford degree and wears Chanel, Fleet is all Market Chic and so on. Father Thames was a Romanised Briton, Oxley a mediaeval monk…. I have such fun imagining what they’d look like – and so do others. I’ve collected some of their suggestions at

  5. I don’t think you should take it down. But if it bothers you that much you could re-post it with the clarification that it is a FANTASY not AN actual depiction of what African people actually look like.

  6. It is perfectly in line with your other fantasy lines. Now if you had drawn it as all animal skins and leopard prints, you might be right on it being stereotypical. This felt like an ethnic take on traditional fantasy clothing.

    I do agree with the others, why not research and post a set for a PARTICULAR African nation or tribal group. That could be fascinating, and then you could put a link to it in your fantasy post.
    Or do a Northwest Africa set, and have one outfit from several different people groups? Speaking as a homeschool Mom I’d be thrilled to see it.

    1. So, I responded to Erin about why I don’t draw “ethnic” dress, but I can repeat a little here. I simply don’t know enough about it. In fact, I would argue I know just enough to know that I don’t know enough.

      There are nuances to “ethnic” dress that are specific to each cultural group and I would be really arrogant to assume I could possibly accurately render a culture about which I know so little.

  7. I like your African doll. I grew up in Africa. A modern set of dresses based on west African prints would be good. It is worn all over sub-Sahara Africa by all ethic groups.

  8. An excellent essay about a tough subject. I think your pursuit of normalizing diversity is an important one. There are too many divisions & anything that helps to address that is a positive thing.

    I wouldn’t remove the doll simply because of the one Nigerian girl who loves it. You struck a chord with her and maybe that’s reason enough to keep it. Is it problematic? Sure. But art is a process and this is a key step in your growth.

  9. South African here who isn’t offended by this set, but pleased to see representation! I think the fact that you made her a fantasy doll shows that you see her as no different to the others in this series, rather than “othering” her by trying to make her fit some preconceived notion of what Africa is. That would have been far more disrespectful!

    Why not look up modern African fashion? There are incredible things happening all over the continent with the blending of European and American influences with traditional dress. There are also several unique sub-cultures springing up: Afro Punk, the heavy metal fans in Botswana, the Congo Dandies etc.

    Keep creating your beautiful dolls!

    1. To me, it is not an issue of “offense” as much as an issue of stereotyping. Is this paper doll promoting a stereotype which could be damaging to people’s understanding of the complex continent of Africa? That’s the question I am struggling to answer. And I do not think it is a clean cut one.

  10. Your paper dolls almost always cross the ethnic barriers – because one can print them to color and make them have the same color skin that they do. An African girl can be a Tudor Princess. A Chinese girl can be a Norse-inspired beauty. A Caucasian girl can put herself in African-inspired fantasy, and a First Nation girl can be a 70’s girl. All of them can be curvy, thin, tiny, punk, historical, contemporary.
    Because you make a lot of your dolls colourable, any girl (or boy) can have a doll from any ethnic group they find amazing, or can have a doll with neon green skin, hot pink hair, and all the pretty clothing available. 🙂 It’s pretty darn cool.

    1. And that’s a big part of why I draw the same “pose” for so many of my base dolls. It is my goal that a child could combine any of the paper dolls for a nearly endless set of options, or at least pretty diverse.

  11. I don’t think I have any insight on the matter but really appreciate how much thought you’ve put into it. I struggle sometimes with crafts/ideas being ‘inspired’ by something, or where to draw the line with my kid’s dress-up. Important conversations, for sure, but I wish there were easy answers 🙂

    1. I think the process of “thinking about” it is what matters. Being aware is half the battle and then deciding what to do about it. The problem with issues like this is that that context and nuance are hugely important- I don’t think humans always handle those things very well.

  12. Please dont take it down. My daughters and I love all of your stuff. It is very evident that you conscientiously create all of your art. I love the diversity and fun of each of your dolls. We actually do homeschool and my kids will play with your dolls for hours while I am reading to them. I have used your fairies when teaching Shakespeare, and steampunk when teaching exploration. I love finding artistic expressions of themes and ideas. I’m not sure why someone would take it so literally, but it seems like you did what was necessary to clarify that this is something you were inspired to create and not a commentary.

  13. Have you ever made a paper doll with Pacific Islander features? And I had this thought BEFORE Moana came out just fyi 🙂

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