Ghana, doll, representation, toys, politics, denmark, play, moesgaard, moesgaard museum

The importance of representation: Ghanaian doll

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Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East, North America, Oceania, South America, World

When I was a girl, I wasn’t much into dolls. I was the kind of kid who fell asleep with my box of books next to me in my bed (along with about a 75 stuffed animals). When I, at the age of two, had recently become a big sister and my parents took me to the shop at the campsite, where we were spending our summer vacation and told me to pick whichever toy I wanted, I did not pick the baby dolls, or the fake Barbies. I chose the black and green long necked dinosaur, which would end up being one of my favourite toys for years, and which did definitely play a significant part in my most fervent kindergarten fantasies of one day growing up to be a ‘dinosaur researcher’ (I was somewhat older before the word palaeontologist entered my vocabulary).

But I did have dolls—both chubby baby dolls in diapers and skinny, long legged Barbie dolls with increasingly alarming cases of bed head, due to the fact that I kept on trying to do their hair, and failing miserably. Since my cousins started having kids, these toys have made the journey up from my parents’ basement and received new life through the imagination of a new generation. And this is where I notice something that the three-, five, or seven-year-old Sophie did not. All these dolls are white, and most of them are blond. This is not, I am certain, because my parents only wanted me to play with little copies of myself, but mainly because they were the kind of dolls available. But what does that say to a little ‘ethically Danish’ kid, that all the actors in her (or his) play (who weren’t dinosaurs, teddy bears, or Ninja Turtles) were white, like herself? Or just as importantly: what does it tell a little child of colour, that many of their dolls look quite different from themselves?

Luckily, you can get dolls and toys that represent all kinds of different colours and cultures—like this fabulously dressed doll from Ghana. And some things are sure to have changed since the late 80s and early 90s, when I was going through my doll-playing years. But still today, when perusing the web shop of one of Denmark’s biggest chains of toy stores, one is met by one little blond, white face after the other. One noteworthy exception is the significant number of merchandise featuring the awesome and determined Moana: Disney’s first Polynesian heroine. Her presence highlights the importance of such representation in popular culture, because if movies and TV shows feature people of all races, backgrounds, and genders, our children will see that a Polynesian girl, a Somali boy, or a transgender kid (…the list goes on) can have just as much agency as a white American or European child. They will see that heroes (and villains, henchmen, sidekicks, helpers, and wise advisers) come in all shapes, sizes, and colours. And hopefully, they will find it just as natural to play with their Moana-doll, their Mulan doll, or their Miguel (from the upcoming Coco) doll as they do their Cinderella doll or their little white baby doll.

Maybe, in 20 years’ time, the future curator of The Ethnographic Collections at Moesgaard Museum will not think, slightly surprised: “Oh look how nice, we have a black Ghanaian doll in our collections—I don’t remember seeing many of them before”, but merely think “Oh look, a doll”. Or maybe even: “Oh look, I had one of those when I was a kid”.

//Sophie Seebach

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