Noddy is no stranger to controversy.
His ambiguous relationship with Big Ears aroused suspicions of homosexuality: having a ‘gay old time in the woods’ no longer meant enjoying oneself in nature’s lush embrace. It meant amyl nitrate and sodomy. Needless to say, there was a moratorium on sleepovers.
But this was over sixty years ago, during a parochial age where the judicial system was prejudiced against gay couples, treating them like second-class citizens, even forbidding them the basic human right of marriage!
Toyland (Noddy’s hometown) was apparently also a hotbed for racism.
In the 1951 edition of Enid Blyton’s Here Comes Noddy Again, a group of villainous Golliwoggs came to Toyland. Although this wasn’t their first time in town (one of Noddy’s best friends was a Golliwogg), it was their debut role as mean-spirited criminals: carjacking Noddy and scaring the shit out of his friends. The following decades of civil rights movements reified Blyton’s portrayal of Golliwoggs as a symbol of racial intolerance and insensitivity. What followed was a successful anti-Golliwogg campaign to stigmatize and remove the doll from the public arena.
The 1992 edition of Here Comes Noddy Again replaced the Golliwoggs with evil goblins, unfortunately rendering Toyland a gated community of predominately Anglo-Saxons, the only non-white colours being the fluff of a brown bear and ghoulish grey of an evil goblin’s face (who, incidentally, looks like an Arab). Although their banishment from Toyland and subsequent establishment of a pure-race utopia may appear palpably more racist than their inclusion, the doll had not been completely effaced.
In April of 1990, an Australian toddler had just finished unwrapping his birthday gift. Ecstatically, he began shouting ‘Lollilog! Lollilog!’ Clutched between his two white hands was his first Golliwogg doll. Twenty-four years later, that same little boy sits before me in a cluster of Golliwoggs, discussing the red lipped, bow-tied, black-skinned doll tattoo on his leg.
‘When I asked my family why they got me such a taboo doll for my second birthday, they told me that it was because I just really loved him. To me he wasn’t a black caricature or black doll, he was just a doll, and he was my best friend.’
‘Whilst I was concerned about the repercussions of people seeing the Golliwogg as a tattoo without knowing why it was there, I was more excited about the prospect of sharing my feelings and ideas with people that were curious, and I hoped that it would spark an interest in people, as opposed to invoking a distaste.’
It definitely whet my interest.
Prior to Blyth’s adoption of the Golliwogg for her Noddy series, the Golliwogg was first introduced to the British public as a ‘horrid sight’ in Florence Kate Upton’s 1895 illustrated children’s book, The adventures of two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. In it, two dolls, Peggy and Sarah Jane, acquire the power to live and ‘taste human joys’, which basically consist of gambolling and sharing mundane vignettes. But alas, out of nowhere:
‘… a horrid sight!
The blackest gnome
Stands there alone,
They scatter in their fright.’
The ‘horrid sight’ was a benevolent black doll dressed in red trousers, a high-collared white shirt, blue tailcoat, and red bowtie. After the Golliwogg allayed Peggy and Sarah Jane’s fear with an amicable introduction, the threesome went on to become inseparable friends and featured in twelve more of Upton’s adventures.
The Golliwogg was based on a black minstrel doll that Upton had played with during her childhood in America. Minstrels were caricatures of African Americans: initially white people and, later, black people who donned blackface and provided entertainment through dancing, music and comedy, lampooning black people as dim-witted, happy-go-lucky, lazy and buffoonish. Essentially, the Golliwogg was a caricature of a caricature; yet, in a limited attempt to divorce her Golliwogg from the racial stereotyping inherent in depictions of American minstrels, Upton had introduced an affable and lovable black literary hero into the imagination of British children.
By tattooing Upton’s Golliwogg alongside one of the Dutch dolls, Richard’s intent was to decontextualize the doll from the pronounced racism that was recognised in later years and to reintroduce it as the hero Upton had portrayed him to be.
‘I was extremely concerned about the way that it might be perceived. I like the way that tattoos can become topical and make for good conversation. I was mainly concerned that people might jump to conclusions and that I might be harassed about it, but I was willing to take that risk. Removing the Golliwogg and pretending that it doesn’t exist, or that he is a bad character, is not going to combat racism. Education will,’ says Richard.
‘Traveling to America early in 2013, however, was a different story. I was pulled up quite a lot by angry people wanting to know what I was about. At clubs, gas stations, public pools: the response there was a lot different to what I am used to back home in Australia. I just had to be mindful and respectful, and I wore pants to cover it in places that I thought I might offend. That said, I was also approached by a lot of people that were happy to hear my story.’
In retrospect, there is something sinister about white children commanding mastery over black dolls that caricatured the human beings their parents were subjugating. Some may argue that education was the very thing that removed the Golliwogg from Noddy and elsewhere, and even if you share the opinion that Upton’s Golliwogg was divorced from the nefarious portrayals of American minstrels, this does not efface an abhorrent history of slavery and subjugation, of which the minstrel could be viewed as a vestigial reminder. However, Richard’s intent was sincere, and his story a salient example of how our tattoos often hold meanings contrary to their appearance.