Hair and Care

I was fascinated by what Kathryn brought up in class, about how dolls teach kids who to care for. For a long time American society has preferenced blue-eyed blonde haired dolls, which have encouraged children to see white as good, and thus deserving of their care. As Toni Morrison writes in the Bluest Eye, “all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.”[1] The narrator Claudia, an African American girl growing up in Lorraine, Ohio, resents white girls for the greater care and love that they receive. But through the dolls that she gets as gifts, she learns the societal expectation for positive feelings towards whiteness. She learns what she, “was expected to do with [a] doll: rock it, fabricate storied situations around it, even sleep with it.”[2] These actions demand thoughtfulness and responsibility for the doll’s emotional needs as well as intimacy.

I am curious about how, or if, the newer shift towards individualized look-alike dolls fits into this paradigm. What do dolls that look like their owners teach kids?

Dolls now present a veneer of diversity. Maybe true diversity in doll choices could help girls of color see themselves as beautiful and deserving of care. But many of these supposedly more diverse dolls still exhibit what Meeta Rani Jha calls liberal multiculturalism, “the management of difference, by the celebration of cultural and ethnic differences, as opposed to addressing structural discrimination.”[3] Some dolls now are supposed to represent people of color rather than solely white people. But many of these dolls still present inherent biases towards whiteness. These dolls demonstrate an illusion of representation and inclusion without challenging white privilege within our societal structure.

There is a line of American girl dolls called the WellieWishers that was launched in 2016.

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The doll line seems to be trying to include racial diversity within the group. These dolls have different hair colors and textures and also skin tones. On the surface they seem to present somewhat diverse options for children. But the descriptions of their hair are racialized in a way that preferences white hair. As Kobena Mercer says, “within racism’s bipolar codification of human value, black people’s hair has been historically devalued as the most visible stigma of blackness, second only to skin.”[4] Hair is a key marker of racial difference, stigmatized as its departure from whiteness.

None of the dolls are described specifically by race but it seems that Emerson is supposed to be Asian and Kendall is supposed to be African American. The website says Emerson, has “black hair in curly pigtails” and that Kendall has “curly black hair in pigtails.”[5] Both Emerson and Kendalls’ hair is described as “curly.” The hair of the white dolls, Willa and Camille, is described differently. Willa “has “silky strawberry-blond hair in long pigtails that can be brushed and styled,” and Camille has “silky blond hair that can be brushed and styled.”[6] The descriptor “silky” used for the hair of both white dolls has a very positive connotation, whereas curly is a departure from the straightness usually associated with white hair. This departure from whiteness can have the stigma that Mercer references. Also both of the white dolls’ hair is described as worthy of care to be “brushed and styled.” Thus the WellieWishers dolls continue to reinforce special care towards whiteness.

These dolls are marketed as look-alike dolls. In the advertising photos, the dolls are mostly matched to girls who have a similar appearance and are of the same race.

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Also there are matching clothes sets for the girls and the dolls.Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 7.37.05 PM.png

There are different girls in some of the photographs, but they continue to reinforce the look-alike purpose of the dolls.Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 7.38.34 PM.png


[1] Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (Random House: New York, 2007), 20.

[2] Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 20.

[3] Meeta Rani Jha, The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body (New York: Routledge, 2016), 28.

[4] Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” new formations Number 3 (Winter 1987), 35.

[5] American Girl, “WellieWishers,” American Girl, accessed May 14, 2017.

[6] American Girl, “WellieWishers.”


One thought on “Hair and Care

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  1. I’m interested in how this narrative of care and society-reinforced love of whiteness would overlap and diverge from the concept of body labor as well. In the introduction to “The Managed Hand” Miliann Kang states that “while some women’s bodies are manicured into objects of beauty, other women’s bodies serve as tools for enacting these beauty regimens” (2). Both these processes seem to apply to dolls, which serve both as objects of admiration or beauty (as in “The Bluest Eye”) and as tools to practice certain beauty regimens (the styling of their hair, etc). Dolls also–being, in some ways, stand-ins for exploration of personhood, as we’ve discussed in class–seem to invite the emotional element, or care, that Kang sees manicurists and other body-laborers enacting. Is the love and attention historically showered on white dolls comparable or parallel to the way white bodies are cared for in certain fields of body labor? What are the ways in which the service industry (acknowledging disparities within that broad term) and its caring for certain bodies differ from children of different races/socioeconomic identities caring for certain dolls? Would the lessons practiced or modeled in caring for dolls be in some ways reflected in the service industry and body labor?


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