Dolls and Identity

At the beginning of the semester, Professor Sara Humphrey’s showed us the Archives of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which provides an overview of the story and access to various kinds of resources. There is a section on the website that offers games, puzzles, and other toys that were mass-marketed based on characters from Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, I was particularly interested in the Topsy and Eva dolls that were created.

Topsy-Turvy Dolls

In the same way that the Duncan sister’s advertisement (which I discussed in my previous post) positions Topsy and Little Eva in opposition to one another, the Topsy-Turvy doll does so in a more literal manner. Therefore, both the advertisement and the Topsy-Turvy doll contrast the differences between the two characters. Essentially, the doll emphasizes the differences between the powerful and the powerless. Interestingly, the doll of Topsy and Little Eva offers a dual identity, which reveals the popular stereotypes and cultural tensions of African-American and white female identity. For instance, held one way, the doll resembles Little Eva, with a bow placed in her blonde hair, wearing a childlike, pastel pink dress. However, when the skirt is pulled down, Topsy appears, more adult-like, with surprised eyes, wearing bright red lipstick that matches the bright red in her dress. Once again, Little Eva serves as a representation of a superior race, as she looks directly at the viewer, whereas Topsy takes the more submissive role as she continues to avoid eye contact. Additionally, the contrast between the colours of bright red and subtle pink of the two characters is extremely noticeable. Similar to the Duncan sister’s advertisement, the Topsy side of the doll has a lower modality than the Little Eva side, as Topsy appears to be clownish and unrealistic, whereas Little Eva is more genuine in another pastel colour that emphasizes her youth and purity.

Similarly, the McLoughlin brothers created paper dolls for Topsy and Eva, which came with cut-out paper outfits to dress the young girls. Although Topsy and Eva are generally portrayed as being the same height in the novel, advertisements, and other toys, it is apparent that the Topsy doll is much taller than the Eva doll. While this may point to a number of meanings, it is very possible that Topsy is taller in order to prevent her from wearing Eva’s clean and tidy outfits. On another note, once again, Topsy is dishevelled with her mouth open, legs spread apart and shoelaces untied, as opposed to Eva who appears to be very innocent and well put together. Interestingly, even though Topsy is finally looking directly at the viewer, her body language suggests that she is uncomfortable. In the illustrations above, we can see that the two dolls are standing on a floor, which appears to depict their class level. For instance, Topsy is standing on an wooden floor, while Eva is standing on a clean and elegant carpet, which enforces the ideology that Eva is clean and sophisticated, whereas Topsy is not. Lastly, Eva is the only girl found on the front cover of the envelope which they were originally sold in. This is most likely due to the fact that the target audience buying the product would have been wealthier white families. Therefore, they focused on Eva, who would more likely appeal to the wealthier class. As a result, the idea of white supremacy is disturbingly noticeable, as Topsy is consistently portrayed as racially and sexually inferior to Little Eva.

Today, we have multicultural dolls that are not represented as clownish like Topsy; in fact, these dolls are created to bear the true identity of people of ethnic backgrounds in their facial structure, psyche, skin tone and hair texture. Ethnic dolls are a step in the right direction to affirming the beauty of every race. In spite of this, children still believe that white represents good while black represents bad. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, married African-American psychologists,  were known for their 1940s experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. Their study found that “black children preferred white dolls and rejected black dolls when asked to choose which were nice, which looked bad, which they would like to play with, and which were a nice colour” (Hrba and Grant). Kiri Davis, a 17 year old film student, conducted a similar experiment in her 2006 award-winning documentary “A Girl Like Me.” She discovered that the results are unchanged, enforcing that these ideologies that were present in the Topsy and Eva dolls are still present today. Take a look at this short video that discusses both experiments:

The world today is drastically different from the world that was depicted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet these ideologies are clearly still alive. What do you make of this?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Dolls and Identity

  1. doctorsara

    Powerful post – thanks for this.

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