pulp and pith … current affairs blog

A golliwog by any other name…

Posted on: February 5, 2009

What’s the story? Carole Thatcher, member of a team of roving reporters on The One Show, was sacked by the BBC yesterday for describing an unnamed tennis player as a ‘golliwog’.

You have eyes and ears; you have not spent the last few days in a coma; therefore you know all about it already – n’est-ce pas?

If not, the Guardian’s Organ Grinder blog has an excellent round-up of the best of the comment and coverage (here!)

The cool kids are doing it; and by doing it I mean weighing in with their opinions with the gusto of a champion jockey weighing in the night before a big race, anticipating the blow-out meal he’ll be able to gorge himself silly on in less than 24 hours time; so I’m going to do it too. Hold on to your stomachs.

Most of Carole Thatcher’s agent’s defence, and the point papers like the Telegraph are using to justify their defence of her, centres around the assertion that her use of the word was not intended as racist.

‘Golliwog’ is both a derogatory word meant to describe a black person and a cartoon character that was much-loved throughout most of the 20th century. When/if you use the word, both meanings are in play. A golliwog is both a cartoon character that awakens nostalgia in those old enough to remember when they were on our screens, and a racist caricature.

If you watch an old kids TV show and see a golliwog, you appreciate that they do entertain and delight, like any other cartoon character that appears on the show. At the same time you do feel a bit uncomfortable, because the characterisation of a golliwog is inherently racist. Only a blockhead would fail to notice that.

Carole Thatcher should have been aware (let’s hope that she is now aware) that a golliwog isn’t just a cartoon character, and that describing somebody as a golliwog is not the same saying “Oh, he looks a bit like that one with the hoover for a nose off the Teletubbies.”

Carole’s remark was made off-air, in The One Show’s green room, during a conversation about the Australian Open. Many papers have reported that the tennis player described as a ‘golliwog’ by Thatcher was Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, but this has yet to be confirmed, and the off-the-cuff, casual nature of the alleged conversation means that it is unlikely there will ever be a definitive version of events.

I think that the BBC was right to pick up on the fact that a reporter who exhibits an inability to appreciate the complex feelings that the word ‘golliwog’ provokes needs to be sat down and talked to, even if the gaffe was made in private.

Perhaps if she had been in different company the issue would never have come to light, bu as it happened the people she was speaking to at the time (Adrian Chiles and Jo Brand, according to the nationals) were offended enough not just by the use of the word, I sense, but the jokey, casual nature of its use, to tattle.

Rather than sacking Carole Thatcher, perhaps the BBC should have commissioned a doc on the history of the ‘golliwog’ character and its place in society, asked her to front it, and in the process allowed her the opportunity to confront her own ignorance and lack of sensitivity. I don’t think the word as an adjective has any place in our modern vocabulary.

As for golliwog toys: they are of an era. Some people might like them, many children might like them, and long may they be free to like them, as long as they do not underestimate them. Let it be understood – golliwogs are not merely child’s play.

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2 Responses to "A golliwog by any other name…"

I think this depends on where you are in the world. As someone who remembers the time when the TV used to be full of people highlighting cultural differences as entertainment, I see this language fascism that the BBC is demonstrating is very worrying.

Its as if they are deciding what words the national can say, and that should not be the role of the state broadcaster.

There are words used by the BBC that I find offensive but they don’t – my chances of having them banning them is nil or less. However, a someone who actually believes in free speech, I wouldn’t want them to ban them – that is one of the nice things about living in a democracy!

I have to agree that the way the BBC clamped down on Carole Thatcher was harsh. The word golliwog means different things to different people, and I think it would have been good to confront that and perhaps try to understand why the incident has divided the nation in such an emotive way.

The BBC has a responsibility to play devil’s advocate, and so I think it was putting itself in the shoes of people who would have been offended by the comment when it made its decision, alienating people who are used to ‘programs that highlight cultural difference as entertainment’ in the process.

I think the problem with golliwog toys is that they don’t just highlight difference, they create a stereotype of difference which can sometimes suggest that different equals inferior. That’s why racists have appropriated the word.

Carole Thatcher was in private when she used the word golliwog, and it could be argued that the BBC has no right to penalise her for what she says or does in private, especially as she claims she only used the word as a descriptive term.

However her apparent ignorance of the fact that certain aspects of its meaning are racist, clearly rattled the BBC enough to sack her from her job, which involves being aware of things like this.

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