"Let loose the dogs": Messiness and Ethical Wrangling in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby



This paper metatextextually explores Toni Morrison’s 1981 Tar Baby and its female protagonist – a black model named Jadine Childs – by way of the text’s correlation with the Supermodel Phenomenon of the late 1970s and the early ’80s alongside social and political issues related to notions of post civil rights era racial arrival, success, and “selling out.” This argument draws a correlation between the experiences of the fictional Jadine and the internationally renowned supermodel Iman Abdulmajid whose career began in 1975. While this parallel is central to this essay’s execution, this article’s trajectory is informed and complicated by situating the character of Jadine in terms of historical research regarding the rise of the Supermodel Phenomenon and by way of reading the novel in the context of Black Pragmatism. Jadine confronts not only the tensions and expectation of the modeling world, but also the frictions between this professional realm and her black womanhood. These pressures are stressed in her relationships with her black radicalist lover, Son, her aunt Ondine, and the “woman in yellow” whom Jadine encounters in a Parisian supra market. By placing a black model in conversation with questions of authenticity and ancestry circulating in the post civil-rights era 1970’s and ‘80s America, Morrison leads her readers to question what it means to be truly “modern” or “fully integrated” and, contrarily, what it means to “sell out.” In its interrogation of racial arrival, this article suggests that this notion is not as definitive as Jadine has been taught to believe. Jadine’s final decision to pursue the possibility of a “fourth option” in Europe is, perhaps, a means of cultural re-approachment as opposed to a move toward “selling out.”


How to Cite: Avery, F. M. (2014) “"Let loose the dogs": Messiness and Ethical Wrangling in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby”, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies. 16(1). doi: