“Nora: It’s true Torvald. When I lived at home with Papa, he used to tell me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinion. If I thought differently, I had to hide it from him, or he wouldn’t have liked it. He called me his little doll, and he used to play with me just as I played with my dolls. Then I came to live in your house –
Helmer: That’s no way to talk about our marriage!
Nora [undisturbed]: I mean when I passed out of Papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything to suit your own tastes, and so I came to have the same tastes as yours… or I pretended to. I’m not quite sure which… perhaps it was a bit of both – sometimes one and sometimes the other. Now that I come to look at it, I’ve lived here like a pauper – simply from hand to mouth. I’ve lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald. That was how you wanted it. You and Papa have committed a grievous sin against me: it’s your fault that I’ve made nothing of my life.”Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House, 1879
In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), Nora, the main character, escapes a conventional marriage, when the husband that had disowned her tries to get her back, having been reassured that his social status has not been irredeemably tarnished by an independent financial decision of his wife. Nora, depicted throughout the play as a delightful, but childish and servile woman, acknowledges both her own “dollification” and her newly found agency, as soon as her rights in the marital contract are put into question and she realizes that she is expected to be at the complete disposal of the whims of the male figures in her life.
It is indeed interesting to note how, right in the middle of the Victorian era, the image that is picked to negatively portray subjugation is that of a doll. The very toy that in those times was being lifted as an educational example of a girl’s societal duties became in A Doll’s House the representation of a conscious actor performance, that called the spectator to distinguish between person and persona.
If we were to keep Nora’s epiphany in mind, and recognize the agency of dolls in their mute acceptance of the role that is assigned to them by their owners (or, as we will see, partners, companions, friends, husbands, rulers etc.), how do we explain our attraction to inanimate objects, that explicitly owe their existence solely to the human habit of fabricating lies? And what does such an attraction reveal about the needs humans want to fulfill?
There is not one single explanation that fully covers the practice of life miniaturization through the history of humanity. The motives for doll manufacturing and doll ownership span from representation; understanding and empathy; catharsis; control and power.
Dolls as Representation
Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, when aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing.Embodied Cognition in Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, publ. on Jul 25, 2011; revised on Dec 8, 2015
To this day, dolls are among the most popular children toys, with fashion dolls making up to 56% of the total toy sales in the US in 2020.
Toys such as dolls have the ability to mediate the relationship between the child and other humans, acting within scenarios that enable the child to rehearse social skills before they are performed in society. An experiment conducted by King’s College in London and Cardiff University has shown that pretend play, in particular doll play, is highly beneficial for the activation of prefrontal and posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), the areas of the brain responsible for social cognitive skills, both when the play happens in presence of other humans or as solo.
As a matter of fact, especially to children, dolls are nothing less than friends. The human brain is wired so to constantly research the familiarity of humanness in its surroundings; or at least, the constraints of human body, according to the theory of Embodied Cognition, deeply affect the gnoseological schemes of human agents.
But how do we manage to recognize human features amid stone-cold plastic bodies, dull eyes and synthetic hair?
This has to do with an evolutionary response, that lets us detect faces based on the presence of specific features. However, in order to effectively make us aware of potential dangers, our brain not only has to be able to detect faces, but also to discern faces behind which we perceive the presence of a mind.
Dr. Christine E. Looser and Dr. Thalia Wheatley from Dartmouth College have conducted several images morphing experiments to detect at what point do we perceive humanness even in an inanimate object. Results showed that life is perceived already in an object that carries around 67% of specific human features, lying primarily in the eyes, followed by mouth, nose and skin.
Animacy, which is the perceived capability of a facial feature (e.g. the eyes) to move, emerged as a highly indicative hint of aliveness.
The more lifelike an object is, the more pleasurable its reception is. But when an object simulates human life too closely, and our brain is caught in between a misleading perception of animacy and the incapability of eventually detecting the presence of a mind, we find ourselves in the so-called uncanny valley.
The term uncanny valley was first introduced in the robotics domain by Masahiro Mori, professor of robotics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in an essay appeared in the magazine Energy in 1970.
Interrogating himself on how factories could produce robots resembling humans, based on the assumption that human likeness would deepen trust relationships between man and machine, Mori traced a graphic in a Cartesian plan, that positioned several objects aiming to human likeness on a curve. He hence noticed that some objects, namely the inanimate objects that appear as an extremely realistic imitation of life, are those that produce in us an eerie sensation.
In his essay, Mori advocated for a production model in the robotics industry that would aim to peak higher in affinity rather than human likeness. In other words, he predicted that e.g. a nonhuman looking, but stylish prosthetic hand could entice more trust and desire of ownership than a prosthesis reproducing a granular simulation of skin pores.
Applied to dolls, these studies clarify the driving forces of toys design. A doll must reminisce of a human body, but not too much. The identification with a doll should be possible, but never exact. In order to be a marketable product, a doll has, if anything, to become symulacrum in the sense that Umberto Eco gave to this word in his History of Beauty (2004): a symbolic representation of reality, with a spark of beautification, artificially added by the artist. Reality must be sublimated into an aesthetic fantasy.
On one hand, dolls ought to be lifeless bodies, that act as passive containers of the owner’s projections. They ought to resist accurate identifiability, because the pleasure of doll play partly derives from the possibility of passing one’s personality on to an object that is unable to rebut.
On the other hand, as discovered by Mori, there must be a certain level of affinity and self-identification, for the doll play to be engaging and raise a sense of attachment between the toy and its owner.
The overwhelming homogeneity of features in the dolls market exposes how sexism, racism and fat phobia are entrenched in the design guidelines for dolls.
Docility, whiteness and a slender figure are the characteristics that generate the most revenue. Baby-like features, such as full lips and a set of distant eyes (preferably blue) lost in a stupefied gaze, appease a sensation of higher control over the object. Conversely, a waist-hip ratio of 0.7 signifies fertility and leverages sexual attraction.
Before some more inclusive approaches were adopted in the most recent years, toys producers have safely rode the wave of Eurocentric beauty standards.
More than once, retailers exposed themselves to grimy scandals as they were found pricing white dolls at a higher value than black dolls.
The doll market is undoubtedly culpable of reinforcing racial stereotypes and racial self-hatred. The Clark doll experiment, firstly introduced in 1939-40 to show the negative effects of racial segregation in the schools of Washington DC, exposed how segregation was leading to feelings of inferiority in black children. Given two dolls, identical in everything except for the skin color, the interviewed children would mostly pick the black doll whenever they were asked to indicate which one was associated with negative behaviors. On the contrary, they would pick the white doll not only when they were asked to associate a doll with a positive behavior, but also when they had to express a preference on which doll was the most appealing to their own sensibility.
In 2005 Kiri Davis, a 16 years old filmmaker, received funding from HBO to recreate the Clark experiment and include it in her documentary A Girl Like Me, a 7 minutes short film that showcases the psychological pressure put by non-inclusive beauty standards on black youth.
Over 40 years after the original experiment, 15 of the 21 interviewed kids responded favorably to the white doll and unfavorably to the black doll, letting emerge how lack (or inaccuracy, or incompleteness) of representation in toys and media can lead to racial self-hatred.
Already at this stage, which is the double directional conditioning of beauty standards, we can foresee the potential of dolls as beings with agency. Undoubtedly, we chisel dolls according to collective canons of beauty; but as a modern Perseus, they hold mirrors in which they ask us to stare, and petrify us in the very spell we cast upon them. Our conception of beauty comes back necessarily “dollified”.
We aim to reach the same perfection we adore in dolls, and therefore we resort to hair extensions and weaves, gel nails, prosthetic implants, make up etc.
The loss of identity that accompanies a sense of inadequacy permeating whoever confronts oneself with dollified beauty standards is at the center of Sheila Pree Bright’s Plastic Bodies. The photographic series of 2003 combines, through photo editing, real bodies with those of Barbie dolls. The spectator senses discomfort, while trying to discern the human borders from the plastic ones, in this art series that could be a sinister spin-off of Looser and Wheatley’s image morphing experiments.
Dolls as Vehicle of Understanding and Empathy
“To this crib I always took my doll; human beings must love something, and, in the dearth of worthier objects of affection, I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow.”Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847
Even if dolls exacerbate symptoms in individuals affected by bodily dysmorphic disorder, and their unattainable beauty standards have been proven to cause comorbidity with eating disorders, their intrinsic “otherness” makes them ideal candidates for therapeutic purposes.
Dolls look like no other humans. Their appearance might become an aspirational model, but it does not carry a judgement upon the owner’s body. Dolls are mute, deaf, blind and motionless; in a way, they are non-conventional humans and, exactly like many of their owners, they don’t conform to societal norms.
These characteristics put dolls in a peculiar ontological dualism. If one one hand they are inscrutable idols of magnetic beauty, on the other hand they are nothing less than freaks.
How well then do they serve as narrative expedients for a freak’s existence. Numerous artists have chosen dolls as allegories of their own life.
Greer Lankton (Flint, Michigan, April 21st, 1958 – Chicago, Illinois, November 18th, 1996) sealed her sufferings tied to gender dysphoria, eating disorders and drug abuse into her hand-sewn dolls that are nowadays collected in the permanent exhibition It’s All About Me, Not You at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh.
The exhibition, that recreates the artist’s apartment in Chicago, features deformed Raggedy Ann dolls with emaciated limbs; a doll in a deathbed representing a woman dying of overdose; doll portraits of celebrities such as Patti Smith and even Jesus.
These dolls, which appear creepy more often than dainty, bear Lankton’s autobiographical burdens.
Born a boy to the family of a Presbyterian minister, Greer (back then, Greg) struggled to find a way for self-expression, since her femininity was object of harassment by her peers and embarrassment for the family.
After having moved to Chicago and later to New York in the Seventies, Lankton underwent gender affirming surgery, which proved to be a traumatic experience that left permanent scars in her development as an artist, and fueled other disorders such as anorexia and drug abuse. Her survival was tied both to her art, and to a co-dependent relationship with the artistic community of East Village, in particular with her partner Paul Monroe. The couple married in 1987 and split in 1993, due to having behavioral patterns so similar that the relationship became in the long run detrimental to their own existence.
Lankton died of an overdose in 1996, shortly after having reignited a sparkle in her artistic career with the opening of the exhibition in Pittsburgh.
To this day, Lankton’s dolls remain as the fragments of an artist that experienced significant trauma, and as cries for help of a frail human spiraling into self-destruction. While they are exquisitely embellished and capture the glamour of East Village in the 70s-80s, their bodies -at times gaunt, at times morbidly obese- occupy space in forms that make one concerned for their health. They demand attention through their sexually charged allure, and rescue through their ill looks.
They inhabit the room to a claustrophobic paroxysm. It is as if Lankton had tried to externalize her sorrow onto a third party, and hoarded multiple samples to convince herself that all the misfortunes of her life were not happening to her, but to the dolls. But at the same time, the dolls are finely coiffed and dressed, commanding the room with sparkling vitality. Greer Lankton’s dolls were to the artist hermeneutic vessels, that helped her navigate the incoherent carousel of life.
If dolls are essential to Lankton in order to get rid of memories, for Mark Hogancamp they are tools to (re)create them.
Hogancamp is 38 when in 2000, divorced, addicted to alcohol and clueless as what direction his life would take, walks in a bar dressed in drag and is brutally beaten up by a gang of five men.
The aggression causes him to go in a coma and delete most of the memories of his adult life.
When he wakes up, he has to start psychiatric rehabilitation therapy. His health insurance can cover the expenses until a certain extent; then, Hogancamp’s dire financial conditions put an abrupt end to the therapy sessions, and he has to continue on his own.
It is in this context, that he has the idea to start building dioramas in his garden and populate them with action figures that he finds lying in old attics or flea markets.
Hogancamp goes through a second birth, under the identity of his doll persona, “Hogie”. Hogie is a WWII soldier in the fictional Belgian town of Marwencol (an union of the names Mark plus Wendy and Colleen, two old crushes of the artist), where the many miniature bars, churches and battle camps serve as a cinematographic set for the killing of five Nazi soldier dolls, who represent the artist’s aggressors.
Marwencol is not an art project. First and foremost, it is a stage where Hogancamp re-enacts the most traumatic event of his life and recovers from it.
The habit of photographing his dolls assemblings stems from the noted efficacy in recuperating removed memories. It is only a coincidence that his neighbor David Naugle, a magazine photographer, noticed Hogancamp playing around with his camera in the garden, and asked to see some of his work.
Hogancamp’s work has been since then exhibited in galleries across the world.
The heroes of his scenes, the protagonists of the most remarkable pictures are women: “The only species on Earth that haven’t attacked me are women, and when they heard I had over 300 pairs of high heels they said: ‘We’ll take you in our tribe.’”.
Womanhood is a crucial concern also in the work of another artist, Amber Hawk Swanson. Between 2006 and 2011, the Providence-based artist released a series of performances under the title The Amber Doll Project, that revolved around the relationship between the artist and a silicone love doll modeled on her appearance, and the relationship between the doll and others.
Upon beginning these experiments, Hawk Swanson established that the resemblance between herself and the doll was paramount. There had to be a familiarity that would make it arduous to dismiss the doll’s misadventures simply as freedom of use of an inanimate object.
The doll was involved in a series of social experiments, alone or with the artist. On the artist’s website, it is possible to see footage of situations in which the doll was abandoned alone in public areas, to see how the public would interact with it.
Passers-by are intrigued by the acquiescent availability of woman-looking simulacrum. It is not rare to see groups of people, men especially, touching the doll in sexual ways; mocking its vulnerability and disposable body; tousle its hair with the scope of domesticating its eerily dignified appearance.
Hawk Swanson resorted to a doll produced in her likeness to investigate the objectification of female bodies. It is distressing, to witness how easily female bodies are assaulted and cannibalized, as soon as one can tune down the perception of the bodies’ own agency.
In the performance “Las Vegas Wedding” (2007), Hawk Swanson celebrated her marriage with the doll. Guests interacted with the doll in manners that would be considered highly inappropriate at any regular reception.
While the ceremony followed the thread of body objectification, it also acquired a deeply transformative meaning in Hawk Swanson’s personal life.
She didn’t choose to marry just any female looking doll: she decided to marry a doll that looked like herself.
She projected and externalized her individuality -a queer, non-conforming, held as inadequate individuality- into an object of desire.
By making the doll a vulnerable object, capable of attracting not only the aggression, but also the love of others, she managed to embrace her own self and acknowledge herself as a human worthy of affection.
The Amber Doll Project exposed Hawk Swanson to the community of doll owners and allowed her to develop meaningful connection with them. A judgmental attitude towards doll owners soon turned into feelings of compassion and acceptance, as she herself recognized owing the maturing of her agency to an object that is deemed as having none.
Dolls for Catharsis
See how the dolls resent us,Margaret Atwood, Five Poems For Dolls, 2000
with their bulging foreheads
and minimal chins, their flat bodies
never allowed to bulb and swell,
their faces of little thugs.
When do dolls stop being a therapeutic tool and become a full replacement for humans?
An interesting testing ground for this question could be found in the relatively widespread phenomenon of love dolls ownership in Japan. Compared to other countries, Japan is less affected by the stigma of love dolls ownership.
There are in fact some subculture communities that identify in the purchase of love dolls the adhesion to a certain lifestyle, or the realization of a romantic ideal that is not available in the average Japanese dating landscape.
Ever since 2011, Japan has seen a trend of population decrease that gives no sign of stopping. Long life expectancy and low fertility rate add up to a series of cultural norms and socioeconomic conditions that make family projects lose their attractiveness.
Although Japanese society still values the man being the breadwinner in each households, about 40% of men work in irregular jobs. Those who don’t, they find themselves in conditions of poor work-life balance.
Women are increasingly present in the workforce and more than before focused on their career. The custom of abandoning a career track after the birth of the first child seems not only impracticable, but also disadvantageous.
Such economic uncertainty results in a parallel drop in romantic relationships. A survey led in 2016 showed that 60% of unmarried women and 70% of unmarried men aged 18-34 were not in a relationship.
Starting from such premises, French anthropologist Agnès Giard conducted a study in 2004 that was published with the title Un désir d’humain: les Love Dolls au Japon (Les Belles Lettres, Paris, France, 2016).
The primary engine of her study was to understand the reluctance of Japanese producers towards marketing love dolls in Western countries. Love dolls are in fact perceived as an endemic phenomenon of Japanese culture: designers and retailers resent the possibility that, in Western countries, love dolls would be seen as mere sexual objects, devoid of the emotional component that makes them so popular among Japanese consumers.
As a first remark, Giard highlights that the name for all artifacts targeting an adult audience goes under the name of love dolls, unlike the Western nomenclature of real dolls or sex dolls. The name used in Japan already frames dolls as objects that arouse sentimental kinship.
The cult of love dolls first started in Japan in 1977, when Orient Industries introduced on the market Hohoemi, a limbless dolls that only had a face, breasts and a hole roughly representing a vagina.
Back then, Hohoemi was not marketed as a recreational sex device, but rather as an emotional support for people in psychological distress -for example, widowed men, disabled men and men affected by social anxiety.
The design lab and the factories were trailed by an open psychological support center, that served both as think tank for the production of new models and as a complementary service that came on top each purchase of a love doll.
In such a framework, love dolls were not sold, but rather married to their human companions; if broken or defective, they were not returned to the customer care center, but they rather came back to their family house for their funeral.
To this day, every year in November a hair lock of each “dead” love doll is cut and sent as an offering in a Buddhist bereavement ceremony, before their plastic bodies are shipped to a recycling plant.
The Japanese love dolls market has always differentiated itself for its insistence on the “humanness” of the dolls. The technical features of the doll are described with the same terminology one would use for a non-synthetic body, so the doll doesn’t have components, but limbs; not a wig, but hair; not urethane, but skin.
The humanness of the dolls excites a desire in the owner to take care of them.
This last aspect is extraordinarily evident in the latest models marketed by Orient Industries. Whilst browsing on the company website, one cannot help but noticing a remarkable age shift in the looks of the dolls.
Aided by the otaku culture, the demand is now oriented towards adolescent, and even prepubescent, bodies. As Giard brilliantly puts it, “The desire [of doll owners] is no longer that of aging together, but rather of regressing together”.
These dolls don’t have the same intimidating sex appeal of their Western equivalent. They look introverted, docile, possibly even uninterested in sex intercourse. Their submissive, silent presence transforms them into whatever the owner wants them to be.
According to Giard, these dolls in Japan are especially popular among males in their 30ies who recognize themselves as belonging to the otaku subculture. Fed on manga and videogames, their imagery revolves around imaginary female characters, and they have no interest in approaching real women: their idea of beauty is already perfectly embodied by these dolls.
More often than not, these dolls don’t become sexual partners, but are dressed up, coiffed and posed in charming scenes to be photographed. Although their exploitation as sexual companions remains undeniable and they frequently represent the only bodies with whom some of these men have sexual intercourse at all.
This endless space of possibility comes with its dark shadows and ethical conundrums. If the only scope of dolls is to create an empty space that the owner will inhabit with their reveries, are they in the end enablers of dangerous fantasies? Are they responsible for reinforcing violent paradigms that are subsequently transferred onto other human beings?
Krizia Puig, in her acute Master thesis The Synthetic Hyper Femme: On Sex Dolls, Fembots, And The Futures of Sex (San Diego CA, US 2017) describes the artificiality of dolls both as a fertile ground for misogynistic, racist and post-colonial narratives and as the territory where dolls exert their agency.
As far as it goes for sex dolls, her research is mainly focused on Real Dolls produced by the American Abyss Creations.
She ascribes their growing popularity to their being a model of perfect synthetic femininity (and since recently, also of perfect synthetic masculinity).
The most marketed models resemble white, heterosexual, cisgendered, thin women. Whenever they are not white, they set their markers of diversity in the perpetuation of racial stereotypes: full lips when they emulate a black woman, wide hips when they emulate a Latina, etc.
But these signifiers of ethnicity are constrained and harmonized to the dominant white, male, cisgendered, heterosexual gaze. There is no real effort in knowing and celebrating the diversity of non-white bodies. Body diversity is reduced to an optional add-on, and especially bodies of minorities are treated as bodily waste, that can be objectified and subjugated to release impulses of rape or violence. In some way, diverse dolls are proportionally popular to their capability of reproducing social dynamics of domination through technology.
According to Puig, Real Dolls synthesize in one body all the characteristics of perfect femininity, according to the values of patriarchal societies. In some sense, they deliver what Judith Butler would call a convincing gender performance.
Their loyal interpretation of the role that patriarchy wants to assign to women makes them preferable to real women who fail at acting beautiful, polished, thin, submissive, dependable and deprived of agency.
But is it possible that the agency of dolls lies exactly in their act of passive resistance?
Dolls: Subverting Power And Control
“The passive resistance of the immotile statue stands up to the motile viewer, leaving them in the position of choosing how to act.”David J. Getsy, Acts of Stillness: Statues, Performativity, and Passive Resistance, 2014
In his work Simulacra and Simulation (1981), French sociologist Jean Baudrillard first introduced the word hyperreality, to talk of the society we live in, that is distinguished by “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality”. Synthetic models and artificiality influence, anticipate and dictate the representational canons of what is considered “real”.
We research in human interactions some of the same stimuli we have experienced in our interactions with dolls, or fictional characters, or robots. Our same idea of (wo)manhood is molded, if not tethered, onto the emotional response we had when first interacting with human-like objects. Isn’t this an unequivocal sign of the agency of dolls?
Dolls mediate our relationship with the “real” and irredeemably modify it. Even when their contribution in the relationship is simply allowing us to be, they enfranchise us to be an uncensored version of ourselves.
That may indeed result in gruesome outcomes, that technology has exacerbated further.
Deepfake porn for example, or the alarming increasing trend of verbal violence against AI, happening most frequently when the voice of the digital assistant is female, are possibly an updated variant of our aggression of dolls.
But, as Puig proposes, it is not unthinkable that we could channel the mirroring power of dolls to pioneer societal change.
If dolls designed by dominant groups reinforce the dynamics in place, is it possible that more inclusive designing teams would pivot a breakthrough in human connections?
Can we decolonize bodies by starting to be more listening, and less biased, in our creative endeavors?
Can we become less ableist, by refusing to sell the myth that only a certain type of body is “normal”?
Can we defuse the caging mechanism of gender performance, by objecting the obligation to make a doll’s body recognizable as “female” or “male”?
The endings of such an experiment remain unpredictable. As we have seen all across this partial overview of our life with dolls, the substantial question that remains unanswered is, how do we act towards an object that defies us with its stillness? Is violence more innate in humans than empathy?
The power of such questions has preserved the presence of dolls through history and both our present and our future are likely to move on together with these impenetrable idols, that dialogue about our own existence with their eloquent silence.
-Umberto Eco, Storia della bellezza, Bompiani, Milan, Italy, 2004
-Agnès Giard, Un désir d’humain: les Love Dolls au Japon, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, France, 2016
-Salim Hashmi, Ross E. Vanderwert, Hope A. Price, Sarah A. Gerson, Exploring the Benefits of Doll Play Through Neuroscience, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, October 1st, 2020
-Christine E. Looser, Thalia Wheatley, The Tipping Point of Animacy : How, When, and Where We Perceive Life in a Face, Psychological Science 2010 21: 1854, originally published online 19 November 2010
-Masahiro Mori, The Uncanny Valley, translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki, in IEEE Spectrum, June 12th, 2012
-Krizia Puig, The Synthetic Hyper Femme: On Sex Dolls, Fembots, And The Futures of Sex (San Diego CA, US 2017)