by Thomas O’Dwyer
A pretty doll in a box at the foot of the bed – what could make a better Christmas morning for a little girl?
“Aaw, she’s so pretty.” The doll promised happy days to come – hair to brush and style, outfits to make and match, private chats to be had. Good chats, with someone who only listened, never talked. A doll was the essence of childhood for millions of young girls over centuries, even millennia. A toy became a baby, a little sister or even a “little me”. The doll was a simple thing until the middle of the last century but alas, it is no longer, like childhood itself.
“You can’t find toys like that anymore,” say the oldsters about their memories of playthings. In reality, grumbling adults are indifferent to such things, unless they are collectors. To children, toys and dolls are as new and exciting as they have ever been. We may think modern dolls have morphed into figures of complexity, controversy and even creepiness. They have become trend setters, celebrities and psychotic misfits – analysed, criticised, rarely praised. Are dolls still loved? Are they innocent companions – or sexist props, propagandists for adulthood, training aids for womanhood?
It is narcissistic, this human urge to fashion models of ourselves, and it’s quite ancient. In prehistory, dolls represented some aspect of religion. Gods themselves are invisible dolls, fashioned in the human image and likeness. Early dolls were fetishes. The origin of this word was in sorcery, charms and spells, exposing the purpose of dolls. The fetish differs from an idol in that it is worshipped for itself, not as a representative of an invisible spirit.
It is unsurprising that little humans adopted these images as playthings. Archaeologists have found carved female figures in Egyptian tombs from as far back as the 21st century BC. Many were well worn before burial, indicating that someone had played with them. Many were found in groups along with musical instruments and dance trappings. This suggests that their aim was to entertain the departed person – dancing dolls. Stories from classical Greece refer to dolls as playthings and the theme is universal. Ancient Japanese and African dolls combined overlapping functions of play, magic and spirituality. Those that have survived are of carved wood, stone, ivory or bone – the nonperishable rag and straw dolls have long since disintegrated. Dolls were common in the Americas, north and south, before Europeans arrived. The new settlers added corn and rag dollies. In some regions of South America, in a ritual named la última muñeca (last doll), a 15-year-old girl dances one last time with a doll. She then surrenders it to an adult, to symbolise the end of her childhood.
The English word “doll” is relatively modern. A dictionary of slang published in 1699 has the entry: “Doll, short for Dorothy. Also a Child’s Baby.” The word began to replace puppet, baby or babies’ baby after it appeared in a 1751 article in the London Gentleman’s Magazine. “Doll” had for long been a pet name for women named Dorothy, as Sal is for Sally. Up to the 19th-century craftsmen made dolls to look like adults. Baby dolls appeared around the middle of the century, and by its end child and baby dolls predominated. The concurrent appearance of the doll’s house hints at the role of dolls in the Victorian-era West. These upper-class toys were passed from mother to daughter and at first were models of the family house. The child’s doll was not the companion it became in the 20th century, but it was a child’s baby, or more accurately, a girl’s baby. Boys did not play with dolls and dolls’ houses but with tin soldiers and toy trains. So dolls and their houses groomed girls for their lives of motherhood and house management.
Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, scandalised Norway in 1879. In it, Nora Helmer declares she has been treated like a doll, a plaything, all her life, by her father and then by her husband, Torvald. He demands that she do her duty as a wife and mother, but Nora says her duties to herself are equally important. Her slamming of the door as she leaves her “doll’s house” was a loud bang that echoed through the rigid patriarchal households of Europe.
Victorian dolls’ heads were made of porcelain, and the bodies of cloth, leather or wood. Wax dolls also proliferated before 1900 as modellers won commissions for imitations of Queen Victoria’s children. With the arrival of plastics in the 20th century, doll industries boomed when many new materials became available. Mass production rose, but manufacturers became aware that they were selling only to half of the world’s children. Boys might secretly play with their sisters’ dolls, but no young guy worth his developing manhood would be seen dead with one. In the early 1960s, the American company Sears tried to market Johnny Hero as a “boy’s doll” – this description alone doomed Johnny to oblivion. In a stroke of genius, the Hasbro toy company in 1964 coined the term “action figure” – and launched G.I. Joe. The military Joe with his changeable uniforms was a manly and successful start to the boy-dolls industry.
While boy dolls tried to catch up, eventually moving from the military into science fiction and superheroes, girl dolls continued to race ahead. Dolls as pretend babies could only go so far – growing girls were losing interest. With “teenage” newly established as a distinct stage of human development, it was also a significant new marketing target. Ruth Handler was the wife of Eliot Handler, the founder of the Mattel toy company. She noticed that her pre-teen daughter Barbara gave adult roles to her paper dolls while playing. At that time, play dolls still represented infants. Ruth suggested that Mattel consider adult-looking dolls but her husband and his partner said parents would never buy sexy looking dolls for their daughters. Ruth persisted and Mattel unveiled Barbie at a New York toy fair in March 1959.
Yes, Barbie had breasts, and in Europe so did her copycat, Sindy. But more important than breasts, Barbie had accessories. This is the marketer’s dream – pioneered by King C. Gillette and carried on by modern makers of printers. (Gillette sold cheap razors to increase a continuous market for blades). Before Barbie, parents bought a doll and that was it, apart from finding some scraps for dressmaking. Now they had to buy accessories, and continue buying them, and then along came Ken. (The Handlers’ children are Barbara and Ken).
Barbie and her imitators attracted much attention from child psychologists and feminist activists. She was pretty, but also successful. She began as a teenage fashion model, but Barbie has since been an astronaut, surgeon, athlete, TV anchor, air force pilot, diplomat, engineer – and much more. A Paris Louvre exhibition in 2016 displayed 700 individual Barbie dolls along with a mountain of material about her. In 2015, Christie’s of London auctioned an Andy Warhol painting of Barbie for $1.1 million. Feminists still grumble she’s not one of them, and equate Barbie with a bimbo. Other women say her body is ridiculous, her form as unrealistic as her careers. And Ken – call that a husband? Some regard the Barbie-Ken duo as borderline creepy. Which brings us to the dark side of dolldom, and how dolls turned from innocent cute babies into sinister objects of horror.
This is a journey to Uncanny Valley, a haunted place where inanimate figures look human – but not quite; something is a little “off”. The uncanny valley hypothesis is shown as a rising graph which indicates that as objects become more human-like, we grow more empathetic towards them, up to a certain point. This point becomes a cliff edge from which the graph plunges into a vale of revulsion. This is a real phenomenon – toystores have refused to stock dolls that are so lifelike they repel customers, and designers are aware of it. But if designers of toys – or more recently, robots – press on through the uncanny valley, adding more lifelike features, something interesting happens as the accuracy improves. The graph of our empathy starts to climb again and leaves the uncanny valley. Presumably, when we achieve science-fiction quality robots, they will enjoy the same love as baby and pretty-girl dolls. Uncanny Valley is populated mostly by modern creations made for scary movies. It’s not clear how many dolls would have been regarded as creepy 150 years ago. But now we and our children have been exposed to Annabelle and Chucky from Child’s Play, and to all the dolls in Dolls. Poltergeist scored a double by also making clowns horrific rather than hilarious.
By extension, we have rediscovered the grotesque and cruel aspects of children’s lives, as well as their individuality. Adults might have been aware that children could be cruel to their dolls – gouging out eyes and tearing off limbs – but it took Hollywood to introduce us to the bloody vengeance wrought by mutilated toys. And, as in The Shining, The Exorcist, and Village of the Damned, children too could be as evil and scary as their dolls. This is all a long way from the innocence of Tiny Tears, a much-loved 1950s chubby baby in a pink-check dress. She came with a baby bottle, a small pipe that blew bubbles, and little ducts that could drop tears from her big blue eyes.
Before the modern era, children in art often looked like little men and women. It was in the malleable wax doll’s head of the 19th century that we see the first likeness of a real baby. As the century moved on, even the clothing of dolls broke free from adult designs and, like their human counterparts, dolls became children. As the 20th century gathered speed, the dolls, and their owners, turned full circle to become wannabe grownups. Hello, Barbie and Bratz dolls – “girls with a passion for fashion” – and Darth Vader and Spiderman.
We are now in an era where dolls have again moved out of the child’s realm to share an adult one. Grownups have become serious collectors and restorers of antique and modern dolls. Since 1995 grown women have embraced “reborn dolls” crafted to look and feel like human infants, with as much realism as possible. They may bathe, clothe, and care for these reborns as if they were real, and some push their strollers around in stores and public parks. The practice has stirred the interest of psychologists, but for many people, the lifelike “infants” stroll a bit too close to the brink of Uncanny Valley. Anyone who had paused to admire a cute baby, only to realise it’s an artificial breathing zombie, will definitely shudder at the memory.
Also strange has been the sight of grown men in fistfights and riotous behaviour while trying to grab scarce toys in Christmas stores. The first doll craze was a genteel affair. In 1890, Russian artists Vasily Zvyozdochkin and Sergey Malyutin created the matryoshka nesting dolls that have become almost a symbol of their country. Matryoshka dolls suggested a pregnant mother – or a chain of mothers carrying on the family line. Matryoshka dolls were first shown at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. After a slow start, demand for the toys expanded until several factories were set up in Russia to export them all over the world. The dolls, now made in a myriad of themes far from motherhood, remain the most popular souvenir bought by visitors to Russia.
There were explosions of public demand for toy dolls in 1920 – Raggedy Ann – and in 1924, for a Flossie Flirt doll. But the Cabbage Patch craze of 1983-84 was something else. Riots erupted at toy stores across Canada and the United States as parents physically fought over these odd-looking dolls. Millions of children had started demanding them from Father Christmas, and frantic parents knew he had to deliver them. By 1984 sales of Cabbage Patch Kids and related merchandise passed $1 billion and 115 million dolls have since sold worldwide. Tickle-me-Elmo became a U.S. fad in 1996 and there was more violence over limited supplies and heavy demand. In 1998 parental battles and fights increased as supplies of the Furby robotic doll dwindled. Frustrated parents turned to the new Internet, where Furbies sold for two or three times their sale price. Many parents were cheated by another new phenomenon – online scammers who took their money and delivered nothing
A brief scan of today’s Internet shows that doll collecting is now a vast adult, and oddly male, enterprise. There are museums, auctions and online trading, plus a global network of doll hospitals. There is even a Doll Doctors Association in Maryland. The oldest doll hospital opened in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1830, but these are not repair shops where children bring their favourite toys to be fixed. Henri Launay has run his hospital in northeast Paris for 50 years and said in a newspaper interview that he had restored more than 30,000 dolls. Most of his clients have been adults in their 50s and 60s, he said.
“At the doll hospital / Two old ladies insert the stuffing in dolls, / their hair, their eyes,” wrote the British poet Dennis Silk. It’s hard not to make a judgment here — old ladies in search of lost youth, rejuvenating pretty dolls, probably for old male collectors. For the doll , it’s just a makeover, an eternal reinvention, as Christmas rolls around again, eternally. Out there, everywhere, some little girl is waiting to feel that delicious weight at the foot of the bed. So, there will always be a dolly, as songwriter Jerry Herman observed:
“You’re lookin’ swell, Dolly / I can tell, Dolly,
You’re still glowin’ / You’re still crowin’ / You’re still goin’ strong.”