Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why Dolls Matter

Dolls. I have so many stories. I still have my first dolls, hand-made, two-foot-tall cotton ladies with the most lovely dresses, whom I named Dorfy and Cinnamon-Rose. Dorfy, being the biggest and strongest of my dolls, eventually sat under the growing pile of her little charges, and kept them safe while I was away from the house. Cinnamon-Rose eventually went to my younger brother, who renamed her Friend.

Paulus, the baby-doll which my mother apparently bought at a discount because he'd been accidentally stained with permanent marker in the store, was my favourite. He slept with me every night, and travelled with me to visit my Dad until I was a teenager. This is a secret I kept safely hidden until some other teens discovered him in my bag and pulled his head off. In one of multiple such emergency surgeries, my mother sewed it back on. It never mattered to me that he had a line on his back, or that his neck had a bit of hard plastic and a stitch-line around it. Didn't matter that his cheek was scraped by a bit of too-abrasive scrubbing on my part, or his toe chewed off by my beloved dog. He was my baby.

My Dad owned a toy store for most of his life, and through him I learned quite a bit about what he considered "wholesome dolls". He never sold Barbies, American Girl Dolls, He-Man or Cabbage Patch Kids, but instead stuck close to Waldorf and other more "playable" baby dolls. He explained that "playable" meant children could connect with the dolls on their own level, with their own emotions, and their own narrative. Dolls shouldn't come with a pre-ordained backstory or emotions; they should have a neutral personality, so that they can assume the roles dictated by children's imaginative play.

Children's imaginative play is not always nurturing, as I learned from my friends who dismembered their Barbies and incinerated G.I. Joe dolls. And it wasn't until I had my own children that I discovered how important children's experience of dolls can be.

my son nursing Aslakay and Paulus
I bought my son his first doll when he was almost two, and I was soon-to-be pregnant with his sister. I took him to the department store baby-doll section, and said he could have a look and tell me if he liked any of them. He considered a very cheaply-made Cherokee collector doll, until his eyes landed on a lovely little black baby doll, with which he was smitten. "OK", I said, wanting to be sure he was certain of his choice, "let's check out another store and we'll come back if this is still your favourite". He perused the babies in the next store disinterestedly, until he once again discovered the same little black baby doll, and begged me to buy it for him. Well of course I did! His choice was clear. He named his baby Aslakay - also something he was unwaveringly certain of, although to this day I have no idea how he came up with it. Other dolls came and went, but Aslakay was the only doll he ever really loved. He changed him and nursed him, told him very exciting stories, taught him to play trucks and to roller-blade and to dance ballet, took him for wonderful backyard adventures, and fathered him very carefully.

My daughter never had dolls. She only had babies. She cuddled and talked to them before she could stand. She dressed them, fed them, counseled them, sang to them, took them everywhere with her, and even put on a years-long series of dramatic events such as rock-concerts, baby-circuses, and baby-coronation-ceremonies with her closest friends and their babies, who were 'cousins' of her own babies. The social scene between those babies was quite complicated! One day during a baby-circus training session (three 9-year-old girls and their acrobatic cotton/plastic babies turning flips and flying trapeze under the magnolia tree), my mother heard the lyrics to their show-music from her front porch:
Hey girl, open the walls, play with your dolls
We'll be a perfect family
When you walk away, it's when we really play
You don't hear me when I say,
Mom, please wake up
Dad's with a slut, and your son is smoking cannabis

No one never listens, this wallpaper glistens
Don't let them see what goes down in the kitchen

~from Dollhouse, by Melanie Martinez

It was alarming, to be sure, but those girls' play was allowing them to work out their questions in the world, to see themselves as caregivers and to question their own experiences, development, and opinions. Because dolls are people. And a human's constant work is learning to engage with and understand other people.

baby circus training session
"Me" - self-portrait by my three-year-old son
That's the thing we have to remember about dolls: As humans we are drawn to engage with other humans, and dolls represent humans. Vincent Reid recently proved that the human fetus preferentially engages with face-like visual stimuli. That's right: in the womb - even before we are conditioned to receive love and nourishment from humans with faces - we already seek to engage with them.
Humans have been making tiny humans for our children for millennia. We see faces and bipedal figures in everything from pancakes to tree-trunks to constellations. We want to look at other humans, and we want to bond with them. Children's early figurative drawings often look like big faces with arms and legs.

So shouldn't it matter what sort of humans we're bonding with - and how? Do an internet search for 'doll', and you will discover a myriad of options. Wait... first let's refine the search to exclude sex dolls, zombie dolls, and fragile porcelain artworks. You won't find soldier dolls immediately, but they're readily available, if that's the kind of role-model you want for your children. And they're no less personable than that $375 Bamboletta Forever Friend you've been eyeballing. In 1989, Hasbro tried to declassify G.I. Joe action figures as dolls, in order to avoid trade tariffs, but it was a no-go:
"... the individual personality of each of these figures, as evidenced by his biographical file cards and physical characteristics inviting "intimate and manipulative" play, 703 F.Supp. at 946, indicates that these figures are not comparable to the identical, immobile faceless toy soldiers of yesteryear that were sold in groups of a dozen or so in bags." 
~US Court of Appeals Federal Circuit, 1989.
While I don't like soldier-dolls, I can see that for some children they would be appealing. Just like my daughter and her friends were exploring ideas of domestic crises in their Dollhouse Baby Circus, children need to deal with experiences of war. We have a choice of how we facilitate those sorts of engagement. Dolls not only allow our children to explore and work through their own experiences with dramatic play; but the sorts of dolls we choose for them can influence the way they deal with those experiences.

As soon as my son could speak in partial sentences, he began telling us about his life as an "old man" before he "died", "lying on the side of a road", as he claims to remember. He talked about what we now think is somewhere around Lake Chad, where he was "a man with brown skin and black hair". At first these stories seemed absurd, then terrifyingly plausible, as he detailed a life that, when I Googled, became a perfect description of a place and time he had never experienced in the two years since he exited my womb. So I decided to just believe him - whether the stories are his own memories or some sort of quantum memory-exchange I'll never know, but it was my job to just listen and respect. For years, he talked lovingly about the house he and his wife lived in; how she made mats out of big grasses and he put those on the house for walls; how they had a fence to keep crocodiles out. And he told us that the soldiers came to his island with sticks and killed his wife and everybody else in his town. He escaped on a boat with his daughter Imapa, and he missed her very much. He talked about Imapa most of all. Having no experiences like those he shared with me, I was of little help to him in his quest for connection about these memories. Is it any wonder, then, that the doll he chose in the department store was the only baby doll with brown skin? He needed to play out his memories; he needed another opportunity to love the child he lost. Or so I imagine, and it doesn't matter whether I'm correct, or not.

my son changing Aslakay at his baby sister's change-table
Aslakay is a brown doll with a cloth body and plastic feet, hands and head. His body has been stained from the baby-wipe and washcloth cleanings performed by his two-year-old father. He's not the fanciest doll; not made with the kind of love that is tangible in some of the handmade dolls. But he's real. His face is the face of love that my tiny son needed in his life, and that is what matters.

When my daughter's dearest baby, Mimi, was lost on an outing with her plastic cousins, my daughter grieved. She grieved for over a year, losing interest in her other babies, and crying inconsolably at night. This event gradually led her and her friends to grow into other forms of play: board-games, theatre, art-making and magazine production, and an increasing amount of teenager conversation that is frankly as mysterious to me now as it was when I was a teen. But even without dolls, the bonds these children formed over their babies are still tight.

If you were hoping for a list of recommended dolls, you're not going to find one, here. I can only suggest that, if you're considering buying a doll for a child, it would be nice if the child can be involved in the choice. The doll your child needs will be as unique as your child, and as loved. The doll you give your child will represent his past and his future; his loved ones and himself, and only he can know what doll that is. It will be treated the way your child is treated by those in his family and community, and it will be the face of his dreams and fears and joys and sorrows.

my six-month-old daughter talking to her brother's baby
"The doll is symbolic homunculi, little life. It is the symbol of what lies buried in humans that is numinous. It is a small and glowing facsimile of the original Self. Superficially, it is just a doll. But inversely, it represents a little piece of soul that carries all the knowledge of the larger Soul-Self. In the doll is the voice, in diminutive, of old La Que Sabe, The One Who Knows. In this way the doll represents the inner spirit of us as women; the voice of inner reason, inner knowing and inner consciousness."
~ Dr. Clarissa Pinkola, Women Who Run with Wolves



  1. Another beautifully written piece. I love reading these posts. I just have one small correction. Paulus was not marked nor reduced price when I bought him. He was simply the nicest doll I could find. It was Benji (Adrian's cabbage patch doll) that had an ink mark on his cheek. This made the purchase even more remarkable as the price for those dolls rose to $300 just before Christmas that year.

    1. Oh... all these years I thought that story was about Paulus. Paulus has had a blueish sharpie mark on his back for as long as I could remember. Maybe I put it there myself! :-) Thank you for Paulus - and everything else, Mum.


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