Dolls, uninterrupted

In July, I had the chance to visit an interesting store in New Orleans, Oh Susannah Doll Shop – all things doll, but, alas, with little time to peruse thoroughly and decide which of the precious items I was most in love with so that I would purchase it. The collection was outrageously varied, ranging from tiny plastic babies in a carriage to large, upsettingly realistic representations of girls as dolls in poses totally incompatible with what normally is perceived as “dollness”: dolls that express emotions (of fear or boredom), in awkward positions, in highly personalized clothing. These dolls can’t be really dolls in the traditional sense, because they are not blank, they are not the tabula rasa a girl wants to project onto it her own self-representation. They are an individual artist’s rendition of a girl idea, a sculpture to be admired rather than a toy to be handled and integrated into someone’s life. And that brings the question of what a doll really is and what dolls do. Are they age-limited, in terms of representation and user? Are Grandma Claus real dolls, if they do not reflect any girl’s identity, the way a Barbie may do? What about a boy-doll? Dolls are also a fertile terrain for feminist inquiry. What do men mean when they call a woman “doll”?

Actually, dolls are just a branch of the general craft of “technology of the self”, by which people have been trying to fashion human-like simulacra of different forms and uses, from early modern homunculi to mannequins to XX-century robots. But dolls are toys – let’s take this as their basic definition. In any case, dolls obviously reflect the ideology of their time, much as all children-related items do. They represent the notion of the “ideal child” which real children are encouraged to be.

Although not children’s, my favorite literary works related to dolls are Alistair MacLean‘s Puppet on a chain (which I read as a child), José Donoso’s “Chatanooga Choo-Choo” and “La muñeca menor” by Rosario Ferré. Dolls in those books are scary automata, powered by revenge or introducing unwanted change. They are standing in place of a human being that is made impossible by the circumstances – patriarchal social order, men-dominated world, a threat by an assassin. Hardly toys, the dolls in these three cases represent women who were first objectified by men but then assumed their own independent life.

A brief internet search of the term “doll” spits out an endless list of doll-related pages, articles, and catalogs. My favorite source for dolls is The International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, which of course places dolls firmly within popular culture and gives them a comfortable place in their collection. I also love this comprehensive museum of toys in Tallin, Estonia. And when I am in Italy, I am definitely planning to see the Museo delle bambole in Varese.

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