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I was thinking about baby dolls

Image of the painting Girl with Doll by Federico Zandomeneghi

In the public domain, accessed via wikicommons

The train of thought started with a girl banging a baby doll against her arm. I was on my way to the bus stop. The girl and the doll were both blonde and pale-skinned; the doll was battered and without clothes, the unconvincing cloth middle of it showing between its realist limbs, its hair tangled and sticking straight up. Its proportions were babyish but probably wrong. Hands and feet too big, I think.

The girl was maybe six. She might have been either distracted or annoyed, conscious or unconscious of what she was doing with the doll. She held it by its feet and knocked its head against her arm over and over, without emotion. For the girl the doll was currently a mere object, that was clear. In that moment, it was not a being for her. Mother carried on talking on the phone, trying to sort something out, her child always at the edge of her consciousness.

That is where I started thinking about the structure of playing with dolls, the way they shift back and forth so quickly from object to being in the actions of the playing child. This shift never seems to present a problem; it is easily accepted, part of the everyday use of baby dolls.

Anyone caring for children who play with dolls has seen them act out feelings through the doll relationship, sometimes care and love, sometimes frustration or trauma. Children cuddle dolls, sing soothingly to them, shout at them, smack them and make them do things they don’t want to do. Then they throw the doll in a basket or a box. In an instant it is a thing again, entirely devoid of being-hood. We have often seen sweet and disturbing reflections of relationships in doll play, an uncomfortable mirror. Uncomfortable because while we are conditioned to think it is about learning to nurture, doll play is also about exploring anger and the impulse to violence. In girls especially, we find this disturbing. 

The doll is an object onto which children can shift their powerlessness without worry or fear, because of its magic ability to be both being and object.

My own daughter’s first words were simultaneously “baby” and “no”. By baby she meant the idea of a doll – her baby doll, any doll. At the same time, she also meant herself and other babies. For her the idea of the baby object, both living and doll, was simultaneous with her ability to refuse, to say “no”, to put that position outside of herself as quickly as possible. This refusal was her first speaking act. That is who she is. I think I would love her for it even if she weren’t my daughter.

These thoughts reminded me of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, of that picture of what it is like to perform this first relation and refusal on object/beings which do not resemble you, which, by design, place you outside of outside. To experience trauma and have only an already alienating object on which to act it out.

Speaking of alienation, the innovation in dolls in the mid-twentieth century was of course the repurposing of a sex toy, Barbie, for consumption and identification by little girls. I loved Barbie for a few years, while my sister played with my brother’s GI Joe. That reminded me of a book on girls’ subversive play with Barbie, published in the 90s and which I can’t seem to find now. While looking though, I did find this (good bibliography at the end if this is your thing).

So anyway, are dolls the way we learn to work through the whole painful business of self and other, especially in terms of violence and caring? I’m thinking of baby dolls in particular, because they so clearly elicit a caring relationship, one that children recognize even before they have speech. They recognize the doll as my daughter did, as a representation of themselves which they can relate to outside of themselves. They can other it. That relationship of caring and prohibition, of cuddling and anger, might it be where we first learn the ability to recognize and respect the subjectivity of others? To acknowledge frustration, anger and caring and to work through and separate them?

This led me finally to the prohibition on boys and baby dolls, which, like everything else to do with gender identity, has become more not less strict during my adult lifetime. What is at stake in our general refusal to allow boys to work through the whole messy problematic of caring for others? In not allowing them that magic tool which can shift back and forth from object to being and help them work out the difference between the two?

This whole train of thought feels uncomfortably like some inverted psychoanalytic formulation. That is, it is worryingly structuralist and universalizing. I don’t generally like that kind of theorizing. Culture is inconceivably multiple and one unified narrative will never account for all of it, will always leave things and people out.

But maybe we could take it as a loose proposition. Because the other thing I watched, on the same day I watched the girl banging the baby doll against her arm, is Brett Kavanaugh reacting in the face of a victim of sexual assault with a level of anger that was positively bizarre. Almost as if the request that he acknowledge the whole violent, messy problematic of his actualized relationship to this other being struck at his very center, as if he felt it in a place outside of reason. He displayed the emotions of a very young child so clearly. Could it be that he was stuck in that place and that the culture had colluded to keep him in it? Could it be that there was a fundamental piece of work involved in the boundary between himself and others that he had never done?

I think the relation of children to baby dolls is fundamental to this work. It is no accident that we do not encourage boys to do it, that failure is a synecdoche for something much larger. I once saw a father react violently to the very suggestion of his own son’s desire for a baby doll. The fury on that father’s face was so familiar; I have seen it at faultline moments all my life. I saw it on the news just the other day.

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