Dolls from Around the World, part two: Folk Dolls and the Female Image

From inspiring imagination to setting expectations and limits, dolls teach concepts like gender and class. What do they tell us?

Japanese worker woman with beautiful face made from gofun, oyster shell paste.

We can’t interpret our world without creating context, including scientific hypotheses and myth. Society shapes the tools and images we have at our disposal to understand our world, accepting some archetypes and rejecting others. This post focuses on images of girls and women as portrayed by the dolls of different cultures.

Making a kokeshi on a lathe

Kokeshi dolls originated in northern Japan, where they are still made from wood on lathes or potter’s wheels. Traditionally, these dolls consist of a simple trunk crowned by a large head. Some, including the pair below, have necks that are loosely mounted into the body, making them a forerunner of  modern “bobble-headed” dolls. These bobble heads, or nodders, first appeared, along with body shapes that flare at top and bottom, in the village of Naruko.

The elegantly flared and belted body shape of this pair, the delicate crafting of their necks and the color palette used represent departures from traditional styles, which tend toward the sturdy and simple and favor bright colors. This hints that these were most likely made in the ten to fifteen years after World War II by an artist familiar with the Naruko style and were designed for tourists rather than children. This was the beginning of the sosaku, or creative, kokeshi, which emphasized the originality and style of the artist over the use of set regional forms.

Boy and girl kokeshi
Boy and girl kokeshi
She has longer hair with bangs and a hat or bow on her thick topknot, while he has an adorable short bowl cut that flares out in all directions and tiny, pointed topknot. Facial features are identical.

The stylized foliage and flowers that grace their kimonos speak volumes to anyone versed in the Japanese language of flowers, hanakotoba. The boy sports bluebells, signifying gratitude, and gingko leaves, signifying longevity and resilience. The girl wears cherry blossoms, signifying gentleness and short lived beauty, and juniper berries, signifying fertility and strength in adversity. Buck up, girls!

Kosode by Kojho
Kosode made by Kojyo, 1970s or 80s
The “hair helmet” has become standard on modern kimmidolls and the like. Kosode’s is special because of the striated highlights in her brown hair and the detachable red bow.

This is Kosode, Small Sleeves, created by Kojyo (Tanaka Shigemi), one of the most prolific kokeshi artists of modern times. Her stylish shape, with its triangular sleeved arms and ultra cute tilted head, became iconic among sosaku kokeshi artists in the late twentieth century and is still much imitated. Kojyo may not have created this template, but he certainly produced a definitive version. His son continues to make kokeshi under the Kojyo name. Her face and the front edges of her hair remain unlacquered, giving her a fresh and innocent air. We get the message that a pretty girl is like a flower without the use of hanakotoba.

Rasta or Sangoma dolls from the Ndebele people
Rasta or Sangoma dolls made by the Ndebele people
Fabric is stretched over reeds and other materials, secured by the neck rings and then decorated with colorful beads. The white partitioning on the face is standard, as are the red eyes rimmed with white.

The Ndebele tribe of Southern Africa make dolls that serve to announce and prepare women for different phases of life, including puberty, marriage, childbirth, and the entry of their sons into manhood. The Rasta doll is the figure of the Sangoma, a wise shaman who reveals the will of the spirits and upholds order in the community. The woman who holds her has attained this special status and can be trusted. Ndebele dolls, who have long mandated viable paths to womanhood, are now important export items and a source of income and independence for Ndebele women.

These dolls are built from inside out, each shell made to fit over the smaller one proceeding it. The center doll is solid.

The first Matryoshka, or nested doll set, was made by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and Sergey Malyutin in 1890, inspired by a Japanese doll made in Honshu. In the span of a few decades the Matryoshka became both a traditional art form and an internationally recognized symbol of Russia. The name is related to the feminine name Matryona and is often linked with the Latin for mother, mater. Traditionally, the outermost doll is a woman. Her shape is dictated by the figures inside her, which may be of any gender and often symbolize children, making the identification with mother Russia even more profound.

Matryoshka of serving females

The dolls that make up this Matryoshka are exclusively feminine and all of them are serving up something tasty to eat or drink. Even the baby offers a biscuit! It’s a colorful and humorous fantasy with a hint of misogyny, producing a bunch of kids from inside the mother doll, all ready and delighted to serve.

Ukrainian folk doll
Her hat bears a red slash, signifying that she is a soldier with the Communist Army of the Soviet Union and dating her creation to the time before, or perhaps slightly after, its dissolution in 1991.

A well dressed, attractive woman with a gun would get attention under any circumstances, but this rosy-cheeked, red-lipped and blue-eyed lass with amazing eyelashes isn’t just carrying a gun. She’s got a rifle with a drum magazine and is standing ready at attention. This folk doll from the Ukraine means business! Would you want to antagonize women who grew up with this image? 


As if that wasn’t exciting enough, she’s constructed from some interesting plant fiber. With the exception of the wood used to make her head and her rifle as well as a bit of thread and rick-rack trim for color, she’s made entirely from hemp. Yes, friends, she’s 90% cannabis: woven, glued, pressed into mats, tied into arms and legs, and curled into hair. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine used to grow a large share of the world’s cannabis. Some people are so uncreative as to think it’s only good for smoking, but hemp fibers make much better dolls than brittle straw!

Toluca bandita
She’s laden with ammunition but lacks a gun. What does this imply about her effectiveness and expendability?

This bandita hails from the city of Toluca, capital of the state of Mexico (not the nation). Her head is constructed from a small gourd covered in fabric, painted and lacquered, which accounts for the delightful chubby cheeks, while her hair is made from a horse’s mane. Her dress and sandals show diligent craftsmanship, and her ammunition belt is cleverly cut from corrugated cardboard. The genius of this doll is in economy and ingenuity.

Recent massacres in Mexico State have been perpetrated by cartel killers that include a 15 year old girl. One wonders if she played bandita growing up. There’s nothing wrong with playing bandita, unless you forget that you are playing. Dolls and doll makers can’t be held accountable for how we internalize their creations, but those images can be powerful when combined with experience.

I leave you with a few more images. The last one is perhaps my favorite; she’s got more character than any beauty queen.

Lady General Mou, Chinese silk doll, 1996. Silk over wire.
Mou Gwey Yin is a historical figure from the Song Dynasty, the daughter of a General that grew to be a formidable General herself. She remains an inspiring figure for Chinese women and has been given a treatment here that borders on the mythical, Chinese Opera style.
Colorful Mexican weaver woman
Beautifully constructed from painted Papier Mâché, folded and lacquered paper, thread and textile remnant. Another economical and ingenious creation. Weaving is pictured across Central and South America as a suitable and honorable occupation for women.
Japanese geisha doll
gofun face, beautiful robes and hairstyle.
Geishas are difficult concepts for Westerners. Being companions and helpmeets for men in addition to their wives, they can attain positions of honor in the community while not being accepted as family. They are required to be beautiful and pleasing.
Hand drum playing lady, Chinese silk
The delicate nature of the highborn lady, who would have had tiny, broken feet, necessitated that she not be overtaxed. This doll is similarly delicate and very light.
An Island Woman made by Scottish artist Sheena MacLeod.
The beauty of this woman lies in her rugged strength, revealed in her hands, thickened by work with fishnets and graced with a simple wedding band, and her face, roughened by sea spray. She also has a slight stoop. This is a figure of a real woman, with no apologies or excuses.

All images by Katherine McDaniel.

Leave a Reply