From inspiring imagination to setting expectations and limits, dolls teach concepts like gender and class. What do they tell us?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
All images by Katherine McDaniel.