Images of Humanity: Storytelling and the Doll

Dolls are frequently dismissed as children’s toys. Might there be deeper significance behind them than we are willing to entertain?

© backpack photography with CCLicense
© backpack photography with CCLicense
A pair of dolls from Peru in my collection.

When I was a kid, my father traveled several times to South America. He brought me exotic dolls that were dressed in the costume of the towns and regions where he purchased them. I would unwrap them and gaze at their beauty, then we would carefully wrap them back up until the next viewing. Even at a young age, I knew these dolls were different than Strawberry Shortcake and Barbie. They were not for play. Most of them were not mass produced from plastic– those that were always seemed much less unique and special.

So, if a doll isn’t simply a toy, what is it?

Girls playing with a Campbell doll, New York City, 1912
Public Domain Image

First of all, even toys have purpose. Dolls help children to prepare for future experiences and interactions by letting them imagine the thoughts of other people. Tea parties with toys are experiments that later shape how we build our circle of friends. Did you surround yourself with baby dolls, who might just have foreshadowed younger siblings and, more distantly, sons or daughters, or did you parley with exotic beings and people from foreign lands who might inspire interest in different culture? Who was at your table? I always prized stuffed animals far above all of my human dolls, and completely ignored baby dolls. Now I’m in my upper thirties, happily married with two cats and no kids. If you want to know who your child is, observe them with their toys and see what they are drawn to. These tendencies will be tempered by experience, but they are the underpinnings of personality and are never completely erased. As we play, we are.

Puppets and dolls are built for storytelling. Children spend hours thinking up conversations and putting toys into all sorts of situations. For many kids, this helps to relieve the loneliness of childhood. It is comforting to go to sleep with a friendly and familiar doll after a rough day, especially if the child is surrounded by adults who have their own worlds to deal with. As we get older, these characters still have resonance for us. They connect with archetypes in our subconscious and find their way into our dreams.

© Danny Choo with CCLicense
© Danny Choo with CCLicense

Dolls are powerful tools for codifying values and behavior because they make an impression on a subconscious level, especially when introduced before the human being has mastered language and nuance. There are plenty of women that grew up with the tyranny of Barbie and her impossible body proportions. Even more traumatizing is the unfortunate pregnant Barbie whose entire stomach lifts off to expose a baby that is much too clean and shapely to be newborn. After all, we wouldn’t want to scare the children with honesty, right? Dolls transmit some of our earliest information about body image and yet they have very disturbing anatomy. Are we really so uncomfortable with our own bodies?

© Castles, Capes and Clones with CCLicense
© Castles, Capes and Clones with CCLicense

Men, did you think that you escaped? Dolls marketed for boys are often called action figures. Boys haven’t traditionally played with baby dolls and Barbies, but they’ve had cowboys, superheroes, and Darth Vader (I confess that I had two Darth Vaders). Many of these characters have clothes molded to their body, clothes that make the man and render him recognizable. There isn’t anything underneath. To make a generalization, we have long encouraged girls to bear and then nurture children, all the while watching their figure, while pushing boys to look for action, identify with their career and exhibit strength. Then we complain that women are from Venus and men are from Mars.

Ethnic dolls aren’t innocent either, stemming from a desire to codify appropriate dress and behavior in an attempt to hold onto the past and resist modernization and cultural blending. They can be used to promote negative stereotypes of outsiders or to create iconic images of cultural heroes, reminding us of the exclusion and inclusion at the childhood tea party. Certainly there is value in remembering and honoring the past, even as there is value in embracing the future, but it helps to be aware of that there are always agendas that seek to guide our understanding. As we have already seen, dolls can be excellent pieces of propaganda.

Pahlik Mana, Water Drinking Girl
Pahlik Mana, Water Drinking Girl Kachina
Image Used in Accordance with Fair Use Policy

Some traditional figurines, such as the Kachina of the North American West, are seen as the embodiment of spirits or gods. These beings inhabit the crafted image, making it sacred in the eyes of the worshiper. Medicine men and voodoo practitioners use dolls to heal, harm and enchant. These forms have religious connotations that make the label of doll almost inappropriate, but they operate in similar ways. Instead of seeing the figure as a model for human interaction, for telling human stories, these dolls are models for interacting with deity and spirit.

There are other uses for dolls that are generally considered taboo in polite company, those that connect the doll with fetishist and sexual urges, bridging a gap that many find distinctly uncomfortable. Is this the grown child who continues to find solace and companionship with the inanimate rather than risk experiencing romantic human interaction? If we could get over our embarrassment, would we be able to understand such behavior and address it with less fear?

Puppets in Karnataka, India
Puppets in Karnataka, India
© Prassanare with CCLicense

When we admire or enjoy a doll, we are activating and reinforcing our methods of interpreting and experiencing the world around us. Memory and imagination can seize upon these figures as a way to connect us with our younger selves, just as our younger selves used them to imagine the future. Such connection can be surprisingly intense.

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