Thinking about dolls – research in progress


Two posts today as this one is very much from the academic quilter.  I thought I should leaven the lump with some pictures on a second one.

This post is about the work I have been doing on dolls.  As part of this work I have been reading about puppets and trying to understand exactly what is ‘going on’ with dolls.  Why are they so loveable and so creepy simultaneously?


This post is a bit of work in progress which came about through reading Kenneth Gross’ Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life, which made me think about how far I have got in understanding my own relationship to my dolls as a maker.  So, this is how far I have got.

Gross writes in his introduction about:

…the hand’s power and pleasure in giving itself over to the demands of the object, our curious will to make the object into an actor, something capable of gesture and voice.  What strikes me here is the need for a made thing to tell a story, to become a vehicle for a voice, an impulse of character – something very old, and very early.  The thing acquires a voice. ( p. 1)

I like several things about it – the power and pleasure of the hand.  You would think from this that Gross is a maker as that knowledge of the two elements suggests someone who has experienced making at a deep reflective level.  There is something seductive about the power to bring something new into the world, particularly something as proxy-baby like as a doll through the work of your own hands.  There is also intense pleasure in making something and then having an object which you want, in my case something of beauty, in others’ ugliness, comedy, elegance or any of the other aesthetic categories discussed by Antonio Strati in his work on organisational aesthetics.  And the insight continues into thinking about what has been created, and this bit is specific to doll makers: the thing acquires a voice.  When I am making my dolls they have a back story and this emerges as I make their faces, choose their clothes and accessories and give them a name.  Many contemporary makers are interested in creating objects with stories and voices, assemblage boxes like the work of Joseph Cornell come to mind, and I have read books on mixed media work which insist that story is the starting place, real or imagined.  Dolls, however, have a special claim because they resemble us, and we all have stories, the myths we live by, to quote Mary Midgeley.  While I construct my dolls I hear the impulse of character – and I did this with my Threads of Identity pieces: the anthropologist’s piece, the missionary’s piece, the interior designer’s piece but these did not move beyond the impulse of character to the full working out of individual and specific character.  Those pieces remained generic for the viewer to construct imagined identities for themself, but the dolls have names and written stories.  And as Gross points out in his slightly sonorous tone, this is very old – people have always made dolls with characters for all sorts of reasons, and very early – from childhood my Barbie dolls had extensive back stories, and before that childhood toys formed friendships and wove relationships together.

He returns to the theme of narrative further on in the introduction:

Puppets do not have thoughts, they are more like our thoughts, as if our minds were populated with remnants of the older more cliched stories that we manipulate and manipulate us.  (p. 13, emphasis in original)

This seems to me to be a reference to the idea that we have stories which we live by, narratives of self that we tell and retell until they become fixed.

Dolls are not only mundane playthings for children.  Gross insists that doll/puppet making can be a metaphysical if not arcane activity:

 It is the closest thing we have in the ordinary human world to the transmigration of the soul from one body to another, or from one creature to another.  (p. 7)

I am always interested in why it is that I find it so difficult to sell work.  I can usually give it away, but I am reluctant to exchange money for it.  Part of this is not wanting to infringe copyright, but I usually come back to thinking that it is because what I make is part of myself which is hard to sell.  Gross’s suggestion is that it is part of our soul that we put into our dolls, and selling one’s soul is both difficult and risky.  Literature is full of the dangers of animating dolls, a fear which is also at the heart of science fiction stories about rogue automata and robots.  We want our animatronics squarely under our control, like our women in Ira Levine’s great Stepford Wives dystopia.

Further on there is a passage which chimes with my own developing  ideas about the ventriloquist’s dummy or the drag act: it is a permissive form which allows us to say things which might otherwise be subject to censure, self or otherwise:

Puppets also have often been asked to say things or show things otherwise not permitted; it is a theatrical mode whose words and actions are more able to slip under the radar of official censorship, something too trivial to be taken quite seriously by the authorities.  (pp. 17-18)

They become, ‘a mouthpiece for thoughts otherwise unspoken, or otherwise too dangerous to attach a name to’  (p. 17).  Puppets, dolls, dummies and drag acts ‘get away’ saying dangerous things because they are other, they are uncanny in the sense of being between two worlds and difficult to pin down.  Puppets, dolls and dummies are classic cases of the uncanny in the Freudian sense, disturbing because they cause us confusion.  We know that they are not alive, but we treat them as though they were.  We know that they are not alive and yet we cannot deny that they have some form of animation.  Drag acts are slightly different because the life force is not in question in the majority of cases, but the whole point of a drag act is to overcome uncertainty which is then frequently undermined.  David Bowie’s video for ‘Boys keep swinging’ which is freely accessible on the internet (, is a good example of this.  He sings as a heightened version of his masculine self, taking up a lot of space, absorbing all the energy of the spotlight.  He also drags up to play three backing singers, two of whom end the show with the classic wiping off of the lipstick, defiantly smearing it over their faces with the back of their hands, but the third walks off stage maintaining the act but staring down the camera in an unsettling way.  Is she Bowie in drag or is she a real backing singer?  We know the answer but we have an unsettling moment in which think she might be real because she refuses to work within the rubric of the typical self-revealing drag act.  Good as Bowie’s drag is, this is the subtlest part of the performance, and the most unsettling.

Gross ends his introduction with another telling observation.  As Mitchell asks ‘what do pictures want?’ Gross asks, what puppets want from us, and gets at another thing about them that makes them unnerving or uncanny: their patience:

the puppet’s staring eyes look at me with a candor, with a demand for attention, that I cannot forgo.  It is patiently waiting for something.  (p. 25)

This strikes me as the same impulse as our fascination with the idea of dolls coming to life when left on their own.  There is a potential in dolls: they might do something, they are waiting for something in the future with endless patience.  We suspect that they are sentient in some way even when we know that they are not.  They almost raise the question when does life begin?  I remember all the processes of making that went into the doll: finding the cloth and the pattern, cutting, stitching and stuffing.  I know the doll isn’t real, but I cannot deny the impetus to character, the urgency of the story, the latency of life.  As Gross says:

With puppets, one is always conscious of their closeness to made things, with their joints, stitches, hinges, and solid, insentient substance.  Yet these creatures take up this made-ness in a way that goes against the grain.  They are dead things that belong to a different kind of life.  (p. 28)

So, the dolls belong to human life because they mimic human form, but they have a different kind of life of their own, this potential, suspended, about to be life in another modality.  In the many worlds ontology of quantum mechanics, there is a world where the dolls are in charge and we are playthings, made-things, that are picked up and put down at will. All of which is another explanation of their uncanniness.

Gross moves on, ‘Puppets are the size of fetishes, saints’ relics, voodoo dolls, and talismans’.  (p. 39) so we have the link with ritual objects.  This is another source of uncanniness – dolls as thresholds or threshold companions to another world.  They are of this world and of another world, a frightening and dangerous world of the supernatural.  They can be used for apparently innocent child’s play, and for harm against the person, for religious veneration and for dangerous magical rites.  Dolls never yield their ambiguity.  He comes back to this in his conclusion:

I am always drawn to the idea of life in nonliving things, the sense of animation in what appears inanimate, voice emerging from the object without voice, the earless thing that seems to hear, the eyeless thing that looks back at us, or that simply thinks in silence its own thoughts.  There is a moment when this lifeless object seems not just moved but self-moving, a thing with a soul, a need, a desire, a power of sensation or intent of its own, variously comforting and frightening.  (p. 163)

This is a good encapsulation of why dolls are uncanny: they are always both of these things good and bad, comforting and disturbing, known and unknown.  I wonder if there is something about one of a kind (OOAK) dolls, dolls made for adults, dolls made to give adult pleasure, sometimes pornographic or erotic and sometimes not, which is not so true of dolls made for children. I might be idealising childhood, but it seems to me that children enter into relationships with their dolls for an extended period, whereas there is something voyeuristic in dolls made for adults. Barbie started out based on Bild Lillli, a pornographic German doll made for the adult male market, and in my research into OOAK dolls I learned how to put nipples onto Barbie dolls.  Power over has been transformed explicitly into pornographic power.

This, of course, brings us to issues of sexuality and therefore almost inevitably to gender.  Dolls are subject to the gaze.  Customised OOAK Barbies, and Silkstone Barbies for example, are exclusively made for staring at and never for playing with:


This is one of the more innocuous dolls, although there are other more extreme ones made for male and female consumption. There is, as anyone who has watched a child playing with dolls a clear gender imperative in such play: girls learn how to be little mothers, and boys learn how to be warriors, the two roles Western society still requires them to play for real in later life.

So, this is a bit of a snapshot of why I am with my thinking about my moustache dolls and drag dolls, a slice of research in progress.


Kenneth Gross (2011) Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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