Last weekend’s This American Life featured a story by Elna Baker that reminded me of the old days when TAL was brand-new and didn’t sound like anything else in the broadcast media. In an excerpt at TAL called “Babies Buying Babies” (click here and scroll up until you get to 40:17 in the show) Baker tells about a job she took as an aspiring actor in New York at FAO Schwartz, where she wore a nurse’s costume and faciliatated “adoptions” of “newborn” Lee Middleton Dolls. After the dolls were featured on a television show, they sold out quickly–of the white baby dolls, anyway–so the “nurses” were left to deal with hoards of irritated, wealthy white parents, most of whom resented paying $120 for a Latino, African American, or Asian baby doll. (The little girls were more flexible about loving a doll that looked different from them.)
I don’t want to say much more lest I spoil the story for you. I can say that it sheds light on disability issues as well as race and (disturbingly) sexuality, and the news is not good, folks. (Baker herself sets up an invidious comparison of a “factory reject [white] monster baby” versus “a nursery full of perfectly cute black babies,” as though a “disabled” doll was unworthy of adoption compared to perfectly formed dolls.)
Equally interesting for me, Baker’s story also speaks powerfully to the mysterious power of dolls that other inanimate objects or toys don’t have. Because they’re so clearly and recognizeably human, and because they’re generally representations of babies and young children, they demand not just to be preserved or displayed, but cared for. But as those of us who have played with dolls know, we also feel aggression and take out our anger on dolls. Baker speaks eloquently about these contradictory impulses: of not wanting to let a factory-damaged doll go to a nasty family, although this was a doll that she and the other nurses had jokingly named “Nubbins,” and merrily dropped him on the floor and banged him into furniture to make each other laugh.
My guess is that most of you who used to play with dolls will recognize what Baker is talking about.