Dolls are fascinating and creepy, always

In the course of doing some research on childhood in the early eighteenth-century (more on that later), Historiann came across a fascinatingly creepy photograph of a doll that is apparently the oldest rag doll preserved in any American museum. (See the amazing web site developed by Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts.) She became more mysteriously creepy when I learned that her name was Bangwell Putt, and that she was kept by her blind owner over the course of her lifetime that spanned the 1760s through the 1840s:

Bangwell Putt, ca. 1770, at Memorial Hall, Deerfield, Massachusetts (

Bangwell Putt, ca. 1770, at Memorial Hall, Deerfield, Massachusetts (

captain-scarlet.jpg Captain Scarlet, the indestructible foe of the Mysterons

Bangwell Putt made me think about the Lonely Doll books by the enigmatic oddball Dare Wright, and Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet TV series, which were some of the most interesting artifacts of my own childhood. Both creations were based on the photography of dolls as actors in stories.

edith-lonely-doll.jpg Edith, the Lonely Doll edith-and-little-bear.jpg Edith and Little Bear

Captain Scarlet and Edith, the so-called Lonely Doll, have very little in common, aside from being dolls. Captain Scarlet, who “fate has made indestructible,” is the star officer of Spectrum, an international high-tech defense force that works to save Earth from the evil designs of the Mysterons. (Actually, Spectrum seems for the most part to work for a quasi-United Nations organization.) The stories are pretty transparent Cold War fantasies inspired by James Bond movies–Captain Scarlet looks like Billy Zane (when he still had hair), and his voice is a really bad Cary Grant impersonation. All of the “actors” in Captain Scarlet are Ken- and Barbie-scale dolls (or perhaps marionettes), and the animation is crude compared to the digital perfection studios can offer today. But in a way, their obvious doll-like qualities–their stiffness of movement, their precisely tailored tiny clothes–is what makes the show utterly fascinating. It’s like being a fly on the wall to your own games of childhood make-believe, only with unbelieveably realistic and extremely cool sets, equipment, and accessories–my Barbie FriendShip (ca. 1973)-a-go-go. (Check out this unbelieveable fan site, complete with back stories for all of the characters, Spectrum Headquarters.)

In contrast to Captain Scarlet’s dangerous world of secret agents and faith in technology, Edith and her friends Mr. Bear and Little Bear offer domestic tales in a lower-tech setting in black-and-white still photography. In The Lonely Doll, the first book in the Lonely Doll series, Edith is a felt doll with an extensive wardrobe, and she lives alone in midtown Manhattan in her own apartment with a terrace. The bears just show up on Edith’s terrace one day, and Mr. Bear becomes a surrogate father while Little Bear serves as a surrogate little brother. When left alone one day, Edith and Little Bear discover a secret dressing room full of grown-up women’s clothes that Edith was apparently unaware of although it’s her apartment they all live in. They play dress-up and experiment with lipstick, and when they get caught Mr. Bear administers a thorough spanking (although no one ever explains why Mr. Bear might be keeping a mysterious closet full of women’s clothing and shoes). Once again, it’s not the story that’s so interesting, but rather Dare Wright’s moving and evocative photography of her own childhood doll with the two teddy bears, posed in imaginatively designed sets in Wright’s own midtown apartment. The fact that Edith and Wright shared the same hairstyle in the 1950s and 1960s and had very similar wardrobes is another somewhat disturbing detail–Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll documents all of the ways in which Dare Wright’s creation was very much a projection of herself and her own unresolved family conflicts and childish fantasies.

Perhaps dolls (and our memories of dolls) allow us all to work out family conflicts and childish fantasies. All I know is that when my mother got down my suitcase full of old barbies about five years ago, my sister-in-law and I were magnetically drawn to them. We both reached in and started dressing them up, posing them, and making them “walk” and “talk” again after twenty-some years of neglect.

Abraham in Arms on Steve Goddard's

Many thanks to Steve Goddard’s for noting that Abraham in Arms is now available in paper for the low, low price of $22.50.  It’s loaded with action-packed stories of war, village raids, captivity, daughters lost forever, brothers in arms, grieving parents, macho insults, and intercultural cross-dressing!  Colonial American history the way it was never told to you in school!  And fortunately, the Marxist feminist cant is kept to an absolute minimum. 

 While you’re in the buying mood, click on over to History Wire.  Steve features a very eclectic book list, and updates it almost daily, which means he must read a hell of a lot.     

Of Patriots and Pantloads

This week in ad hominem attacks on American university faculty and students:

Former Republican administration Press Secretary Tony Snow boldly declares that “the average Iranian is more pro-American than virtually any college faculty in this country.”

A Princeton University junior and conservative activist sends himself fake hate-mail and then beats himself up to claim (falsely) that he was beaten up because of his conservative views.  The usual suspects leap to his defense before his fakery is quickly unmasked.

A book jacket by a Republican Goucher College graduate claims that women elementary school teachers with degrees from Brown and Swarthmore are the face of modern American fascism.

And some people wonder why it’s sometimes difficult to find registered Republicans on some humanities faculties.  (Via Tenured Radical.)

The Invisible Princess, by Faith Ringgold (2001)

invis-princess.gifBecause it’s the Christmukkwanzaastice season, please allow me to recommend a wonderful picture book for all children, but especially for little girls who are in the thrall of the Disney Princesses. I won’t waste valuable blog real estate here listing everything that’s wrong with the D.P.’s, but for me, it’s not their simpering dependence on handsome princes, their bizarre narcolepsy (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White), their boobalicious couture (The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas), or their overwhelming whiteness (all but Pocahontas, Jasmine, and Mulan). It’s their lack of anger–their cheerful acceptance of their servitude, and their naive belief that things will get better without getting angry and doing something about it themselves. I could almost handle the bland, rhinoplastic aesthetic (and the singing mice) if only Cinderella would get righteously pissed-off and clock her stepmother with her mop handle and run away. Seriously: if you found out that all along you had a Fairy Godmother who allowed your labor to be stolen from you throughout your adolescence and young adulthood, you’d kind of wonder what the whole point of a Fairy Godmother was, right? And when she swanned along one night to grant you a wish, you’d go for something a little bigger than a night on the town, even if it came with a new Narcisco Rodriguez frock and car service.

For little girls and boys (or big girls and boys, whatevs) who may have sustained the kind of brain damage necessary to believe that Cinderella has a coherent narrative, I prescribe Faith Ringgold’s The Invisible Princess. It’s a fairy tale based in American history in slavery times, and features a princess who is not powerless, but rather uses her power to free her entire plantation. Her parents, Mama and Papa Love, were childless for many years because they feared that any child they might have would be torn away from them by their master, Captain Pepper. When their daughter is born, they ask that she be hidden away from danger, thus with help from the powers of nature, she becomes the Invisible Princess. This book is valuable not just for offering another vision (and aesthetic) of what a princess could be, but also in introducing children to the history of slavery. Slavery is introduced on the first page as an institution that tears apart families–fathers from mothers, and mothers from children–which is not only historically accurate but a highly effective means of helping children today understand the crime of slavery. In my opinion, redemption comes a little too easily for Captain Pepper, who is permitted at the end to join the Invisible Village of Peace, Freedom, and Love along with the people he enslaved and tortured, but it’s a fairy tale, right? And even Historianns need a holiday. Happy Christmukkwanzaastice.

Not a very good story

In the last post, I mentioned something about how your children might not want to have Historiann over to tell bedtime stories.  My winning ways with young children go back many, many years.  In 1995 when I was still an earnest graduate student, I visited a friend of mine who had a 5 year old.  Hannah was in love with the movie Pocahontas, which the Walt Disney deathstar had just foisted on the unsuspecting public.  (I’ve come to really like the movie as an entertainment product–good songs and animation, and I’ve even used it in teaching my survey class.)  As an earnest graduate student with little familiarity with young children, I felt the need to tell Hannah the “real story” of Pocahontas.  So, I said, “Actually, Pocahontas didn’t love John Smith, she married a man named John Rolfe.  She then visited England, and died of smallpox there.”  Like all sensible five-year olds (and many undergraduates, actually), Hannah paid polite attention to the clueless adult, then turned away and continued chattering away about the Pocahontas she wanted to believe in.

A few years later, Hannah’s mother called to tell me that the story I told lived on, much to her surprise.  She said that Hannah was playing with a friend at her house, who said, “let’s play Pocahontas!”  Hannah then said, “Do you want to hear the real story of Pocahontas?  Well, she didn’t love John Smith, she married John Rolfe, and went to England and died of smallpox.”  Hannah’s friend blinked, and then said, “Well, that’s not a very good story!”

And that, my friends, is why Disney makes the big money, and chumps like me dig under the couch cushions for loose change.

Bodily modification, gender, and the pornification of MLB

It’s very interesting to hear the high dudgeon that has greeted George Mitchell’s report on steriod use in Major League Baseball.  No one is shocked that superstars like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were juiced–we know it’s not an accident of improved nutrition that they suddenly bulked up in their mid-30s and achieved more at this relatively advanced age than they had as younger men.  We just disapprove.  Imagine–what will we tell the children?

Well, here’s what I’ll tell the children:  women in the public eye whose bodies are their livelihood are highly modified, sometimes now even before they’re out of their 20s, and we not only expect it, we applaud and reward it.  Actresses and models routinely subject themselves to breast implants, butt lifts, “mommy makeovers,” botox and silicone injections, and other surgical and medical interventions so as to “improve” themselves, fight ageing, and otherwise get an edge on their competition.  Why do we regard the female body as open to modification, while we insist that men do it all with just personal trainers and clean living?  What is Pamela Anderson’s grotesquely pornalized body if not the female equivalent of Barry Bonds’ comic-book heroized body?  Everyone knows that Anderson’s breasts are not her own, and that she’s a mother of two children in her 40s, and yet the fact that she has sacrificed comfort and health in the service of male fantasy makes her more desirable.  The funny thing is that the ball players’ bodily modification was done not in the name of making themselves more sexually desirable–although that may be a pleasant side-effect of being the Home Run Kings–but to serve male fantasies too, the fantasies of male fans who want to be served up home runs and no-hitters all day long without their sports heroes tiring.  It’s this pornified male fantasy that has paved the way to steroids a-go-go in MLB.

And it’s also why your children might not want to hear too many bedtime stories from Historiann…