"I loved Nubbins"

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.

0 thoughts on “"I loved Nubbins"

  1. You end your post with a reflection on doll-playing, and it prompts me to wonder how much baby doll play (which I think is different than, say, Barbie doll play) correlates with the desire for children later on. I never played with baby dolls as a child: though I had access to them, I didn’t have the least bit of interest in them. My mom stopped buying them for me because of my complete and total rejection of them. And as an adult, I have never had the least desire to reproduce, either. I find this striking: Is my dis-interest in child-bearing something innate, that already was evident in my childhood play choices?


  2. Yeah–I wasn’t big on the baby dolls, except for one, and even then it was more about the dressing and undressing than the other, more “motherly” duties. I liked the fashion dolls and action figures more than the baby dolls.

    As for whether or not one’s adult preferences are discernable in childhood preferences? I think it’s highly likely. My favorite stories to read as a child were fairy tales and other stories from the Black Forest, and the Little House books. I’m neither a nineteenth century U.S. historian nor an early modern Europeanist, but rather, something that pretty much splits the difference between those fields. And I recall disctinctly that stories set in the past were always my favorites by far, compared to other children’s literature. (Charlie’s Angel dolls? I don’t remember them, but I like the concept. I had a Bionic Woman doll, and my brother had the 6 Million Dollar Man doll, which were both pretty cool.)

    And, Bing–I think the photo you link to is very far along the abuse part of the “baby doll love versus abuse” continuum.


  3. Back in the mid-80s, when Cabbage Patch dolls were all the range, a similar thing happened. It was “impossible” to get a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas, according to the media. A colleague (feminist sociologist) found one easily: she just bought her grand-daughter a black cabbage patch doll.


  4. The Cabbage Patch doll mania was bizarre–they were really funny looking dolls, I thought (but then, I was about 14 and had moved past dolls in my interests then!) The Cabbage Patch wars–or wars over the white babies, anyway–were one of the first modern retail Christmas stampedes that I can recall. I remember stories about humans doing violence to real human bodies in the service of obtaining a plastic humanoid form. Very, very strange.

    Besides–what kind of child who’s young enough to play with dolls would seriously let the absence of one present ruin her Christmas? (Adults ruin Christmas every year, don’t they?)


  5. I’m almost tempted to put in a (facetious) word for trucks here. Granted, they’re “inanimate,” and I don’t recall any illusion that they were to be “cared for.” (Maybe more recent versions have liftable hoods and tiny toolkits, who knows?). But the Tonka section of FAO-S up at Grand Army Square was responsible for quite a few door-buster episodes as well. And I bet some of the other dynamics cited here would have at least general analogues, if we could but scare up a focus group!


  6. This post has particular resonance for me today because the moms and I are just back from a family visit, where we stayed in a guest room that had one of those super-creepy American Girl dolls in a glass display box aimed right at the moms in the bed. For two nights, Moose barely slept, so terrified was she by the big blue eyes of the proto-fascist super-white girl in the preternaturally crisp pink dress. Talk about anger and aggression aimed at a doll! It’s a miracle she didn’t smash the thing to smithereens. Thank dog for the reservoirs of repression built up during her hyper-proper Midwestern youth.


  7. I was the right age for cabbage patch, but I remember as a child (okay, the child of countercultural lefty intellectuals), that the CP “preemies” freaked me out. The sentimentalization of premature infants just seemed bizarre to me even as an eight year old. Interesting that being premature is considered a marketable disability. How about today? Are there other marketable disabilities for dolls?


  8. dolls were banned at my house; discussing the political reasons why has turned into a great introduction to intersectionality in my intro courses.


  9. notyettenured: The Cabbage Patch preemie–wow, that was weird, wasn’t it? I think there are dolls made now to depict disability, but they’re still produced for a niche market rather than mass-marketed.

    prof bw–I’d love to hear more about why dolls were banned. Do you approve of the ban in retrospect, or do you resent it still?

    And Roxie: yes, very creepy, the Coffin Doll effect. Which historical era did the AG doll depict? (I’m strangely drawn to dolls, but as play objects, not as museum pieces.)


  10. I found the Cabbage Patch Kids preemies creepy, but the girls my age who were into dolls certainly did not. To them, they were just baby dolls that were smaller, and hence more appropriately sized for a 3’8″ mother. Most young children didn’t have the awareness that being born prematurely was a medical problem. I did have that awareness, because my father was a pediatrician; I paid many visits to the intensive care nursery, and heard nearly daily stories about the problems the various preemies were having. The one other kid I remember who was really turned off by the dolls had been born prematurely himself and as a result was much more knowledgeable about premature births.


  11. I enjoyed hearing the Nubbins tale again (it was a repeat). I’ve heard it a few times, and whenever I listen to it, I can’t help but giggle in delight and horror.

    Have you read Life Like Dolls by A. F. Robertson? It’s a good read about people who collect porcelain collector dolls.


  12. I have not read that book, but will definitely check it out! (When will TAL starting giving us some new programming? It seems like all of their shows are just cut up and re-pasted together re-runs from old shows.)


  13. Sadly, I see the “Nubbin’s” story played out by little girls every time I volunteer at my daughter’s preschool. We live in a very diverse area, and her classroom dolls reflect that diversity. But no one ever plays with the the dark skinned babies, not even the African American little girls.


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