Violence against dolls and women

Date:  June 9, 2010

Time:  10:50 a.m.

Place:  In the Northbound lane of an unimproved road in Lenawee County, Michigan

Longtime readers might remember that during my visit to Michigan last June, I stumbled upon a lot of dolls–in antique shops, and in museums.  Well, I almost literally stumbled over this one yesterday as I was out for my run.  Here she is, complete with a homemade sarong.  I put her on the side of the road in a patch of grass, in case the child who so carefully sewed the homemade dress for her drove back down that road to find her.  But, six hours later I went back to check, and no one had claimed her.  She’ll join the one I found on the beach in Maine last week on a run–a Barbie-like doll who had received an unfortunate haircut and was naked but appears otherwise uninjured.  I’ll give them a sunny afterlife in my herb garden.

It’s never a stuffed animal or other child’s toy that I find along the roadside.  It’s always beat-up or mutilated female dolls–baby dolls, Barbie-type representations of grown women, it doesn’t seem to matter.  I find it disturbing–which is why I can never not pick up an abandoned doll.  It may be a primitive impulse I’m responding to–one that demands that I never leave behind a sick or disabled humanoid.  It may be more than that, though.  There’s far too much tolerance and naturalization of violence against women in our culture.  I suspect that the abandonment and cruel treatment of dolls–always female dolls–might be related to the violence against real women’s and children’s bodies.  I don’t mean to suggest that violence against dolls and violence against women and children are related in a functional or direct way–that doll abusers become abusers of real children and women.  Rather, I’m suggesting that we think about the fact that abusing dolls and (apparently) throwing them out of moving vehicles isn’t at all a taboo in our society, but rather is an expected aspect of play with tiny, female humanoids. 

Date:  June 4, 2010

Time:  11:30 a.m.

Place:  On a sand beach in southern Maine

Would we tolerate the widespread abandonment and mutilation of tiny representations of other members of society?  What if only dolls of one phenotype were tossed out of windows, or burned with lighter fluid, and found on isolated, rural roads?  What if only dolls of men in tiny suits were strung up in trees or buried on beaches?  Would we dismiss them blithely as child’s play, or would we read them as more disturbing signs of symbolic violence against those members of society?  But it’s only female dolls who are regularly stripped and subjected to mutilation, limb removal, torture, and violence.  (Most, but not all, of my found dolls are phenotypically white, but all are or were at one point recognizably female.)

Sorry to get all serious in a post about dolls.  But, these are serious questions.

28 thoughts on “Violence against dolls and women

  1. Historiann: now providing shelter, advocacy, and support services to battered dolls! Your thought-provoking post tempts me out of lurkerdom.

    I follow what you are saying about widespread acceptance of violence against female bodies, which is indeed worrisome. That said, I wonder if the apparent prevalence of abuse of female dolls might be explained in part by the sex ratio, which in the doll world is skewed quite dramatically toward the female sex. Whereas sex distribution among humans is something like 105 male/100 female, among dolls it is more like 5 male per 100 female (a wholly unscientific estimate based on what I see in playrooms, catalogues, and toy stores). Really, boy dolls, of both baby and fashion persuasion, are much harder to find. Growing up, we had one or two boy dolls, but we didn’t actually play with them much, and so they stayed in the toy box: it was the girl dolls who got to see the world, and so were exposed to adventure, danger, and inevitable mishap.


  2. Koop makes a good point about ratio. When I was a kid, my friends and I destroyed our share of GI Joes, usually from taking them apart and reassembling them with parts from other Joes. The friend who taught me that trick had an entire collection of mismatched action figures (you know, because boys aren’t supposed to play with dolls). And, I remember discovering numerous GI Joes of unknown origin in various backyards.


  3. I know there are more girl dolls than boy/man dolls. But why? Who’s making that decision? Why are children more interested in girl dolls than boy dolls? There may be more baby dolls proportionally than adult dolls in the human baby-to-adult ratio, too, so I wonder if it’s a status issue with sex as well. There are a LOT of stuffed animals in the world, but I never find them on the sides of roads. Maybe an equal amount of violence is expressed to dolls of every kind, color, and sex. But why is it only the female dolls who are tossed on the road and abandoned?

    I used to torment my brother’s G.I. Joe and Steve Austin dolls too–but not with torture or dismemberment. Tellingly, we dressed up Joe and Steve in Barbie clothes to humiliate them, but we never hurt them. It was only the Barbies that we tattooed/pierced/gave haircuts/strung up/spun off of turntables/etc.


  4. Don’t forget Barbie Death Camp at Burning Man!

    Koop’s point is very true: I had several girl-dolls, but only one Ken. I used to like to take off their arms, then insert the arms into the sleeves, loose. The knob at the shoulder end, where it “plugged into” the body, was too wide for the end of the sleeves, so the arm would slide down and then get stuck towards the end, thus doubling the perceived length of the arms. When I then put the shirt back on the doll, the effect was gorilla-like: my Ken, Barbie, and Madge could all knuckle-walk. This was an equal-opportunity grotesquery, by the way.


  5. I’m not sure boy dolls is the right equivalence. As Historiann says, abandoned/destroyed stuffed animals are way less common, but they’re probably not less common as toys.

    Very disturbing to realize how pervasive the miasma is.


  6. OH!! I fotgot to mention that I have a mostly naked, tattooed Ken living in my kitchen at this very moment! He is an old circus prop: he wears a tiny, homemade top hat and a pair of tidy whities, but that’s it. I believe the tattoo was already on him when he was purchased at a thrift store — a sort of abstract design on his upper arm. He has lived in my kitchen for several years, and brings back fond memories of the circus heyday.


  7. Wow, this post brings back the memories. I loved popping the heads off my Barbies then trying to put them back on. Ken’s head went back on just fine, but the girls’ heads have that ball in their necks which always made the girls look like their holding their breath or chubby when you put the head back on. –I wonder what that means?

    My spouse and his brothers had inventive ways of mutilating their GI Joes. They even created a ketchup paste to resemble blood. We’re still finding body parts in my in-law’s back yard.

    Besides the great memories, this post brings up an interesting (by that I mean disturbing) point- we as a society are so fascinated with mutilating and humiliating the human body that it is even playtime for children, albeit plastic miniature representations. No one ever showed me how to sacrifice or tear heads of my Barbies. Just came naturally…


  8. Historiann wrote: “Why are children more interested in girl dolls than boy dolls?”

    I’m guessing that kids are more interested in same-sex dolls for similar reasons that they are often more interested in playing with same-sex friends from preschool on through the early school years. How much of that same-sex preference is innate, and how much is cultural pressure is hard to say.

    I certainly wasn’t interested in playing with boy dolls: I wanted dolls that reflected ME, or (in the case of barbies) the idealized future me I imagined for myself. Kens were window dressing, fragile flowers with molded hair who did nothing but sit at home and drink tea. Our two Kens were wounded war vets: one was missing an arm, and the other’s spinal column had snapped, so he had to live out life in a roller skate as a paraplegic. Their dozen Barbie friends led much more exciting lives as schoolteachers and WWII spies, and they were more sturdily built, to boot, with proper ball-and-socket joints about the shoulder.


  9. Read Toni Morrison’s _The Bluest Eye_ for a different perspective on this. The narrator talks about how, as a child, she loved mutilating white baby dolls. I count as white by the definition that currently prevails in American society, but I remember reading that and sympathizing.


  10. You really never find stuffed animals on a run? That’s about all I find walking around my neighborhood in Philly. Could it be some sort of polling effect where we find what we’re looking for? (In my case, it came out of an interest in roadside memorials from when I lived in NM). I tend to leave ’em lie since I assume they were once part of memorials to victims.


  11. As a child, I was absolutely desperate for a boy baby doll and also a black barbie, but both were unavailable in the whiter than white female doll-world of the UK (or possibly my rural region). It’s much more diverse now I might add! Eventually I got a single Ken-like doll (it was actually one of the New Kids on the Block) to go with my hundreds of female barbie and barbie-like dolls, but never got a black barbie. I also got a Malaysian barbie, which was one of my favourites because she had black hair. So, I think I was looking for diversity in my doll-life.

    But, I never tortured my dolls, or even gave them haircuts, because I thought it was wrong to interfere with their bodily integrity.


  12. (Also coming out of lurkerdom) I agree with Koop that the ratio of female dolls to male ones is probably why you only find female ones on the side of the road, but I do wonder if female dolls lend themselves to mutilation more than male dolls do. Action figures are designed to be just that; they generally aren’t that distinct from one another visually and they’re meant to be played with by being inserted in action-packed storylines. Barbies come in themes but those themes are simple and expressed in their entirety in the dolls’ outfits and accessories. Their designs and the way they’re marketed always draw attention back to the dolls’ bodies and don’t really encourage children to make up stories for them. Kids are usually pretty creative and will make up stories for their Barbies anyway, but I wonder if the tendency to rip the dolls up comes in part from a frustration at not knowing what else to do with them.

    Also, Barbies look like they were designed as separate pieces -I don’t mean their physical construction but the way there’s clearly a ‘pointy breast’ part, a ‘skinny waist’ part, etc, that don’t make sense together from a biological standpoint, as if the designer was just going through a checklist of attractive body parts, and also the way bits of the doll change depending on the theme, while the basic outline of the body stays the same. If the doll doesn’t look like she’s supposed to have a stable, cohesive body or a unique identity anyway, it’s not as big a deal to physically decapitate her. I didn’t think about it that way as a kid, but I think I sensed it on some level. And, for what it’s worth, I never made up personalities for my Barbies or felt compassion for them. I loved my stuffed animals, but I always felt sort of angry at the Barbies.


  13. Clothes. Girl dolls get better clothes. And more abundant and variable clothes. That’s one of the main reasons girl people like girl dolls.

    I come from the era when Barbie was slutty-looking, not cheerful and smiling. My mother wouldn’t let us have Barbies because they were “too sexy.” We had Tammy dolls. They didn’t wear heavy eyeliner, and they didn’t have enormous pointy breasts. Which means they didn’t really do justice to the endless stream of Barbie clothes my grandmother (NOT my mother’s mother) sewed and crocheted for us.

    I don’t believe Tammy had a boyfriend like Ken. Perhaps she wasn’t wearing enough eyeliner.


  14. My daughter (4) has a thing for dolls – whatever that means – and plays with them endlessly, and often while she is by herself. All are dutifully and safely kept. Each day, she stages a different social event, engaging everyone from She-Hulk to Strawberry Shortcake. If she ever lost one, she would be absolutely crushed. Now, if that ever happens, I can tell her that H-Ann, the legendary critic, has a special garden for lost dolls, where they dwell in peace and fulfillment.


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  16. Sorry to come back to this so late, but I just remembered why none of my action figures made it the point where they could be passed on to my children (unlike the box labeled “Barbie crap” that started with my wife, went to her sister, then to cousins, and may be coming back to us this summer for my daughter). While I don’t want to divulge details, there were firecrackers involved. And sometimes bottle rockets. Or lighters. Sometimes this had to do with the special effects for the stop motion animation movies my friends and I made in Jr. High. But most of the time not.


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  20. I see no sinister meaning in this. Very young children are the ones who bring their dolls everywhere. Very young children are forgetful and have many other toys to distract them. If they are truly upset by the loss of a toy it is far easier for parents to purchase a new one and either admit that it’s new or pretend the old one has been found.

    In my experience stuffed animals are encouraged to be left inside, partly because they get filthy much more easily but also because they mean so much more to the child. Stuffed animals are seen as pets by children whereas dolls are recognized as toys. This is why dolls are constantly evolving, baby dolls gain new features to make them more lifelike while barbies and Bratz get new outfits accessories and dwellings.

    A friends mother recently purchased her daughter “Novi Stars”: Dolls that sing, light up, can be taken apart and come in shades of clue and green. (I think they are alien rockstars?) As I grow older grown-up dolls get stranger while baby dolls creep towards the uncanny valley. Stuffed animals however have hardly changed. This is because a doll will not keep a child’s interest long.

    Children recognize that these tiny humanoids are merely reproductions of the people they see in the world. No matter how cleverly made they are lifeless hunks of plastic. Stuffed animals on the other hand can easily become “real” As a child I never loved any of my dolls. barbies were kept in a drawer, packed together like human sardines, baby dolls were kept in a toy chest. I took meticulous care of my stuffed animals though, arranging them on shelves so they could all see and breathe.

    I would never have dreamed of hurting one of my animals, but because I recognized the dolls as toys I felt quite comfortable treating them any way I wished to. My antics were constricted to haircuts and terrible clothing choices, clothes made out of tissues and toilet paper, or no clothes at all. I had a kitten who saw my barbies as toys and delighted in pulling off their heads. and nibbling at arms and legs. I found this endlessly amusing as a child and would give him my least favorite barbies to play with.

    By contrast I also had a dog who would come into my room at night and take any animals that had fallen from the shelves to be his chewtoys. I would find them covered in slobber the next morning sometimes leaking stuffing from small holes. I would angrily scold the dog and wash them off. If there were any injuries I would cry and insist my mother drop what she was doing to sew them up IMMEDIATELY. I treated the animals as though they were bleeding to death in my arms, yet paid no attention to the barbie heads I saw beside them.

    I think you would be hard-pressed to find a child who “loved” a certain doll. It is difficult to believe that these humanoids are real, so children do not form the same emotional bonds as they do with stuffed animals. The dolls you find have been treated with carelessness and human curiosity, not malice.


  21. I bought my own Barbie with my own money at age 12. The first doll I had was a baby doll until we moved at age 5. We were poor. I had been given dolls until age 12. and a bag of cheap miniture plastic figures formed onto thin plastic base for standing on flat surfaces. When I bought Barbie by myself and on my own, my parents told me that dolls were only for girls and homosexuals. They destroyed it. Their arguments did not have validity with my behavior or gender. I had no sisters. Therefore, I was not influenced by bias. My desire was to be a boyfriend or dad in replication of my gender role. I was attracted to Barbie and not my GI Joe. THAT is a heterosexual and not a homosexual response. It made me become an avid collector. For everyone they destroyed, I bought one or more. I also burned two in my life to prove my masculinity to myself. I threw some out in public places to observe the response of males and females to them. Both sexes destroyed them. The female adults were not as destructive as the males. I never had but three stuffed animals ever. I realized that if I loved them, auch actions were not needed to prove my sexual identity or masculinity. Barbie meant more to me because they cost me my time and money.


  22. What a great blog you have! I was a child during the heyday of monster films, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing. My dolls alternated between being vampires and their victims, sacrificed to Satan, or were time traveling history professors. If you ever find a vintage barbie with red ink vampire bites on their necks, it was probably my doll! Raggedy Ann was my fav when it came to sacrificing to Satan. She was perfectly floppy. Andy and Uncle Golli would come to her rescue. LOL!
    I still love dolls, and collect them. Occasionally, I still play with them.


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  24. I was a sexually abused started early
    I never told
    I heard stories about how I always took the voice boxes out of my dolls
    I cut off all the hair
    I scribbled on their faces with ink
    Was this a result of my abuse?


    • My granddaughter is doing the same thing. Up to this point we have not found a doctor who takes this seriously. Even doctors seem to fear going up against a man.


  25. I had a Barbie when I was a child that I destroyed. I think it was because, as an abused child myself, this doll was how I saw myself. Ugly, wrecked, disgusting and broken. I identified with it more after I’d cut all its hair and drawn over it in Sharpie. I guess, in some ways, the mutilated Barbie is a symbol of how society treats women and is often a reflection of the negative things we feel about ourselves, the negative things other people have made us feel.


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