Life Like Dolls: The Collector Doll Phenomenon and the Lives of the Women Who Love Them
A. F. Robertson
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Since the 1980s there has been a growing billion dollar business producing porcelain collectible dolls. Avertised in Sunday newspapers and mailbox fliers, even Marie Osmond, an avid collector herself, is now promoting her own line of dolls on the Home Shopping Network and sales are soaring. With average price tags of $100 -- and $500 or more for a handcrafted or limited edition doll -- these dolls strike a chord in the hearts of middle-aged and older women, their core buyers, some of whom create "nurseries" devoted to collections that number in the hundreds.
Each doll has its own name, identity and "adoption certificate," like Shawna, "who has just learned to stack blocks all by herself," and Bobby, whose "brown, handset eyes shine with mischief and little-boy plans." Exploring the nexus of emotions, consumption and commodification they represent, A. F. Robertson tracks the rise of the porcelain collectible market; interviews the women themselves; and visits their clubs, fairs and homes to understand what makes the dolls so irresistible.
Lifelike but freakish; novelties that profess to be antiques; pricey kitsch: These dolls are the product of powerful emotions and big business. Life Like Dolls pursues why middle-class, educated women obsessively collect these dolls and what this phenomenon says about our culture.
sympathetic feelings for the collectors and for the older women in their families more generally. It reminded me of the anthropologist’s tendency to fall in love with one’s “tribe” and to use its customs to measure off all that’s wrong with our own society (overindulgent parenting, rudeness in public, etc.). For my own part, I feel puzzled about the obsessive aspects of collecting, but I have much sympathy for the passion with which the collectors relate to their dolls. My fundamental concern is
guessing about what they need. This presents us with a problem of interpretation: to explain why people need things like dolls, we may not find out all we want to know simply by listening to what they say. It is likely to be much more important to try to divine what they feel, which implies a more empathetic connection with their bodies. And as we all know, the deeper our feelings, the more difficult they are to put into words. Contemporary academic interest has fixed on desire as a mediating
depends very much on who you are—crudely, your gender and your age. Interestingly, young children don’t like them, and prefer something that looks and feels quite different. Not many adult men are enthused by the PCDs, or are in any way sensitive to the purposes they serve, although there are reports of “serious” male Barbie collectors.15 There have been some very famous male doll designers down the years, including Johnny Greulle, the creator of Raggedy Ann, and Pierre François Jumeau, who in
her toy firm, Mattel. Recast and named Barbie after Handler’s daughter, she sold 350,000 in her first year. Since she was “born” in 1959, more than a billion Barbies have been sold in 150 countries.40 Sales topped $1.8 billion in 1997, and have been sustained mainly by product diversification into clothes and accessories, and by an increasing emphasis on high-priced collectible Barbies.41 148 LIFE LIKE DOLLS Every year more than a thousand enthusiasts get together at the National Barbie Doll
appearance. Manipulating one of the main proportions (cheek width, eye spacing) is risky, although there is ample scope for individuality in detailed molding, brushwork, clothes, or accessories. 154 LIFE LIKE DOLLS Picture 8: Two American Girl play dolls, and the collector doll Gwendolyn. Top left: American Girl Samantha. Top right: American Girl look-alike doll, supposedly modeled on a real child. Bottom: Gwendolyn (Delton Collectibles). Photos by A.F.Robertson. MORE THAN REAL 155 Although