Thursday, January 13, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Politics of Dollhood

Hi All -
In lead up to next week's lecture (and readings), I thought I'd share an excerpt of a piece I'm writing on Bakhtinian traditions within kids' culture. This particular section delves right into one of the readings we're discussing on Monday, Miriam Formanek-Brunell's (now Miriam Forman-Brunell) "The politics of dollhood in nineteenth-century America" (in Jenkins, pp. 363-381). I'm hoping we can chat about some of these themes next week!


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In Bakhtin’s (1984) Rabelais and His World, the grotesque feminine plays a special function, at once embodying forces of destruction and creation, at once terrifying and comforting. Within traditional play literature, on the other hand, girls’ play is characterised by its themes of containment, passivity, and a historical emphasis on domesticity. Since the nineteenth century, girls have been given less time for play than boys, and have been more often encouraged to pursue functional activities—including tea parties, doll play, knitting, cooking and crafts—all of which were believed to prepare girls for their domestic futures as wives and mothers (Formanek-Brunell, 1990). Feminist play scholarship, however, has raised the issues of gender essentialism and male bias within both the literature as well as the social norms around girls play. They have questioned findings of gender differences in play (introducing notions of social constructivism), as well as the omission of girls from studies of “children’s” play. More recently, feminist studies of children’s play practices have challenged many traditional assumptions about girls’ play. This research suggests that while perhaps not as aggressive as boys' play, girls’ play is also not as nurturing and sensitive as it is often assumed. A number of these studies indicate that girls’ play may have its own special relationship to the grotesque, an example of which is the theme of subversive and macabre doll play.

Although dolls are often seen by adults as obvious "vehicle[s] of feminine socialization," recent ethnographic research, as well as historical analysis of memoirs, diaries and oral histories, reveal a long-standing tradition of gender role subversion and rejection of adult authority within girls’ doll play (Formanek-Brunell, 1998; Gussin Paley, 2004). This emerging research reveals the familiar, but academically neglected, practices of brutal doll torture, doll-body modification, doll bashing and doll funerals. As Formanek-Brunell (1998, p.374), describes, although many girls (and boys) played with dolls in prescribed ways, “[E]vidence reveals that doll players pushed at the margins of acceptable feminine and genteel behaviour." For some girls, dolls became a valuable tool for thwarting social norms and undermining restrictions.

For example, during the nineteenth-century “doll parties” were often promoted as a beneficial and appropriate activity for girls. Designed as a primarily aesthetic activity (girls were meant to show off their dolls and look at each others’ doll clothes), “doll parties” were regulated by a complex set of rules and etiquette which were circulated in advice books and women’s magazines. In practice, however, the events often transformed into active play dates that involved sliding down the stairs on tea trays and “smashing their unsuspecting dolls to bits” (Formanek-Brunell, 1998, p.375). This attitude extended to another practice first recorded during the nineteenth-century, that of doll funerals. Although sanctioned to some extent by adults, doll funerals were also a morbid expression of "aggressive feelings and hostile fantasies" (p.375), and an opportunity to parody a serious (as well as religious) adult ritual. Some girls "changed the emphasis from ritualized funerals to cathartic executions" (p.375), ridding themselves of unwanted or particularly "naughty" dolls. These practices are reminiscent of Bakhtin’s (1984, p.5) descriptions of carnivale, wherein "Civil and social ceremonies and rituals took on a comic aspect as clowns and fools, constant participants in these festivals, mimicked serious rituals."

Updated Jan.14: You may also wish to check out this post about the Ann DuCille article on Sociological Images (an excellent academic blog written by Drs. Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp, a couple of sociologists), complete with a number of images of the different racialized iterations of Barbie discussed, along with some interesting points about the article and argument.

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