Between the peaks of humanity and The Other lies the Uncanny Valley, a place that holds eerie sort-of human replicas that may give you the shivers if you encounter them. A video game character whose face boasts tens of thousands of beautifully rendered strands of facial hair or a robot that can blink her detailed eyes and raise her eyebrows--both live in the Uncanny Valley. They
are humanlike enough that we may have to take a step back and ask, “Is that real?” before realizing they are not. Dolls have stumbled into this valley as time has advanced; while they once existed as plastic playthings or soft bundles of cloth, dolls have morphed into amazingly humanlike beings that, for some, are as good as the real thing.
While children have been creating pretend life out of anything for years, the hyper-realistic doll genre has exploded into a niche group, with some adults treating
dolls like surrogate humans. A specific psychological need draws certain individuals towards treating dolls like their own children, including a fantasy of a perfect child or the need to replace a child or other family member who is absent. This surrogacy is highly evident in niche websites and services for those looking for realistic dolls. Though historically used by children as teaching materials and for play, dolls have become substitutions for real-world relationships, mainly between parents and children.
How Have Dolls Been Used Historically?
To properly understand the roles dolls have played, one must define exactly what a doll is. Dolls are a separate category from stuffed animals or other small playthings, according to Dorothy Washburn, who interviewed a group of women and children about their experience with doll play throughout their lives. They all agreed that the toy must be humanoid to be considered a true doll (118). Something like a teddy bear would not feel the same to the players. Scholar N. W. Thomas sounds his agreement in his survey conducted in a journal in 1906; as he defines it, “A doll is, properly speaking, a child’s plaything in the form, real or pretended, of a human figure” (105).
Thomas emphasizes the play aspect of a doll’s function, but historically dolls were more often tools for learning than pieces of plastic to dance around the room. In their book An Emotional History of the United States, Peter Stearns and Jan Lewis postulate that dolls’ main function for many years was to teach little girls skills that they needed for the future. They write, “During most of the nineteenth century, however, dolls had been designed primarily for older children. Their functions, while not divorced from emotion, were defined primarily in terms of utility and aesthetics. Dolls were intended to teach various kinds of learning and developmental skills” (402). Doll players and those purchasing the dolls saw their learning potential and used them for lessons. Washburn’s interviewees also clearly realized their doll play was a sort of training ground for future motherhood (115). Players learned how to tend to children and their home through their time with dolls. As Juliette Peers, author of a chapter on historical doll culture, explains, psychologists at the time “endorsed dolls that were unbreakable and allowed for hands-on training in ‘mothering’ activities such as washing and feeding” (28). A bouncy, stretchy, rubbery or otherwise solid doll that could take a beating was ideal, allowing young girls to burp, bathe, and baby these dolls in preparation for motherhood. Scholar Donald W. Ball sums it up by saying, “[O]nce dolls functioned primarily to socialize girls, through rehearsal or performative practice, into domestic-maternal roles” (451). Dolls, then, once were just humanoid figures that allowed girls to try their hand at mothering. They were invaluable teaching tools that captured the essence of domestic duties.
However, there have also been instances in which dolls not specifically molded after or for children have been introduced into the market, with varying degrees of success. In his book Life-Like Dolls: The Collector Doll Phenomenon and the Women who Love Them, A. F. Robertson mentions a brief craze in America in the 1920s for “boudoir dolls,” which were usually intended for collectors and modeled after movie starlets. The craze soon died out when the Great Depression hit and adults could no longer spend money on a luxury item like a fancy doll (25). Other such adult-oriented dolls have fared much better, namely the unforgettable Barbie. Barbie hit the scene in 1959 and was immediately a runaway success. Scholars attribute her success to “the glamorous and chic television campaigns launched by Mattel in the 1950s. . . . [T]hese stylish television advertisements ratified the position of dolls within the postwar dream and used the familiar imagery of the perfectly groomed and poised woman” (30). Barbie did not exist to teach little girls how to mother—she was instead a fiercely fashionable woman with her own life. Little girls were supposed to look up to Barbie as an ideal to strive towards, not burp or change her. Barbie existed in a realm separate from the baby doll phenomenon and still thrives today as a symbol of femininity, one that remains virtually untouched by the complex psychology of doll surrogacy.
Why Use Dolls as Surrogates?
ISome people transition from seeing a doll as an informative plaything, meant for learning endeavors and quiet playtime, to imbuing it with all sorts of outside meaning. After interviewing all of those women and girls, Washburn theorizes, “Individuals focus on certain features that are salient for their particular needs and use those features to create object classes that serve their physical, intellectual, and emotional needs” (111). It is human nature to zero in on particular features of something that appeals to us in the hope that it will prove useful. If someone sees within a doll the potential for their needs to be filled, they will latch on and ascribe classifications and other ideas to it. According to Ball, “[A]lthough at one level toys may be ‘mere things’ or objects, at another they may be invested with social meanings” (449). People began to ascribe alternative meanings to their doll play. According to Stearns and Lewis, as early as the 1890s, “an emotional role for dolls began to be suggested; comments were made to the effect that dolls might serve as objects of attachment to replace fathers absent at work” (402). Dolls were beginning to be more than merely a diversion—those who were serious about their dolls saw something in them that could represent more than plastic or porcelain.
It was a historical transition. War time, namely in America, brought out a seriousness that could not be forgotten by merely playing with dollies. As Peers explains in her doll analysis, in post-World War II America, “dolls again performed functions in adult as well as play cultures as they featured prominently in domestic ‘shrines’ to service personnel on active duty overseas, serving as a more tangible, three-dimensional touchstone to the absent relative than a photograph” (29). A doll wearing army gear stood in for Dad better than a flat, faded photograph. Children could manipulate the dolls, making them go on adventures, perhaps thinking that if they kept the doll safe, their parent would come home safely from war. Dad being away at war was not the only scenario that inspired a shift in the doll play movement. The absence of any parental figure became a situation that dolls could help to solve. In his book Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood, Gary Cross claims, “As women have entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers, toymakers have encouraged mothers to buy toys to assuage their guilt about spending less time with their children” (230). Mothers who could not be home to take care of their kids in person might feel better leaving little Janie with a doll to keep her company. Children playing with dolls may have been effectively distracted by the shiny new toy or what that shiny new toy could possibly represent. A girl doll might represent Mommy and a boy doll could represent Daddy, and in that way, a child may never feel so alone.
Psychologically, it stands that children should project such roles onto their playthings. After all, as an article entitled “Images of the Child” reminds us, “That dolls should be the blank slates onto which the imaginations of children can inscribe themselves makes good intuitive sense” (Booth qtd in Eiss 146). But how did the surrogacy of doll subbing in for a parent become doll subbing in for child? This substitution, too, began with children. Once dolls became surrogates for relationships between children and other, imagined or not, family members, the door opened for what they could represent. Stearns and Lewis write that “[c]hildren were encouraged to display attachment to dolls[. . .] Above all, dolls were increasingly designed to act as surrogate children or siblings amid the declining real birth rate, with their child owners being encouraged to feel parental or sisterly emotion towards them” (402). Here, the declining birth rate affects not only the child who may never meet a sibling who could play with them, but the parents as well. Parents who, in the past, were expected to produce seven or eight children were now having to suffice with one or none at all. Ball reminds us that “toys are not only facilitators of the socialization process; they also serve at the same time as surrogates for human companionship, as important targets for affective expression” (450). Why should the children have all of the substitutional fun? Feeling the strain of a low birth rate, parents could easily target the doll as a thing to capture their affectations.
Parents, mostly mothers, find themselves needing a substitution and turn to dolls because of their clever marketing and the way that doll advertisers can prey upon their weakness. People are drawn to things that need them, and dolls, especially hyper-realistic ones, seem vulnerable, like they need someone to look after them. In Life-Like Dolls, Robertson highlights advertisements that include such ideas as “this little porcelain or plastic person ‘wants’ you as much as you want it” (95). Similarly, the women in Washburn’s interviews struggled to define their relationship with their childhood dolls without imbuing them with some sort of person-to-person language: “’What is a doll?’ ‘A friend. I’ve told all my secrets to my dolls. It’s another person’” (118). Dolls, as humanoid figures, naturally represent other people, but dolls representing children takes it one step further. Robertson says that they are “a thing that could substitute for a missing person more effectively than any other thing” (98). Doll collectors turn this substitution over to surrogacy and treat the doll like a child they never had. This could be a sign of an underlying personal issue because, as Cross explains, “toys can and should represent parents’ values and express a sharing with children, but they cannot be surrogates for real interaction between parents and children” (238-39). Subbing in a doll for a real kid is not a healthy way of coping with an absence or loss and begs the question—what type of people do this? How far will they take it?
Why Is This Still Relevant?
People treating dolls like real children, while historically evident, has drastically increased in recent history. An influx of websites, companies, and advertisements all target individuals looking for their special doll experience. The Ashton Drake gallery is perhaps the most well-known for realistic baby dolls. From the home page of their website, one can find links for “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “African-
American,” “Monkeys,” and more. The dolls all have realistic skin and hair and cost, on average, $139.99 and up. The website describes the dolls almost as if they are real children and encourages the buyer to treat them as such. As the description box at the bottom of the screen says, “When you meet our So Truly Real® dolls for the first time and feel their supple RealTouch® vinyl skin that brings their realistic features to life, you're sure to be amazed! Each precious bundle of joy would make a great addition to your doll collection and are perfectly sized to be cradled in your arms” (ashtondrake.com). The gallery targets the demographic who craves the company of a baby, highlighting such ideas as holding a child in your arms or the unique way that human skin feels.
The specific baby appeal continues in Michele Barrow-Belisle’s book Beautiful Babies: The Art of Reborn Doll Making. Her detailed manuscript describes how a fervent collector can take an ordinary plastic baby doll and turn it into the realistic infant of their dreams. As she describes, “[B]y changing hair colouring, eye colour, skin colour, gender, you can create a beautiful one-of-a-kind
infant with each attempt” in what is known as the “rebirthing process.” The goal is to make thesedolls as real as possible; throughout, Barrow-Belisle recommends referencing pictures of real babies to ensure accuracy and authenticity. The end result is a hyper-realistic baby doll with hair, nails, eyelashes, and other miniscule details that make them seem like real infants.
You’re a Doll: Dolls as Stand-ins for Humans and Where We Go from Here
It is not just an infant doll that appeals to people seeking substitutions, however. Older dolls or doll-like figures have increased in popularity, especially in recent years. Robertson explains this phenomenon as follows: “overflowing with emotion, the dolls may sound better than the real thing to women who have been through emotional deserts with their own teenagers” (97). Teenagers are notorious for withholding the love that their parents crave; they are often distant and out of reach. With the emergence of hyper-realistic dolls, parents can pour all of their unwanted love into an object who cannot rebel against them. Teenage doll surrogacy has even reached mainstream websites, including the extremely popular quasi-journalism site Buzzfeed, which in January 2016 posted an article about a woman who knitted a life-sized replica of her teenage son who refused to hug her after his 13th birthday. The knitter exclaimed, “When it was finished we thought it would be a great idea for mothers with to[o] much love for their children and need to cuddle. So they could knit [their] own cuddly son!” (Notopoulos). The boy apparently was thrilled that his mother had found a new outlet, but her new outlet continues the phenomenon of treating a humanoid object as if it was a real human.
The same lack of connection with real relationships can be seen among the members of the website Den of Angels, which reveres hyper-realistic resin ball-jointed dolls, valued for their wide range of movement. On a discussion board, someone asked if the members treat their dolls like their real children. A user by the name of SwivelChair remarked, “[A]s far as where dolls and children will fit into my life at that point, I am guessing that the dolls will have to take the back seat for a while when I have children, at least at first, 'cause I most likely won't have enough time\energy\money to spend on both.” The idea that it is impossible to have enough time to spend on both real kids and fake dolls demonstrates the value that members of Den of Angels or doll lovers in general place on their dolls. The doll surrogacy has begun to take over their lives.
Recently, doll surrogacy has lost some of its innocent, if misguided, affection; in April 2016, dolls designed exclusively for sexual purposes for pedophiles hit the market and sparked an international debate. A Japan-based company named Trottla, well-known for making sex dolls, came under fire for creating child molds to supposedly “help” pedophiles overcome their urges. The dolls were supposed to be exported, but Australians immediately responded by creating a petition on change.org titled “CHILD SEX DOLLS ARE NOT A GAME.” The creator of the dolls, Shin Takagi, said in an interview with Buzzfeed that he did not understand the overwhelming negative response from a potential customer base, instead defending pedophiles: “They are good citizens with obedience. That’s the more reason they abide by the laws and control themselves in reality. To control their desires, they use the dolls I create” (Esposito & Yamamitsu). Takagi took the concept of treating a doll like a real child into a new dimension by singling out the elements of childhood that appeal to someone with a sexual interest in children. To perceive a doll as a child has now devolved from mere relocation of love and affection; the lines of between acceptability and legality blur as we grow more confused about the status of a doll as humanoid object.
Where will this doll craze lead? We have already seen mainstream horror films such as Annabelle, The Boy, and Child's Play present dolls as terrifying possessed monsters. Articles about doll-makers are also popping up on popular listicle websites. Sales of realistic baby dolls and dolls for sexual purposes alike continue steadily. The confusion about a doll’s status in a person’s life may only continue to grow. Artificial intelligence and the creation of humanoid robots continues to advance, which will only lead to more confusion as those humanoids learn to do everything a human being can do while looking like and acting like us. When will we reach the dip in the uncanny valley when we no longer look at a doll and call it an object but, rather, a peer?
The Ashton-Drake Galleries Online and Collectibles Today. ashtondrake.com, 2016.
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