In Defense of Dolls

Barbie dolls at the FAO Schwartz store in Manhattan in 2009 (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
They prepare girls for motherhood and much else besides.

Chelsea Conaboy’s impressively researched and viral (at least in my circles) Boston Globe analysis of the ways pregnancy and motherhood created in her “the most rapid and dramatic neurobiological change of my adult life” did more than just validate the experiences of cataclysmically changed first-time mothers everywhere. It also vindicated several observations that have been percolating in my head through years of raising two daughters in the midst of six sons.

My latent hypothesis — that dolls not only prepare women for the microchip resetting our brains in pregnancy but also promote highly imaginative and emotionally important play — gained further traction with a recent American Academy of Pediatrics clarion call for letting children experience creative play. The descriptors used by Harvard Medical School pediatrician Michael Yogman in calling unstructured play resourceful, joyful, ingenious, and crucial to healthy development brought to mind many of the qualities intrinsic to doll play. The report should in no way be construed as another reason to give lightsabers to little girls, and should frankly be read by a certain preschool in Sweden that’s been taking away dolls from girls (because egalitarian play always means masculine play).

But first, a primer for those unfamiliar with the science and sociology of dolls. You may have been one of thousands who laughed at late 2017’s Christmas Pageant Brawl, in which two toddler girls, one Mary, the real mother, and the other a sheep and a pretender, fought over Baby Jesus, whom Mary knew belonged in the manger and the sheep insisted on brazenly dancing with. While even the uninitiated probably recognized Mary’s fierce protectionary drive toward the doll, few understood that both sheep and Mary represent generations of girls who lie on a spectrum between two sets of doll mothers.

The first, to which my childhood friend Wendy belonged, take loving care of their Madame Alexander, Barbie, and baby dolls. (My generation unfortunately missed the American Girl proliferation by several decades.) Years after Christmas and birthday unwrapping, their dolls’ hair remains unmangled, clothing free from grass stains and nail polish, and the shoes still paired. In literary parlance, the immaculates are Sara Crewe from A Little Princess seated across a pretend tea service from Emily, whose loveliness persists even after Mrs. Minchin banishes them both to the attic, and Nellie Oleson from the Little House books whose exquisite doll at her fancy town party beckons Laura to reach out for just one touch that is quickly reprimanded.

Wendy never once let me hold her pristine Cinderella doll that, like Nellie’s, was assiduously kept in the box, so I hold grudges toward finicky doll proprietors and belong unconditionally to the second set whose patron literary saint is Ramona Quimby, of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest. Her doll Chevrolet, named after the car of Ramona’s aunt (well, it is a beautiful name if you think about it), had green hair from all the experimental household-cleaner shampoos she underwent and exhibited other tangible evidence of an involved but clumsy mother. None of my dolls’ hair avoided a run-in with scissors, no matter how many disastrous results or how many times I regretfully swore off playing beauty parlor. But Ramona’s and my dolls were definitely loved, and loved intensely — every bit as much as the tidy dolls whose ringlets remained unscathed.

Which is part of the reason dolls are named. Unlike action figures whose generic superhero names derive from movies or packaging and are often blown up and killed off (figuratively and literally) from the moment they’re unwrapped, dolls belong to a mother figure who personally christens them, raises them, and, invariably, like Sara Crewe, understands they are somehow alive and suspects they run around the room playing when the humans leave. Dolls are the babies and children of little girls, even when, in Laura Ingalls’s case, the baby is a corn cob named Susan. After all, according to Laura, it isn’t Susan’s fault she is only a corn cob wrapped in a handkerchief.

Most baby dolls, though, approximate humanness — eyes that open and close, mouth that drinks from a bottle, sometimes even a plumbing system that wets diapers — inspiring protective mothering impersonations that entail holding, singing, feeding, and diaper changing. Except that apparently the reactions of real mothers are turbo-charged. Conaboy describes descending into paranoid fear of dust particles infiltrating her fragile newborn’s body. She wasn’t crazy but had undergone “a flood of hormones during pregnancy, childbirth, and breast-feeding” that, according to the experts, “primes the brain for dramatic change in regions thought to make up the maternal circuit.” The same hormonal flood that enabled Conaboy to empathize with her baby’s emotions, respond positively to his coos, and to multitask in meeting his needs also drove her to sleep deprivation as she hovered over his every breath.

Conaboy bemoans how ill-prepared most of us are, myself included, for the motherhood microchip that apparently resets our brains in ways we’ve never before experienced. But I like to think that surely Cindy helped ease the transition. My first baby doll, Cindy currently resides in basement storage, never to be discarded because, well, she’s Cindy. It’s not her fault she had no hair and needed it drawn on, or has crayon scribbles for nail polish, or is missing shoes that probably got lost the day after my birthday. She brought out in my domestically negligent neurobiology a tenderness that kept her wrapped in blankets, protected from indifferent brothers, sung to and snuggled. Surely she must have cushioned my life-altering transition from fully autonomous human to paranoiacally attached first-time mother.

But beyond preparing us for motherhood, important as that is, dolls prepare us for other things too, and they offer delightful voyages not undertaken with other toys. I enchantedly walked up to a neighbor’s front door recently and had to watch my step through the fairy villages aligning the walkway and interspersing the flowers — an entire universe composed of a little girl’s chair thimbles, licorice roadways, and matchstick houses that rivaled Boxen, the pretend animal world that C.S. Lewis and his brother, Warnie, created while quarantined during an influenza epidemic.

Imaginative play is also a wonder to behold and seems particularly intrinsic to dolls. My daughters’ American Girl dolls, names written on the bottom of their feet with Sharpies, came with endless paraphernalia that enabled historical reenactments, domestic tasks, sports participation, farm work, school attendance, world travel, and even hospitalization. And that most benighted and maligned of dolls — Barbie, in her long legs and unrealistic curvature — provided a window into grown-up dreams that included cars, friends, college, travel, motherhood, careers, and a feminine-centric universe with men and boys relegated to supporting-cast figures emerging only when the scenario required. “You have to be Ken this time!” was the constant refrain echoing from my girls and their friends intensely forwarding their Barbie narrative, often called out in the same vicinity of a group of boys running round the house in battle shouting, “You have to die this time!”

While the boys tended to ignore (though were never discouraged from) our proliferate supply of dolls and their accoutrements in favor of weapons and warring, they found creative outlets in Legos, action figures, and dinosaurs; however, those toys, too, often devolved into weapons and warring. So I was always grateful when my young sons quietly gravitated, usually when tired, to Teddy bears or Winnie-the-Pooh. We have a well-worn Curious George in basement storage, probably in the same vicinity as Cindy, that one son slept with throughout childhood, and George will never be discarded in the way G.I. Joes or Iron Man got thrown out. Like certain dolls, he became part of our family.

Men, of course, can and should be transformed by fatherhood. Lord knows, we need many more attached and involved fathers out there. But because father–child bonding represents a more intentional and less biological metamorphosis, attachment toys should be encouraged in ways that actually appeal to both sexes. Foisting dolls on boys who don’t want them does little to contribute to a responsible future fatherhood, which usually results from growing up with a father in the home or with healthy masculine role models.

So let girls bond with the toys they probably gravitate to with the same hormones that will later flood their pregnant and breastfeeding bodies — frustratingly plastic and indifferent though these dolls may be at times. Sara Crewe, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s timeless Little Princess, often tires of Emily’s inattention and silence, especially in Sara’s hour of need in the attic, where her only other friend consists of a rat she christens Melchizedek. But Sara continues in patience and love the same way mothers everywhere persist with their sometimes frustratingly indifferent children; special-needs mommy blogger Megan W. Goates calls it the art of “loving with no encouragement.” If you think indifferent dolls might try your patience, try indifferent (belligerent, demanding, and often maddening) 24/7 children not easily relegated to the dollhouse when you need a break.

The miracle might be not that mothers carry on despite their indifferent and gratitude-bereft children but that they carry on despite the indifferent and sometimes deliberately hostile culture at large, one that not only disdains dolls but also views the choice to care for babies as a waste. Anne Tyler wrote of someone asking her derisively, pre–Pulitzer Prize, if she was still at home doing “that kid thing.” Any lonely mother facing an endless day with small children relates to the existential lack of recognition involved in her vocation. Yet still, most women grasp, apparently aided and abetted by neurobiology, the uniquely crucial nature of child care. Writer Susan Cheever swore, in revulsion at her friend’s exclamations over her baby’s satisfactory bowel movement, that she would never descend into such mindlessness and would hire a nanny. But then:

Sometime during the long night of April twelfth, the night I delivered my Sarah, I also fell hopelessly, madly, mindlessly in love with her. Nothing had prepared me for the tsunami of pure joy that hit me every time I rocked her to sleep, every time I held her in my arms. Her burps were miraculous, her bowel movements adorable. For months after she was born I carried her close to my chest, breathing with her breathing. When I had to leave her, even for a few hours, I felt naked and exposed, as if I had left an important piece of myself behind.

Less prestigious mothers feel just the same. My niece worked as a speech pathologist in an inner-city clinic, and when she quit her job to stay home with her first child, the clinic’s day-care workers, mostly single mothers, threw a baby shower for her. Many of them expressed a heartbreakingly genuine happiness for her that “you get to stay home with your baby! I would give anything to be with mine.”

Annie Sullivan’s first gift to Helen Keller and the first word she spelled into Helen’s hand was d-o-l-l. Either this or a later doll, Nancy, continued on with Helen to Perkins Institute for the Blind “in a new gingham dress and a beruffled sunbonnet, looking at me out of two bead eyes,” wrote Keller. Tragically, though, a well-meaning laundress at Perkins secreted off Nancy for a bath. (Helen was apparently part of the second set and had fed Nancy some mud pies.) Post-cleansing, according to Keller, the doll returned in “a formless heap of cotton, which I should not have recognized at all except for the two bead eyes which looked at me reproachfully.” Nancy lived on in Keller’s The Story of My Life, of course, but I suspect she continues on in sacred storage as well, as all beloved dolls do, well worn but with eyes intact.


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