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An Alphabet of Feminism #4: D is for Doll

2010 October 25




What fascinated Ermengarde the most was [Sara’s] fancy about the dolls who walked and talked, and who could do anything they chose when the human beings were out of the room, but who must keep their powers a secret and so flew back to their places ‘like lightening’ when people returned to the room.

– Francis Hodgson Burnett, ‘A Little Princess’

Were he not Romeo called…

Barbara Millicent Roberts is actually, it turns out, called Dorothy. At least, a ‘Barbie doll’ is a tautology, since the word ‘doll’ itself was originally a nickname. (Rs and Ls are colloquially interchangeable, donchaknow – see also Harry/Hal, Mary/Moll.)

‘Doll’ as a name makes an early debut in renaissance drama: first as Doll Tearsheet in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and then as Doll Common in Jonson’s The Alchemist. These two draw in ‘Doll’s’ second meaning, which assumes a ‘Dorothy’ is so common a species as to be generic. Thus, ‘Doll’ as a pet name is quickly expanded to indicate any female ‘pet’, or indeed any female ‘mistress’ (drawing confused attention to the potentially infantalising properties of nicknames in general). Additionally, as of 1560, it could also be used to mean ‘the smallest or pet pig in the litter’ (like Wilbur). But clearly there is a double edge to Dorothy’s common-ness, since ‘common’ means ‘for the use of everyone’ (tee hee) as well as ‘numerous’ – something Doll Common’s character demonstrates nominally. ENTER THE PROSTITUTE.

Work and Play

It is only in 1700 that ‘Doll’ loses its capital letter and acquires something of its modern sense. The dictionary defines this as ‘an image of a human being (commonly of a child or lady) used as a plaything; a girl’s toy-baby’. It is no longer a name, but it still stands in for something else, with a more spiritual implication in dear Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (that name-obsessed play). Here, Old Capulet refers to his daughter as a ‘whining Mammet’, a deviant form of ‘Maumet’ which, deriving ultimately from ‘Mohammed’, was a term used in medieval England to mean ‘a puppet, an idol, a doll’. Here lurks the second commandment, in all its thorny glory, giving an added layer to Barbie’s iconicism, not to mention the groom’s pledge to his bride in the traditional Marriage Service, ‘With my body I thee worship’. (I hear the clatter of toppling pedestals.)

Image: First Edition Barbies from 1959 (Wikipedia)

clatterty clank

It is, I must NB, definitionally girls who play with dolls, and there is a pleasing juxtaposition of frivolous and stern in the dictionary’s reference to ‘playthings’ … but I cannot help but suspect that, in their initial incarnation, these ‘doll-babies’ were occasionally also educational tools, teaching the virtues of maternal care for something smaller and weaker, sartorial elegance and grooming and presumably also some degree of etiquette – these dolls could, after all, represent all ages, and I suspect that the comparative decline of the over 18s represented in modern doll-land may also signal a movement from dolls as work to dolls as play. (Incidentally, Londoners: for more on toys’ super-seriousness, go have a look at the Maritime Museum’s Toy Boats exhibition for examples of boys’ toys serving to illustrate German naval supremacy). But onwards.

From play to work, there’s a beautiful reference in the dictionary to ‘doll’ used in the more modern sense when, in 1860, the journal All Year Round talks about the ‘laborious class Who earn painful bread by fashioning dolls’ eyes’, which tellingly hints at the expanded manufacturing operations doll-craft represented by the mid-Victorian industrialised era – a far cry from what would presumably have been an ad-hoc domestic craft when ‘doll-babies’ first became popular. A Little Princess, quoted above, is a story obsessed with the power of make-believe and dolls as synecdoches for real-life figures. It features multiple references to the late-Victorian doll and the materialism she represents, including the disapproval of Sara Crewe’s family solicitor, who, on seeing what Sara dubs ‘The Last Doll’ says sternly ‘A hundred pounds […] All expensive material, and made at a Parisian modiste’s. He spent money lavishly enough, that young man’. Fans of Victorian women’s studies may think of Dickens’ Mr Merdle (Little Dorrit) and his search, not for a wife, but for ‘a bosom to hang jewels upon’.

Living Dolls

It has taken more time than usual, but finally the leximobile screeches up outside definition number three, another Victorian usage, ‘doll’ as ‘a pretty, but unintelligent or empty person’, especially, the dictionary adds, ‘when dressed up; also, a pretty but silly or frivolous woman’. Hence we have ‘a doll’s face’, which is one ‘conventionally pretty, but without life or expression’. Pleasingly, in this instance, it is the lifeless image of womanhood that inspires the pejorative reference to the real thing, rather than the other way round, although it gives rise to a disturbing number of aspirations in the sentient race to be ‘living dolls’ (a quick google, and you’ll see what I mean). The dictionary even has names for this sort of thing, giving a delightful number of compound terms: thus the (tautological) worship of dolls – dollatry, dollhood – the state or condition of being like a doll, dollship – the personality of a doll, although it also points out that these relate primarily to ‘doll’s’ fifth meaning, via a re-emerging ‘Doll Common’, as ‘a prostitute’. ‘Living dolls’ may in fact also be real-life Ladies Of Easy Virtue.

There is much for her to do, her whole sex to deliver from the bondage of frivolity, dolldom and imbecility.’

-Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), ‘Letters’, (undated)

So, from ‘Dorothy’ onwards, a ‘doll’ always represents something bigger, be it a name whose full gravity cannot yet be properly appropriated, a world of humans made more comprehensible for a small child, or even a religious figure incarnated in sacrilegious form. It is the idolatry of such a representation that I find most fascinating: it gives a whole new irony to Sara Crewe’s repeated assertion that, as her father has always told her, ‘All women are princesses.’

Image: Illustration of a blonde jointed doll balancing on upper and lower case letter DNEXT WEEK: E is for Emancipate


12 Responses leave one →
  1. October 25, 2010

    Fascinating. I love this series!

  2. Russell permalink
    October 25, 2010

    This may be more of a toy geek thing than a feminist thing *changes hats* but at least in the second half of the twentieth century, boys do play with dolls. The name is simply dressed up as a “figurine” or “action figure” but it essentially serves the same purpose (well, apart from spring-loaded action features, cue pun).

    • Miranda permalink*
      October 25, 2010

      They don’t *call* them dolls, though, do they? The word itself has such a weight as a feminine term that they have to call them something else…

      • Hodge permalink
        October 25, 2010

        Unless they’re blow up dolls.

    • Miranda permalink*
      October 25, 2010

      (Only a little relatedly, I am always particularly pleased when I meet a man who can share my fond memories of Care Bears. It happens rarely. But now and again…)

      • Russell permalink
        October 25, 2010

        I LOVED the Care Bears as a child. I remember fondly the movies: Care Bears 1, Care Bears 2 (which was much better as it involved the Care Bear Cousins), Care Bears In Wonderland…

        Of course, there was no continuity between the films. Even as a pre-schooler, this irked me.

        No, the people selling them don’t call them dolls, although they are occasionally referred to that way by the “uneducated” (or people who just want to make a point). This doesn’t change the fact that the basic concept is the same: little people made of plastic.

        • Hodge permalink
          October 26, 2010

          You’re right, because part of my point is about the idea of worship, but what I’m really interested in here is the actual linguistic history of the word ‘doll’.

          On the conceptual idea, it presumably also works the other way round: while the dictionary asserts that a ‘doll’ is, by definition, a female figure, I would be surprised to find that little girls never played with male dolls in the centuries before Barbie. Although, interestingly, their function in more modern times seems to be to complete a family or a female-oriented life (as with Ken). Ken *is* actually a ‘Ken Doll’ isn’t he? but cf. – Toy Story 3: ‘I’m NOT a girls’ toy! Why do people keep saying that?’

  3. October 27, 2010

    Marvellous – a lovely bit of language history.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 6, 2010

    While sweets (unlike toys) were (and presumably still are) generally unisex, I think that dolly mixture (perhaps solely because of its name) was (is?) widely regarded as girls’ sweets.

  5. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 6, 2010

    On a personal note, I observe the use of “pet” in this article: “pet name”, “any female pet”… Curiously, my mother’s name was Dorothy.

  6. Pet Jeffery permalink
    January 23, 2011

    I watched “Queen of Outer Space” (1958) last night, and was shocked by the level of casual sexism. In many ways, it wasn’t the worst thing, but perhaps the thing that grated most on my nerves was hearing women referred to as “dolls”. It’s easy to forget, talking about things in an abstract way, just how demeaning that sounds.

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