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Against Dolls

Forever trapped in babyhood, dolls threaten the very essence of life’s possibilities

Jakub Krechowicz / Shutterstock

Though I had a stuffed-animal collection that rivaled the inventory of a Toys “R” Us, I was a child who hated dolls. By “hate,” I’m not talking about a cool indifference. I’m talking about a palpable loathing, a dislike so intense that my salient memory of doll ownership concerns a plastic baby whose duty among my playthings consisted solely of being thrown against the wall repeatedly and then smudged with a combination of red lipstick, purple Crayola, and, when available, spaghetti sauce.

This was done in an effort to simulate severe injury, possibly even internal bleeding, and this doll, who, if I recall correctly, had eyes that opened and shut and therefore had come preassigned with the name Baby Drowsy, spent most of her time in a shoe box in my closet. This was the intensive care unit, the place where, when I could no longer stand the sight of Baby Drowsy’s fat, contusion-ridden face, I would Scotch-tape a folded Kleenex to her forehead and announce to my mother that Baby Drowsy had been in yet another massive car wreck. I would then proceed to tend with painstaking care to my thirty-plus animals, all of whom I had personally christened with names like Excellent Eagle, Mr. Nice, and Soft Koala, and who, I was entirely certain, could communicate with both myself and each other through a complex telepathy.

I say complex because, even at five, I had the ability to convey my thoughts to individual animals and then conference-in others should the discussion be relevant. They could do the same when they talked amongst themselves. Eyeore could discuss the events of the day with Squiffy. Peter Panda could alert Bunny Rabbit that he had fallen behind the bed. Everyone knew about Baby Drowsy’s frequent mishaps. And none of us really cared. In the social hierarchy of my bedroom, animals ranked highest. Dolls were somewhere between dust balls and cockroaches. They were uninvited guests that gathered in the corners, something to be stomped on.

Ttatty / Shutterstock

But since I was a girl, I had dolls. People gave them to me, though Baby Drowsy was unquestionably subject to the most abuse. Something about the word “drowsy” struck me as flaccid, even masochistic; it was as if drowsy was baby talk for “drown me,” and the beatings seemed to emerge out of a sense that she was asking for it. The handful of other dolls had the luck of being simply ignored. I had a Raggedy Ann, whose stuffed-animal-like properties redeemed her enough so that she would occasionally be placed next to—though never in the pile with—the dogs and bears. 

My mother, perhaps worried about whatever maternal instincts were failing to develop in me, spent several years trying to find a doll I might actually like. With chubby baby dolls clearly out of the question, she tried to introduce me to more sophisticated dolls, older girls in higher quality plastic, dolls with hair to be brushed and tasteful clothes to be changed. Nothing amused me. I loved my animals, furry, long-tongued creatures who were safe from the hair-braiding, cradle-rocking proclivities of playmates, some of whom had the hubris, not to mention the bad sense, to bring their own dolls with them when visiting my house. By the time I was old enough to enter into the world of Barbies, my mother’s quest to make a nurturer of me was subsumed by her feminist impulses. I was given no Barbies and received stuffed animals every Christmas until I was approximately 27.

While it might seem that my intense dislike for dolls is simply a dramatic manifestation of my intense affection for animals, I suspect that the whole doll issue is part of a larger semiotic equation, an entire genre of girlhood—and childhood in general—that I could just never get with. While I can’t say that I had an unhappy childhood, I was unhappy being a child. Just as there has not been a morning of my adult life when I don’t wake up and thank the gods that I am no longer a kid, there was hardly a day between the ages of three and eighteen that I didn’t yearn for the time when I would be grown-up. Aside from the usual headaches of being a kid—the restricted freedoms, the semi-citizenship—what really ailed me were the trappings of kid-dom: the mandatory hopscotch, the inane cartoons, the cutesy names ascribed to daycare centers and recreation programs, like Little Rascals Preschool and Tiny Tot Tumbling. Why was a simple burger and fries called The Lone Ranger? Why did something as basic as food have to be repackaged to resemble a toy? Even as a child I resented this lowbrow aesthetic—the alphabet-block designs on everything, the music-box soundtrack, the relentless kitsch of it all.

Dolls are the ultimate symbol of childhood; they are toy children. Though I realize that playing with dolls is supposed to mimic the adult act of caring for children, playing with dolls always struck me as nothing more but childhood squared, a child doing a childish thing with a simulacrum of a child. It was like some hideous vortex. Adults think it’s cute when girls burp their dolls. We buy them dolls that cry, and dolls that pee. I think there’s even a doll that spits up. Most people see this as endearing, even healthy in a biological imperative sense. I see it as an exercise in narcissism. But I suppose that says more about me than about the doll-buying public or the doll-diapering girls who are supposedly doing the thing that comes naturally to them but just didn’t to me.

I read somewhere that women who choose not to have children are more likely to have grown up preferring stuffed animals to dolls. Though I’m probably still too young to make pronouncements about my wish to forgo motherhood, I must say that, at thirty, my desire for children is all but nil. Though it’s not impossible for me to enjoy other people’s kids, my biological clock seems to reside permanently in a time zone to my west. Babies amuse me only mildly, toddlers not at all, and children of the talking, television-watching, Happy-Meal-eating variety fill me with a kind of queasy empathy. When I see a mother with her child, I identify not with the adult but with the small person who, in my mind, seems trapped in a world governed by romanticized, consumer-driven notions of childhood. I see a kid and I think to myself, “I’m sorry you have to be a kid right now. I’m sorry you have to play with Legos. I’m sorry you have to ride in the back seat.”

A psychiatrist would see this as regressive. A lot of other people would argue that childhood is about as pure as anything gets, that the preadolescent mind enjoys some kind of blissful exemption from adult concerns, and that little girls and, when given the opportunity, little boys, gravitate naturally towards dolls. Dolls, say the experts, are merely objects on which to practice the care-giving skills we need to survive as a species.

Though I can understand that, I still can’t relate to it. To me, a child with a doll is a child who has been railroaded by the trappings of childhood. She has already acquired her first accessory, an inanimate version of herself, one that possibly even requires batteries. She has already tied up one hand, already spent more time looking down than looking around. You might ask how I make a distinction between the dreaded doll and the adored stuffed animal. Why is it that I can smile at the child with a bear but always end up pitying the child with a doll? Perhaps it’s because animals are more closely connected with the imaginative world than dolls are. They are ageless, genderless, and come in colors that defy nature. To play with a stuffed panda, or, in my case, to telepathically communicate with one, is a creative act. To play with a doll is to stare yourself in the face, to gaze at an object that is forever trapped in infancy. Maybe that’s why dolls frighten me so much. Forever trapped in babyhood, they threaten the very essence of life’s possibilities. They’re my greatest nightmare come true. They never, ever grow up.

Excerpted from the new reprint of "My Misspent Youth," a collection of essays originally published in 2001. Copyright © 2015 by Meghan Daum/Picador USA. Published by arrangement with Picador USA. All rights reserved.