The dangerous evolution of dolls: from nurturing to narcissism

I happened down the toy aisle last week and was confronted with a host of hideous, creepy dolls. Fearsome mini fashionistas with pouting lips, bare stomachs, and gigantic eyes stared down at me as I scooted forward, fighting off that feeling you get when you’re in a haunted house.

The line of O.M.G. (Outrageous Millennial Girls) dolls was especially unnerving, one even sporting a bandage on her face along with neon hair, a mini skirt, mismatched thigh highs, and the label “FIERCE” on the box. Another brand of dolls -- with skin of every color of the rainbow including green, pink, and silver metallic (and microphones attached to their heads) -- barely looked human.

I couldn’t help thinking, “What does this say about society? About girls? About the manufacturers who make these repugnant things and the mothers who buy them? What precipitated the hideous fall of dolls and where does this path end? The Strawberry Shortcake dolls of the 80s also had neon hair and outlandish clothes, but they exuded a certain innocence utterly lacking in today’s mainstream dolls.

The author’s mother in 1952

Evidence suggests that dolls have existed for millennia and have served mainly three purposes: companionship, simulated caretaking, and roleplaying. A little doll owner finds comfort in having a doll with her in bed at night, practices being a big person by taking care of the doll, and finally, acts out various roles by playing with dolls.

It used to be normal to see a little girl (yes, girl) carting a doll around and pretending to feed it, burp it, change its diaper, and wrap it in blankets. This simulated caring for someone else was valuable developmental play and helped a little girl practice for the role roughly 90 percent of women eventually embark on: motherhood. And what’s more, little girls seemed to like playing with dolls.

Valuing nurturing above all else

But buying a little girl a baby doll these days is seen as encouraging a girl towards motherhood -- a grave crime in today’s world. Inspire a girl to become a mere mother? You’ve got to be kidding. And waste all her potential? And waste her time caring for others? And waste her life raising up the next generation of humanity?

Herein lies the problem. We have ceased to sufficiently value nurturing in our society, especially the nurturing of mothers. To nurture means “to care for and encourage the growth and development of someone or something.” And nurturing is something babies need a lot of in order to grow up to be secure, well-adjusted humans and to simply survive.

Erica Komisar, a psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in private practice has observed what she calls a “failure of society to value nurturing and family above all else.” And the results have been significant. Many young adults have no memory of being nurtured as children; they no longer prioritise having children; and when they do have children, they are underprepared to make the sacrifices necessary and express the empathy necessary to care for them.

I once heard it said that being grown-up consists of being able to take care of someone else. If this is true, then by undercutting and belittling the value of caretaking, we are reaping a generation of people who never grow up -- who never learn to value someone else’s welfare as much as their own and who are unwilling or unable to sacrifice sufficiently for the wellbeing of others.

Komisar said if you choose to have children, you take on what she calls “the sacred obligation of nurturing.” This requires time and sacrifice and “being there”, especially during the child’s first three years of life. While mothers don’t have to be present every minute and don’t have to fill all of their children’s needs, they do need to be present consistently and they -- along with their husbands -- need to become proficient at caretaking. Playing with dolls facilitates some of this proficiency.

And yes, it’s perfectly acceptable (and now en vogue) for boys to play with dolls. However, they haven’t gravitated toward it en masse despite efforts like the “My Buddy” doll of the 1980s which was designed for boys. The battle over whether the preference or non-preference for dolls is a natural phenomenon or a socially constructed one is ongoing. But what I find concerning is that while boys are encouraged to play with dolls in order to develop and roleplay empathy, girls are discouraged from doing so, or are encouraged to play with dolls that invite them to model the behaviour of pop icons and porn stars rather than mothers.

The decadence of dolls

Two episodes of recent social media uproar illustrate the decadence of dolls and why it matters.

First, when the now infamous Balenciaga ad campaign featuring little girls holding teddy bears in sexual bondage gear surfaced, masses of decent people rose up to express their concern and horror at seeing sexualised toys in the hands of little children. Only the father of one of the girls in the photo shoot seemed not to understand the problem.

Second, the American Girl doll franchise, which has long produced wholesome dolls and accompanying movies featuring spunky heroines, just released a book instructing young girls on transgenderism and telling them that “the doctor might offer medicine to delay your body’s changes” and that “you can appreciate your body for everything it allows you to experience and still want to change certain things about it.” So much for body acceptance.

And so much for encouraging children to learn to care for and about others in their imaginative play.

When dolls are used to promote body disfigurement, we are light years away from fostering empathy and nurturing; we are way down the road to engendering raging narcissism that focuses intensely on “being your true self.” Instead of encouraging our daughters to discover the joy of committing to a life full of service to one’s own children, we are encouraging them to maim their bodies in ways that may permanently exclude them from having children at all.

The fear of babies

I was talking with a group of young women in their early 20s about what fears they have concerning motherhood and what obstacles they face to becoming mothers. A common thread was this: they didn’t grow up around babies and had no idea how to take care of one. Because of the trend toward smaller families, not only did these young women not grow up with young siblings to learn to help care for but because of the vilification of dolls, many of them likely didn’t even practice caretaking to any significant degree.

No wonder they’re afraid of babies.

Does any of this matter? Does it matter if the rising generation does not grow up to “value nurturing and family above all else”? With the emotional instability of children at highest rates in history, teens barely able to master basic empathetic social skills, young adults cringing at the thought of parenthood, and little girls embracing a culture of fame, selfishness, greed, and fashion, the answer might be yes. The girls playing with porn-ified dolls—despite being mentored away from motherhood in every way possible—will become the mothers of the future.

Something beautiful

To the one brave mom I saw perusing the meagre offering of baby dolls at the local store, I say stand strong. Don’t buy the repulsive doll on the shelf that you probably don’t want your daughter to emulate. Hold out for something beautiful. Demand better from doll manufacturers and consider your options.

One of my best Christmases ever was when my mom made me a doll as big as I was. I named her Carol and she had cascading yarn hair and blue eyes. I loved the heck out of that doll. My mom didn’t go buy me the first piece of disfigured neon plastic she saw on the shelf. She created something beautiful just for me. And it mattered.

So this Christmas, refuse to send the message to your daughter that nurturing and mothering don’t matter. Because they do. In fact, humanity depends upon them. Might I be accused of wanting to turn the clock back to the 1950s? Well, in the case of dolls, perhaps we should.

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