December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:42:39+01:00December 21st, 2010|Features Archive|
Barbie, 1959.

must buy a gift for the daughter of a friend. It will be a doll.

When children play with miniature worlds, like the Italian Puffi, pirate ships, doll houses with resident doll families or even the Christmas Presepe, they become third-person God-like narrators of their make-believe stories.

When children play with dolls, they identify with the baby’s helplessness and fear of abandonment but they enter the story in first person, as parent. Feeding, washing and rocking the doll are immensely comforting. My younger sister, Joan, and I would spend hours, even whole days, playing with our dolls, losing ourselves in daydreams inspired by everyday life and by stories our mother read to us. Any realistic things a doll could do — talk, drink, wet itself — got in the way of the fantasy.

My son Roberto’s dolls were dinosaurs and robots. He slept with a hard plastic, motorized tyrannosaurus.

My daughter Francesca played school. She’d line up her dolls and direct their singing, quiz them in math and tell them stories. She’d invite me to sit on the bench with her students. Her favorite doll, Molly, had long braids and glasses like she did, got all the answers right and was brave and selfless. Luciana, a red headed, three-year-old, caused endless trouble. Francesca, shedding tears of rage, would punish her cruelly.

My last doll was a lady with high heels, nylon stocking and earrings. Unfortunately she looked like a mother; I left her on the shelf. In 1959 Joan received the debut Barbie doll. With her striped bathing suit and ponytail, Barbie looked like any sock-hopping teenager, but her grown-up bust caused a scandal. She was blamed for inspiring little girls to want to become sex objects — big breasts, no brains and mute. Some mothers refused to buy Barbies.

Dolls, however, are only as brainless and mute as the girls playing with them. Francesca had a box full of Barbies, friends, little sisters, cousins, house and camper — once again, a miniature world. I bought Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, for Roberto thinking the two children would play together the way they did with stuffed animals and other miniature worlds. Before long, Ken was flying Superman-style, dropping bombs on Barbie’s house. Soon after, Roberto gave his Ken to Francesca.

Barbie’s strong point with girls growing up was that the doll was not a mother; yet she had no parents. She had to solve her own problems. The problem was often choosing the right dress to wear for her unsupervised, grown-up life. The dress, like Cinderella’s dress, symbolized being socially acceptable, even lovable.

Dolls are still controversial. For Italian feminist thinker and essayist Lea Melandri, this dressing-undressing play awakens narcissistic sexual attraction for the female body. Play becomes an exercise in dominating, or detaching oneself from devastatingly ambiguous feelings. The result is that a girl experiences her own body as a passive object. Melandri cites as examples fashion models, veline (showgirls), and TV personalities who tend to resemble Barbie dolls. Similar ideas have been used in campaigns against violence to women.

Italian author Edmondo De Amicis was another who, in his story “Il Re delle Bambole” described dolls as objects of sexual desire and children looking at them as lost in an “orgy of desire.”

These “objects of desire” have come to life in horror stories like E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman”, and the “Child’s Play” film series (“Bambola Assassina,” 1988, 1990, 1991), in which dolls become killers.

But these are all projections of an adult’s ambivalent feelings; dolls and doll-play are judged from an adult perspective. The ambivalence takes on a real dimension when women pump themselves up with silicone and become doll-like masks of themselves. Take the Valeria Marini doll, modeled on the voluptuous, plump-lipped Italian star of the 1996 Tinto Brass film, “Bambola.” The doll wears black lace or pink satin items from Marini’s line of lingerie.

None of this is the doll’s fault.

Usually, with the hormonal changes of puberty, girls abandon their dolls. I forgot mine under the July sun, until her arm melted. Dolls and doll-play belong to the pre-puberty period that English Psychiatrist Donald Winnicott once called “transitional space.” Here, a child’s sense of reality is more subjective than an adult’s. French thinker Jean Piaget referred to an animistic view of objects. Although a child knows her doll isn’t real, she also “knows” that it can feel happy, angry or afraid just as she can. Through make-believe, she enriches and articulates her deepest feelings. Dolls, and other toys — “transitional objects” — help her bridge the gap between an unconscious fantasy world and external reality. Gradually she integrates the two.

It’s significant that the Ken doll has no genitalia. Girls who play with dolls are still children, exploring sexual identity, not the sexual act. To elementary school children in sex education, the idea of intercourse is as appealing as colonoscopy or root canal. A potent, non-paternal male doll would be a terrifying intrusion. Ken enters girls’ play as token boyfriend or eunuch-like parcel carrier. Boys reject him.

If a young woman today sees herself as an object and wants to be like Barbie, I wonder if the fault might be that, as a child, she didn’t have enough free time to play with concrete objects like dolls; or maybe her inner, fantasy life was depleted by exposure to only trite stories or to none at all; or maybe a parent, or even a whole culture, values her doll-like qualities above all else. Who knows?

I wish my mother had kept her doll, a boy named Harry, to evoke her memories and connect me to her childhood fantasies. I’m grateful that she saved my carelessly abandoned dolls. I gave them to Francesca and they joined her school. They were a reminder that I had once been a child and a promise that she too would grow up.

I hope the doll I give to my friend’s daughter will lead her into hours and years of imaginative play.

About the Author:

Nancy Feyen's monthly "Due Diligence" column ran from 2006 through 2011.