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Photo: Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/Getty
Photo: Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/Getty

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Playing With Dolls Isn’t Just Fun and Games

All that chatter has powerful impact

In a recent interview in the New Yorker, Jill Soloway, the creator and director of the Amazon television show Transparent told reporter Ariel Levy, “Women are naturally suited to being directors. We all know how to do it. We fucking grew up doing it! It’s dolls! How did men make us think we weren’t good at this? It’s dolls and feelings. And women are fighting to become directors? What the fuck happened?”

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The profile is a fantastic exploration about Soloway, but the doll quote has stuck with me.

In my 6-year-old daughter's room there are least 25 of them. Family members know all of their names and they often come up in conversation. There's Katya, her American Girl doll who, with her fur-collared, purple, waist-tie coat and gray-blue eyes, looks like she's part of a Scandinavian mob. There's Julie, the hippie American Girl doll from 1974. And there's a new addition, Kayla, an 18-inch Latina doll that my aunt bought her as a Hanukkah gift. These three are the core group. My daughter will plan lessons for them. They'll road trip to New Mexico, and to Florida. She'll build them houses and fan out her collection of Roald Dahl books for them, explaining why it's important to read all of them except Matilda, which can be scary.

There are others: Minions, Simpsons family members, Barbies, hand-me-down Build-A-Bears, cyclopean creatures, and a tiny, gray rabbit that gives a mean side-eye. Half of them are still in a teacher-student session my daughter had held, rapt at attention. The other half are lined up against her dresser holding flash cards and assignments. It's here, in this room full of stuffed animals and dolls, that she analyzes and commands, deliberates and strategizes. She's the mastermind. She's the HBIC: the head bitch in charge.

In this room full of stuffed animals and dolls, my daughter analyzes and commands, deliberates and strategizes.

Because Soloway is right. My daughter's doll play is priming her to be a film director, a CEO, or an entrepreneur. Dolls (and this also goes for Star Wars action figures, little green army "guys," and G.I. Joes) are remarkable in the context of childhood, when everything is measured in terms of allure and wonderment, rather than pragmatism, self-improvement, or price tags. But there's a concrete takeaway from this magical world. According to Miriam Forman-Brunell, a history professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and author of Dolls Studies, "Children who are hardly verbal, before they can even put words to their feelings, are communicating with their dolls." And all of that chatter has powerful impact.

Just look at the young girls creating stop-motion YouTube videos starring their American Girl dolls. Sure, their dialogue is a non-stop, teenage talkfest, but it's also a powerhouse of creativity. Instead of watching TV or texting, these auteurs are creating worlds for their dolls. In one video, the dolls have a horrible day at school. In another, two lost dolls and an orange snake search for a magical amber stone in the woods so they can find their way home again. And in one tour-de-force, a middle schooler who goes by the name Five Doll Stars created a 13-minute video, The Haunting Halloween Party, in which four dolls trick-or-treat in their neighborhood. Over 2,000 photos went into making it, and it's gotten 1.4 million views.

In it, the dolls talk over each other as a group of real girls would, too excited to take a breath. "What house should we go to?" "Why aren't you wearing any tights?" "You look so cute." "I can't wait to get a lot of candy." "Whatever." "Totally." The dolls motor over to a bear's house who has a candy bowl taped to his paws. One doll is dressed as a witch. Another has paper wings attached to her back. Kit Kittredge, an American Girl doll released in 2000, is dressed as a ghost; there's a white cloth over her head and a red bow tied around her neck. It's clearly the worst of the costumes, and Kit's resentful. Who could blame her? So Kit steals everyone's candy and hides in the dark scarfing down her loot. Crystal, who is dressed as a ballerina, finds Kit in the dark, thinks she's a real ghost, and panics at the sight of her. Here's what happens next:

Crystal (to Kit): Why did you scare me like that?

Kit (emotionally): I didn't mean to scare you. I just didn't want you to see me. I felt like you guys were forgetting about me and leaving me out.

Crystal (sorrowfully): Kit, we would never forget about you.  But why did you steal our candy like that?

Kit: I wanted to get your guys' attention.

Crystal: Oh, Kit. you don't have to do that. Let's just go outside and trick-or-treat some more.

This is just one interaction, and it’s like a therapy session. The dolls are emotionally mature, far more mature than most friends figuring out problems. This and other conversations in the video illustrate a chief solution to girl-on-girl bullying: conflict resolution. Of course, doll world is not real world, and it’s a lot easier to show vulnerability or admit wrongdoing when you’re playing with inanimate objects. But in this micro-interaction we nevertheless witness the middle-school creator’s dynamic ability to problem-solve and convey empathy through her dolls. In fact, you could argue there’s more strategy than play.

Funeral dolls or Victorian mourning dolls helped children deal with high infant mortality rates.

The skills necessary to create that video parallel what Sandra Russ, a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve, found after decades of research: that pretend play in children fosters creativity in adults. It also helps develop a slew of processes, including coping skills, divergent thinking, expression, organizing narratives, and generating ideas.

These traits dovetail with research findings on leadership qualities. A 2014 analysis of over 330,000 bosses, peers, and assistants found that communicating powerfully and prolifically was among the top five desired qualities of effective leaders. In 2010, IBM interviewed over 1,500 CEOs and public sector leaders from 60 nations and 33 industries, asking them what makes a great leader. The most common answer was a surprise even to the researchers. Whether it was being able to experiment with new business models, encouraging innovation, or altering the status quo, 60 percent of participants said creativity.

Even aggressive pretend play —€” as in two dolls hitting each other —€” has been positively linked to prosocial behavior in the classroom. "The kids who were more aggressive in pretend play, related better to other kids," Russ said, referring to a study she published in 2013. "That they were less aggressive in the classroom makes an enormous amount of sense, because they're learning to control their emotions in play."

When my friend's son was six, he had a collection of "Lego guys" and action figures that he brought into the bathtub with him, typically right after having a videogame-related meltdown. While in the videogame world he couldn't master the game, in his Lego world he was in charge. "He would bring all of his ‘guys' into the tub with him and play," my friend said. "He'd act out scenes of saving, or killing." But just because he had Lego guys dying all over the bathroom didn't necessarily mean he was learning negative behavior. It was actually helping him develop interpersonal skills.

Girls, of course, have been long socialized in the practice of emotional labor, the act of caring for and catering to the needs of others, which often starts with our dolls. "You can see that solely in the context of being good mothers or qualities you can use in service occupations, but these are also qualities that leaders need," Forman-Brunell said, "and that unfortunately too many leaders lack."

The purpose of dolls wasn't always to promote emotional caretaking. In the 1700s and 1800s, for instance, rag dolls were used to teach sewing skills. Funeral dolls or Victorian mourning dolls helped children deal with high infant mortality rates, or served as an after-life keepsake with which a family could bury their child. It was only since the early 1900s that wax-head baby dolls, imported from England, were made to resemble babies as opposed to adults. Prior to the wax head dolls, "realistic" dolls were made from breakable materials and weren't even meant to be touched.

Black dolls in the early 19th century also had a significant social purpose. Topsy turvy dolls, made of two doll torsos, one white and one black with a skirt hiding one or the other, were used to promote racial uplift, according to Debra Britt one of the co-founders of the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, Massachusetts, in an interview with Collector's Weekly. "When the slave master was gone, the kids would have the black side, but when the slave master was around, they would have the white side," she said.The historian Kimberly Wallace-Sanders puts forth a different theory in her book Mammy: that the topsy-turvy dolls were used to help prepare black girls for their role as caretakers of white children. One way or another, doll play had purpose. Early doll play was never about blindly handing a child a doll and instructing them to "go play."

Early doll play had purpose. It was never about blindly handing a child a doll and instructing them to 'go play.'

But as society has evolved, so has the doll-play takeaway, which is maybe why Barbie's sales have been slipping since 2011. In 1959, Barbie was actually considered a progressive alternative to the fragile fashion dolls that girls owned, but weren't supposed to touch. Now, of course, Barbie is commonly considered a little-girl dreamkiller: She has been accused of giving our daughters eating disorders and stealing their career aspirations, and her outrageous hourglass figure has arguably helped contribute to the hyper-sexualization of our children.

Those claims have validity. Still, a number of women I spoke to said they had strong memories of playing creatively with Barbies. One of my friends built elaborate houses inside her mother's colonial-style kitchen hutch and created apartment complexes inside the living room coffee table. (My daughter, meanwhile, cut one Barbie's hair short, drew on a beard and called it "Mike.")

"While Barbie has been heavily criticized for setting impossible standards of female beauty, girls can use her to learn how to make decisions, set goals, get organized, and work with others," Shauna Pomerantz, a professor of child and youth studies at Brock University told me in an email. "When my daughter plays with Barbies or any other kind of doll, the integrity of the imaginary world that she and her friends create is of the utmost importance. They must continue to work together to keep the world going."

Maybe that's why the Ava DuVernay Barbie, a doll modeled after the Academy Award-nominated director of Selma, sold out in a mere three hours after it was launched on Amazon on December 7th. The DuVernay doll is all business, dressed as the director does in a black turtleneck, black jeans, and sneakers. There's no trace of the typically frill-adorned Barbie packaging. No pink. No heels.

DuVernay, who was blown away by the sales of the doll tweeted, "People have really been kind embracing this doll, but it's certainly not about me. It's about the image." Which makes sense. Because the DuVernay doll isn't just a doll — she's a leader. Though I heard a number of women bought her as a collectible, I hope they actually remove her from the package, give her to a girl, and stand back. Because in doll world, anything is possible.

Hayley Krischer has written for the New York Times, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, Talking Points Memo, Salon, and more. She lives in New Jersey.


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