The Daily Heller: Why Do I Play With Dolls?

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That was the question my son frequently asked me when he was 12 years old as I, almost 40 years his senior, was collecting dozens of mini mannequins and hoarding them in a separate apartment (about which he later made a short film titled “The Cave“) for what became the book Counter Culture (Princeton Architectural Press).

“I don’t,” I said in a vain attempt to hide the untold truth.

“I know,” he replied, “you collect these as part of your work. You’ve told me that before. But come on, pop, they’re still dolls.”

“Well, they’re not Barbie and Ken; now those are real dolls,” I answered.

“But these things are kinda like Barbies, right?” he insisted.

“To be honest, I just like ’em—I like the ideal unreality of them,” I said as I pulled out a box of World War II action figures I was collecting for an article on recreation model makers. Like my mini mannequins and Barbie, they were realistically unreal (or as real as you wanted to make them, only in miniature simulacra).

It’s just weird,” he insisted, sounding wiser than his years. “But if dolls is your thing, that’s fine with me.”

During the storm of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, it occurred to me that these mini mannequins of which I am so fond were cousins to Barbie’s mom, Ruth Handler’s “It Girl” that established a baseline of beauty and sexuality for American girls. (I wonder how Barbie will play, or not, in Ron DeSantis’ Gilead.)

The “sculptures of commerce” (as I like to call them) below were common displays in all kinds of emporiums and shops that mostly catered to women’s products, notably cosmetics, lingerie, sundries, medicines and more. They came in various sizes (average 28″ high) and two genders. The men usually wore molded-on clothes, while the women wore miniature interchangeable garments and undergarments.

Mini mannequins (prototypical-Barbies) had sex appeal. They were designed for adult consumers, and if Handler was looking in the right direction, in addition to a German doll named Bild Lilli (which was based on a risqué graphic adult cartoon that Handler insisted her designers take as inspiration to design Barbie), she would have seen these figures on the countertops and window displays too. Arguably, Handler was a true counterculture hero.

Posted inThe Daily Heller