Monday, October 7, 2013

Feel like a real mommy

Look what just got tweeted:

It appears that someone out there does not know better than to tweet it to the likes of me. (Did you hear that irony-infused cackling? Who says feminists have no sense of humor?) I clicked. Said doll did not appear on the screen, so I searched the Walmart site and found:

Want to know what's so special about Baby Alive? Just what are the Real Surprises the doll brings? I thought you would never ask:

There's nothing new about dolls that talk, walk, crawl, or "pee" and "poop." (The Dy Dee Doll, introduced in 1937, was one of the first to introduce children to the joys of diapering from the other end of the business.) However, Walmart is tweeting me at just the moment that I'm re-reading Miriam Formanek-Brunell's Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830-1930. The book is not so much about dolls, but about the industry of dolls in the U.S. It traces a history in which female and male dollmakers brought different ideas not only about the production of dolls - which could be generalized as craft versus industry of dollmaking - but also the material qualities of the dolls themselves what needs or wants of children that the dolls met.

This is the Talking Doll that Thomas Edison created:

Note that the doll has joints, so the limbs can bend and move, and a voice box, "just like a human," but the parts are hard and cold, especially the metal torso. (Of course, the doll would have been clothed when presented to a child.) It is a mechanical product of a mechanized process. Formanek-Brunell describes male inventors as interested in dolls as entertaining and amusing play things.

In contrast, female inventors "cited the needs of children as the basis for their inventions. In their patents, women claimed that children needed safe, portable, and durable dolls to teach them about relationships" (4). They were interested in creating dolls that were intended to be touched and handled, with soft skin, also "just like a human." They also felt that the dolls were a vehicle for the instruction of children. Reform-minded women of the Progressive Era particularly had their eyes on working class and immigrant girls whom they felt ought to be trained how to care and nurture "properly."

Hmm. So, if you thought my blog post was going to lead you into a hate-down on the Baby Alive doll as reinforcing gender stereotypes, you might be clicking away from it disappointed. (Maybe next time...) However, I think looking into dolls and their making and meaning leads us to consider even more interesting, important, and necessary questions about the lives, work, and play of women, men, girls, and boys.

So, what's the take-home lesson for today?
1. Don't ignore twitter. (Including tweets from Walmart!)
2. Things are interesting to think about. (That's a shout out to my friends in material culture studies...)
3. A critique of the present needs to incorporate a look at the past. (See also, "sexuality, one generation's celebration of equals exploitation, another generation's understanding of.")

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