My two young daughters have several dolls, and I have to say, I take issue with all of them. It’s not the comb-able hair, or all the outfits and accessories, or the whippet-like and over-sexualized Barbies. I don’t approve of those either, but in the end they’re the lesser evil. It’s that their dolls don’t move.
There’s no knee or elbow joints. These dolls are immobile and helpless compared to boy’s action figures, that, even when I was young, could move in 500 different directions. The girl dolls can’t be configured to run, jump, kick, climb– to do, really, anything other than model clothes. Even the Dora the Explorer doll’s knees and elbows are fused and unmoving, undermining everything Dora herself stands for.
Worst of all, they all seem uncomfortable in their own bodies. Barbie seems almost paralyzed with the fear of embarrassing herself with an ungraceful move, her face frozen in a mock smile. She can’t even sit down properly.
When I was a teenager, my dad pointed out an aspect of girls fashion at that time, which was to wear over-sized sweatshirts. The girls retracted their hands into, and clenched the ends of, the sleeves from the inside. They became essentially handless, and, at that moment, appear completely unable or unwilling to do anything but stand there. It was an affected helplessness, and after he pointed it out to me, I saw it everywhere.
This concerns me, because, after teaching 6-9 graders for several years through a summer program, I saw many girls on the first day of class that were mortified of saying or doing anything embarrassing, to the point of simply remaining silent. The boys cavorted like a pack of dogs, oblivious. The girls looked worried that someone would stab them if they did anything unseemly. It’s that same terrified paralysis.
I’m on the lookout for dolls that move like my daughters move, that can scale trees, jump on trampolines, or sprint like gazelles. I don’t want my daughters growing up horrified by their own bodies, their limbs rigid and bound as the Bride of Frankenstein’s.
Author’s note: this first appeared as part of KQED’s “Perspectives” Series. An audio version can be found here.
Dad is heading to the garage. CB follows him out there.
CB: What are you looking for Daddy?
Dad: I’m getting the snake for the drain in the bathtub. It’s plugged.
CB: Can I help?
Dad *grabbing the snake and heading back into the house*: This is a daddy job, honey, it’s kind of hard to turn the snake. But… in a minute, I’ll pull something out of the drain that will be TOTALLY. GROSS. You wanna see?
CB: YES! Lily, Daddy is going to show us something gross!
Lily: YEAH! *runs into bathroom*
Lauri: What? Ew, I don’t even want to know. Don’t even tell me about it. I’m going for a walk.
Dad: See, we feed the snake down through the drain… I think the plug is pretty close…
CB: MOM! Daddy’s putting the snake into the drain! You want to see?
Lauri: NO. I’m getting ready to go.
CB: Daddy, what do you think is in the EWWWWWWW!
CB: GROOOOSSSS! MOM! YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!
Lily: EWWWW! GROOOSSSS!!
Lauri: I’M LEAVING. I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW.
CB: EWWW! WHAT IS THAT?!
There is, hanging in the long hallway of my parent’s house, a large painting.The painting is hung high enough for my two young children not to see it. I suspect that this is intentional, though I’ve never asked. I’ve never spoken to my mother about the painting until now.She has pulmonary fibrosis, and is now on oxygen 24-7. She is an award-winning artist, and there are paintings that I have questions about, images from her art that have stayed with me over the years, and I’m looking for answers about this one.
Most of her work over the past decade has been pastels, vibrant ultraviolet landscapes that prove to me that she can see ranges of light beyond the rest of us. This painting, however, is in black and white, except for one crucial detail.
The painting is from a photo in William Stevenson’s book A Man Called Intrepid. It’s of a woman named Madeline, the first woman British WWII radiotelegraphist who transmitted from occupied France. She was caught by the Gestapo. She sits naked and emaciated, one of the Gestapo men holding her head up for the photo. There are no faces other than hers, just the legs of the men standing behind her. In the photo, she looks away, and does her best to cover herself before execution.
The painting has a secret. Up close, at eye level, you can see, in the shadows of Madeline’s eye sockets, that my mother has painted two tiny red dots. I wanted to know about those two dots. With those two tiny dots, my mother has transformed Madeline, from victim to something else, a force of vengeance. The man’s hand, holding her head, has rotted away, every man in the picture now dead and defeated. Madeline wears a halo of amputated limbs. She is victorious and unmoving, an eater of evil souls. The painting is as beautiful as it is unsettling, it reminds me of the true power that an artist has to re-forge images of despair into those of triumph, even a horrible triumph, and I love my mother even more for painting it. I imagine in her the same burning coals, the unflinching stare, as she faces the disease slowly taking her breath away.