Over the spring and summer months, I attended several academic events. As well as being incredibly helpful for networking and writing motivation, two—the inaugural conference of the International Girls Studies Association and the Politics of Beauty Summer School and Conference—were equal parts fun and fascinating.
At the moment, I am developing chapters for my first academic book, which is provisionally entitled Doll Parts: The Mechanisms of Modern Beauty. The conferences and summer school helped me fine-tune some of this material.
I’m curious about etymology and what the history of a word can reveal about its current connotations and popular symbolism. Because of this, my research for Doll Parts begins at the source: with the word ‘doll’.
Popular usage of the word ‘doll’ came into the English language in the 16th century. Its origins suggest that it was first used as a ‘pet name for Dorothy’. Adapting quickly throughout the Early Modern period, ‘doll’ began to describe objects, particularly those that were small and pet-like in design. Miniature models of human beings—especially children and women—were soon added to the list, and, from there ‘doll’ took on its most recognized denotation: a child’s ‘plaything’ (OED). Significantly, and simultaneously, ‘doll’ became equated with the word ‘mistress’. And, as early as the seventeenth century, the term was being used to connote ‘a pretty, but silly or frivolous woman’ (OED).
The linguistic evolution of ‘doll’ suggests symbolic complexity and ambiguity. From the cute world of miniature objects, pets, and children, to the everyday usage of child’s ‘plaything,’ ‘doll’ is easily aligned with the conventional markers of childhood innocence. Combined with the term’s other nuances, however—its etymological origin as a ‘pet name for Dorothy’, to its substitution for the word ‘lady,’ and, indeed, to the most telling of terms, ‘mistress’—the connotations of the word ‘doll’ become much more adult.
Why is this significant?
Expressions such as ‘living doll’, ‘all dolled up’, ‘doll face’ and simply ‘doll’ have long been deployed to sell clothes, shoes, accessories, and makeup. (Today ‘doll’ even promotes the Kardashian brand.) Beyond the realm of advertising, the figure of the doll makes innumerable appearances in popular visual culture: art, cinema, music videos, pageantry, and pornography. In each of these examples, dolls act as stand-ins for girls and young women, and as a metaphor for aspirational beauty and feminine desirability. Digital technology helps realise this metonymy, as, with the stroke of a magic wand editing tool, women and girls are blurred into plastic, doll-like amalgamations.
Certainly, these discursive practices objectify girls and young women. What’s more, given the doll’s complex and, at times, contradictory meaning, when ‘doll’ is ascribed to girls and women, it both sexualizes and infantilizes them. This serves the dual function of both flirting with feminine sexuality and also containing and controlling it.
Both the object and the metaphor of the doll call attention to an already unstable space between the human and the nonhuman, and give this space a particularly feminine shape, which is troubling, but also full of potential. The significance of this relationship forms the basis of much more of my research to come.