Rethinking ‘Reborn’: Reactions to the shocking subculture of adult doll collecting

Photo by Rebecca Martinez via the New York Times.

I’d never heard of the Reborn subculture before, which was detailed in a recent photoessay in the New York Times. Women who are part of this culture (movement? hobby?) — aficcionados are mostly white, conservative, Christian, and antiabortion women — make and collect eerily lifelike dolls. They purchase their dolls from “nurseries” and host baby showers, compete in beauty contests, and attend Reborn conventions. They can spend thousands on these dolls, which they often treat as members of their own family, giving them rooms in their house, taking them out to eat, and generally caring for them as one would a living baby.

This is gut twistingly strange and heartbreaking to me.

My first reaction: “These women are weirdos. This is pathetic.”

My second reaction:

“I’m an asshole. These women aren’t weirdos, they are collectors. These dolls are objects of art. You only think this is weird because they are babies.”

My third reaction: “All collectors that lavish that much attention and care on inanimate objects are weirdos.” (See: vinyl collectors, sneakerphiles.)

My fourth reaction: “This is TERRIBLE! I bet a lot of these women lost a child or had some other sort of tragedy. That’s the explanation for this.” (This theory was somewhat confirmed by this BBC mini-documentary.)

My fifth reaction: “Get a grip, Choi.”

I’m stalled on my final reaction. Others have responded strongly to the Reborn movement, though differently. On Twitter, Amanda Marcotte noted: “What do women who believe their sole purpose in life is breeding do when their babies grow up? This.”

I agree, to a certain extent. If you can’t, or won’t, fully participate in a society’s prescribed roles, sometimes you attach yourself to substitutions for those roles — if you don’t have a real baby, love this pretend baby! That seems a reasonable explanation, and the cultural context for hobbies like this are worth examining. But to dismiss these women’s affections and needs to nurture another being (sentient or not) as weird or pathetic, as I did at first, is beyond lacking in any sort of empathy or understanding. It’s anti-feminist. I’m have a hairpin trigger when it comes to any media portrayal of women and motherhood, immediately looking for sexism and misogyny in the coverage.

Granted, there’s a pretty big difference between loving a non-sentient being as a piece of art and loving it as if it were a real sentient human being. But sometimes it’s not the stories I should be examining for sexism, it’s me. My first reaction was that these women should do something “real.” Shouldn’t you go find something more “important” to do? Why are you fulfilling this stereotype of women just obsessing about babies? Some commenters on the original story have made similar statements, saying that these women should volunteer at hospitals or adopt children rather than waste their time with dolls. Would we respond this way if the story were about women collecting unusual wooden sculptures? Or first-run books, or musical instruments? Or are we responding this way because these women are diving into a “women’s” culture of nurturing children, and we think they should be doing, I don’t know, more?

Image via.

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