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?

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10 Comments

  1. Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I think what creeps people out is this..

    “Dolls” are one thing. I have many friends who collect and make clothes for ball-joint dolls. They creep me out, I won’t lie (the dolls, not the friends), but they’re clearly unreal and toylike… with their dead eyes staring in smooth, shiny faces…

    sorry, slight pediophobia, moving on..

    These dolls are made to look as real as possible, so the notion of someone collecting what clearly looks like dead babies touches that Ed Gein nerve. And unlike collecting stationery (guilty as charged), musical instruments or shot glasses, there’s a clear real-world counterpart to the baby dolls that do need care. As much as I love stationery, the psychological need behind it doesn’t translate well into social usefulness. Except maybe planting trees so more paper can be made? Check.

    That said, it’s one thing to collect, and it’s another to pretend they’re real. Of my BJD collector friends, I’m hard-pressed to think of one who thinks it’s a real baby, and throws showers and holds pageants, etc. I’ve seen matching outfits done (there’s overlap with the Lolita community), but that’s about as outré as it gets.

    These babies don’t poop and scream and hork all down your back when you burp them (I can see the appeal), so perhaps instead of “I wish I had a real baby,” the need is one of control? They don’t just want babies, they want perfect little preserved angels who won’t grow up into whining teens who always bring the car back low on gas, loudly wish they’d never been born, and keep putting their shoes on the nice furniture.

    Hmm. Urge to collect… rising…

  2. Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Huh. If you hadn’t specified, I would’ve thought you were talking about the ball-jointed doll communities, which I always thought were just an extension of figurine collecting. Except, people don’t usually carry around figurines, dress and feed them, like so many BJD collectors do.

  3. Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    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?

    I think no, we would not respond that way not because of the level of monetary investment or even time and energy but the emotional investment and the gray line between fantasy and reality. The article said many carried them around in public and treated them like members of their family. While I think there are many more worthwhile things to spend $15K on than books or records or dolls or other collectibles and many, many more worthwhile things to devote time to than dolls, de gustibus non est disputandum.

    What brothers me is women having such an intense desire to recreate the emotional state including the *status* (why else carry the thing around in public?) of having a newborn. It speaks to me of a some sort of arrested emotional/psychological state that had developed in this hermetic culture of conservative christian pro-life communities (not that it is exclusive to this but they’ve probably created some sort of critical mass and foundation of a network for it to grow) that prizes purity and virtuous motherhood and not much else about being a woman.

    I have children and I enjoy watching them mature. I have trouble relating to the women who bemoan their “babies growing up.” That is what children are supposed to do and while I sometime mourn the loss of some aspects of their younger states, I wouldn’t want to be stuck at any particular age with them.

  4. Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I’d really be interested in learning more about these women’s anti-abortion views. Because from looking at these pictures and whatnot, this does seem like a natural thing to do when you believe that babies are “gifts from God”–dolls that don’t need welfare checks, aren’t disabled, aren’t hungry, won’t go to school, don’t need healthcare etc. It’s pretty much how conservatives want children to be–just a beautiful, precious idea, but don’t tax public funds in any way.

  5. Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Like you, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was so creepy about this subculture when I first heard about it a few years ago. I’ve had time to think about it since then. I can tell you exactly why this is so creepy. It’s objectifying to children, specifically infants. In the same way patriarchy objectifies women, it also objectifies children (i.e. “Children should be seen and not heard”). Treating an object as if it had the same value as an actual child (giving it its own room, taking it out to dinner, changing it, and , nightmare fuel warning, maybe even breast feeding it) is wrong. Children do that with their toys, but children are all horrible little sociopaths who will eventually grow out of it once they learn to deal with actual people.

  6. Posted February 20, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I don’t get the point of this article, and the reactions are irking me. If you want to know why each INDIVIDUAL woman enjoys this hobby, why don’t you ask her? We all have habits or interests or hobbies or are a part of a culture that others would deem strange. Why must we speculate and ultimately stereotype this group of women based on their hobby? They aren’t hurting anyone.

    Also, it seems dangerous to coorelate this interest with each woman’s identities and beliefs. Great, most of these women are white, conservative, anti-abortion, and Christian. I really don’t think that doll collecting/roleplaying has any coorelation with a woman being anti-abortion, and if it does, than our speculation via blogging is not going to find it.

    I just think it’s unfair to judge and wonder about this hobby, especially because each individual woman has her own story about why she does it, and we have not heard it yet, and frankly, it’s none of our business.

  7. Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    I have to say this article caught my attention. I have over ten of those life like dolls myself, albeit they were given to me as gifts when I was younger (they were always the “big” presents that I couldn’t wait to get for birthdays and christmas). Back then I had a subscription to a doll magazine, and wanted desperately to go to the “nursery” aka factory where the dolls were produced. I played with and took care of those dolls like they were real babies. My mom and dad let me get them real baby clothes, put real diapers on them, use baby carriers, etc. I even pushed them around in strollers. I loved it. I can’t imagine continuing that hobby now. But I do agree with River (who posted above) that maybe it is not our position to come up with reasons why women do it. Is it healthy for the women to have humanlike attachments to material objects? I’m not sure. I don’t think it was unhealthy for me I was younger. I turned out just fine (or I like to think so). My feeling is that these women are not taking some anti-feminist stance or posing some threat (to what, I am not sure.) And, again, we can’t really know if we don’t ask these women about it, for there may be many possibilities as to why they find their dolls and their time with them to be so fascinating and enjoyable.

  8. Posted February 21, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I think Amandas point about objectification is a good one. Let’s face it though, its not just reactionary Christians who have this idea about perfect children being seen but not heard and of zero nuissance to everyone around them.

    More to my thinking though, is that perhaps these women are playful. As adults, our ability to play and be imaginative is very narrow and confined. Comics are for teens. Sci fi is for teens. Dolls and kites and toy trucks are for little kids. How many adults do you see skipping down a street just for the sheer joy of being alive? Many things that we did as children end up being put aside just because societal expectation, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with it. And play is a very important tool for things like problem solving or stress relief. Not to mention being just plain fun.

    These women choose life like dolls. Other people (often women) keep tons of stuffies or guys who still collect comics and Star Trek figurines. We don’t pick on those people, so long as their stuff is kept at home, is collectibles for something like Dr. Who or its small and can be easily ignored. The only reason I can see for this is that as adults, we have become uncomfortable with stepping into another persons mind in this way and just enjoy engaging in things with very loosely defined rules.

    How many women collect pets when their kids leave home? My mother got four cats, two dogs and two good sized parrots when I moved out. Now, so long as as you didn’t know that all these animals appeared within six months of me leaving what would you think? Would you think anything beyond “oh what an animal lover”?

    In short, perhaps some women are using the dolls as a way to cope. Perhaps these women just like playing. Either way, what harm does it do to anyone else? We find a lot of ways as adults to hide our playfulness, or to rechannel it into something productive and goal oriented.

    I’d also like to point out that men still play with balls and hockey sticks and inline skates and play at being soldiers in historical recreations. Why is it that their childhood toys (at least in some areas) are sacrrosanct items they never have to give up, but a womans toys must be left behind at puberty?

  9. Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    I like creepy dolls, and art involving creepy dolls–sure it’s been done quite a bit, but I still like it. However I’m not now and never will be an anti-choicer, that’s just something that is not in my capacity to drive my personal autonomy off a cliff over.

  10. Posted February 23, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I think this weirds people out because of the uncanny valley effect.

    In kind of an interesting, even literary, way. The dolls themselves fall within the uncanny valley. They look human enough, while being recognizably non-human, to be disturbing. The mothering behavior also falls within the uncanny valley, as it’s mothery enough, while recognizably not the same as mothering an infant, that it’s disturbing.

    But that’s a different issue than whether it is right or wrong, feminist or non-feminist. Honestly I think the uncanny valley factor is the only reason this is shocking at all to anybody.

    (Indeed, examining the reasons why we have negative reactions to other people is an important task for would-be feminists, anti-racists, etc.)

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