Something as innocently conceived as a children’s toy can be subverted and twisted into a subculture phenomenon, and not necessarily a psychically healthy one, either.
One current “cosplay” (“costume play”) trend revolving around modern Asian ball-joint dolls (high-end collectibles not meant for children) has spawned many sexually mature young women and
The Greeks created the first known articulated dolls, with moveable limbs at the joints. These were normally constructed of fired clay and assembled with leather thongs or rough-spun thread. Dolls became more sophisticated as the centuries progressed. They mirrored the societies in which they were crafted: they wore the fashions of the day, the hairstyles, and the popular facial colorings.
The split into two tiers of doll-making, finely hand-crafted figures and mass-produced toys, also created a schismatic collectors’ market. Rare dolls are some of the highest valued items at any antiques’ auction and can routinely fetch price tags near the $10,000 and higher range.
In the 20th century, many dolls were the typical “baby doll”, grooming little mothers-to-be in the finer arts of child care: tending, feeding, and diapering their “baby”. Barbie changed all that in the 1950s. Although many celebrities had dolls made in their likenesses (for cross-promotional purposes) Barbie became an icon of a whole different type. She was not a “baby doll”. Barbie was a “fashion” doll, and this changed the industry.
Today, there are innumerable dolls of varying body types and targeted demographics. One of the most disturbing trends, though, is a fairly recent one from about 1999 or so in which dolls of exquisite tooling, proportion, and artistry were created not for a children’s market for play but for adult collectors. And the dolls, known generically as “ball-joint dolls”, are the center of a disquieting sub-culture that apparently glories in the idea of the pre-pubescent, but sexualized, young girl.
Two standout films probably best captured the titillating older man-teen girl romantic dilemma better than any other before or since. The first is Elia Kazan’s brilliant dark drama, Baby Doll, from 1956. In this film, a very mature man played by Karl Malden marries a teen girl, 17-year-old “Baby Doll”. As part of an agreement with her dying father, Malden must wait until she is 20 years old before consummating their marriage.
When the movie picks up, Baby Doll is 19, close to her 20th birthday. During the two years she has lived with Malden, she sleeps in an undersized child’s daybed, wears short little-girl dresses, and behaves very child-like. Malden can barely contain himself, and Baby Doll, innocently or otherwise, torments him.
The 19-year-old nymph of this movie is played by a very curvaceous 25-year-old blond named Carroll Baker. Her woman’s curves are clearly visible beneath the flimsy, ill-fitting dresses she wears, she is normally shoeless and barelegged, and has a wide-eyed sensuality. It’s a very mixed message – this girl, neither victim nor vamp, isn’t bright enough to understand her power over this man, but she does somehow seem aware she has it.
The true pinnacle in both literature, and on-screen, of the May-December relationship is Lolita. Nabokov wrote the book about a 12-year-old girl who is pursued and sexually conquered by a man old enough to be her father. In the book, the narrator (written before the word “pedophile” came into common use) calls himself by the pseudonym “Humbert Humbert”. Humbert, through a series of carefully contrived moves, marries Lolita’s mother just to get close to the girl. After the mother dies in a hit-and-run accident, Humbert lies to Lolita and takes her off cross-country on a seemingly never-ending road trip to ruin.
After he first has sex with Lolita (whose given name is Dolores), she complains the next day of being in pain “down there”. When Humbert presses her on the issue, Lolita tells him straightaway the truth: she is sore “from when you raped me”.
The movie, of course, is not so blunt, having been mainstreamed in 1962. Also, to soothe other censorship concerns, Lolita’s age in the film was raised to 14 (still uncomfortable for America, but not nearly as uncomfortable as statutorily raping a 12-year-old as in Nabokov’s book). She was played by an age-appropriate 14-year-old Sue Lyon whose iconic look has gone down in cinematic history.
The Lolita movie image combined with school-girl gear helped make up much of the 1960’s mod look for teens and young women. These fashion moves made the women look young, but they did not make them look like children. They were still sexually mature women beneath their mini-dresses, their barrettes, hair parted on the side, and their bright red lipsticked mouths.
Both Baby Doll and Lolita spawned many imitators. The theme was explored in I Walk the Line, starring Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld in 1970. It was later revisited by Drew Barrymore in the title role of 1992’s Poison Ivy, and by a 17-year-old Alicia Silverstone as the 14-year-old nymphet in the suspense film, The Crush (1993).
It was the higher aesthetic of the collector that spawned the modern Asian ball-joint doll. Animé, the stylized Japanese cartoon art that specifically “Westernizes” its characters while retaining some Oriental flavor, was the inspiration for their “look”.
Like animé drawings these dolls almost universally have slightly disproportionately larger heads than life would dictate.
The doll’s internal structure sometimes carries a plastic skeletal frame over which polyurethane synthetic resins are cast. The elements are banded together with thick elastic straps allowing for free movement of the joints while keeping them naturally tight. These dolls are built for customization by painting or for changing the eyes and hair. In fact many of them are sold
These dolls were first made under the brand name “Dollfie” (“doll figure”) in 1999 by a Japanese company, Volks. The original line of animé- and manga-inspired dolls was expanded to include a larger model, the Super Dollfie. Many times, all ball-joint dolls are generically (and erroneously) called “Dollfies” or “Super Dollfies” – these specific terms are trademarked model names.
In size these dolls range from the smallest (about 4” tall), up to the more common 16” and 24” dolls. Many specialty types in the Super Dollfie line can be 36” tall or more. Some have been made “life-sized” for the age-appropriate life stage of the doll (up to 4’ tall or more). All of the dolls have larger feet proportionately than Barbie; thus, they can stand upright without support.
The lack of true ethnic diversity in these collectibles is disconcerting and inexplicable. Despite most of these dolls’ manufacture in Japan, South Korea, and China, almost none have classically Asian features. They display variants ofblond to honey blond (as preferred), and the skin is pale or pinkish. Even the few “Oriental” dolls carry paler, less olive-toned skin with widened eyes.
A search of images failed to produce any of these dolls with clearly Africanized features, hairstyles, or any skin tones that could be considered African. The Westernized BJDs (“ball-joint dolls”) are clearly geared to the Caucasian market, preferred even among the Japanese who collect them.
They are also almost all built along more womanly lines than an average child’s doll, with clearly defined hips, waists, and chests. [Barbie, for instance is absurdly and grotesquely
Within the general category of BJDs there are sub-genres as well: Goth, vampire, elvish, fairy, and others. The aficionados of these dolls are global, and there is a huge international community, both on-line and in person.
The sub-culture can be fairly creepy – many people take pictures of these dolls as if they are living beings, they talk of them in similar tones, the owners hold “fashion” photo shoots, and upload videos of their doll collections. Worse, there is a fashion cult that has sprung up around them.
Certainly, not everyone who collects these dolls is perverse. But, impressionable children are vulnerable to marketing and fads more than any other demographic, and the fashion cult thatJustin Biebers of the world) when many other truly gifted musicians and vocalists can’t get heard. Evidence of this inanity can be found in the realm of the modern Asian ball-joint doll cult. Sexually mature adult women are adopting the “Lolita fashion” look (which actually has absolutely no connection to Lolita as played by Sue Lyon, it’s just a name coöpted for particularly excessive youthful couture, and is derived from a Portuguese word); tween/teen girls are, as well.
Seeing a mature young woman engage in cosplay photography is one thing. She is certainly making, and is capable of making, an informed decision to dress up in baby doll clothes as she sees fit and be photographed or featured in an on-line video or go to cosplay parties dressed as a baby doll. Younger girls, however, cannot make such mature decisions, and are left to peer pressure and up-to-the-moment trends for inspiration and guidance.
It is in this secondary market of fashion wannabes that the BJD cult can be destructive. Most teen girls usually try to appear older and more sophisticated in their dress and makeup, wanting to be perceived as more mature
Perhaps one of the most controversial of these “living dolls” is a British girl named Venus Palermo. With not only her mother’s assistance, coaching, and support, this 15-year-old girl dresses up in baby doll clothing, with a specialized makeup technique that makes her look as if she is about seven years old. She is a child molester’s dream – the little girl in look who is technically not a little girl at all (although at 15, Venus Palermo is still legally underage for consensual sexual contact).
This girl has a series of (currently) 81 videos on YouTube, under the nom de guerre, “Venus Angelic”. She claims the family lived in Japan for a time, and that she started dressing as a doll about two years ago when she was 13. Her mother encourages the behavior.
The “finished” product is frightening – Venus Palermo looks like a pedophile’s plastic dream date when she has finessed her transformation into Venus Angelic.
She describes in great detail how her makeup is applied, to the number of layers of foundation and powder and other things it takes to “face-up”. She wears false eyelashes occasionally, but more damaging is the use of contact lenses with opaque, oversized irises tinted on them. The cornea and iris part of the human eye is avascular – it needs to “breathe” in order to obtain oxygen. These lenses give the doe-eyed look of the stunned doll, but they can certainly lead to eye problems. Another disturbing feature about the lenses: they emulate the condition of a woman’s eye when she is sexually aroused or on the brink of having an orgasm. The dilated pupils and the bright-eyed look of arousal is subtly, if not consciously, perceived by the trolling male, viewer.
Venus Palermo also adopts the mannerisms of a child-like persona. She speaks in a baby girl voice, saccharine sweet and cloying, and peppered with obfuscations and sickeningly cutie-pie phrases such as “wonderful summer-sky blue sugary fairy crystal bonbons”.
Proof of the danger to this girl was learned recently when she and her mother hosted a Webcam Q&A. A predatory male engaged in the conversation quickly enough – the mother put a stop to that, but did not stop the Webinar. The girl claims she will do this dressing up for the rest of her life. The psychic damage by enabling her fantasy life is immeasurable right now and will only tell in later years. One can only imagine what sort of man might ultimately find her attractive – such a relationship could probably only be co-dependent and destructive.
Danica McKellar (the actress who portrayed the adorable girl-next-door, Winnie Cooper, in the 1990’s television series, The Wonder Years) grew up to be a theoretical mathematician (co-creator of a new theorem that bears her name). As a young adult, she remarked in an interview about the fan mail she received as a child actress. Most of it, she said, carried elements of nostalgia (“You remind me of my first girlfriend”, or things of that nature). Occasionally, however, she received
Similarly, many women have worked very hard to be taken seriously in the work place and in life. And while it is certainly arguable about the “seriousness” of any woman’s posing for nude photographs or appearing in a pornographic film, such women are of the age of consent and make decisions without pop culture influence or media frenzy or peer pressure.
Unfortunately, the cult of BJDs tends to ignore the place of young girls in their make-believe world by not only condoning and encouraging the fantasy of females as sexual objects, but taking the further step of reducing them literally to playthings: toys.
Almost certainly, the BJD fan and collectors’ Websites are trolled by many bad men looking to engage any unsuspecting adolescent. The modern Asian ball-joint dolls are blameless; they are inanimate collectibles that have drawn a group of overindulgent parents and others bonded in an obsessive interest in strange fashions that cannot possibly appeal to a sexually healthy adult.
It can only be hoped it’s a short-lived fad.
Venus Angelic (random tutorial, re: hair/face-up)
Courtney Love sings about metaphoric doll parts
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