audio dolls: site of celebration site of shame

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For Hack 1, I was inspired by Mary Flanagan’s Critical Gameplay section on dolls. She points to Sutton-Smith, who wrote that “a group’s preference for specific activities is one important way values emerge in a culture.” By extension, the way that we play also becomes “a primary vehicle for and indicator of [children’s] mental growth. Play enables children to progress along the developmental sequence…play serves important functions in children’s physical, emotional, and social development.” (Flanagan, 21-24). Play can reinforce social norms — and play can also subvert these same norms, depending on the affordances and aspects of play.

Flanagan goes on to explain how dollhouses can condition girls into aligning with gendered societal expectations: taking care of home, children, the universe encapsulated in care of others and picking out the drapes. But this space can also be subverted — and many artists have created dollhouses that challenge these norms. Van Sowerwine’s Play with Me is an interactive installation wherein viewers can tell the doll to play with things. Play with the teapots, a viewer might say. The doll will then smash the teapot and start sawing off her own arm, and the viewer can do nothing to intervene. (45).

I was most interested in how these spaces and toys can condition certain messaging to the players based on their affordances as games or toys and how society interposes expectations of that toy. This year and last there has been a huge swell of outrage — mostly coming from young girls themselves — about restrictive dress codes wherein the logic says girls shouldn’t wear tank tops or short skirts or leggings because it is distracting to boys. This kind of gendered control and blame/shame shifted onto girl’s bodies is not surprising, since we see it starting long before the enter the school system.

Bratz dolls (and also Barbie to a lesser extent) have been routinely criticized for being too sexy, wearing too much make-up and wearing “skimpy clothing.” Bratz in particular have been blatantly called “slutty” and a bad influence due to the type of clothes they wear. But designers of the dolls push back: “”[The biggest misconception is] that they’re sluts…I feel like no matter how you dress, [it] doesn’t mean that someone knows who you are inside.” Another designer agrees: “Even in the past, when they were totally so-called ‘sluts,’ as a kid I just thought they were really cute and cool and just wanted to hang out with them,” she says.”

So how does external messaging influence the way we play with dolls, and by extension, what kind of messaging are we internalizing as we use play as a means of “emotional and social development?”

In my hack, there are two identical paper dolls with two identical outfits to choose from. On one doll, when you pick her outfits, positive and affirming audio clips plays. The experience is fun and bouncy and the player is meant to feel good about her choices, as they are re-affirmed by the added audio. On the other doll, the audio is critical and insulting. Some are pulled from Vines — in one, a male character exclaims he won’t allow his daughter to leave the house “looking like a whore.” I deliberately chose to make the dolls and their outfits exactly the same, which points to

The clothes we choose for ourselves are girls are sites ripe for judgement. How does the way girls play with dolls — and the messaging they receive about those particular dolls — refract into how they think about themselves and the clothes they wear, as well as they way they project onto other girls?

Interestingly, in attempting to find my audio clips, it was actually very difficult to find genuine clips of girls (or celebrities, or talk show hosts, or television/film characters, or fashion shows) complimenting or affirming one another. I thought I would easily be able to find them under positive tags (#compliments, #girlpower, #yasqueen, #slay, etc) on Instagram, Vine, and Youtube. Instead, it was mostly girls either affirming themselves or trying to convince people that they actually don’t know how to take a compliment and are surprised when people compliment them. On YouTube in particular, when I was searching for compliments, the videos were mainly constructed through a male gaze: how to compliment girls with low self esteem, how to compliment girls so they sleep with you, how to compliment girls and not be creepy….

This search process in itself speaks to the lack of content that messages that girls, no matter what they wear, can be powerful, have self-esteem, and be positively affirmed by others.

I was also interested in this topic because I experienced myself as a child. I was not allowed to have Barbies or Bratz, and the subliminal messaging was that as a “smart girl,” I couldn’t simultaneously play with “slutty” dolls that focused on fashion and make-up because being “smart” was at odds with those representations of femininity.

The two paper dolls demands to know whether these two “at odds” concepts are legitimate, and reminds the player of the power of messaging surrounding certain forms of play as well.