My personal history of collecting dolls is not unlike others’ I’ve encountered across the globe. At some point in our youth, we were positively impacted through an encounter with a doll in such a way that forever left us imbibed with a sense of ‘knowing’ something others do not. This is not only true of dolls, but just about any item an adult collects to surround themselves with love, beauty, happiness, you name it. The exact opposite is also true when we are conditioned into fear or dislike of something because of an unpleasant experience in our past – for me, it’s bees (hell, any flying creature that stings will do it). There. I’ve just confessed one of my all-time biggest fears – so you know this has to have some kind of validity, right? Let’s continue…
As a child, I was playing with cousins in my aunt’s pecan orchard. A wayward football (stop snickering – a football, and yes, I was actually playing with it) kicked into a nearby tree; queue the attention-starved little kid – me. Announcing firmly that I would be the one to retrieve it, I also found myself retrieving the personal deployment of some fifty+ bee stingers from a hive the football had had the unfortunate occasion with which to connect. And that was pretty much it for me. Flash forward, picture a 45 year-old man driving a black Jeep in the middle of the road, jumping out in a nervous Nellie dance when a wasp flew by his head at a stop light. Yeah – really butch, that one.
But now let me relate another story to you that hits closer to home: A woman had a number of dolls in her attic that she knew since she was a child – they held wonderful memories for her. She told a ‘doll expert’ about them, and she wondered if they might be worth anything. The doll expert offered to look them over, and then began to explain to the woman in a long, verbose lecture about what makes a quality doll, and that there are imposters that one might find in, say places like grocery stores, that are sold to uneducated parents as fine toys for a lifetime of loving. They are in fact, worthless, poorly made and not worthy of any respectable attention from persons living or dead. The woman later took the dolls, with some trepidation, to the expert for review. They were old, dirty, worn…and they were something else – something anyone (except maybe the expert) could see in the woman’s eyes – they were loved. After review, the doll expert discovered the dolls were sold by Piggly Wiggly in the 1940s – a grocery store. Worthless – what a terrible word to hear that can ring forever in your heart when connected with something of which you have such an emotional attachment. She left with her dolls – heartbroken, insulted, and just a little teary-eyed. The doll expert was sorry to have had to deliver such information, but nevertheless, she might have been spared even more grief had she tried to sell, restore or insure these dolls. The doll expert was only trying to help, because this was asked of him. The ‘doll expert’ was me…and it never once occurred to me that all she really wanted was a little affirmation.
This is where a good doll can turn bad, even ugly. Like so many other parallels in fashion, beauty, collectibles, art – critique will always be present. What separates critique from pure meanness is really more about the group holding the discussion. Look, bullies are everywhere, and it’s our moral responsibility to stand up to them, right? Well, maybe. I guess it really depends on whether or not you feel something needs to be proven, avenged, or taken down a peg or two. Jealousy and insecurity drives much of this – I see it in myself all the time. I am often curious, however, as to what drives other people to do it. What amusing entertainment does one get from openly disparaging another? On the internet, earlier collector bulletin boards fractured by the stark opinions of some dissidents sowed the seeds for password-protected safe havens where collectors could talk without fear of being judged, criticized – or flamed.
I remember the logically presented arguments, both for and against the so-called ‘right’ of free speech in these forums to say exactly what one believed – and if you can’t take it, you should play in someone else’s sandbox. Responses to one’s simple statement, “you hurt my feelings” is met with, “you need to grown a thicker skin.” Today, we all know how rampant online anonymity can get – with people who will say one thing online, but would never dare such expressions to another in person. And for one who worked for a doll manufacturer for over a decade, it’s amazing how many of these people you get to know solely from his or her online persona.
I can remember countless times with fellow doll collectors at conventions, gatherings, etc. where a conversation would ultimately turn to the ugly premise of elitist observation regarding other dolls, condescending attitudes over the choices collectors make, and peer pressure. I have personally contributed and participated in such conversations. I have seen people’s feelings and characters directly damaged through causes of my own actions. Manufacturers are no different – the semi-annual turn of the new product collections would always result in grotesque analyses and condemnations over a rival’s newest offerings. And when the reviews would come in over our latest collections, we wouldn’t deign to accept such criticism from those who couldn’t possibly know what a good doll was. Oh yes…we read what was said online, and we knew exactly who said it. Hypocrites and high school antics folded into a Disney-may-care image of purity, love and benevolence. It’s a tale as old as time, and everyone does it.
And so I ask you, what exactly is an ugly doll (and not these Ugly Dolls)? Hell…what exactly is a good doll? It is true that some dolls are better in design, fabrication, and concept than other dolls when viewed in a purely objective light. But all too often, we forget that to the one who created that doll, and to the one who loves that doll, our opinion doesn’t really matter, now does it? Of course, it’s one thing to offer a critique if you are asked – but as I have found out through experience, offering your opinion without such invitation is just rude. But where does this leave critique in open conversion? We’ve already proven that we love the scandal and hi-jinks that mushroom whenever such debates and their subsequent participation by ‘experts’ winnow out some poor, soft-spoken schmuck who just wanted to ask if someone else likes a doll that he or she also likes.
Partnering judgement, superiority and exclusivity amongst those ‘in-crowd’ people irrevocably stain doll collecting as a hobby much for the same reason we thought The Devil Wears Prada was a comedy. All this being said, the ultimate question is offered by the very people who love to participate in such skewed conversation – and it’s a question that has merit: “Why are you taking this so personally?” Because doll collecting is a highly personal hobby, that’s why.
Look…there’s this little thing out there called competition, and when human beings are caught up in it, we will behave all demon ways this side of bat-shit crazy to support one’s conviction that theirs is the best, correct, or most fabulous. We as doll collectors are very sensitive when it comes to our girls (and guys). Even if you got that doll at Cracker Barrel in a mark-down bin, there’s absolutely no rational reason whatsoever to not like that doll. So – it’s time to put on your big-girl panties and take it like anything else in life that may try to encroach on your inalienable right to love something. And for every asshole out there, just remember there are dozens more that are the diametric opposite.
I remember buying Barbies at Kmart with my mother back in the 80s – we didn’t have much money, but we found some of the most cherished memories amongst such titanic classics as Jewel Secrets and Peaches & Cream. Pink Box Barbies – how socially unfortunate…but that wrap around stole and the jewels? (Sigh – a moment, I need to compose myself). However one day, I saw a print ad for a Scarlett O’Hara doll by the Franklin Mint – ooooo, and I could have her for five conveniently monthly installments – a real heirloom to be treasured for the ages. After all, I was a doll collector, so this must be what I should be collecting – the good stuff. It didn’t matter that the real reason I was buying her was because I am an absolute fanatic over Gone With The Wind, nor that it didn’t really look like Vivien Leigh – this was a $195 doll, so that had to mean something. Well, it didn’t. The sculpt was poor, the dress was not a good representation of the film’s costume, the wig was just as cheap as all get out – fiddle-dee-dee, it was Scarlett O’Hara, and none of that mattered one damned bit. She was mine. And then I started to meet others in the doll world, and it was blinding how little I knew about my little heirloom. Even more, that I was easily sucked into the marketing ballet of direct-sale companies that convinced me that this would be the best doll I would ever own, and one for my progeny to cherish. That’s a whole load of shit to throw at some delicately balanced flower such as myself.
I think what got to me the most was how many people within this doll community laughed at my admission that I actually bought this doll. Either that, or how I would rely on the exact same practices when hearing others’ admissions of acquiring certain dolls which I considered to be substandard. This bitch had a really hard time taking it – but man, could I dish it out. So the best defense was to become harder, badder, more vocal…and to make people love it. Revenge is a dish best served cold – and let’s not forget that dolls have no pulse.
But this isn’t about revenge – no, not at all. It’s more about living in the real world. Humor has its place in everything, and so does constructive criticism. Hell hath no fury like a doll collector scorned, but you’d also be surprised how unbelievably forgiving most of them can be. These are people who love sincerely, wound deeply, but heal just like all living things when shown respect, humility and reciprocation. A collector once told me you cannot force a collector to learn beyond one’s own ability or desire. She actually said it more like, “collectors don’t take your marketing shit.” And she was right.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have every intention of still being critical, just not in the way other writers might…there are far too many doll writers out there that will pick apart a doll, condemn a manufacturer because of its pricing, quality, and/or customer service practices to name a few – we all know them, and they serve a purpose in each writer’s own, individual way. You see, without some negative, you can never really appreciate the positive. Even the most soul-shattering sunset needs a few clouds to be perfect. I am reminded by the Four Agreements, and the one that refers to being impeccable with your word. Never forget that some of the most effective medications can be derived from poisons.
I can look a bad doll in the eye, and call it by its real name without even a hint of remorse – I’ve just become a little more refined about the way I say it. Words have powerful consequences…even as much as our actions do. If you are not familiar with business karma, you might want to brush up on it…it’s an interesting way to look at the doll industry, where it has been, and where it’s going. That being said – at the end of the day, there is always room for humor, as long as we can understand that it is in fact, humor. And who, with the possible exception of John Boehner, doesn’t like to laugh?