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A Brief Historical Sketch on Paper Dolls

Before Barbie, paper dolls were one of the most popular dolls for girls. The history of paper dolls is much longer than we assume.“The first paper dolls were reported in 1280 by explorer Marco Polo. He told of seeing paper figures of human beings as part of Chinese religious rights. Paper dolls as we know them, however, were not seen till the 18th century, when often life-size, jointed paper dolls were created and used as jumping jack toys or marionettes. “(Antiques Collect Mag, 2003:63) As the name itself suggests, “paper dolls are printed on sheets of flat papers, were being made in the early 19th century in England, Germany and France. Some were hand painted in color. Others were printed in black and white, to be colored by the buyer. “(Ibid, 63)

When were paper dolls made for the first time in America? “By 1854, the first paper doll for children was made in America. The publishing company of Crosby, Nichols & Company of Boston included a paper doll named Fanny Gray. The doll came in a box and with a wooden base along with several costumes and a booklet of verses. By 1859 Godey’s Lady’s Book began publishing a complete series of paper dolls.”(Ibid, 63)Paper dolls have “frayed edges, creased mid-sections, and bent clothing tabs. From stubborn Scotch tape to indelible crayon markings, the pitiful paper stories are never-ending. Exceptions to the well-loved-well-worn rule are three series of paper dolls released by Hallmark in the late 1940s: ‘Dolls From The Land of Make Believe,’ ‘Dolls of the Nations,’ and the ‘Little Women Dolls.’ Many can still be found in the colorful and pristine condition that delighted young collectors when the dolls made their debut.” (Johnson, 2010: 20)

After Hallmark’s success, competitors joined the paper doll market. But the market did not last. “After their late-1940s flurry, the Hallmark dolls disappeared until 1954. On re-release, the album covers had changed. Hallmark Dolls originally sold for just 25 cents each (50 cents with the album). Today, individual dolls in mint condition can fetch from $40-45, with each “Little Women” doll averaging $50-75. Just right for any young or young-at-heart doll collector you may know-especially if you “care enough to send the very best.”(Ibid: 25)

As we can see in Hallmark’s beloved series, most paper dolls have a white complexion and are good-looking girls and boys. When was the first black paper dolls produced? “Paper dolls are hardly newcomers. In 1811, an English toy company, S. & J. fuller, printed what is thought to be the first mass-produced black or mulatto paper doll. With curly locks and a swarthy complexion, ‘Protean Man’ was unlike typical African-American male paper dolls seen in the 19th and 20th centuries.” (Antiques & Collecting Magazine, 2007:20)

Moreover, “Grayson notes that black paper dolls, especially those that appeared in the mid-1800s into the mid-1900s, commonly depicted people of African ancestry in subservient and stereotypical roles. “(Ibid, 21)“About 120 examples of Arabella Grayson’s Collection, which totals 300 sets and individual pieces, are now on view at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington D.C. The display includes, ‘Nyla,’ Grayson’s first paper doll, and ‘Mammy and Her Thanksgiving Dinner,’ 1912.” (Ibid, 23) After the introduction of Barbie, paper dolls gradually disappeared.

“Barbie was introduced in 1956. Originally, she had five movable body parts, large pointed breasts, a skinny waist, wore high heels and a black-and-white striped bathing suit.”(Wager-Ott, 2002:248) Barbie is, of course, a three dimensional figure unlike the paper dolls. “Hander, who creates the Barbie, noticed that her own daughter loved to dress and undress paper dolls; therefore, Barbie was finally designed with this notion in mind – to become a manikin for displaying a plethora of fashionable clothing and accessories. “(Wagner-Ott, 2002:248)

Questions of Gender Identity

In general, the connection between gender identity and playing with dolls is explored by many researchers.How girls “dress, the daily rituals through which we attend the body – is a medium of culture.” (Bordo, 1993:165)Duncum (1997) asserts below: “It is from popular culture that most people weave their identities and establish their relationships with others and the environment. Mass media images saturate our lives, structuring much of what we know beyond personal experience. “(Duncum, 1997:70)

As Duncum notes above, most children build up their identity to differentiate themselves from others in the environment. In this sense, Wagner-Ott (2002) asserts “Because of the crucial issues associated with many girl’s perceptions of their own bodies, and about themselves in relation to the formation of gender identities.”(2002:247) The discussion of gender identity has been a controversial issue – which focuses on taking advantage or disadvantage of playing with dolls. Scholars who have commented on children playing with dolls in relation to gender identity have expressed favorable and unfavorable opinions/analyses of this activity.

On the one hand, one researcher in the 1950s argued that female children accustom themselves to the mother’s role by playing dolls. Moreover, De Beauvoir (1957) argued that “since the middle of the 1800s, manufacturing industries had been manipulating parents and girls via dolls in order to help girls adjust and learn about their future roles as wives and mothers.”(Ibid: 251) In this sense, children easily adapt to their mother’s characteristics by role playing. In other words, girls mirror the mother throughout this playing.

On the other hand, some scholars posit that gender identity is negatively affected when children pretend their dolls are princesses. Since playing with dolls is an indoor activity, it may be related to girls becoming passive, motionless. Moreover, girls become emotionally attached to dolls. These associations—indoors as a female space, passive and without agency, emotionally-attached—are characteristics of female stereotypes. As a result, the social construction of the feminine is a significant issue related to playing with dolls.

Mapping Mediated Characteristics from Shadow Playing to Children’s Princess Playing

Being passive or active as a mediator

“Toys invite players to read and perform particular identities through play. The identity text ‘cool girl’ is communicated through the doll’s anime features as well as its hairstyle, makeup, and clothing. The doll’s snippets of talk, ‘I’m bored – let’s go shopping,’ voice gendered consumer identity messages for children in the target demographic 6 – to 12- year – old girls.” (Wohlwend, 2009: 59)

In general, being a princess is a kind of archetype for the beauty of a girl. Most girls have dreamed the fantasy of being a princess as a result of reading or seeing Disney stories. According to Butler (1993), “Critical discourse analysis of play activity showed that children regulated each other’s gender performances through talk and actions that demonstrated their ability to adhere to the heterosexual matrix.” (Wohlwend, 2009:60)

The fascinating issue here is that children’s princess playing takes a significant role in mediating their characteristics. In this sense, playing with dolls may be the first socializing moment as they often take place children are old enough to go to school. When playing with dolls, the children, not adults or teachers, decide who plays with whom and what roles each child (or doll) will take in the group. In other words, there are no restrictions set by external forces when children decide their position or roles since they regulate this at the beginning of play. Hence, they experience how they set up the stories and create the first tiny mediated world including their own voices and different visualized icons: paper dolls.

“During princess play, girls focused on achieving beauty ideals and rejected play scenarios that stretched stereotypical male/female roles.” (Wohlwend, 2009:60)

Blaise (2005b) asserts below that princess playing is a pivotal role for gender performances: “The value that a small group of girls placed on being beautiful and pretty became evident in the dramatic play area while they were pretending to be princesses… Often, early childhood teachers and parents view children’s pretend play as ‘simply play,’ failing to recognize how gender is created and re-created in these story lines. As children enact the story lines of princes and princesses, the importance of being pretty and the role it plays in creating femininities and masculinities provide another opportunity for locating the heterosexual matrix in the classroom.” (77)

In general, “Toys must communicate meanings that appeal to children to be taken up and must be malleable enough to allow players to invent new meanings; that is, toys invite a particular meaning and simultaneously enable its revision.”(Brougere, 2006) In this sense, children give names to and create unique meanings about their paper dolls.

Questions of Body as Medium

Children’s Material Cultures

When girls played with paper dolls, they could not avoid facing the back part of the doll – which is just blank paper. The front part was facing the other child a girl is playing with, and the back part was facing the girl herself. The limitation of the material characteristics allowed a girl to embed their voice and character in the paper doll. In this sense, there was a kind of appointment among players, they pretended the actual person was not there. This is a basic assumption among players; the paper doll represented themselves and then the player was identical to the paper doll. This was the first experience a girl might have with how communication is mediated with the medium itself. The communication process in playing with dolls is definitely similar to shadow play. In shadow play, “the performance consisted of a screen, and a light source and an artist behind the screen. The artist created shadow portraits, which were cast onto the screen. Like a theater play, this show also had a scenario and was performed accordingly.” (Ozcan, 2002:19) We can consider this to be completely homogeneous characteristics to with playing paper dolls. In playing with dolls, girls have the experience of representing themselves as dolls, experiencing a kind of embedded mediated communication. In addition, the paper doll could not have movable body parts. Its shape was fixed and limited to their body. Even if the most fascinating thing about paper dolls was changing their outfits, it was still very limited. If the figure had a special pose, all outfits may not have fit the doll. The cultural habitus was based on how many paper dolls and outfits that a girl had. From the point of community formation, the doll had an invisible power among girls. Today, an avatar in cyber space represents the simulation mentioned above. An avatar in the internet world can have as many outfits as possible, but may need a cyber token as part of the trading process. This whole process in the avatar simulacra is definitely represented by those whom have an experience either playing with dolls or with the concept of shadow play.

The Medium is NOT the Message

McLuhan’s formula, the medium is the message, is not appropriate in the context of playing with paper dolls. Most media can be categorized as a continuum between Iris and Hermes. For Iris, the medium is the message. However, Hermes was more of a letter carrier, keeping the outer envelope differentiated from the inner content of the message. According to Kittler, “In order for signs to be comprehensible rather than simply readable, they must first be endowed with the figural quality of images drawn from nature, then these images must be animated by the hallucinated Mother’s voice. As in the phonetic method, optical signs are surrounded with the echo of maternal orality. The result is that instead of signifier one has signified that can be ‘seen,’ as if the text were a film. (Kittler, 590)

In understanding media, McLuhan asserts “All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms.”(64) According Kittler’s interpretation below: “But if media transpositions are again simply the movement of a metaphorization, then 1800 and 1900 can no longer be distinguished from one another in the way Kittler would like: namely, in the belief in a transcendental signified in the former case and the knowledge of manipulatable signifiers in the latter.” (Sebastian and Geerke, 1990; 593)

Moreover, Kittler “thinks of technology merely as technical apparatuses in their empirical facticity and not, like Foucault, as a function of knowledge. And Kittler does not recognize that if he replaces language by technologies – conceived of as such empirical apparatuses – then everything that Foucault says about language hold true precisely for technology. In other words, the specificity that Kittler reserves for psychoanalysis and his own enterprise can be nothing more than illusion that is transverse by an exterior element called technologies.” (Ibid, 594)