So, how exactly do you play with a doll? This sounds like a pretty straightforward question, and yet – it’s actually rather perplexing when you break it down by the sum of its parts. To the non-doll collector, images must pop into the mind about a naked doll with frazzled hair lying on the floor with clothing and accessories scattered around. This may be correct for the average 6 year old, but not so with the adult doll collector.
The elemental act of ‘play’ takes on many definitions – and the ‘why’ we play has an even greater subset of paradigms, each with its own stigma probably associated with some type of mental condition – both good and bad. It’s not enough to say it begins with the purchase of the doll. What really kick-starts the art of playing is the decision to debox. Oh boy…is that one of the most heart wrenching decisions a collector can make, or what?
Deboxing a doll is most closely associated with Barbie and dolls of that genre – largely toy dolls that are actually designed to handle play by even the most vigorous of hands. And yet, these are exactly the dolls that end up staying in the box to preserve as ‘NRFB’ (never removed from box). This OCD trait of never-touched-by-human-hands (well, except the factory worker, but they don’t really count) can really be annoying at best. I get it…but I do not entirely agree with it.
Robert Tonner is often quoted as saying that if you don’t remove a doll from its box, it never has a life – or something to that effect. It’s a profoundly true and honest statement, because dolls are creatures that are solely created purely for the activities associated with play. Even if the doll is only dressed once and placed on a shelf, it has been ‘played with’ by someone.
When I worked for Tonner, I always found it amusing at convention time when Robert would pre-sign the dolls – a laborious task that takes hours of unboxing and reboxing in an assembly line of company employees. After the event, I found it funny how many people would sell the dolls as NRFB, when I knew for a fact that they had been deboxed, usually with their clothing half-removed and their asses sticking in the air waiting for Robert’s Sharpie (don’t read into that). But then a collector friend told me that if it’s removed by a company representative, and replaced in its box, it could still be considered NRFB. Yeah…try that with any Mattel product.
It’s fascinating when you look at various manufacturers’ and doll artists’ methods of securing a doll to its box. The intent is to protect the doll during transit. At Tonner, we even had a 20-foot drop test to assess the security of the doll’s inner sanctum. The box also serves as a storage device for dolls that may be in rotation within a collector’s display. I always used them to store all the shit I didn’t want to keep on the doll while redressing it into something more fabulous. You, too? I knew it.
Many dolls will come with a ‘shipper’, or an outer box that serves as the shipping vessel. Some collectors have their head so far up their asshole that they will reject a doll for not being perfect if the shipper is damaged. It’s supposed to, you mental patient…it’s a SHIPPER! I remember a collector even suggesting that we create a second box to protect the shipper box. No…really.
Each company has its own touches when it comes to packaging a doll. Some actually make it easy for you to remove the doll, and replace if it is being shipped or stored. Then there are those that rely more on Styrofoam, bubble wrap, etc. to protect the doll – some even warrant such packaging because of fragility in manufacturing materials. Some companies will add all kinds of inner protections, body condoms, female hygiene pads – anything that will certify your doll not only arrives safely, but is pretty much guaranteed to be devoid of any STD.
And then there are the big boys – Mattel, Hasbro, Jakks, MGA…generally toy companies where it must take a doctorate to determine how to package those tiny little divas inside that plastic prison. Presentation is one thing, efficiency in the assembly line is another…but I am convinced it’s all done just to annoy the pure living shit out of the adult collector. Considering these things are made for children, I am still amazed no one has sued based on injury a child received during wrap rage while trying to decipher the Rubik’s Cube of deboxing Barbie.
Those who militantly oppose deboxing such collectibles are clearly not wanting to undergo the ass assault required to actually get these things out of their packaging. They covertly plan with egotists who design the packaging to come up with a plan so the masterpiece of packaging is unharmed across the planet – a vain attempt at artist immortality. A hardened stipulation arising from decades of propaganda and price-fixing on the secondary market have created this idea that taking the doll from its box is more than criminal…it’s a mortal sin. Those that follow this cult suggest that the dolls are much prettier in their packaging, and they display beautifully in their forever asylum, staring through vacuous eyes from the other side of the window pane plastic – silently yearning to be free. These are the monsters that sneer at the thought of freeing the doll – the ‘experts’ that whisper lies into your ear about how the packaging is just as important as the doll, itself – the vile whores of dolly Babylon that maintain that all dolls must be NRFB and in all original condition with all its original accessories. Fuck that shit.
And so it should come to pass that one of the reasons you’re reading Tommydoll is to embrace liberation – Debox Detox – to cast away those shackles of NRFB bondage that render you a candy ass for some packaging designer (not to mention all the environmentally caustic crap that goes into product packaging these days). Cast away those twist ties and knotted ribbons! Snip free the thread tacks that keep clothing picture perfect! Shout in animal voices as you rip your doll from the confines keeping you from fabulousness! Take a few lessons from Tommy, and your soul will soon be worthy of dolly heaven…
There is no wrong way to debox a doll. But there are Crimes Against Dollmanity (yes, I will be covering these) when it comes to playing with your doll. Read on you will, young Padawan…
Celebrate – hear me out on this one. One of the simplest ways to play with your dolls is to celebrate them. Sky’s the limit on this one. Make buttons featuring your dolls and wear them to church – Shout out at the top of a mountain all the wonderful feelings you get when you look at your dolls – Tie a great big red ribbon around each and every doll you own and slowly take them off again like it’s Christmas…make it even more fun and invite an atheist friend. Granted, wine always helps here – and yes, you will be tagged a ‘cheerleader’ – but there’s no other triumphant methods available to you such as using exuberance as a doll accessory.
Criticize – This can mean many things, and it can incite negativity within the eyes or ears of the wrong audience, but criticism should be a lively discussion about the merits, ideals and features that make you love dolls in the first place. Remove the anger and bitchery, and you find yourself amongst friends not unlike just leaving a movie – you will inevitably discuss what you liked and what you did not like. Dolls are no different if you can observe simple parameters that turn an otherwise intellectual conversation into a doll bashing frenzy. Which leads me to:
Doll Bashing Frenzy – I would never actually endorse this, but for those of you with a good sense of humor, you know this can be really fun. Just make sure you are among friends, and that you don’t get all sissy-tears when a doll you like is mentioned. This isn’t really about hate…it’s about venting, and as I have found in many instances, such discussions can actually help me learn more about a doll from another’s point-of-view. It’s a great thing of which to participate just before you feel the need to purge and sell-off some things to make room for new dolls.
Organize Your Dolls – well, it’s not really ‘play’ and really more like work, but if you put on some good Disney Princess tunes and make it all a magical game, getting your shit organized can not only be amusing, but it can also serve a more practical purpose, too. Organize, clean, re-arrange – the OCD collector’s dream.
Create Alternate Realities – AKA living vicariously, creating fiction, escape – If you decide this option is for you, make sure you get some mental health counselling as I discussed here, first. Alternate realities, or fantasies, can be great fun, they might even help to contribute to writing or photography. However, the thing you must always keep in your mind is that it is not actually real. A good example of this is the baby doll. You can play with that baby doll like it is your own child…as long as you know it is not your child…or even human for that matter. Now, baby doll collectors do enjoy recreating realistic situations such as changing diapers, even breast-feeding…it’s not unlike cosplay, if you think about it. And whereas it may not be your thing, to another it may bring immense joy. So break out that tea set, have a mad tea party with all your favorites, and hope to Dear God no one is filming you for You Tube.
Destroy – you heard me. Destroying a doll can bring a great amount of positive pleasure to just about anyone. Use it to act out or to rob it of its parts. There are many valid reasons destruction of a doll can lead to a positive play experience. Who out there hasn’t wanted to burn your own Salem Witch? And Voodoo dolls…that takes destruction to a whole different level (but pacts with Satan can be a little difficult to shake off later). If it’s a doll that can’t be restored, or ravaged for its parts…give it a go, and tell me your soul isn’t just a little dirtier after you’ve cleaned up the mess.
Display/Decorate – I remember I once gave a seminar on ‘How To Decorate With Dolls’ – some folks thought it was going to be some type of comedy show…and they were really bummed when they found out it was real. Not my greatest performance. But seriously, you can effectively use your dolls to decorate your surroundings, either by thematic approach (such as holidays, historical periods or color stories), or to accentuate your décor in the same way you would with a painting or sculpture. Creating a standout display with your dolls is no easy feat – and make sure you’ve gotten a non-doll collector friend to take a look at your results because there’s no accounting for taste. Never attempt décor displays with a loved one – it’s a sure-fire way to get your ass smoked faster than white shoes after Labor Day.
Employment – I know so many talented individuals (and some with no shred of talent whatsoever) that have turned doll play into a means of making money. Whether it be writing, photography, sewing – or just retailing – turning something of which you love into income can be satisfying, and self-perpetuating. But think long and hard before you decide to give up everything to go work for another person who plays with dolls – it may just be the last thing you ever do – and besides, you’re only making money for them anyway, and I can guarantee you’ll always be dispensable.
Maintenance – one of the ugly truths of doll collecting is that you have to maintain your collection; so why not get your Snow White on and make it playful? Whistle while you work to keep your treasures dusted (canned air works wonders!), aired out, free of creepy crawlies – anything that might take a long term toll on fabrics (especially natural fabrics), plastics, resins, etc. Look, you spent tons of moola and probably took out a couple of dolly hopefuls obtaining these objects of your affection – you can’t just rip her from the box, place it on a shelf, and call it quits. Man up, accept some responsibility, attend a few museum curator classes, and make that collection sparkle! If you can also have fun while you’re doing it – why – it just may be better than sex (not likely, though).
Makeover – Customization of a doll is a great way to get a unique morsel for your collection, and it can be crazy fun, too. From face painting to hair styling, you can create an original doll, or restore a much played-with lady from vintage years. I’ve even seen people cut out painted eyes to add inset versions – separate fingers for more expression in the hands, remold non-jointed arms/legs…or even create your own articulation by making your own ball joints – not the prettiest of results, but highly effective and functional if the joints are hidden. Of course, in today’s age of buying new, articulated bodies direct from manufacturers, this practice has been rendered somewhat obsolete; but it can be a great way to use destruction to modify an otherwise expressionless doll.
Repainting a doll may be a simple enhancement of the doll’s make-up or coloring – or it may be a complete removal of the original face paint and application of your own. It can even take re-sculpting with a Dremel and good putty. I personally think everyone should try it at least once. There are tricks to face painting: you need the right consistency of your paint, the right size brush, magnifying glasses or table lamp – and a shit load of patience peppered with practice. My face paints always ended up cross-eyed, so it made me appreciate Sydney Chase’s wonky eye that much more.
Hair styling is a must for any doll collector. Doll hair fibers can vary from natural mohair to temperamental synthetics with a melting point that has its own interesting results when exposed to hot air or hot water. At the very least, you should know how to reset a simple ponytail. Graduating to curlers is a good-to-know. Boil perms and hot boxes are advanced techniques that can easily lead to a ruined doll. But the top honors for hair styling go to those who can cut hair, despite the fact that doll hair is not human hair in any sense of the concept. Deity level is achieved when you can make wigs that look so natural, Ru Paul would be tap-tap-tapping at your door. In the end, hair and face paint are two things that doll collectors are most drawn to…so why not take some time and learn it yourself?
Photograph – By now, you should already know that this is a tender subject for me. In an age of digital wonders, there simply is no excuse to take craptastic photos. And if you are selling that item, even more the reason to take a page from the marketing playbook, and learn to romance the living hell out of your doll by capturing it well on camera. It’s certainly easy enough to just play with your camera and lighting, using props and scenery to enhance the image. That being said, it wouldn’t hurt many of you to take a few lessons in composition and lighting – two simple factors that greatly affect the success of your images. Pat Henry did a great book about fashion doll photography, but you can also learn simple basics of composition from Drawing on The Artist Within by Betty Edwards. Photography can be amazingly fun, especially when you start to get the hang of it…and sharing them is even more fun. You needn’t have the finest camera or software to get amazing results, but you do need just a smidge of skill to make the most of your attempts. We can’t all be Steven Meisel or Patrick Demarchelier, but we can damn well be a legend in our own living room. Now get to work…
Pose – This is one of the things that got me noticed by Robert Tonner, and thereby began a friendship cemented in the love of dolls – the art of posing dolls. In fact, I can pretty much say that my absence at his company is greatly seen in the product photography where all the dolls are largely posed in the same, boring way – and no one seems to ‘get’ what expression these dolls have been designed and created to embody. Look at any fashion magazine or catalog…and see if your dolls will do that type of posing without breaking them. Not all dolls move like each other, and that is what separates them in an ocean of clones. You can be the best photographer in the world, but if your doll is static and lifeless, you’d do better working with cadavers. There are simple understandings of the body and how it translates into the doll ideology. For example, and this is one of my biggest peeves – dolls do NOT have underarms. If you have a doll’s arm raised and it’s exposed to the camera…it’s going to look weird as you glare into that underarm ball that is supposed to be concave. So stop doing that right now. There are always exceptions, such as having a long sleeve or part of the garment obscuring that portion of the arm, or raising the arm on the doll’s side away from you. But you have to learn to see the doll’s body and look past its articulation – remember, the more articulated a doll is, the less beauty you’ll see in its nudity. Look at yourself in a mirror doing the same pose…if it looks bizarre to you, then your gorgeous Sybarite isn’t going to make it look any better.
Redress – For the sewing challenged, redressing is probably more your thing. And why not…it’s crazy fun to mix and match clothes made for your doll, and those made by other companies for other dolls to create new looks. Even cross-dressing to some extent is great fun when the clothing works across the genders. The obviousness of this type of play is perhaps one of the reasons dolls even exist – to dress and redress. And besides, collecting the doll’s wardrobe can be just as, if not more fun than collecting the doll itself. Manufactured dolls like Barbie, Fashion Royalty, Gene and Tyler all shared this one critical element that dolls such as baby dolls don’t have, and that is one jaw-dropping, ass-kicking, fabuler-than-thou wardrobe. Swaddling clothes and Christening gowns simply don’t possess the same panache, puddings…and if they did, it would be just a tad creepy.
Sew – learning to sew is a task. Learning to sew in miniature is a monumental undertaking. Nevertheless, many of the moaners in our doll world would be easily helped if they just tried it themselves. I would challenge them to make a short dress in a knit fabric, a strapless ballgown, and a tailored suit…for in each of these types of outfits, you will experience exactly what doll designers experience when creating new collections. But it’s more than just sewing, you increase your ability to expand your doll’s wardrobe at the drop of a pin. Perfect for tight budgets, bored souls, or those who think they can do it better, sewing is the method of play for you. And although it’s not the same per se as ‘sewing’, I also include making shoes, jewelry and other accessories a part of this category. Learn to sew from a pattern, learn to drape and draft your own patterns, learn hand-sewing techniques that will transform your appreciation into pure snobbery. And once you learn to sew, try your hand at designing. No, dear…it’s not the same thing. You must completely create a single original look and draft the pattern yourself – it may be influenced by other designs, but not copied. It sounds much easier than it actually is as is evidenced by the army of doll designers out there whose work is held in the eyeful scrutiny of the collector – because they didn’t think it as ‘original’. Whatever. This is about play – and sewing is a great way to play alone or with friends to raise the bar of your collecting enjoyment. Then we’ll get to critique your shit…
Share with friends – those that miss the social aspect of doll collecting are truly troubled, indeed. Having friends over to rag on the latest dolly gossip, attending a local doll club meeting to more or less do the same thing, or going once a year to a big doll convention to see your favorite dolls and those that love them – these are among the most beautiful reasons why we love our dolls – because we enjoy sharing them with other like-minded individuals. We enjoy the validation we receive from our peers when they appreciate our dolls, and we pay-it-forward by showing such positive attention in return. The result is dolly bliss. With the advancement of the internet and social media forums, we don’t necessarily have to leave our homes, but we really should if we have the means to do so. Staying at home perched in front of your computer as your sole means of human interaction is like a doll with no clothing. It’s not only sad, but it’s removing the element of social bonding that elevates doll collecting to such spectacular heights.
No one likes an anti-social doll collector – well, we think we don’t like them because we never see them. You may hear from them online at times, and they can take on such traits as shyness, malevolence, agoraphobia – many things that border in the anti-social or even the psychotic. Funny thing about being human, we are all different like that – but it’s the social ones that have more fun.
So – how do you play with your dolls? Are you playing with your dolls correctly? Are you sharing them with your buddies and making new friends? If you answered yes to any of those (or Blessed-Be-Barbie – ALL of them!) then you are member to an elite hobby of fabulousness and beauty. Relish in knowing that action figure and other toy-collecting people are just pee green with envy over that which is known as a doll. Just try to get your style on with a Radio Flyer, Slinky or He-Man…not going to happen.
Go forth, play, and be free, my flambé puddings…