This past week, I was reading Arielle Loren’s piece, “Yes, There Are Men That Date Life-Size Dolls,” a look into the world of Real Dolls, their owners, and the documentary that brought them into the light. For those who may not know, Real Dolls are life-sized dolls predominantly used for sex (though not exclusively). Manufactured by Abyss Creations, the dolls are created to have the utmost “life-likeness” without actually being alive. The dolls possess a poseable PVC skeleton with steel joints, silicone flesh, hair, and now come with options for self-lubrication. There are multiple faces that can be attached to a single doll, as well as nine “classic” female bodies and 16 “classic” female faces. Recent models also come with removable inserts for the mouth, vagina, and faces, butt implants, as well as five skin tones, six eye colors, makeup, 25 wigs, and options for clothing. Did I mention the wireless animatronics that control facial expressions?
Guys and Dolls (now renamed Love Me, Love My Doll for BBC) aired in 2007 and has since been one of the most tangible looks at the doll culture that surrounds those who have all but abandoned relationships with humans and have turned their affections onto the trumpeted “girl of their dreams.” The short documentary follows around several men and their dolls, giving them room to talk about what it exactly is that has gotten them to the point of seeking out sexual gratification, partnership, or just collection in their dolls. “For some people, finding a partner in life can be difficult. For others, it’s almost impossible,” reads the documentary’s tag line, a suggestion that isn’t far from the truth. “Ten years ago, a small factory in California began making an alternative partner. Each is tailor-made to suit every taste.” Tailor-made.
The men in the film all seem to live quiet, lonely lives; “loneliness” is synonymous for being unmarried or isolated from friends and family. Two men in the film, Davecat and Gordon, are painfully awkward, socially introverted, and seemingly scared by “what’s out there,” meaning “organic women.” I began to slightly let my defense mechanism down at the idea that the dolls solely existed as a “pleasurable object” as I heard Davecat, a 32-year-old loner living with his father, talk about the ongoing six-year relationship between him and his partner doll, Sidore. “This is probably a good gauge of when I’m happy, when I can not be alone, but with her. I think some good time I can actually spend with her is when we are laying down in bed, not having sex, but when I’m just laying next to her, appreciating her. It’s the difference between being alone and being lonely,” he says while massaging her feet.
The care he puts into making sure Sidore is comfortable is the same anyone else might show their romantic partner, with the exception of moving around an inanimate object. When Sidore is sent off for some minor repair work, you can see Davecat’s own reality tearing at the seams as the only “woman” who has never abandoned him is now leaving. It’s heartbreaking. Of course, I switch gears again as the documentary then profiles Gordon, a 50-year-old man living in rural coal-mining Virginia. Gordon is a bit rougher around the edges, a fact he readily admits. I myself would think twice before engaging someone like him, a trait Gordon painfully acknowledges and also resents women for feeling. In one scene, he sits sandwiched between two real dolls, speaking about the coldness of real women and how constant rejection led him to his love of real dolls. You want to hug him and slap him all at once: his loneliness and hurt palatable, his misogynistic defense mechanism thick. These men and their relationships to these dolls are more complicated than you expect going in.
Each doll costs around £4,000, or $6,000 USD, a hefty price for companionship or just getting off. Now with 3,000 real dolls across the world, Real Dolls promises to “provide some”¦ with love and companionship that real women cannot.” Though most have written off Real Dolls as a glorified masturbatory doll cum extreme, Real Dolls seem to be around for the long run. The company has now expanded to making male dolls and now touts them as a multipurpose toy, as opposed to a sexual object solely for men. HBO’s Real Sex featured a couple having a mÃ©nage Ã trois with one of the mannequins, and women have now begun to purchase Real Dolls, though nowhere near the rates of their male counterparts. The company offers customizations based on race, gender, “erotic cartoon life,” as well as plenty of other aesthetic fetishes (with the exception of lactation, children, animals, urination, amputees, celebrity replicas, or dolls with armpit hair or heartbeats). Famed photographer Helmut Newton photographed several Real Dolls shortly before his death in 2004 as an intended spread for Playboy Magazine. In a twist that no one might have seen coming, Playboy refused to run the series, citing it as being “bizarre and weird.” The pinnacle magazine that upholds the very same ideal of perfection and doll-ness refused to have actual dolls in the magazine.
I myself admit that I am at once fascinated by the dolls and consider them as much a piece of art as I would something I see wandering through most museums. This might be mind-boggling to some, given these dolls’ reputation as high quality blow-up dolls that reinforce a notion of beauty that, indeed, no actual woman can attain. I first came in contact with one back in 2008, at New York’s Museum of Sex, which featured one of the first Real Doll prototypes in their permanent collection. Compared to the models up for grabs now, this one was clearly not as top-notch. She was beautiful, but grimy and worn down from the countless hands that had grabbed at her to “feel” what a Real Doll was like. It was like walking face first into a symbol of everything I have actively rejected. Yet, here I was, reaching out to feel her, too.
Was I objectifying? Of course. I was sticking my fingers in a fake woman’s mouth, vagina, grabbing and squeezing her breasts and ogling her. A woman’s mouth? A sex doll’s mouth? She was an object, yet she wasn’t. I was amazed at how well she was crafted, how real and absolutely fake she looked all at once. Her skin, which was nothing like my own, was a soft silicone topcoat, free of blemishes, cellulite, pimples, and scars. The only things that may have given away her status were the dead, glassy eyes and the minor seam where her back and front met, a reminder that this “person” was, in fact, not real. Yet, strangely, I could see how she could be lovable.
This fascination with the real dolls contradicts everything I have come to think about objectification, sexism, and the idealized pedestal of white, heteronormative beauty. Nothing brings this point closer to come than when I re-watch Guys and Dolls, as well as Honey Pie, Zackarey Canepari’s short documentary on Real Doll founder and artist Matt Mcullen. I am met with shots of a specialist taking out to fix a “worn down” vagina, piece by piece, the unfinished, headless bodies hanging from chains in the ceiling, the overinflated breasts piled in a corner, comically reminding me of the absurdity and chopped up effect of it all. But what’s scarier is that it takes me a few moments to realize I am somewhat disconnected from the disturbing violence of these unreal objects. Their uncanniness to the similarities of my own body gives me pause, and I can’t help but look for a link between my own disconnection and, say, someone who uses the dolls, whose use colors their experiences and perceptions of “real women.” I can’t help but think of Hans Bellmar-like fantasies, where those with dolls are allowed catered access to their every need, want, and desire and the ability to tightly control every physical and emotional interaction. It leaves one wondering how that affects their “outside” relationships, casual or intimate, their overall perception, or their sense of validation.
So, what do the Real Dolls mean? Do we treat Real Dolls much as we would any sex toy? Is it another reminder that through fashion or celebrity media or pornography that regular women’s bodies just don’t add up? Or is it even about that? Does it matter? Do we extend the same right to privacy in the bedroom that we would to most “organic persons”? Both films leave me with more questions than answers, less judgment than curiosity, wondering where the limits of need end and the projections of fantasy begin. Both are simple and human, that much is for sure. As for everything else, I couldn’t begin to tell you.