Do Dolls Breed Domesticity?

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and many of the American Girl Doll novels, we have seen the young, female protagonists playing with dolls on numerous occasions. In Little Women, Beth takes on a motherly, compassionate role for her dolls that her other sisters have cast off. She seems to care for them as though they are real. This mirrors the domestic role and chores she takes on in the March household. Similarly, in the American Girl Doll series, the characters are also fond and protective of their dolls. I remember feeling the same for my dolls when I was younger. My sisters and I would pretend we were their mothers and play with them for hours on end.

After talking in lecture, I realize the act of playing with dolls may have  been a semi-subtle mechanism to prepare me for motherhood. While playing with my dolls, I would typically pretend we were at home, cooking, dressing up, or playing with friends. Unknowingly, I was acting out a very domestic life with my dolls. In Claudia Nelson’s Keywords essay, she says the word domestic “carries a connotation of the old-fashioned, especially in a world in which fiction for middle class girls was expected to facilitate adjustment to home duties and focused primarily on the interior, rather than on outdoor adventure or imperial conquest” (67). After reading, I realized that Nelson’s idea of domesticity seems to coincide with how Beth March and I interacted with our dolls.

In a Madame Alexander blog post, positive developmental effects resulting from doll play are listed (http://blog.madamealexander.com/5-incredible-ways-doll-play-effects-child-development). The 3rd reason they offer is that it helps girls children “develop caring and nurturing skills.” While this may be true, society often categorizes doll play as a “girl activity” so are dolls really just preparing young girls to be mothers? I am happy to see that children are becoming more encouraged to play with whatever toy they please but in the time Little Women was set (and perhaps even when I was young) were dolls used in order promote domestic life? In Keywords, Nelson goes on to quote another woman who talks about the assumption that “no woman could develop or soar properly, and cook, scrub, sweep, dust, wash dishes, or take care of babies at the same time” (70). This quote caused me to question whether domesticity gets in the way of women’s ability to “soar.” What do dolls have to do with this idea?

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8 thoughts on “Do Dolls Breed Domesticity?”

  1. I definitely think you bring up an interesting point. When I was little, I played with dolls all the time, just like you and Beth. Thinking back, I realized I always made my dolls act out career-type scenarios instead of caring for them or putting the dolls in “domestic” situations. I very clearly remember loving to dress up my American Girl Doll as an ice skater, and pretending she was in the Olympics. Obviously I didn’t grow up to achieve that dream, but I suppose it did give me the idea that I could do whatever I wanted, and it didn’t have to be limited to “domesticity”. Hopefully more and more little girls are seeing this nowadays when playing with dolls.

  2. This concept of doll play preparing young girls for motherhood is a very interesting thought. I wonder if the first dolls were created for this purpose. It is interesting that sometimes boys have been told not to play with dolls because why couldn’t this type of play be preparing them to be fathers?

  3. This post brings up a great question of what are dolls actually teaching us? I remember when I was 8 years old and I begged and begged my parents to get me an American Girl doll for my birthday. Now, I was a kid who enjoyed playing sports and being outside, dolls weren’t something I had ever played with before. My parents explained to me that they didn’t think I would enjoy playing with dolls. But, after continuous begging they finally gave in and got me Kit for my birthday. I think that I played with her once with my friends and realized that I didn’t like it because I thought that the only thing one could do with a doll was play “house” or practice “cooking”, which were things I didn’t enjoy doing in real life. This post made me think more about dolls innately being for “domestic” practices. Why are dolls mainly used for things like cooking and playing house? And furthermore, why are they targeted towards girls? Why is there a negative social stigma attached to boys playing with dolls?

  4. I had a very similar experience with dolls and my sisters when we were growing up – we would create families with ourselves and our dolls to play with them. However, I am not fully convinced that dolls exist to be a subliminal way for girls to prepare for motherhood. I do agree that “girly” toys like dolls do allow children to practice motherly duties, but I think the success of the doll industry might actually stem from children’s individual interest in dolls as recreational toys, not necessarily the companies who manufacture them or the parents who want to teach their daughters a lesson about motherhood.

  5. Dolls and domesticity seem to be so clearly linked, and I think it’s such an interesting concept, especially in this class. After rereading the keywords essay on “girlhood”, I noticed a suggestion of using dolls as a way to teach girls “how to please” as well. In this essay, Jacqueline Reid-Walsh quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau who says ” The doll is the special plaything of the sex. Here the girl’s liking is plainly directed towards her lifework. For her the art of pleasing finds its physical expression in dress….Look at the little girl, busy with her doll all day long….She is absorbed in the doll and her coquetry is expressed through it. But the time will come when she will be her own doll.” (p. 93) I think this is so interesting to think of doll play not only as teaching girls to take care of children and be motherly, but also to groom and primp themselves so as to “please” men…. rather creepy in my opinion.

  6. Dolls themselves do not breed “domesticity” in the girls who play with them. Instead society, which has historically taught girls to be the domestic gender, causes domestic play. For example, when boys play with dolls (although the may be the same dolls in some cases) they often are not seen as playing with them in the same domestic sense. This is because society has not taught, and even discourages boys from doing so. Therefore it is norms that cause this type of play, not the dolls or anything about them.

  7. I don’t think that the act of playing with dolls in childhood is specifically hindering to young girls. The reality is that many women will be mothers and we need to be in order for the furthering of the human race. Regardless of whether you played with dolls as a little girl, I think women eventually realize how much they like children and how what their maternal instincts are. Most young adult women in the US can choose how they want their life to go and whether they want to be career oriented or take care of a household, or a combination of both. Any choice is a good one, and I believe the decision is removed from whether a girl played with dolls as a child.

  8. Out of my 4 others siblings I would definitely say I’m the most “domestic”. I was the kid who liked to stay inside and do indoor activities whereas my other siblings always wanted to be outside. Even today, whenever my family has a party at our house I’m always the one to do a quick sweep of the whole house to make sure everything looks nice and then stick around after the party to do the dishes and clean up. It’s not like I was forced to do these things but there’s something relieving to me when the house is clean and I’m getting work done. Do I think domesticity gets in the way of women’s ability to soar? I guess in my case no because I was happy to do those things and still am at college studying and preparing for my dream occupation. But girls who have contrastingly different hobbies I could see domesticity getting in the way of their priorities, especially in the time period of “Little Women” when girls did not often go to college and domesticity was their occupation.

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