Dolls and the Importance of Play in the 21st Century

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Dolls have evolved drastically since I was a child in the 1970s. Of course there are still many traditional dolls on the market, but in general, dolls are becoming more lifelike. Barbie is now available in inexpensive curvy versions and every race and skin tone.

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She’s also available in articulated versions like Made to Move Barbie.

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This was an important decision on Mattel’s part because doll photography is such a huge hobby among collectors, and many of us can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars on BJDs or don’t like the melancholic expressions of most BJDs. (Please don’t take me to task for BJD hate; I think BJD artists are incredibly talented and I’ve seen BJDs I’d love to have. I have three Monster High repaints that were done by a BJD artist. They just don’t have the extreme sad look of some BJDs.)

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For those unfamiliar with doll terminology, BJD stands for ball-jointed doll/Asian ball-jointed doll. Most BJDs have facial expressions similar to anime characters.

Doll artists strip the factory paint from the faces of Monster High dolls and repaint them to look very much like BJDs. Many doll artists start out with MH dolls, perfect their technique, and move on to BJDs. I got lucky and found a new doll artist. My repaints cost $26, $50, and $65. Most repaints start at well over $100.

Why would an adult collector pay so much for repainted mass-produced dolls? They’re unique works of art. A good repaint shows a bit of the artist’s personality. To me, the most important aspect of a repaint is the eyes. It takes great skill to paint authentic eye highlights. Hair is also important. Most doll artists reroot the cheap factory hair. This is a painstaking process. If you ever see an expensive repaint and are shocked by the price, imagine the hours that the artist spent bent over that doll’s head, replacing thin, matted hair with thick, natural looking hair. It’s hard to find short-haired fashion dolls in stores. I bought my first repaint because she has a short bob like me.

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As I said, people who repaint dolls or paint new dolls are artists. It takes a lot of talent, practice, and knowledge to turn a cheap mass-produced doll into a work of art, and it’s possible to supplement your income significantly with doll sales. This is one reason why a child’s interest in dolls and art should be encouraged.

Children love Monster High and Ever After High dolls because of their differentness. These dolls are not about teaching little girls to be good mommies. These are dolls designed for imagination play and to celebrate uniqueness. Quirks. Things we were taught should be subdued in past decades. Monster High and Ever After High dolls are bold, strong, unafraid of living in a world that doesn’t accept them. They’re diverse. A few dolls are disabled. Others wear scars, or accentuate their uncommon features.

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Some wear glasses. This is so important to kids who aren’t “normal.” It’s a stand against the blonde Caucasian abled dolls that people my age grew up with.

I’m Caucasian and have hidden illnesses: asthma, depression, OCD. A doll can’t address all those issues (that I know of) but when I was at prime doll age as a child, it was hard to find a brunette fashion doll. I still have a brunette generic doll from my childhood, a Polynesian Barbie with black hair, and a “Flower Princesses” Evil Witch doll with black and purple hair. The dark-haired doll was the villain back then. Now I seek out dolls with dark hair because it upset me so much as a child to have nothing but blonde dolls. I realize this is a minute problem compared to the total lack of black, Asian, and Latina dolls until recently, but it did matter to me.

I had baby dolls. My mother bought them for me, and I don’t recall asking for them. I wanted the fashion dolls. When a child is playing with a Monster High doll or a new Barbie, they aren’t preparing for life as a housewife/househusband/parent. They’re creating stories in their mind and acting them out. All my years of acting out stories with dolls helped me prepare for a writing career. Consider the upcoming Wonder Woman movie and the associated dolls and action figures. Children who get those dolls aren’t going to use them to play house.

There’s an attitude that careers based on using imagination aren’t real careers, that you can’t make a living off your imagination. This is obviously false. Look at doll designers, fashion designers, and the illustrators and animators who make cartoons and movies based on doll lines. These people love what they do and they make money. Not everyone makes a living wage (although they should) but these are not immature adults who just want to “play with dolls.”

I know people who design stunning high-fashion doll clothes based on the clothes featured in designer fashion shows. I also know grandmothers who passed their love of collecting on to their grandchildren and who make clothes for expensive dolls (like Tonners) to supplement their income.

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Sewing was not something of great interest to many young women until OOAK dolls came into vogue. Now girls and young women are buying sewing machines and learning hand-sewing techniques to make doll clothes. The ability to sew is an invaluable skill. It can lead to a career in fashion design. It can lead to being self-employed with an Etsy store and one’s own fashion line. It can lead to a job in a boutique, altering prom dresses, wedding gowns, bridesmaids’ dresses, and grooms’ and groomsmen’s’ clothes. Weddings and proms will never go away. Small businesses depend on people with a passion for sewing.

Invariably, at some point, a child will take a pair of scissors to a doll’s hair. I’ve done some doll hair restyling as an adult. We’ll never not have a need for hairstylists.

My love for dolls began with paper dolls. My mother would cut the picture of the baby off the side of the Dreft detergent box when it was empty and give me the doll to play with as a paper doll. All companies need illustrators to design logos and marketing campaigns for their products. Every website needs visual content. I used to trace my paper dolls so that I could design outfits for them. Paper dolls haven’t made a big resurgence yet, but coloring books for adults are hugely popular. Dolls and paper dolls can start a child on the path to a career in art. No matter how much people attempt to dismiss art careers as irrelevant, no matter how much people try to push the idea that only a tiny fraction of people will succeed as artists, there are always art careers out there for people who can draw a coloring book or illustrate a video game. Video games aren’t going away. Who knows what may inspire a child to learn video game illustration? And let us not forget book covers. Even an eBook needs a cover illustrator.

Action figures and Funkos are hugely popular among adults. Someone has to draw a design for each one.

Comic books are still very popular. They wouldn’t exist without comic artists.

Our articulated Barbies, Monster High dolls, Ever After High dolls, Tonner dolls and other high-end fashion dolls would not exist without engineers. It takes great skill to design the body of an articulated doll.

The adult who collects dolls and keeps them in a display case, never touching them, is becoming a myth. Adults who buy BJDs, Tonners and other poseable fashion dolls, and repaints of articulated dolls do so for the purpose of photography. Doll photography is an incredibly popular hobby, and the people who love it do not skimp on cameras.

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Doll photography can lead a child to an interest in general photography. No matter how many smartphone cameras there are, there is still a need for professional photographers for portrait studios, paper magazines, online magazines, websites, stock photography, business websites, newspapers, yearbooks and books.

Oftentimes, doll collecting is a relaxing hobby that allows adults to put the stresses of life aside for a little while. Dolls can also inspire children to pursue many career paths. It’s time to stop discouraging children from playing with dolls and mocking adult collectors. Dolls have served various functions for millennia, and now dolls are planting the seeds of inspiration in the minds of children. If your child loves dolls, that’s a good thing. Stand by and watch their imagination grow and bloom. You never know where that love for dolls will take a child.

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