“Doll Parts: Mimesis by Design”


In Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell II—the 2004 cyberpunk anime film whose drama centers around the police-tracking of robotic sex dolls that have murdered their masters—Major Motoko Kusanagi, a female cop in a sexy robot body that houses a nimble human brain, wonders: “why humans are so obsessed with creating robots that resemble them.” I wonder this too; you could say I’ve become obsessed with it. The question of why we, “humans,” create not just robots but all sorts of mimetic objects—out of all manner of materials from scraps of cotton cloth to invisible algorithms—in attempts to mirror the myriad aspects and functions of our own bodies and minds, has increasingly haunted my thinking, teaching, and research. Over the past year, dolls have, in fact, redirected the trajectory of my scholarship as a historian of design. While we might dismiss them as childish playthings, dolls and the “parts” they have played in the articulation and critique of society, culture, and politics—particularly from the nineteenth century to today—tell some rather grownup stories. Designing, making, and “playing” with dolls can be an intensely adult pursuit. In a forthcoming essay for Fashion Theory, and in my future Focus Project and related book, I intend to investigate why it is that humans are “obsessed” with creating their mimetic counterparts, and what this obsession can tell us about the relation between what it means to be human—including our ongoing, problematic engagements with race, ethnicity, gender, and class—and what it means to design. Can we truly separate our obsession with the Doppelgänger from our compulsion to design a world in our image? In my Work-in-Progress Talk, I will present some case studies that have challenged my thinking on this new research topic, and welcome the insights of my esteemed students, colleagues, and friends.
Where did your interest in this subject come from?

That’s a good question. I can’t pinpoint a moment or idea that triggered this line of research. For several years, however, I’d been planning to teach a course on dolls and other sorts of human figures at BGC. I finally got to do that this spring, and it’s been such an exciting and enriching experience to share my ideas and questions with my students and learn from them. It’s also been very encouraging, because it’s become obvious to me through this experience that there’s a lot of interest in this topic. I think I’ve always been interested in the ways in which children interact with dolls—they’re a lot more sophisticated and open-minded than we think: they’re willing to accept the doll as an inanimate object and imagine a life for it simultaneously. I’ve only recently learned that theorists and historians of theater and puppetry have been discussing this kind of “double vision” for a long time.

How does this research question intersect with your other intellectual interests?

All of my work revolves in some way around agency and animation in objects. I’m interested in the ways in which things interact with us—not just what we do to them. Dolls, because of their implied (or imagined) animacy and sentience, get to the heart of some of these questions. They aren’t designed to hold our coffee or mow our lawn—they’re designed to mirror us and companion us (among other things). Those are certainly designed functions, but they’re very empathic ones. As I mentioned above, this notion of “double vision”(coined by puppetry scholar Steve Tillis) is a revelation to me, not just in regard to dolls but in my work as a design historian. The idea that we can quite consciously know that an object is an object, but at the same time imagine (and truly believe in) a mysterious, sentient “second life” for it is something people don’t really take seriously. But I believe it’s the key, in many ways, to understanding the ways we interact with objects—and the ways they interact with us. And that’s what I’m all about.

Why is this question important to you?

It’s important to me because of what I say above: it gives me a new way to think about objects as a design historian. But it’s also important to me for a set of other reasons that have become increasingly urgent to me. This topic allows me to work directly with issues of gender, race, and other contemporary social issues in ways I’ve not been able to in past projects. I actually put a lid on my previous project on glass and transparency partially because I’ve thought about and published enough on it, but also because in many ways, even though it allowed me to do some innovative critical thinking about modernism, it didn’t really allow me to tangle with some of these larger sociocultural issues, which, as a woman, a scholar, a teacher, a mother, and a daughter, I feel I must bring from my personal life into my professional life.

Related Readings

This is a very new project. I plan, however, to make it the subject of my Focus Project exhibition at BGC in 2026. It seems like an excellent project to work on collaboratively with students.

My first peer-reviewed article on this topic, “Close as Skin: Cuddling, Caressing, and Clothing the Doll,” will appear in Russian Fashion Theory later this year.