It’s a small world after all.

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Over the years I’ve been cataloguing blogs of adoptive parents who in any way mention dolls. For example, here is a site [link] where the adoptive mother is looking to purchase an “Asian” doll (whatever that even means) for the VietNamese girl currently in her care. Another [link] allows a “mother” (scare quotation marks theirs) to choose a child according to race-based criteria (“light”, “medium”, “dark”, and “Asian”). In this news story [link], children “adopt” dolls which include “certificates and decrees that go with the procedure”. It wasn’t until I got to this web site, Chocolate Hair/Vanilla Care [link], which includes people searching for “AA” dolls (I’m assuming this means African-American in adoption-speak) that I saw the disturbing correlation between dolls and adoptees come full circle. I think it is fair to say that the minimal effort made here at being “racially aware”—in the context of a consumerism and economic system that is the root source of much in the way of racism—fails at the outset. How is any of this no less offensive than, say, the mamie dolls of yesteryear? Are we literally reducible to “living dolls”?

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7 thoughts on “It’s a small world after all.

  1. Sometimes I wonder if I belong here, answering posts as a “white-on-white” adoptee. While whiteness and Catholicism played big inmy adoption, the way I was raised simply did not reflect all of my “nationalities” or ethnic backgrounds. I grew up, raised by an Italian mother and a Polish-English father. With my white skin, I fit right in.

    It was the thing to do back in the 1960s: to make mother-daughter-doll clothes. My aMom was very talented in sewing. So she carefully sewed herself a dress, then sewed me a matching one, and then sewed my doll a matching dress, too. As a child, I was thrilled.

    Another fad back then was for mothers to sew Barbie doll clothes. Some even knitted or crocheted outfits. Mine did all three.

    And, because we live near Niagara Falls, we’d drive up to the tourist centers and there were Native American dolls. And Scottish dolls. And Irish dolls. So we bought a few.

    It didn’t occur to me until after my reunion, when I was told my true mixed-mationalities of German, Polish, French, Scottish, and possibly Native American, that I really didn’t know much of my background. And then, I looked back on the fancy dolls I was raised with, and how they were dressed up, and how I was dressed up, and yes, I felt then like a living doll.

    I don’t think my aMom meant it as harm, as perhaps the intent of the raced-dolls you mention in your post. I think that that was how my aMom perceived herself as taking care of her daughter. She loved to sew and show me off. I loved it, too. I didn’t know any other way of life. And this then progressed to Mom sewing my prom dresses. This is something I wished I could have done for my own daughter, but didn’t have the time.

    But yeah, I now look at these dolls pictured here and feel a bit of the spectacle of being the little girl Mom dressed up. A living doll. Yeah, yes.

    • Your concern about white-on-white resonates with me; my weird situation is I’m a euromutt (Welsh, Irish, German–I like calling myself a euromutt by the way, and feel the most resonance with Welsh) adopted by a second generation Spaniard/Apache who married a white woman adopted by (or refused adoption by) a father not her own. For me, this means times when I feel I have nothing material to add except support or listening.

      So, as a first point you “belong” here in three important ways: (1) to potentially add the perspective when race, nationality, and identity become invisible due to theoretically “same face” adoptions; (I meant to type “same race” but I think I’ll keep that typo); (2) to be able to witness, if not also learn from, the experiences of other adoptees who did not have race, etc., be invisible; and (3) because to be an adoptee in general makes these questions likely unresolvable, or at least hopelessly unclear, without a variety of positions on it. By a “variety of positions” I mean “positions that accept as a premise the potentially problematic nature of adoption”–which includes sometimes that an adoption didn’t seem to be problematic. SO, maybe it wasn’t necessary to say this, but I tend to prefer to belabor the obvious than assume it is understood. t least when that understanding matters.

  2. I have two responses where, and am splitting them apart.

    #1:

    Partly I feel it is unfair to title the article this way (“It’s a Doll World” might do the current work of the title), primarily because of my experiences in Disneyland in the 70s as a little kid. I’m not about to defend the Mouse, even as being “okay” 40 years ago, but will file this under the “even a broken clock is right twice per day.” (I mean, even 40 years ago they had an entire ride sponsored by Monsanto, so don’t get me wrong about this.)

    Three things really stick out for me about “foreign cultures” when I was prepubescent. One was finding (in my parents’ old edition of the Encyclopedia Brittannica) the alphabets for Greek, Russian, and Hebrew. I tried to memorize them, but the mere existence of other alphabets was inexplicable and fascinating to me. What in the world did one need other alphabets for? Second, when I was 10, I went to the World’s Fair (inexplicably in Spokane, Washington), and teh only two things I remember about it were being disappointed there were no rides–what kind of fair was this?!?–and the giant food court, where there were cuisines from all over the world. The mere existence of Hungarian food (I remember particularly) was startling to me; didn’t people all eat the same stuff everywhere? I’d encountered Chinese food; I’d been to my Hispanic father’s parents’ house and had Mexican food, but I think that somehow I had not really made the connection that this was the food of China or the food of Mexico. And now here I was being confronted with the food of any country in the world? It was mind expanding. (And, my Mom being who she is, we didn’t even get anything to eat.)

    And so finally, in this context, is Disney’s It’s a Small World. Obviously, my little boy’s fascination with Disneyland itself is explicable enough, but it is definitely the case that the It’s A Small world ride, which in principle is one of the most boring of the Disney rides, is also one of my most memorable. (I’m avoiding the temptation to litanize on all the rides I rode, because my parents carefully limited what I could ride on at what age. But none of that for now.) And, it is clear enough to me, that what fasinated me about It’s a Small World is, precisely, the depiction in “national” or “traditional” dress of hundreds of other cultures. I’ll bet there’s a blistering critique of the ride somewhere, how the cultures were selected, who was left out (were there Hmong included in Vietnam, were the Ainu excluded from Japan, etc). Granted. For me, it function to make undeniably real that people elsewhere in the world dressed differently that I did.

    Of course, I knew these things abstratly or had seen them on TV. I can no longer remember how I failed to get this point prior to seeing It’s A Small World (or the food court at the world’s Fair). I can only guess that I was raised, for example, to know about Chinese food and Mexican food, so that these were already culturally local for me. Whereas seeing “the food of Hungary” proved that people elsewhere ate differently than I did. (For some reasons, Hungarian food particularly caught my attention). So even if I had known a Cameroonian growing up, I would have thought of that as just being within the range of how one dressed in the United States. I’m guessing it would not have signaled to me, “There’s a place called Cameroon and they dress differently there).

    And of course the whole point of all of this is to demonstrate to my little kid’s brain unequivocally that other cultures of the world exist autonomously. That there were alternatives to what I was living with. I had already figured out that Russia was somewhere to defect to, in part because I saw a ship docked in my hometown with Cyrillic lettering.

    So I wonder how much of this nascent “internationalism” in me was a product of being adopted. Although my father was bilingual and didn’t speak Spanish in front of us, we all (my sister, brother, and I) seem to have grown up with the assumption that other languages might exist and one could speak them. From a very young age, I’d been told I was Welsh, Irish, and German, but there wasn’t much reality to those other places; there was no emphasis by my parents on the fact. It’s like I was made into a citizen of the world but not granted a visa.

    So, all of the avowedly problematic aspects of Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” it was also an important symbol, one amongst many for me, that made real to me, in a way other cultural representations might not, that other countries, other peoples, other mores, existed and had reality and validity.

  3. #2: I don’t yet see that the desire to make adopted children into living dolls might be materially differentiated from the more general desire to make any child into a living doll. I also think this is probably more true in settings where the appearance of a child counts in the calculus of a family’s reputation. In the US, that means particularly bourgeois settings.

    My father, in his desire to assimilate, often provided a running commentary in church on how slovenly other people’s children looked. My to-this-day distaste for dressing up is very much linked to the façade enforced on me when going to church, but I never “read” this as being made into a living doll, maybe because I’m male. I experienced such dressing up as a complete hypocrisy, an elevation of appearance over character. I wonder if the generally gendered distinction involved in dressing up (that girls might have felt they were transformed by it into “living dolls” and that trope didn’t take with me, or perhaps with boys generally) as an input to the etiology of my being queer. That is, insofar as “dressing up” was what girls did, did dressing up for church add a tick in the column of my “likely to turn out gay”? Other factors would still have to be involved. Does anyone know if there is an on average higher incidence of queer-identification amongst adoptees?

    In any case, if there is a general desire to make children into living dolls, adoptees may be better positioned than non-adoptees to offer a critique of this and to tease out the problematic elements of it.

  4. The title I wanted to give the post was based on the Elvis Costello song, “It’s a Doll Revolution” which contains the classic line: “Tear off your own head….” But that seemed to be getting away from myself.

    First I would like to say that I appreciate the devil’s advocacy here, and I think we are dealing with very fine nuances that I hope I can explain a bit better. I am posting about my discomfort with dolls as they are treated within the adoption realm; it’s very similar to how I now feel discomfort with the notion of pets, and breeds, and pet “adoption” and how the language within this realm maps onto adoption in very particular and particularly disturbing ways. This in no way denies that we grew up with pets, loved pets, might today even still have pets, etc. But first let me backtrack a bit.

    I think that one of the more salient points to come out of this site includes the idea of TRAs as being “White+”, as posited by Girl4708. We were mostly all acculturated in white families if not white schools and white communities, and many of us have experienced being “seen” as white based on context and circumstances [link]. So I tend to think of us all as existing within a similar “middle ground”, with no caveats or apologies necessary from those who are less obviously shall we say trans-racially adopted.

    This is also made more complex by the fact that many of the groups that are listed here in and of themselves were not seen as “white” (as the “W” in “WASP”) until very recently. I think I posted about a recent read through the book by H.L. Mencken called The American Language in which all of those we currently place in the “white” category were very much differentiated from the base or founding American population by derogatory references and epithets that only relatively recently were toned down in any significant way.

    In reply to point #1, SL, I would only say that I have no problem with anything that might open our eyes as youngsters to the world at large. Because I imagine that everyone, like me, grew up with National Geographic magazines in the house, and at the very least a globe of some kind as well as maps (this is what did it mostly for me). My grandmother worked at the United Nations and saved foreign stamps for me, and World magazine (now National Geographic Kids) organized penpals for its young readership, not to mention the TV show Big Blue Marble (funded by the ITT corporation), in all of which I could readily see a world beyond my suburban New Jersey town, which, I have to say, was pretty diverse as New York City’s “white(r)” populations emptied into exurbia.

    I never rode on the Disney ride; the closest I might have gotten would be the chocolate production tour at the Hershey’s factory in Pennsylvania (which on some minor comparative level I think might have spoken of cacao producing countries….) But I’m not ready to give Disney credit here, if only because I think there are levels of exposure, and there are valences of voice, and there is a purpose to such representation that need to be taken into consideration. Meaning, who is controlling how a “foreign” population is seen, and to what purpose is that categorization put? Given that the days of this ride at Disney co-incided with the rise of America as a post-WWII empire tells us mostly what we need to know. So in terms of “voice”, my stamp collection probably gets closest to what we might consider to be “self-expression”, albeit it in a nationalistic and equally mythological way, along with the letters from other children in Sweden and Kenya (although they were forced to write in English), but at least unmediated and from the “other side”. Given that this worldview, I believe, gave rise to adoption as a function of family creation (and not its previous role as a provider of servitude) is no small thing.

    In reply to point #2, I implied in my post that the Chocolate Hair/Vanilla Care site was a kind of tipping point for me that puts the rest of this doll collection (sorry) in perspective. I am readily aware that many children are treated as dress-up dolls if you will, and the production of dolls historically speaking quite clearly paints a picture of a kind of infantilization taking place (that has in fact overtaken children if not the adult population), especially given that the notion of “childhood” is a very recent invention and a function of a leisure class. One need not be dolled up oneself to see or understand such enforced mimicry. I certainly wasn’t, growing up in Catholic school uniforms and hand-me-downs from neighbors (which brings up its own issues). And I won’t go so far as to agree with Daniel Harris in his book Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism [link] which places all the blame on an odious advertising industry as opposed to an entire economic system and its incentives, but we can pull from his title I think the main difference that I now see as perhaps the reason dolls as they pertain to adoption creep me out. If I give birth to (create) a child and then “doll” him or her up, this is not the same thing as if I obtain (purchase, “consume”) a child and then “doll” him or her up. In terms of how things map onto bigger-picture ideas of consumerism, colonialism, and imperialism, they are not the same thing to me, and deserve to be differentiated along these lines.

    • Hey Daniel:

      I’m glad you kept close track on point #1 (more in a sec), but first, of course, thank you for the context of all you wrote.

      On point #1, I thought I emphasized enough what you mentioned, but maybe not. I recently said something like the following, in response to encountering (yet again) that odious social program: “suffering builds character”–I said, “Just because someone goes to prison and manages to have an important, life-changing experience there is not an argument for prison; just because a poor kid who might have wound up goodness knows where was transformed by the military (i.e., had a good experience) is not an argument for the military; just because an adoptee managed to make sense of their life is not an argument for adoption; and just because each of us, confronted by the rather wicked ironies of life itself is not an argument for suffering in life.” So, just because someone can make something good out of “It’s a Small World” is not an argument for Disneyland or the problems that that very ride itself arise out of and embody.

      With point #2, I intended less to erase the distinction than to broaden it, so that when I wade into the world and bring up the dollification of children, the perhaps more readily obvious test case–the fact that it looks more suspicious to people, because people are already overly willing to accept parents turning their OWN kids into dolls–provides that leverage point.

      A tricky spot for me here is the fact that, in other contexts, I find being deliberate less problematic than accidental things–I’m specifically thinking of murder. There’s a part of me that wants to be more sympathetic, or more understanding, of someone who “coldly” plans out my murder than someone who has some kind of emotional flip-out and slaughters me (and maybe others). I think the fact that permanent death is involved here drives up the ethical element. There is a certain orderliness in first-degree murder that seems, therefore, more civilized than second-degree murder, if you will.

      So if this analogy isn’t wholly off the wall, then when I think of adoptive parents on the “deliberate versus accidental” scale I at least appreciate that they can’t hide behind non-adoptive parents’ “we didn’t mean to have you” arguments, as if that lets them (the non-adoptive parents) off the hook for various forms of parental culpability. And, since the whole life of a child hangs in the balance here, it may be worthy of analogy with murder (as another situation with equally severe consequences). This isn’t an argument to let adoptive parents off the hook; it’s one to keep the non-adoptive parents on the hook. It makes me look elsewhere for the “real” villain in the scenario, just as I would look past the junkie who “chooses” to get a fix and feel less charitably inclined toward the procurer of the fix.

  5. When I was 22 and in therapy, I received a baby doll birthday card from my a-mom that was meant for a child. I showed it to my therapist and she said your a-mom sees you as a child. Indeed, I was viewed as a child for many years. Told what to wear, commands to fix up, continued for many years too. I think it was subconscious on her part but a way of control she could not stop.

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