There’s a new toy on the shelf that’s been whipping up online comments that accuse its maker of radically challenging expectations of femininity, enforcing oppressive gender norms, and preaching conformity over experimentation. Some say she’s racist, as there are no dolls-of-color in her line. Others point to a liberal tree-hugger theme, as they are dressed for back-packing and camping. Living in the Middle East, you become acclimated to intractable differences. But for Pete’s sake, people – these are dolls.
Tree Change Dolls are the creation of Tasmanian artist Sonia Singh who recycles discarded dolls, giving them a new down-to-earth style that suits outdoor adventures. Rescued from thrift shops and diverted from landfills, these dolls get a new lease on life and a second act to play. We are suckers for makeovers, where dowdy people are gussied up with new ‘dos and outfits. Turns out that “make-unders” can be equally appealing.
Singh is a recently unemployed scientist who has always loved dolls. She began collecting second-hand Bratz dolls, those hyper-feminine toys that look like drag queens or Kardashians. She takes off their faces using nail polish remover, then refashions the toys by simplifying their hair and painting on more realistic features. Finally, she dresses them in new clothes handmade by her mom.
Encouraged by her husband, who describes her as “really, really nice”, she posted pictures of the first dolls on her Facebook page. They went viral and the story was picked up by Reddit. Seems the dolls struck a chord with people concerned with over-sexualized children’s toys and seeking an alternative to mass-produced fashion dolls. Singh’s dolls resemble the kids who play with them, what can be controversial about that?
I never liked dolls and I suspect it’s genetic: my tiny daughter opened a long-ago birthday gift, a baby doll hugging a little plush bear. She tore open the box, greedily grabbed the bear, and flung the doll into a corner without a second look.
I grew up with the original Barbie. In fact, we’re the same age. Her heavily lined eyes had a schmear of blue shadow, but she was otherwise fresh-faced.
Barbie was all about the clothes. She later acquired a career; real estate and cars naturally followed. But at the start it was never about her hair and make-up.
When exactly did dolls become ads for cosmetics and plastic surgery?
Their curvy, idealized bodies, plastered-on makeup, and hairless skin can greatly affect the way young girls perceive themselves. Could a realistic-looking doll promote a healthier self-image?
Last year, artist Nickolay Lamm developed a fashion doll using standard human body proportions. “If I can sometimes feel insecure, it’s hard for me to imagine what women have to go through,” Lamm told the Jerusalem Post, “They’re subjected to higher beauty standards than men.”
He turned to crowd-funding and found a Chinese manufacturer to crank out his “Lammily” doll. She is strong, wears minimal makeup, dresses with striking simplicity, and lives by the credo “Average is Beautiful.” Like Singh, Lamm asserts that his toy is not an attack on highly stylized dolls.
“I was just trying to make an alternative,” he said, “I can see girls playing with Lammily and other toys at the same time. I’m not really a crusading feminist. I’m just a normal dude with a laptop who thinks we could use another option.”
Limited production Tree Change dolls are now sold on Singh’s Etsy shop. They sell out as soon as they are listed for prices ranging from $79 to $180 USD. She also sells clothes, and coloring books that track the dolls on their outdoor adventures. Each month Singh offers a special edition Charity Doll for auction on eBay, with proceeds going to different environmental causes such as the Tasmanian Land Conservancy. Her website also includes a “do-it-yourself” page for those who want to try this at home. She seems just as her husband describes her – really, really nice.
Says Singh, “I’m not a doll manufacturer. I don’t want to be. But if what I’ve done does influence some of the big toy companies out there and make them rethink the kind of dolls they are putting out in the market I don’t think that would be a bad thing at all.”