Baby Dolls, Sex Dolls, and Ritual Objects

In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Lisa Katayama tells the story of a Japanese man called Nisan who has a body-pillow with a sexy, young, animated girl printed on the cover. “Her” name (meaning, the pillow’s name) is Nemutan, and Nisan carries her everywhere: to work, to restaurants, even out for karaoke night. He knows she is not real, but he loves her anyway. He says he has “real feelings for her.” Nisan is known as a “2-D lover,” the designation given to a growing number of people, mostly men, within Japan’s anime-fan culture who have romantic attachments to representations of animated girls. Some images exist virtually on computer screens, some as figurines, and others like Nemutan, as pillowcases.

This real-life story reminded me of the fictional 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl. The plot of that quiet, surprise-hit movie wouldn’t seem to inspire much interest. In fact, on the surface it sounds a little repulsive: a young man named Lars buys a sex-doll and develops a relationship with her. Lars’ is no simple inflatable doll, but a top-end, anatomically correct, silicon model that comes with a full human weight and hefty price tag: the kind made famous since 1997 by the California company RealDoll (you can search for that yourself). But Ryan Gosling’s sensitive portrayal of Lars, and some inspired writing (Nancy Oliver) and directing (Craig Gillespie), bring out a heartwarming story about loss, grief, and the power of community for healing.

The romantic attachments of Lars and Nisan could easily be written off as symptoms of postmodern culture in which people are distanced from the real world—prophylactically passionate. Blame it on the ubiquity of the mass media, the lustings of consumer capitalism, or a secular view of the world: real love is hard to find.

Replacements, fetishes, and surrogates all highlight the perplexity between oneself and another as the surface gets mixed up with depth, the image of the thing confused with the thing itself. We are stuck in Plato’s cave, desiring fire shadows. While there are plenty of instances of surrogacy throughout history (surrogate wives, wet nurses; even psychological counseling has its surrogate dimension called “transference”), the difference between the real and the surrogate is generally understood, except in cases of delusion. So, are we all delusional now? Or, at least, are men?

Mute, manipulable mannequins like Real Dolls perform some sad or sick function, and the phenomenon might be easily written off if it were not for this: the same silicon technologies that are rapidly producing the anatomically correct “real girls” are also producing “real baby dolls,” otherwise known as “reborns.” Pricing out from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, these realistic looking and feeling baby dolls come preassembled or not, and the painted details (eyes, hair, blush, even the bluish hue of subcutaneous veins) offer the buyer a chance to be included in the creation process by preselecting the details or doing it themselves.

On one hand, reborns have become collectibles in the same way baby dolls have been used for thousands of years; and more so in a post-Cabbage Patch, current-American Girl era. On the other hand, women who are childless or who have had a child die are purchasing the dolls at a heightened pace. Like the sub-niche within the multibillion dollar scrapbook industry that focuses on “memory books” (albums for miscarriages, stillborns, and newborns who have died), many women are buying reborns to help them through the grieving process.

Somewhere between “Real Dolls” and “real baby dolls,” the brilliance of Lars and the Real Girl begins to emerge. The movie strips the sex doll of her intended purpose, namely sex. “Bianca,” as Lars tells her story, is actually a missionary, and is very religious. Bianca’s moral standards are so high that she won’t even sleep in the same bed with Lars. Instead of a sex object, Bianca becomes a ritual object that allows Lars to grieve through the loss of his mother some years previous, and grapple with his abusive father’s legacy. Indeed, the first shot of Lars shows him wrapped in a baby-blue shawl that once belonged to his mother, immediately signaling the relation between loss and material objects. The warmth of the story comes through the staid Lutheran church that, surprising to the viewers, supports Lars and Bianca; members even take her out for girls night from time to time. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, she becomes real.

The film speaks to a deritualized society that has forgotten how to mourn. The modern rational, scientific mind discredits the effectiveness of rituals and symbols, denying any magic powers to surrogate objects. The theologically conservative mind likewise grants little status to material objects, because what counts is what people believe; faith is, as many are fond of quoting, the “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1). If the object replaces the real thing itself, albeit invisible, fetishizing and delusion step in, and thus prohibitions on “graven images” become crucial in order to maintain differences. And while Lars has his delusions (unlike Nisan and his pillow, Lars actually believes Bianca is real), it is precisely the central delusion of the reality of Bianca that allows him, with the aid of his community, to work through his grief. The sex-object-turned-ritual-object becomes necessary for the mourning process to be completed. The alternative, as Freud once warned, is the more perpetual state of melancholy.

The film ultimately speaks to a society that has turned grief into a talking process. We expect to work through our loss with words, therapeutically. But as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Words strain/ Crack and sometimes break… Decay with imprecision.” There is nothing wrong with talking, it’s just not for everyone. The rest of us need things. We need surrogates. We need help with our loss and desire.

When a child or mother or loved one dies, sometimes all the sympathetic words of the world amount to nothing. While a psychologist plays an important role in the film, it is not through talking that the cure comes, but through the ability and inability to touch. Lars has to learn again to touch and be touched, skin on skin. Thus, we find again the importance of rituals, irrational though they are, of the symbols and performances, the community who eats together and touches each other.