Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Perversity: A WB Treatise

I am doll eyes, doll mouth, doll legs
I am doll arms, big veins, dog bait.

---Hole, "Doll Parts"

I just want to feel you in my arms

Share a little of that human touch

Feel a little of that human touch.

---Bruce Springsteen, "Human Touch"

They are so lifelike, they're hideous. Or, they're amazingly realistic stand-ins for an authentic physical experience. They're gross, wrong, disgusting, perverse. Or, they're gut-wrenching examples of loneliness and despair creating a need for simulated contact.

Or maybe, as with so many other dynamics of the human experience, they are both, neither, all, none. Steven Covey, the Seven Habits guru, tells a story (most likely apocryphal) about being on a train with loud, annoying children running around undisciplined by their father. Covey finally challenged the father, only to learn that the children's mother had just died, and they were acting out their confusion and loss. Covey's anger turned instantly to embarrassment and empathy.

Paradigms are difficult to cast in stone when the cases are complex ones.

Which brings us to Reborn Babies, a line of expensive, custom-crafted dolls made ultra-realistic in size, weight, features, skin tones, and skin texture. Their tiny chests move up and down with every "breath," and their "hearts" have a discernible rhythm.

The customers buying them aren't children. They're adults, who "adopt" them and use them as replacements for children. Stepford babies, in other words. Replicants. Simulated beings. More human than human, and they never, ever cry. Never soil a diaper. Never die in their cribs. I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always; as long as I'm living, my baby you'll be — words from a heartbreaking children's book inspired by two dead babies.

But that's where the paradigm starts to fog up, and the snap judgments and normalizing narratives we prefer to render start to crumble. Who are these adults? According to Reuters, many of them are, like the author of Love You Forever, the parents of stillborn, recently deceased, or missing children. Some are the parents of grown children who've left the adults facing an abyss of despair instead of an enjoyably empty nest. Some are grandparents who watch the former darlings of their hearts become unrecognizable mutants, and want to revisit a happier past. Some are Alzheimer's patients, confused and regressing steadily toward an interior childhood themselves. And some are just very old, preparing to leave this world and to set off on the next journey, alone and frightened. The "Reborns" are friends and comforts.

This paradigm seems an easy one to adjust — a normalizing label of "perversity" quickly becomes cruel, harsh, thoughtless, unfounded as the details start to come in. The essential facts don't change; at bottom we're still talking about synthetic baby replacements that are cuddled, loved, and collected by adults. So what makes the paradigm shift possible? Which factors are more responsible for a quick and voluntary softening of our judgment? Babies? Alzheimer's? Loneliness? Loss? Death? The dolls "repel and attract," the Reuters headline determines. So creepy they're adorable. So adorable they're creepy. Both. Neither. The whole thing is just... complicated.

Much less adjustable is a polite society's way of viewing another kind of costly and specialized doll, one who recently appeared in the not-widely-seen Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling. Like Reborns, this doll is also made ultra-realistic in size, features, skin tones, skin texture, and... er, anatomical detail. Made by Real Doll™ (link in photo) and a competitor, Silicone Works, these, again like Reborns, are purchased by adults (although admittedly a different demographic) who "love" them and use them as replacements for women.

Stepford women, in other words. Replicants. Simulated beings. More human than human, and they never, ever argue. Never ask for help around the house. And most importantly, never refuse sex, and never impose sexual boundaries. He has no intention of embarrassing the women whose bodies he undresses. He would certainly never undress a woman he did not think he could put back together so precisely that even she will not notice — words from Booklist's review of Nicholson Baker's Fermata, a 1995 novel about a man who can freeze time and have sex with any woman he wants. "Mainly he masturbates," Kirkus Reviews helpfully clarifies, "often with, near, or onto women whom he's disrobed, or followed home."

Whether the women want this kind of attention is irrelevant. And Booklist, the American Library Association's official review journal, has little trouble making paradigmatic space for the storyline to have social merit. The novel's main character is clearly a sympathetic and entertaining protagonist, described as "playful, kind, [and] in his own way... also very moral."

Okay, but what are we to make of Silicone Works' sales pitch boasting that its products are "not RealDolls™! They are realistic silicone mannequin dolls which we call Petite Personal Companions, that weigh half the weight of RealDolls™ and stand only five feet tall! At 50 pounds they are much easier to carry around than a 100 pound doll from other manufacturers." And if 50 pounds is too burdensome, customers can opt for a "torso with attached head only, no bulky arms or legs."

Boxing Helena, anyone? Quadruple-amputee objects of desire to meet every man's most primal need? Just tuck her chin under your forearm and sling her around like a bag of dog food.

Don't want the whole woman? Buy only the breasts, in medium or large. Or the head (wig not included). Or just the torso, without the head. Or a handy, travel-ready, strategic part of the torso.

The fetishization process here is blatant, but the manufacturer has no more qualms about that than about the whole purpose of the product line, which "let[s] you explore those realms of your mind and body, when and where you want it.... Let’s face it, finding a woman with this [kind of] body and face who will actually go home and have sex with you, right when you want it, is pretty slim, right?"

Ask Nicholson Baker.

They are so lifelike, they're hideous. Or, they're amazingly realistic stand-ins for an authentic physical experience. They're gross, wrong, disgusting, perverse. Or, they're gut-wrenching examples of loneliness and despair creating a need for simulated contact. As with Reborns, it's possible to feel deep empathy for creatures so profoundly lonely and so thoroughly rejected that a $6,000 blob of silicone can offer them comfort. The emptiness must be painful beyond words; a British documentary, Guys and Dolls, seems to confirm that pretty conclusively. (Warning: video contains brief but graphic silicone nudity and some coarse language.)

A yearning to connect, or a total social disconnect?

Yet the sympathy still feels somehow forced; an ideology-infused pathos play to assist in a difficult paradigm adjustment. And the challenge of a mainly objective, if not fully sympathetic, analysis only intensifies when watching a documentary that shows decapitated "women" hanging from chains in a warehouse, "women" boxed up and secured to packaging for shipment, "women" dropped, pushed, pulled, lifted, and propped into poses, and "women" always, always, staring off-focus with cold, dead, synthetic eyes.

No less challenging is trying to maintain an objective, cultural-studies science view when reviewing the "features list" of RealDolls:

Elastic—flesh can withstand over 300% elongation... heat resistant—can withstand over 300 degrees heat... stain resistant—nothing sticks to silicone flesh....

(Why don't they just say it? "Go ahead, torture her. She won't break.")

Convenient—always ready and available... relaxing and comforting—provides stress-free companionship... affordable—cheaper than most alternatives.

(Well, now we've arrived at the core, haven't we?)

But... on the other hand, isn't there something refreshingly candid about those last three points? When much of politics, business, education, economics, religion, and general civic life can be filled with hollow promises and deceptive claims, doesn't a product that puts the truth right out there seem like a pinnacle of virtue? Sex on demand, no negotiations, no need for dinner and a movie first. We might be tempted to say that the "appeals" here only call out to half the population, but that would discount the fact that women, too, can find waiting, dating, and talking ponderous if not loathsome.

Some women. Just like some men. In fact, the number of men who'd be willing to risk falling over dead with a life-sized silicone "Personal Companion" in their closets or beds, waiting to be discovered by family members or friends post mortem, has to be nearly infinitesimal. The dolls, then, are fringe, underground, taboo — and perverse.

Or are they, as products invented and manufactured in the United States, just another manifestation of a culture that has yet to ratify an Equal Rights Amendment for women, that enforces a 'glass ceiling' for women, that underpays women in proportion to men's wages for identical jobs, that backlashes in full sexist, misogynistic glory when a woman runs for high office (heard any good Hillary jokes lately?), and that, in its darkest heart, wouldn't really mind all that much if women were somehow put under the charge of an American form of Taliban and wrapped in burkas, only to be stripped bare under a fundamentalist Sharia and whipped publicly for daring to mutter beneath the mask?

Voiceless and without agency, the ideal woman (or doll; at this point the two are conflated) is one who, although silent, always says yes; one who, although powerless, always concedes choice; and one who, although incapable of possessing, always wants nothing.

When this fantasy is projected onto real women, it comes at a damaging price for them, although we could perhaps make the same argument about Reborns if the customer is, say, a teenager who wants to see what it's like to have a child, only to be shockingly disappointed when the real thing comes along and is nothing like the simulacra. Regrets only? Too late. And babies, like women, can also be robbed of agency if they're reduced to fashion accessories and no-condom "side effects" of recreational procreation. 80 years of life, no vote.

So the central question remains: what defines perversity? What role do lingering, foundational puritanical attitudes about sex play in all of this? The Silicone Works site says that the company's "Companions" are a man's equivalent of a vibrator for women, and no more than that. But in making this claim, it compares a full system to a single part, and it admits, along with RealDolls, that these products are made for men who want the convenience of an entire female body without the inconvenience of a complete female soul. The body is merely a device; the soul, a complicating annoyance.

And that is ultimately where the definition lies, in the distinction between perversity of the physical sex, which is no big deal when conducted in privacy, and the perversity of demeaning, depersonalizing, reducing, and fetishizing women, a process both unacceptably public and infinitely destructive.

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