HouseboundWhy the Dollhouse Metaphor Remains So Indelible

Eliza Scanlen as Amma, left, and Amy Adams as Camille in Sharp Objects (Photo credit: HBO)

This article was published in Micro/Macro Issue #59 | Summer 2013

The scene: “A room furnished comfortably and tastefully, but not extravagantly,” complete with armchairs and a small sofa arranged beneath the window, a piano beside the door to the study, a small bookcase with “well-bound” books, and a fire burning brightly in the stove. This is the setting of A Doll’s House, the home of housewife Nora and her husband, Torvald, carefully arranged by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1879. In this neat little room, we watch their story unfold. Torvald wags his finger at Nora and scolds her for eating sweets, teases her, smiles indulgently, and calls her a little child; she claps her hands childishly and tells him she would not think of going against his wishes. Eventually, we learn Nora’s secrets and watch her scramble for security using jejune antics to distract her narcissistic husband from discovering her past.

When the truth emerges, Torvald’s anger erupts, followed quickly by patronizing forgiveness. “There is something so incredibly sweet and satisfying, to a man, in the knowledge that he has forgiven his wife,” he tells Nora. “It seems as if that had made her, as it were, doubly his own…and she has in a way become both wife and child to him. So you shall be for me after this, my little scared, helpless darling.” Except Nora is no one’s helpless darling. “Our home has been nothing but a playroom,” she tells Torvald. “I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it was great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been.”

Nora rejects this doll-like persona, she rejects Torvald’s claim that she is a wife and mother before all else, and she rejects their marriage, telling him that she plans to live alone and finally find identity as an individual. The final direction of the play calls for the sound of a closing door as she walks out—a sound a contemporary critic described as “reverberat[ing] across the roof of the world.” It’s been more than 130 years since Nora first walked out that door. While leaving any bad relationship might still be an act of empowerment, it is surely a less shocking act than it was at the time Ibsen’s play was written. Nora’s door continues to be a catalyst, but perhaps more persistent is Ibsen’s larger metaphor of the dollhouse. These picture-perfect abodes have become a recurring cultural symbol in movies, television, art, and beyond, symbolizing not just repressive domesticity but whole microcosms of female existence.

Writer and director Todd Solondz, for instance, recast the dollhouse in the hellish form of a suburban junior high school in his 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse. It’s here that his seventh-grade heroine, Dawn Weiner, faces parental emotional abuse, peer bullying, threats of rape, public humiliation, and the kidnapping of her manipulative younger sister. Though the film ends with a sense that Dawn has, through her trials, achieved a degree of resiliency, Solondz reveals later that Dawn may not have entirely escaped her dollhouse—his 2004 film Palindromes opens at her funeral, after she’s committed suicide. Screenwriter Joss Whedon, meanwhile, interpreted the dollhouse as dystopia in his 2009 sci-fi series Dollhouse. Here, “The Dollhouse” is an underground facility that rents out human “dolls”—people who have given up their lives, memories, and personalities to become rentable, blank-slate bodies for various needs of wealthy clients. While their personalities are saved for them on hard drives, purportedly to be restored after a five-year stint, their minds are imprinted with personas requested by the renting clients, and then wiped to a clean, malleable, child-like state between each assignation.

Dollhouse was a hot topic in the feminist blogosphere when it aired, both because its creator is a self-described feminist and because the show offered compelling, often ambiguous reads on the subjects of consent and power. Indeed, since many of the dolls are rented for sex, one of the premises is that they will be raped, repeatedly, as they are unable to give consent. It is debatable whether such a premise could be feminist programming in any hands, even those of the man who created Buffy Summers. As Tiger Beatdown blogger Sady Doyle noted when the show began, “The Dollhouse is a giant metaphor, not only for rape culture, but for patriarchy and oppression at large.” Regardless of whether or not the show passed feminist muster, the premise seemed either too abstract or too unpalatable for audiences—as we might expect shows about oppression to be—and it was canceled after two seasons.

Even children’s stories—the seemingly natural domain for tales of dolls and their homes—are not exempt from these broader cultural narratives. Author Rumer Godden wrote more than 60 books for audiences of all ages, including 1947’s Tottie: The Story of a Doll’s House (which became an animated series in 1984 and ran with the tagline “Dolls are not like people—people choose, but dolls can only be chosen”) and 1954’s Impunity Jane: The Story of a Pocket Doll. In the latter, Jane is a doll who has already escaped the sedate dollhouse she loathed and found a more adventurous life living in the pocket of a young boy. As children’s literature scholar Lois Rostow Kuznets points out in her essay “Taking Over the Dollhouse,” Impunity Jane “suggests that the feminist reader may find in the rejection of the dollhouse a key to a liberated view of woman, dispensing with the ‘Angel in the House’ role.”

And yet, despite the prevalence of dollhouse-as-oppression representations, plenty of women—and many feminists—find something intrinsically appealing about dollhouses, not as metaphors but as objects. Kuznets, for instance, finds this appeal at odds with her feminism and recognizes the domestic as a fraught space. Yet she finds herself “salivating over dollhouses of all varieties.” Similarly, J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the novel Maine and Commencement, is a feminist who has written about her own “inconvenient” love of dollhouses and of perusing miniatures online. In a 2011 New York Times article titled “A Hobby Best Kept Small,” she recalls moving into a New York City apartment and being unable to afford a new couch, instead placing the miniature one from her childhood dollhouse against the wall. When she looks about a cluttered apartment, she assures herself that if she ever gave in to her desire to have a dollhouse, it would be “tidy and orderly at all times.”

In Maine, Sullivan created a handful of female characters confined by metaphorical dollhouses. Matriarch Alice’s emotional environs were constructed by a priest who told her to shun birth control despite her reluctant attitude toward motherhood. Her daughter, Kathleen, struggles with a fractured relationship with her mother and a history of alcoholism. Kathleen’s daughter, Maggie, has been rejected by an emotionally absent boyfriend. And Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, strives to embody upper-middle-class suburban-housewife perfection. Each woman escapes her own dollhouse in a different way—Alice through religion and alcohol, Kathleen through love and sobriety, Maggie through motherhood on her own terms. And Ann Marie? Dollhouses. Caught in pursuit of perfection that is increasingly unattainable, Ann Marie finds comfort, control, order, and release in perusing the same miniatures website that Sullivan confesses to enjoying. “The dollhouse gives Ann Marie power over something, small though it may be,” says Sullivan. “Of course, settling for this idea of power sort of placates her and maybe stops her from thinking about anything bigger.”

As a means of gaining control, a dollhouse obsession isn’t necessarily empowering. Indeed, Sullivan comments that Ann Marie experiences the dollhouse as both an imaginative escape and a “form of self-repression. She could open her eyes and change the world, but instead she’ll just buy another four-inch-tall Victorian hat stand.” There is a fine line between building a dollhouse that allows for more imaginative aspirations and conceding to cultural constructs that imply this aspiration can be bought. Yet it’s still true that, as an object, the literal dollhouse offers a way for women to gain control, to live a more orderly and aspirational life in line with their own sense of perfection. And as the gap between metaphor and object continues to grow, perhaps we, as a culture, have outgrown the former: Perhaps dollhouses simply don’t symbolize what they used to.

Despite the prevalence of dollhouse-as-oppression representations, plenty of women—and many feminists—find something intrinsically appealing about dollhouses, not as metaphors but as objects.

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Part of this is attributable to an increasing sense of dollhouses as an art form rather than as playthings. In early 2009, after Etsy debuted its “Dolls and Miniatures” category, the community’s blog highlighted this difference: “A true-to-scale house and its contents is a work of art and a collector’s piece, not a toy.” This reclaiming of domestic activity as an artistic pursuit is not unique to miniatures, which reclaim the entire domicile. But unlike a trendy affinity for knitting or other DIY homecrafts, creating dollhouses represents something more than an “I made it myself!” moment—and that something seems to be a new phenomenon. A 1989 New York Times article about the surprising growth of the miniatures industry included mention of a 36-year-old Bronx schoolteacher whose boyfriend surprised her with a shopping spree at a Manhattan miniatures store. More than 20 years later, a strikingly similar NYT piece called “Modern Design, in Miniature, Is Growing” kicked off by profiling a 39-year-old public-affairs professional whose husband bought her a dollhouse that, she enthused, allowed her to “be creative” and “take risks.”

Artist Laura Delaney, who sells dollhouse miniatures from her Etsy shop, shares this sweeping sentiment, saying on the Etsy blog, “I think that, for the modern collector, a dollhouse can still be a cabinet of curiosity…. Its miniature rooms are like little stages for acting out scenes of fantasy, memory, and ambition.” For many collectors, these stages often remain empty, unoccupied and full of potential. Sullivan recalls that, “As a kid, I had dolls that went along with my dollhouse, but I never actually played with them. They were fragile and made of porcelain, and really beside the point. The house itself was the thing. I also had a plastic Barbie Dream House, and that’s where all the action happened. My Barbies had meetings and fights and barbecues and make-out sessions. But the dollhouse never felt lived in.” It’s this emptiness that shows these dollhouses have stopped being toys. Barbie’s Dream House is for Barbie’s dreams. Empty dollhouses are not about imagining fictive lives for dolls, but about building something that represents one’s own dreams. The way dollhouse enthusiasts like Sullivan and the women mentioned in the NYT articles see it, building the dollhouse may be the escape that leaving it was for Nora and so many others. If that’s true, might there even be something progressive, or truly feminist, about them?

Many feminist and feminist-leaning artists seem to think so, and they have found radically different ways to use dollhouses as both inspiration and medium, often focusing on empty interiors rather than the people that would occupy them. Artist Rachel Whiteread’s Place (Village), a 2008 installation at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, featured 200 secondhand dollhouses that Whiteread had collected over 20 years. Assembled in a dark gallery, their windows illuminated, the houses were described in one review as “gravestones or mausoleums or ghosts”; memorials of a sort to the people that created them. Even more literal is the work of artists Miriam Schapiro and Sherry Brody. Schapiro worked with fellow artist Judy Chicago to found the California Institute of the Arts’ Feminist Art Program.

In 1971, together with their students, Schapiro and Chicago took over an old house that was slated for demolition to create an art installation titled Womanhouse. The first truly public exhibit of feminist art, it took the form of what the installation’s catalog described as “the repository of the daydreams women have as they wash, bake, cook, sew, clean, and iron their lives away.” Among the house’s 20 full-size rooms were Chicago’s now-famous Menstruation Bathroom, in which used, bloodied feminine-hygiene products stood out against a stark white backdrop; Kathy Huberland’s Bridal Staircase, which featured a veiled mannequin seeming in danger of toppling down; Sandra Orgel’s Linen Closet, in which a naked, disarticulated mannequin divides shelves of neatly folded sheets, and Schapiro and Brody’s Dollhouse Room.

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This last was a house within a room within Womanhouse that, according to the artists, “combines the beauty, charm and supposed safety and comfort of the home with the unnameable terrors existing within its walls.” The house appears serene and well ordered until you notice a rattlesnake coiled in the parlor; a grizzly bear staring into the nursery; 10 men, in a line, peering through a kitchen window. The Dollhouse, Schapiro explains, is meant to remind us of “the magic of childhood, fantasy control over the tremors of the heart.”

Laurie Simmons has spent much of her career photographing dolls and their houses, a pursuit she initially worried would be perceived as “feminine rather than feminist, and lacking in conceptual rigor.” That worry passed with critical acclaim and, in fact, became something of a hallmark. Looking at Simmons’s work, you can never be sure if you’re seeing a full-size interior or one recreated at one-inch scale, whether the profile you’re looking at is human, porcelain, or plastic. In 2001, Simmons joined architect Peter Wheelwright and Bozart Toys to shift her work around dollhouses back to the origins of the object—in other words, to create a toy. The Kaleidoscope House, with its transparent colored walls, separate pool pavilion, and furniture and home accessories designed by leading interior designers, was a modernist sensation with a $250 price tag. More than 10 years later, collectors purchase used Kaleidoscope Houses for nearly 10 times their original price. Simmons’s work brings us full circle: from the dollhouse as a child’s toy, to a metaphor of paternalistic control of women, to an artistic hobby that allows women to exert control, to a modern art form, and back to a toy. What does this toy look like after such a life cycle?

Sociologist Lisa Wade wrote last November on the blog Sociological Images that “this holiday season, a dollhouse may be a feminist gift for a little girl.” In her brief survey of bestselling dollhouses, there were, of course, the houses that Wade classified as “heteronormative…pro-coupling and pro-reproduction,” largely due to their accompanying family sets of mother, father, and children. But there were also dollhouses that, by virtue of being occupied by only adult women, had “themes of friendship and, dare I say, female-independence.” For Wade, these dollhouses carried messages of female homeownership and “female-dominated social interaction.” Yet, in both of these classifications, it is the dolls meant to occupy the house, rather than the house itself, that creates the dichotomy.

Taking this a step further is Roominate, a dollhouse with circuit boards created by two Ivy League–educated engineers who want to increase girls’ exposure to, and enjoyment of, science and technology. The toy was described by NYT in the article “Barbie, Not Ken, Does Repairs Here” as “a stackable series of rooms, with furniture requiring assembly and color-coded wires and a tiny motor to create lights, a fan or a buzzer.” The company’s pink and purple logo, the tiny flowers, pink curtains, and dress accessories make it clear that Roominate is still embracing the “girly” part of dollhouses, while adding a layer of technological sophistication that teaches and, hopefully, inspires.

The dollhouses of today are not, then, miniature playgrounds that train girls to believe their future paths go no further than their front door. Perhaps by building dollhouses that educate, that encourage creativity and artistry, and that allow people to imagine and aspire, our culture has made its own alternative to escape. Whereas past dollhouse escapes were dramatic and somewhat desperate, culminating in divorce, suicide, and obsessive-compulsive attempts to regain control, today’s culture seems to have outgrown that metaphor. There is a new way to avoid escape altogether: Women are building, electrically wiring, decorating, and owning dollhouses of their own. After all, it’s empowering to escape from a microcosm of oppression, but so is creating a space of one’s own imagining and desire.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Dollhouse was canceled after two seasons. (10/21/2019, 11:38 a.m.)

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by Gretchen Sisson
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Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

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