by Elizabeth Alexandre
Four years ago a correspondent for the French newspaper Liberation wrote about a strange phenomenon. In San Marcos, California, the former leader of the amateur rock band Chaotic Order had started manufacturing artificial women-hyperrealistic creatures that he retailed under the brand Real Doll. His name was Matt McMullen. He was not even thirty.
The Liberation article was illustrated with a large black-and-white picture showing two dolls sitting on a bench, their tiny T-shirts stretched out over their spectacular boobs, their jogging shorts unveiling pubic hair. Another smaller picture showed silicon bodies hanging from a metal rail like carcasses in a butcher’s cold room. Conceived in 1995 in the pop art tradition of the 1970s, the first Real Doll weighed one hundred pounds and had an articulated steel skeleton that enabled her to take various positions. Her sexual organs were perfect representations but nonfunctional.
Matt took pictures of his creation and published them on his Internet site. He got one order, then two, then ten. lnternauts claimed to be ready to pay any price to get a doll, provided it could be penetrated. Matt punched holes in the body of his doll and inserted three sockets to provide a usable vagina, anus, and mouth. He tested the functionality of his creation and claimed to be satisfied. He set a phenomenal price-$7,000. Orders firmed up; the business took off when Howard Stern was given a doll, whom he named Celine. For a whole week, Stern devoted each broadcast to her. He made love to her live and enthusiastically commented: “This is my best lay ever! I swear to God. This Real Doll is better than a real woman! She is fantastic. I am in love with her. She is like a real one! I swear to God and on my children’s heads!” Thanks to the extravagant advertising from Stern, orders started coming from every corner of the world’s puritan belt-the United States, Japan, and northern Europe.
My collaborator, Elena Dorfman, was as taken as I had been by the mystery and silence that emanated from these dolls, by the near-human feeling of their synthetic flesh. Together, we decided to do everything possible to unveil the secret universe of Real Dolls-to meet with men who preferred them to actual woman and organized their lives and desires around their artificial girlfriends. We met in San Francisco and combed through sex shops. There, in a book about cultural apocalypse, between a text on Jon Benet Ramsey and a letter to a serial killer, we found an interview with Matt McMullen and the e-mail address of a doll owner.
This first lead took us to Warren and Elinor, a couple living in Missouri. We flew to Kansas City to reach, in a suburban subdivision, a home flying the star-spangled banner, surrounded by a fenceless garden. Warren was in his forties, a telecom engineer, divorced, and the father of a teenage daughter. Elinor was in her fifties, working in real estate, with two kids from a previous marriage. In a living room overlooking a kitchen, there sat Jamie.
She was sitting in an armchair, holding a glass half full of whisky, dressed in a lavender string nightgown and a flowered robe, half open to reveal a soft and generous breast, much more natural than the add-ons that plastic surgeons insert into the busts of actual women. The inside of her sex was slightly rough; the finger that we each inserted was sucked in by a subtle sucking mechanism. The details of her flesh were staggering: fragile collarbones; the precision of the hip bones, shoulder blades, and kidney dimples.
Her skin-cold, slightly sticky, exuding a mineral sweat-undermined her realism, as did her joints-ankles, wrists, and neck all swollen by the silicon welding. Yet despite all this, Jamie exuded an illusion ever renewing. Each time we walked into the room, it took us a moment to remember she was not a woman.
Elinor’s love story for dolls dates to her childhood. When she was ten years old, she witnessed a murder and had to testify to the police. Threatened with reprisals by the murderer’s accomplices, she lived a solitary and nervous childhood. One day as she was watching TV, she became fascinated by a movie in the Hitchcock Presents series, the story of a little girl alternating roles with her doll. After that, Elinor had a single dream-to find a plastic friend her own size with whom she could trade lives. Her first dream friend was a toy of the Patsie Playpal brand, a red-haired doll that cost fifty dollars, way over her
Warren’s first encounter with artificial women dates to his first marriage. His former wife no longer had desire for him. Warren went though a growing frustration. He could not conceive of forcing his wife to have sexual relations with him. To have a mistress or visit prostitutes seemed immoral and dangerous, so he bought an inflatable doll marketed under the brand name French Lolita. He named her Angel and began to enjoy her inflatable body moving under his. One day he revealed her existence to his wife, who sneered at him. Soon thereafter, they divorced.
When they met, Warren and Elinor immediately connected. The fetishistic phantasms of one fit perfectly with the childish universe of the other. Within a few years, the couple bought and adopted four secondhand Real Dolls. Warren took pictures while Elinor ruled over her girls’ boarding school, dreaming of the day when her dolls—thanks to modern technology—could take care of her, old and impotent, with as much devotion as the dwarfs for Snow White.
When we left Kansas City, Warren posted an e-message on a doll forum, mentioning that an American photographer and a French writer wanted to meet doll owners. Over time, about twenty men-American, English, German, and French-contacted us and agreed to answer our questions. Some opened their homes to us and allowed Elena to photograph them. They ranged from twenty-eight years old to their early fifties. Nearly all of them were single or divorced. More than half were.engineers or systems people; there was also a nurse, a lab assistant, a storage handler, a musician, and a professional poker player. Three of the men were writing fantasy novels. Some had such passion for the concept of artificial women that they had attempted to build one. In their garages, instead of fixing a collector car or scraping a boat’s hull, they had sculpted clumsy breast molds in which to pour silicon obtained by the gallon from prosthesis manufacturers. Those with engineering skills used laser beams to carve titanium mechanisms that were able to stand upright. From one end of the developed world to the other, these men shaped feminine drafts, threw away in large garbage pails their attempts at legs and torsos, and dreamed of the day when a young girl would emerge from their hands. Their ultimate dream-a gynoid, an artificial woman animated by technology.
Handy or not, these men followed the direct line of a fundamental mythological group-those interested in woman creation. In most cosmogony after the Neolithic era, women were created by the gods to accommodate men. Eve is the first example of this phenomenon. In popular versions of Genesis, Yahweh senses that Adam is bored in his splendid garden, and He decides to give him a companion. From a rib or a piece of clay, he manufactures a slim, blond woman, Eve-the prototype of the gynoid manufactured by a male character to please man. But Eve picks the fruit of the tree of knowledge and throws humanity into endless sorrow.
Pygmalion’s legend is a perfect illustration of this theme. A famous Greek artist, Pygmalion hated women so much that he decided to exclude them from his life altogether. In his resentment, he sculpted a sublime ivory statue that he named Galatea. He fell deeply in love with her, fondled her cold body, kissed her breathless lips, and covered her with pearls, gold, and precious fabrics. Touched by his talent and despair, Aphrodite finally gave life to the ivory virgin. Centuries later the myth of a dangerous woman replaced by an object in her image endures. Depending on the state of technology, the original statue becomes an automaton, a mannequin, a doll, or finally a gynoid.
The nineteenth century in Europe saw an explosion of novels devoted to artificial women. In 1886 Villiers de !’Isle-Adam wrote his fantastic novel The Future Eve, in which he reinterpreted the myth of the creation of the first woman. The American inventor Thomas Edison created Hadaly, an android whose flesh was made of mineral substances, precious and immovable-gold, silver, platinum, mercury, graphite, crystal, and magnetized iron powder. Edison is prophetic: “No doubt, thousands like this will be built and some industrialist will open up a factory for ideals.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, thanks to progress in wax and papier-mache, ever more realistic mannequins began to appear in department store windows. The Viennese painter Oscar Kokoschka had a life-sized doll made in the image of his former mistress, Alma Mahler. In his autobiography, he wrote: “I was anxiously waiting for the doll’s arrival. I had purchased dresses and lingerie in Paris. I wanted to be definitely through with Alma Mahler, never again to fall in the fatal trap of Pandora who had given me so much suffering.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, surrealist artists continued the theme. Marcel Duchamp, Andre Masson, and Pierre Molinier built, painted, and photographed the “apparition of creature-objects,” teenage dolls they made up, dismembered, tore apart, or encaged. Hans Bellmer pushed this theme to its strangest level. In 1933 he cobbled together a doll-a bow-legged child-out of wood, plaster, glue, and jute fiber, with every fold of the flesh representing aberrant sexual slits. The heart of each story is always the same. The seductive woman is both irresistible and abject. The man despises himself for not being able to overcome his passion, for having given in to the hope of a pleasure that leads him to despair. If the woman’s appearance is perfect, her soul is mediocre or diabolical. If her physical appearance leaves something to be desired, it must be modified. To escape a woman’s bewitchment, man can find a solution only in the absolute fetish, a gynoid, more sexually and psychologically satisfying than her real-life sister.
Thus the theme of the artificial woman, who for centuries has haunted man’s imagination, has resurfaced integrally in Matt McMullen’ s molds. Without knowing it, Malcolm, Jeff, Davecat, and others are the grandsons of Pygmalion, while Rebecca, Ginger-Brook, Sidore, and Isabelle are Eve’s granddaughters.
When we began our research, we assumed we would find men who were rich enough, or at least sufficiently well-off enough, to pay the $7,000 without too much anxiety. Much to our surprise, we found poor men who without any thought for their survival afterward, spent everything to acquire a Re I Doll. Nearly all of them claimed to be victims of women’s venality and superficiality, talked about broken hearts and humiliation, and spoke of their adulation always followed by treason and desertion. Each spoke of his discovery of Real Dolls with the same precision one uses when telling a love story-the same sensation of dazzling certainty, the same conviction that finally, this one is for keeps.
Having gathered their savings, Real Doll owners-to-be placed their orders with Abyss, McMullen’ s company; with a few mouse clicks, they chose the face, the body, and the look of their intended. Then came a four-month feverish waiting period, filled with anxiety and euphoria, like that of a father awaiting a child that will be born as a teenager, or a young woman ready for desire.
While the intended takes shape in her mold, the owner chooses a name, prepares her room, fills her closets with delicate garments, and dreams a thousand times the plane and truck journey that will bring him his dream come true.
When finally she arrives, when the delivery man unloads the huge crate, the owner feels a twinge that will last forever. Watching for indiscreet gazes from the neighbors, he drags the enormous parcel into his home, tears it open, and discovers, throbbing, the revealed beauty lying strapped in the packing material. She is a big child to whom he is ready to give everything: a never-ending age-from fourteen to twenty-eight; a personality-sweet, nagging, dreaming, intellectual, jealous, tolerant; a history; ancestors; and a social being.
Then life with her begins, a life plain to the extreme, a parody of a marital life, dull and reassuring: watching TV, minimal conversation-” Honey, I fixed the car”-breakfast and attentive caring.
Once a week, the owner fixes scratches, hangs her from a bracket to give her a shower, and takes care of her as a nurse would a comatose young woman. On weekends he takes pictures of the doll to post on the doll forum. He cannot believe his wife is so pretty. He dresses her up in dungarees, a pleated skirt, a communion dress, a suit, a cheerleader outfit. He sweats while moving her, risking a hernia. He places a lollypop or a picnic basket in her hand.
Some nights, when he lusts for her, the owner wraps his girlfriend in an electric blanket. When she is warm and cozy, he powders her to absorb her oily sweat, lubricates her between the legs, lays her down on her back or her tummy, and slides his sex into the silicon socket. Some men are disappointed with the cumbersome weight of their companion, but others are thrilled with the beauty of their quadriplegic goddess, the heaviness of the fainted woman. They dream of a young drowned woman, just delivered by the sea, hair stuck to her body by water and sand.
As months pass, these owners experience a growing attachment to the creatures, whose existence is solely dependent on the spirit the owners give them. Their affection mingles with the pride they have in being pioneers, the early stage of a future filled with androids-exquisite young women, docile and forgiving, each with an on/off switch.
Rarely are these creatures treated like overworked prostitutes. We met only one owner who abused his doll-Chen, a twenty-seven-year-old Chinese student. When he arrived in California, the young man wrote his parents a detailed letter, explaining why he needed a doll-he did not have the time or desire to pick up girls; aversion and contempt for real women; anxious not to waste time away from his studies. The parents gave in to their son’s expensive whim. Assaulted daily, in positions unfit for her fragile body-limbs, sex, and anus overstretched-she did not survive his violence for very long and ended up dismembered, her sex torn apart.
When dolls are thought to have reached the end of their lives, they bring an owner the eternal question that lovers and murderers have: what to do with the body. Sometimes they are just cast away at the dump. There, they gaze emptily at a sky of seagulls, with the same sadness one notices in children’s toys after an earthquake. But more often they receive in death the same honor as all those who make their men happy. After taking off her face to be placed on a new body, the owner buries the doll.
During conversations with our peers about our encounters with Real Doll owners, men were either mocking or provocative. They mockingly endorsed the arguments of the doll owners: At last! Yes, why not a doll? Much less expensive, less nagging, and pretty for much longer than a real woman. Others expressed more original thoughts, noticing a sensational correlation between the geographical distribution of doll ownership-the United States, England, and Japan-and that of serial killers, establishing an obscure relationship between the heroes of perverse crimes-Ted Bundy, Dr. Shipman, cannibal lssei Sagawa-and harmless doll owners. The eruption of dolls in men’s psyches leads to a near-reflex expression of cheap misogyny, a fascination for women killers and flesh eaters.
Of course, these reactions always provoked protests and bitter comments from women. Using sex toys for women’s gratification was not only accepted but broadly endorsed in women’s magazines and TV series like Sex and the City. Yet the prospect of living with a large, masculine, hyperrealistic doll seemed grotesque if not humiliating. Fundamentally, women would ask the same questions: How can you want one who does not want you? How can you be sb severed from life as to adulate
From this critical question emanates a much more subtle fear: the fear of being replaced by gynoids, of not being able to sustain comparison with creatures literally molded, and of watching men by the masses cast their desires on dolls. These fears reveal a stupendous feeling of undervalue. Even if men do it jokingly, by admitting their attraction to a doll and their consequent fatigue with autonomous women, they submit to misogyny and fear of the other sex. By casting themselves as rivals to a manufactured object, women underscore an affective fragility that would not permit them to exist but for men.
Preceded by centuries of misogyny and popular stories, Real Dolls exist at a particular time in history. On the one hand, Western women are less submissive to a man’s world. On the other hand, they are the target of media and commercial messages that demand they look more like Real Dolls. By the thousands, they have their faces and breasts injected with the very silicon used to manufacture dolls; they paralyze their foreheads with a toxin that at high dosages could kill a horse; and they wiggle for hours to lose the fat and water that are part of their genetic makeup. Within thirty years, women have gone from demanding ownership of their bodies to submitting themselves to plastic surgery that lets them live without looking their age, just like a perfected gynoid.
As the border between women and dolls becomes less defined, it is tempting to posit that women are beginning to imitate dolls. First modeled after a stylized ideal of feminine beauty, have dolls become the modern standard of reference?