Review: The Erotic Doll
At the start of his book, Mr. Smith poses the questions: “What is the nature of man’s – or rather men’s –intimate and erotic relations with inanimate human forms?”…”When, where and why have human beings – usually but by no means only, men – fallen in love with statues and other inanimate things?”…”What provokes or stirs them to consummate that love erotically and what form does such consummating take?” These are provocative and intriguing questions which demand exciting replies. He tells us that he intends to answer them by focusing on the erotic doll as a fetish in the period from the last quarter of the 19th century until the present, in both art, and visual and material culture more generally, via three viewpoints or threads. From the point of art history, for instance, this is a fascinating subject, but he is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Visual Culture, and it is clear that his investigation will range far and wide.
The reader with an understanding of art history will find much of interest in this book. The author discusses Pygmalion and his statue, Oskar Kokoschka and his doll of Alma Mahler, Hans Bellmer and his “Poupées”, the Surrealists and their mannequins, Marcel Duchamp and his figure in “Étant Données” and the doll furniture/sculptures of Allen Jones. He also refers to the Chapman Brothers, Sarah Lucas, Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober and Charles Ray among more contemporary artists. For this reviewer, who has published Bellmer’s biography (Hans Bellmer, Quartet Books, London, 1985; Death, Desire and the Doll, the Life and Work of Hans Bellmer, Solar Books, New York, 2004), his extensive discussion of Bellmer’s work is particularly interesting. He subjects Bellmer’s seminal “Poupées” to a psychoanalytic reading as well as demonstrating their crucial influence on artists from Duchamp to the Surrealists and then to the Chapman Brothers and Cindy Sherman. This whole art-historical discussion he refers to as the genealogical thread of his book: the genealogy of men’s intimate and erotic relations with inanimate man-made human forms.
But he goes much further. He interweaves with this his phenomenological thread. This presents the erotic doll as “one of the many tangled and discontinuous stories of the discontents of (male) heterosexuality.” Here he is concerned with sexual perversion. He points out that since the last quarter of the 19th century any heterosexual activity that does not involve procreation has been categorized as perverse, and erotic relations between men and dolls are normal within the discourse of the invention of heterosexuality as perverse. He stresses his conviction that a concentration on male heterosexuality is needed as a counter-balance to contemporary Gender Studies and Queer Theory.
At this point, the author devotes two chapters to the modern sex doll in the context of “participatory sexual devices”. Like the ubiquitous demand for dildos, the market for rudimentary vinyl dolls and artificial vaginas offers a vast range for exclusively sexual purposes, offering “the perfect illusion of reality.” The biggest market is the USA – hardly a surprise. Especially popular are RealDoll’s Female Torso, a mould of the female genital area, and Fleshlight, convenient and handy, shaped like a flashlight or torch. Other products include Pipedreams, inflatable toys modelled on Hollywood stars, and the amusingly named Bareback Mount Him, a life-size inflatable male doll. Japan shows an enormous interest in sex dolls, which the author believes is tied to the country’s ongoing crisis in post-war straight masculinity which has led to the development of a sexually violent culture.
Mr Smith’s third thread is what he terms “the thing-ological, an attention to the epistemological and ontological nature of things.” This philosophical argument involves discussing the erotic doll not as the realization of people’s desires or needs in specific circumstances but as “a thing that things, an inanimate, artificial, synthetic man-made thing, an animate thing with an inexplicable vitality or energy, that articulates itself in curious and fascinating ways, that seems to generate its own laws, demands and desires.” For those readers, like this reviewer, who lack a grounding in “Thing Theory”, the book at this point may become hard work rather than pleasure.
One fascination of Mr Smith’s book is the way he weaves these three threads together into a whole argument, how he moves from Pygmalion to Charles Baudelaire, from Hans Bellmer to Sigmund Freud, from the modern sex doll to masturbation. His choice of illustrations is far-ranging and exemplary. Although readers hoping for erotic excitement from the answers to his original questions may feel short-changed, those looking for thought-provoking insight into doll fetishism will be well rewarded.
Peter Webb is the author of The Erotic Arts and Hans Bellmer