Sunday, July 27, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: City of Dolls

If you're one of those people for whom dolls are automatically creepy, uncanny valley, and objects of horror - stop now. Go away. You won't like today's garage sale.

The reason I was incapacitated this past week was that I spent Saturday gorging myself on dolls. The United Federation of Doll Clubs was in town, and my mother-in-law paid my way in to the exhibit hall. Doll collecting is a relatively expensive habit (though I managed to find a particular specialty which is low-end for the hobby) and I've managed to keep a leash on myself for several years; the result being that I found I was starving, and had to see everything, overdid massively, and was knocked off my feet for several days. I spent less than I might have, treating the whole thing as a museum and taking a good look at dolls of types I normally only see in reference books.

It is easy for a non-doll person to laugh when the UFDC opens its webpage with the portentious statement: The study of dolls is truly the study of humankind. And it's true that a lot of the (largely middle-aged or old, white, upper-middle-class, female) people on the floor with me were exclaiming over how cute certain dolls were, or nostalgically discussing the doll of their own past. But the statement's true, all the same. And may I point out that one reason the statement sounds absurdly overwrought is that dolls are associated, first, with little girls, who are trivialized in our culture, and second with domestic life, which is also trivialized, even though most of us spend most our time in domestic pursuits, of necessity.

Looked at objectively, the line between doll and human effigy is a thin one. The history of dolls illuminates the economic and social histories of their countries of origin; and throughout those histories, dolls provide focal points for social and personal conflicts concerning race, gender roles, and educational theory. We all know about controversies over whether Barbie should say that math is hard, whether boys should be allowed to play with dolls (unless they are renamed "action figures" to take the girl-cooties off them), and whether little girls base their body images on the proportions of doll bodies; but did you know that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries baby dolls were controversial and many little girls were forbidden to play with them, because they were "improper?"

These controversies can, of course, be thematic starting points for stories, and I would, myself, be pleased to pick up one that explored the forbidden-baby-doll theme, simply because it is so counterintuitive to the modern mindset; but that's not where my mind went while I was wearing my feet to nubs walking up and down those aisles, knowing my gravity was not functioning and I would pay dearly soon.

Because what I was seeing was a vast, temporary doll city; something like an annual gathering of the tribes. The floor and the tables were densely packed with doll dealers and their wares, and the customers they serve. These doll dealers have their own storefronts and internet shops; they have, presumably, circuits of shows and conventions that they follow; they have, certainly, their own networks and subculture, factions and feuds. It wouldn't surprise me a lick to find that someone has written Death at the Doll Show (Not yet, not by that particular title, if a quick trip to the search engine doesn't mislead me), as this is the kind of specialist subculture the mystery genre thrives on, and there's a good overlap in the demographics of doll collectors and of readers of cozy mysteries.

I even heard a little bit of gossip that intrigues me. A dealer was speaking to a customer concerning the sudden drop in value of a particular type of doll, and informed her that a pair of brothers had discovered a cache of them, split it, quarreled, and were now each spreading rumors about the other's share of the hoard, trying to cut each other's throats in the market; and the nature of these rumors was such that the entire market in these dolls was being undermined, as people lost faith in their desirability. You could do quite a bit with that, I think, in the adult market - a murder mystery or a character study or a farce or even an economic thriller.

Of course, I don't write for (or read in) the adult market.

No, I want to write the story exploring the doll society that grows up around these shows. Obviously, when the lights are out and the crowds and dealers go away, the dolls come out about their own business! So what happens then?

Do the modern art dolls and the elite nineteenth-century dolls - the Jumeaus and Brus, the delicate wax ladies, the child dolls too big for children to actually play with - talk to each other, or do they form rival cliques? Does anyone let the small shopliftable dolls out of their glass cases so they can run around playing with each other? Do old friends reunite at these events? Do dolls of similar backgrounds sit around and reminisce? Do the ribbons given at doll shows have any cachet with the dolls themselves? Do they want to be bought, or do they dread it? Do dolls cast in the same mold regard themselves as family? Is there a doll religion to comfort them when one breaks irreparably? What damage is, in fact, fatal to a doll? Do dolls repaired with the spare parts of other dolls of the same type have identity crises or issues of guilt? What virtues do dolls value; what vices do they condemn? Do modern fashion dolls hold different values than antique ones? Are baby dolls stuck in a baby level of maturity, or do wisdom and eloquence come with chronological age? Do character dolls identify with their creators - to what degree are Shirley Temple dolls individuals, and to what degree are they Shirley Temple?

And what about the stuffed animals that inevitably appear in these stores, at these shows?

And what story, compressed into the week of a big convention, could I tell that would showcase this rich, complex little world?

Of course I really want to write this as an excuse to do the research and make doll purchases tax-deductible...

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