Why toys look so damn weird, and why it will only get worse
“Hold my baby!” my four-year-old niece implored, stuffing into my arms her precious plastic off-spring, a doll she named Saliva. But something had gone terribly wrong. Where a baby should have been was a severely deformed changeling. Over half of the doll’s face was taken up with eyes, and lips of a sultry pout sparkled beneath the place where a nose should have been. Under this giant head was an impossibly small body. Admittedly, it had been a little while since I had been around a baby, but I was pretty sure they didn’t look like this. What was going on?
I’m a marketing strategist by trade, and I make my living by turning insights about culture and consumers into ads, and sometimes products or offerings. When I look at the freaky dolls on our increasingly digital store-shelves, I’m looking for clues about what we think, what we value, and how we see the world. How our plastic got so bent out of shape appears to be the result of many factors: The role of dolls in our children’s development has changed, as has the nature of childhood, and our relationship to our bodies. In effect, we have let our grown-up dysmorphia deform generations of our children’s toys.
And odds are, it’s only going to get weirder.
The baby doll is an enduring relic of childhood. Paintings and etches, black and white photos and sepia-toned polaroids are scattered through hundreds of years of playtime by pint-sized mothers. Historically, the role of a baby dolls was primarily educational. Birth intervals were brief, and prior to the birth control movement lead by Margaret Sanger in 1912, families averaged 7 children. It was not uncommon for toddlers to be raising babies. Baby dolls in the turn of the century looked, well, like the babies they would soon be tending. Or, eerily, like tiny adults, which was how children were treated and expected to behave.
It was a decade of societal changes that irrevocably altered the dynamics of childhood and its playthings. Between the 1920s and the 1930s, schooling became compulsory, child labor laws passed, and sexual education and contraception became widely accessible — dropping the average family size from 7 to 2.3 children. It was these conditions that brought the modern notion of childhood. Adults became dedicated to filling kid’s days with play, not preparing them for adulthood before they lost their baby teeth. Empathy for children — seeing them not as miniature adults, but as innocents — placed a new priority on their imagination, preciousness, and need for shielding and protecting. The role of dolls changed to match the modern child; dolls turned into an entertainment piece to expand their minds. The new purpose of fostering imagination opened the doors to decades of fantastical change to plastic bodies.
If you’ve ever seen a puppy, kitten, or baby you might have an inkling why our dolls look the way they do. They’re so damn cute. Babies are adorable. It’s why Disney princesses resemble infants with their saucer eyes, shortened noses and petite chins — it’s a strategic and artistic choice to make us like them more, to see them as innocent and good. As is our tradition, anything that is worth doing a little is worth doing far too much. Why have large fries when you can have Super Sized? Why have large eyes when you can have freakishly large eyes that look into the depths of your soul? Extra cute, right?
The uncanny valley — meaning, a face or entity that is not quite human but close enough to be unsettling — is not something children can as easily detect. While we get the heebie-jeebies looking at an eerily-off doll, most children won’t see it the way adults do until about age nine. This means the gross exaggeration of physical features matters not to a child. Ironically, baby dolls that are designed to by hyper-realistic can come off as the creepy ones. This new class of doll is often targeted to adults; the So Truly Real® dolls have a disclaimer that they are not intended for ages 14 and under. Realism has become the domain of the adult, not the child. More often than not, children’s toys have gotten flack for being too realistic, from a controversial Barbie that depicted pregnancy to a short-lived one that transformed through the magic of puberty (and an arm-crank) to grow an inch taller and grow breasts. We don’t want realism for our children’s toys because we believe it is our duty to shield them from non-fantastical realities — rooted in the archaic and dubious concept of “growing up too soon.”
The entrance of digital and social media has changed entertainment, playtime and even reality for children. Watching YouTube has become a pint-sized phenomenon, eating into traditional playtime for children. Unboxing videos — where children watch other kids open toys — has turned the function of dolls from playthings to collectibles, which seems the logical conclusion of our increasingly highly-visual, very public world. Several tweens I spoke to in my Gen Z research told me about their “aesthetic,” a strangely adult way to see the world. With that in mind, the look of the toy, particularly the ability to manufacture even more desirablity than the last, becomes premium. If deformed cuteness doesn’t registered in kids Uncanny-Valley-Meter, why stop? Nine of the top 10 most wished for dolls on Amazon are varieties of the beak-mouthed collectible L.O.L! dolls represented at the top of the page. Playtime is still focused on fantasy, but in a way where our ability to see the line between patently obvious physical-alteration and reality is blurred. Perhaps it’s no coincidence plastic surgeons are reporting an increase in ‘Snapchat dysmorphia,’ where patients are asking to look like digitally altered versions of themselves.
It’s very likely this trend towards our plastic dysmorphia will continue as we blur the line of real and not, continue to turn personal playtime into consumption-driven public performances, and children become more focused on appearances at a younger age. As we continue to turn up the dial for toys among our youngest set, dolls like Saliva will likely become increasingly fantastical for the coming years.
In another 5 years, dolls might not look very much like dolls at all.
Jess Watts is a culture and consumer strategist and youth researcher based in Los Angeles.