The Manufacturing of Desire


/1/ – The dollhouse’s plasticities

If one was not already aware of the peculiar cultural curiosity of Realdolls, then the film Lars and the Real Girl will certainly bring the odd creations to light. The dolls, which are carefully crafted companions made by molding silicone over a flexible metal skeleton, cost around six thousand dollars and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and skin tones.

The doll was introduced in the mid-to-late nineties by a small company in California called Abyss Creations and, while several imitators have arisen, Abyss remains the most well known. The dolls are sold primarily for sex, though some buyers use them as art pieces, model stand-ins, et cetera. Used models can also be purchased on ebay and in several of the online communities which have grown in response to the product. Numerous sites carry lengthy forums discussing everything from dressing tips, advice on creating more realistic eyebrows, and so forth. Men discuss how to best heat their dolls’ bodies or just their vaginae. There is even a monthly webzine called Coverdoll, which features pictures of upscale dolls and dozens of articles about them.

What is most interesting about Realdolls, aside from the uncanny creepiness pictures of them invoke, is the rhetoric surrounding the men (and some women) who have them. There’s been a Salon article, a BBC documentary and several fictitious representations and the treatment of such owners oscillates between unmeasurable loneliness and endless creepiness. iDollators, as they call themselves (playing with commandment breaking as well as capitalizing Doll) vary from men who simply want an exceptional masturbatory aid to those who refer to their doll, as does one man in the aforementioned Salon article, a ‘teddy bear with benefits.’

/2/ – The erotics of silence

Once one gets through the immediate visceral reaction to the appearance of the Realdoll, it seems impossible to not question the deeper implications. Let’s start with the prototypical lonely owner, or the owner who has given up on relations with actual women. This may sound like a harsh judgment, but many of the men who have silicone companions state themselves that the Realdoll is, in fact, a replacement. Several of the owners emphasize the Realdoll’s silence, and her/its listening skills. As an interesting note, Davecat, one of the men interviewed in the Salon article “Just like a woman,” and the speaker of the teddy bear quote above, created a website for his doll. Interestingly, the name of the faux company bearing the copyright on the bottom of the page is ‘deafening silence Plus.’

There is an important point about the nature of silence to be remembered here – silence should not be viewed as the blank slate or starting point of things, but that which must be created in the wake of noise, of the horrible clamor of life, the universe, and everything. As Mladen Dolar discusses in A Voice and Nothing More, silence must be created for the voice to emerge: it is the negative of the voice and not simply the absence of it (p. 152). The silence between an owner and his doll can then be seen as a prudent silence on behalf of the doll, as recognition of her partner’s authority.

We could say then that the silence is anything but lonely: it is unsocial, but not lonely. Following from Lacan’s well known statement that ‘desire is the desire of the Other,’ (meaning that we desire to understand the desire of the Other, to be the desirable object) the doll’s silence effectively short circuits such a question. The doll’s inability to return the signifier of the other back to them, to suggest one’s desire, leaves only the underdeveloped kind of wish fulfillment of the iDollator. Furthermore, we should remember that jouissance feminine is spoken, it is that which slips between the cracks of language of the signifier.

In “Just like a woman” it is suggested that the Realdoll as prop is not dangerous in that it is simply a transitional object, an item that, in the absence of a child’s full, undifferentiated relationship with its mother, provides a gradual separation from the maternally supplanted world. The Realdoll however, is an oddly subjectified existence; it is purported to supplant a social relation. If anything, the Realdoll attempts to backwards anchor a subject into a pre-differentiated state dominated by a fantasy of omnipotence.

/3/ – ‘The beauty of her stillness’

To bring this to the visual disturbance that the Realdolls interject: on some uncomfortable level the Realdoll exhibits an unsurprising progression, as another thread in the seam between femininity and semblance. Several early psychoanalytic writings connect the notion of femininity to masquerade, and specifically to the veil. Two interconnected reasons are given for this. The first being that the veil allows for, as Jacques-Alain Miller says, not the covering over of woman but the invention of her. The second related point is, as Lacan states in “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectice of Desire,” that woman concealed behind the veil is what makes her the phallus, the embodied notation of the man’s authority (Ecrits, p. 699).

The rendering of woman as phallus cannot take place in the instance of the Realdoll simply because the social dimension, the difficult working towards the impossible synthesis of the two, cannot take place. Despite how it looks, the Realdoll is not the veil, masking the impossibility of womanhood which requires the sacrifice of femininity, but the coil of femininity itself, in all its deadness. Or put another way – the Realdoll is the femininity which is neither covered nor doing the act of covering, neither the mask nor the impossible being of woman, it is the graveyard passage in between.

Here Žižek’s reading of Hegel as not dismissing appearances as important is apt. For Hegel, appearance is more real then reality itself. And, as Miller states later in his essay “The Relation between the Sexes,”the woman, being the phallus, accepts her lack and can therefore indirectly challenge authority whereas what he calls the ‘postiche’ woman, is based on creating appearances to show that she lacks nothing- this is the Realdoll expunged from the male fantasy.

So what is the desire for the Realdoll? One cannot help but discuss how male desire is essentially mortifying, as Žižek is quick to discuss in relation to Vertigo. Scottie refashions Judy into Madeline, as Žižek puts it – he literally makes the living woman into a dead one and his desire is only affirmed after he inspects the details – in particular the blonde curl of hair (Ticklish Subject, p. 300). The exact opposite of this occurs in the film when Scottie’s unattractive friend paints a painting he has been admiring and jokingly applies her head on top of it. Scottie’s fantasy, which would have been glaciated in the form of the image, is perversly warped and he accordingly leaves the room in disgust.

/4/ – The carefully crafted crevice

Now what should be said of the use of the Realdoll as a masturbatory prop? One can only shudder at the kinds of misogynist fantasies eased by the advent of the doll. While the doll can and has been used therapeutically, it is celebrated by some owners as a replacement to ‘organic women.’ Mike Kelly, interviewed in “Just Like a Woman,’ is clear that he does not have sex with the dolls but instead masturbates with them and refers to his three dolls as ‘its’ not ‘shes.’ While the dolls appear as the most revolting feminist nightmare, at the same time, again as suggested in “Just Like a Woman,” Realdolls may remove men from the gene pool who shouldn’t be dipping their toes in or give men who may be prone to violence against women an outlet. (It should also be noted the Realdoll has been used by disabled folks, such as paraplegics, because of their mobility issues in regards to sex.)

Gordon Griggs, another man featured in the article, has a website where he talks about his Realdolls as well as listing the wrongs that women have committed against him. He has video blogs where he discusses the advantages of his Realdoll. For Griggs, the Realdoll is nothing more than a sexual replacement for an actual woman, and in that he seems to subscribe to Otto Weininger’s statement that ‘Woman is only thoroughly sexual.’ Weininger’s work, Sex and Character, which Žižek discusses in The Metastases of Enjoyment, elevates sexual difference to an ontological truth. Weininger, who may be following Plato, describes woman as a receptacle ready to be penetrated at all times.

As Žižek points out, apropos feminism, Weininger’s statements, while at times somewhat Lacanian, are not simply because Weininger denies that there is any such thing as a feminine essence. For Weininger, and for men like Griggs, love is a trap by which sex is covered over and recodified. In one of his blogs Griggs, and several commentators, celebrate the Realdoll because of their low cost and inability to spread disease. They are compared not to woman on the whole but to prostitutes. Ultimately August Strindberg’s comment about Weininger’s Sex and Character could be, in the eyes of folks like Griggs, be attributed to the Realdoll in that it solves ‘the woman problem.’

/5/ – Purchased completeness

Another character in “Just Like a Woman,” and perhaps the most pitiable, is Slade Fiero, the man who is the Realdoll doctor, the Aphrodite to scores of post-modern Pygmalions. Fiero offers a series of repairs on his website and he also buys and refurbishes used dolls to sell for a lower price than new models. Here is the most disturbing experience of Fiero’s work:

“Some of Fiero’s stories are the stuff of horror films. He once got an e-mail from two garbage collectors who found a Real Doll hacked to pieces in a dumpster. One owner sent Fiero a mutilated corpse of a doll. ‘The jaw in the doll was still in her skull, but behind her neck. Her hands were ripped off and fingers were missing. Her left breast was hanging on by a thread of skin, like your bra strap,’ he tells me, gesturing at my shoulder” (Meghan Laslocky.)

McMullen, who started Abyss Creations, has gotten a series of special requests which border on the insane. Requests for dogs and children: one man even made a request for an exact replica of his 60 year old mother. On various websites, where the owners are quick to defend themselves, leagues of men exchange advice like they are hobbyists who deal in human bodies.

The Salon piece ends somewhat sentimentally, suggesting that no one should judge the users of Realdolls, especially if you haven’t experienced true loneliness, but one has to wonder the larger and long lasting implications of a march towards simulated womanhood. Looking again at Žižek’s discussion of Vertigo, it is the fact that Madeline perishes which elevates her to a sublime object; the fact that she can expire is what gives her authenticity (Looking Awry, p. 86-87). Isn’t the same to be said for the various models of the Realdoll, doesn’t their replaceability make them the perfect threat to the organic woman?

In the more vague sense, Realdolls may simply be another example of post-post modernity’s march away from reality, or at least the more tangible aspects of it. As Žižek discusses in The Plague of Fantasies, one prominent feature of modernity was the seemingly paradoxical interplay of movement and image. Life can only be truly seen by arresting all movement, meaning that the very representations of life were mortifying, still, and dead.

In this sense perhaps the Realdoll is such a mortification come full circle – where instead motion is frozen, the spirit of industry guiding modernity, it is the sense of relation, the sociality which has become so rapid and virtual. When one opens the crate of the real doll, with her flower decorating her chest, before you lies the chaotic of the social, baked in silicone.

3 Responses to “The Manufacturing of Desire”

  1. 1 jahsonic

    Very interesting article, I believe Kokoschka’s doll and Bellmer’s could have fitted somewhere in this story.

    Pleased to meet you.


  2. 2 real person

    Great article. There seem to be a number of people writing on the topic of real dolls now. See

  3. 3 Blah Blah Black Sheep

    Your bias is showing in your article. IE: you skew this as only creepy and overly lonely/desperate people do this. Like all fetishes, it seems creepy and weird to those who are not into it. However, you have to look at it from their perspective. Everyone wants to find someone who loves them just the way they are. These folks have found that. The doll provides surrogate human companionship that they may not otherwise be able to get (EG: horribly disfigured, like a burn victim … you mentioned paraplegics … the morbidly obese, etc). The doll is perfectly faithful; it will never cheat on them. They can sleep easy at night knowing their doll won’t rack up tons of credit card debt. The doll will never intellectually or morally bad-mouth them. The doll will never speak disapprovingly of their otherwise odd habits (be it sexual or just eccentric, like if a person has a habit of biting their finger nails). I’m not saying it’s “ideal” companionship in the sense that it suits everyone, but it’s close enough to ideal for some.

    Now, what seems like a “lunatic fringe” fetish at the moment is picking up steam as a) the dolls became more lifelike (IE: no longer just lame inflatable dolls you toss under your bed), and b) more lifelike animatronics gets involved.

    When some industrious folks start using servos and mechanisms to provide some animation to the doll (like just a moving head, eyes, etc for starters), and small computer to handle some limited speech and perhaps animation routines … that will provide more momentum for this fad to take off.

    In the near future, we will have robots that not only do work for us, but also provide companionship. The first thing that comes to most peoples minds is a sort of sex-bot. But really most folks who want these things are not getting them for the sex (or at least, much like a marriage, sex is not on the top of the list of reasons to do it). They want something to fulfill the companionship void, which is widely different for each person. These things can act like malleable puzzle pieces that can fit many peoples needs. However, it will still require further progress to get more folks to jump on the band-wagon. But, I could easily see a future where half the population prefers to be with a synthetic companion, just because it doesn’t judge them.

    Unfortunately, that may be the downfall for some folks. If these synthetic companions don’t complain about someone’s bad habits, then the person may not have the desire to improve themselves. If they don’t have to worry about going to the gym or eating helthy to ensure their super-hot synth companion doesn’t run off with the pool boy, then they may not find motivatin to go to the gym. Then again, each person is different. Some may find their synth companion provides strength and security, and that gives them the will to be a better person. Since humans are very diverse creatures, it’s hard to say how each person would react to having a relationship with a synth companion. One person’s cure can be another person’s poison.

    Also, it’s interesting to note that today’s youth is already becoming accustomer to synth companionship via video games. Many a lonely nerd (guy and girl) has created an “ideal” companion in a game they play (EG: role-playing games). They play their alter-ego, but their alter-ego is not them … it’s merely them controlling someone else. Lots of guys will purposefully play female characters, because they create a sort of bond with the female character as they play her, in a sense forming a relationship in which they love and respect her…and, yes, most likely masturbate to her, too. In games like Morrowind and Oblivion, companion mods (mainly female) are quite popular. People want companionship … someone to share fun/special experiences with. So, they get these companions, go adventuring, having bonding moments with them, etc, etc. They play dress-up barbie with them, pose them, etc. Same with Second Life, same with The Sims … same with many other games.

    These synthetic Real Dolls are merely a real-world extension of that artificial companionship. I don’t see it as a trend to be concerned about, nor one that should be stopped. It will happen whether anyone likes it or not. By our very nature we like to merge with things, and it’s just our way of starting our long merging process with technology.

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