Casting the Dollhouse

 Casting the Dollhouse

By April Wong

 Image 1 / Girl playing with dollhouse, c. 1940. Print ad

Image 1 / Girl playing with dollhouse, c. 1940. Print ad


This is the doll.

And this is her house.

She lives in this house;

Yet the house is me.

A dollhouse is a model of a house. Opening up to reveal a sectioned perspective, the dollhouse allows one to see the entirety of the interior as an assembled display. From a privileged vantage point—an omnipotent perspective—we are invited to inhabit the staged events. Its material framework, spatiality, passage, function, and aesthetic describe the architectural construction of a domestic ideal. Through the dollhouse, we present and imitate life on a furnished stage.

However, the dollhouse is not simply a miniaturization of a house, for it is crafted to contain the doll. She is framed and contained by its decor, division, and usage. As on a stage, the movements of the doll can be encouraged or deterred by the structure of the set as much as by the props that accompany the rooms. The doll acts as a register for experience. We relate to the house through her, and we participate through her movement. Seamlessly, the doll embodies our own projections and sentiments, and we embody her encounters.

As a model of life-sized reality, the dollhouse parallels current beliefs and idealized lifestyles, reflecting social relations that define domestic values. The internal framework of our modeled houses—the system of thresholds and curated spaces by which we are forced to abide—actualizes our abilities and movements within the space, regulating rhythms and patterns of living. We are presented with role models and model homes to set examples of and to demonstrate a model life.

While architecture structures the movement of the body, social constructions mold the body as well as its image. Both architectural and social frameworks come together simultaneously to form the cast of the dollhouse, for which the doll is molded to fit.

Conventional norms dictate the production of available models as well as the dolls that are made to fit inside. Yet the doll itself is a manifestation of an imagined or ideal portrayal of a person’s body, a form molded by cultural ideals, and created to fit into social and infrastructural models. Commercially camouflaged as mere playthings, dolls and dollhouses are sold as images of what we could be and, more importantly, should be. So we mold our own bodies according to the image presented; we become the Doll in order to live in the Dollhouse.

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 Image 2 / Woman (formerly Venus) of Willendorf, 22–24,000 BCE. Statuette. Museum of Natural History, Vienna

Image 2 / Woman (formerly Venus) of Willendorf, 22–24,000 BCE. Statuette. Museum of Natural History, Vienna

Dolls are considered one of the oldest toys, dating back to Ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek civilizations. (1) The first dolls and figurines were handcrafted from wood, stone, ivory, clay, leather, and other natural materials. I imagine the very act of sculpting and shaping the doll carries with it an intimate connection to the created. Creation myths and spiritual beliefs often allude to our own inception from matter, suffused with life by a Creator; we cannot help but to associate a kind of "soul" or essence within the doll.

Traditional figurines are believed to have been primarily used for spiritual or religious purposes, such as models of Gods, fertility idols, and tokens for the afterlife. Like a talisman, the doll functioned as a projection of a cultural belief or blessing. These dolls were not simply miniature replications of a physical form, but symbolic objects that housed a spiritual essence.

Thus, the doll embodies an active force, it is made of more than material constituents. When we "play" with the doll, we can express our feelings and desires through her. By incorporating our personal intentions and sentiments, the doll comes alive. At the same time, the doll represents an idealization, an idol, an attempt to distill the essence of Woman, to capture her in an object as something to fertilize, and something to own.

The Doll is still an influential symbol today, and its power is acknowledged in its ever-continuous reproduction. For many, the doll represents a children's toy, but it is one that has been conspicuously constructed to mold children’s preferences and world view. Like the mass-molded army of figurines named Barbie and the plastic mannequins that adorn window storefronts, the body is a symbol representing identity and Self. It is not just objects that are being sold, but values. Far beyond childhood, the internalized rehearsal through doll play often returns, impressed by images that serve to reinforce an ideal figure, leaving a distinct imprint on one’s own imagined body. One chooses to reject or pursue the attributes of the Doll, but this desired ideal becomes a centripetal force against which a woman must often contend.

 Image 3 / Victorian girls playing with their dolls and dollhouse, 1862. Getty Images

Image 3 / Victorian girls playing with their dolls and dollhouse, 1862. Getty Images


The Victorian dollhouse was the stage upon which the customs of social exchange would have been rehearsed. With the rise of the middle class during the industrial revolution, the dollhouse served to educate young children about etiquette, duty, and rites. (2) The Victorian house was an essential part of Victorian society; it represented the strength of the family unit and articulated class, wealth, and taste. It was set apart from the workplace and considered the complete and necessary counterpoint of industrialization. (3) The Victorian house was a shelter away from the filth and moral pollution of the industrial city. (4) Infiltration and trespass—of the physical and moral sort—were considered potential threats and were tactically guarded against. The house was compartmentalized and defined for specific functions while roles were divided and rigidly enforced to prevent cross contamination of public, private, seen, and unseeable spaces. (5) Like an angel watching over the house, (6) the mother was the "heart" of the home, and her ability to fulfill her household duties was a reflection of her vigor and purity. An inability to manage domestic responsibilities was assumed to be caused by physical, mental, or even moral weakness.

 Image 4 / Toy catalogue, Household toys by Butler Boys (City Corps Co.), 1914

Image 4 / Toy catalogue, Household toys by Butler Boys (City Corps Co.), 1914


From a young age, girls of the Victorian era were taught to practice the role of housekeeper and to familiarize themselves with miniature sweepers, cleaners, and kitchen tools. Toy furnishings were commonly bought through catalogues, where items were organized by room or function. Alongside the upholstered seating and precious china cabinets, many toys replicated specific housekeeping tools. The intention of these objects was rehearsal and practice, as opposed to fantasy or amusement. As these were the props she was given to "play" in the house, what choice had she but to adopt the role of dutiful housekeeper?

 Image 5 / Victory high-wheel touring bicycle, 1889. Museums Victoria, Melbourne

Image 5 / Victory high-wheel touring bicycle, 1889. Museums Victoria, Melbourne


Social entertainment, gatherings, and courtship had formal rules, expectations, and etiquette. Women were to be sexually attractive and refined, whilst also being virginal and placid. Women’s participation in physical activity was often a contentious issue involving moral as well as physical health. A series of letters published in the Dominion Medical Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal in 1896 expressed concern that women seated on bicycle seats could have orgasms. Fearful of creating and then unleashing a nation of "over-sexed" females, some physicians urged colleagues to encourage women to eschew "modern dangers" and continue to pursue traditional leisure pursuits. However, not all medical colleagues were convinced of the link between cycling and orgasm, and this debate on women’s leisure activities continued well into the twentieth century. (7)

 Image 6 / The Material Miss, pattern-sewn doll. Photograph by theballentines

Image 6 / The Material Miss, pattern-sewn doll. Photograph by theballentines

In the Victorian era, dolls were not simply leisurely playthings, they were earned through domestic training and usefulness. Starting from a young age, a girl would often learn how to sew by providing her own doll with linens and dressings. This practice was seen as an informal apprenticeship for future wives and mothers to be both industrious and nurturing. By the time she completed a full set—from undergarments and dresses, to pillowcases and embroidered curtains—she would be tailored and fit for the life-sized world. (8)

 Image 7 / Ludovic O'Followell, X-ray of woman wearing corset, 1908

Image 7 / Ludovic O'Followell, X-ray of woman wearing corset, 1908


The word “corset” is based on the Old French cors, simultaneously signifying body, person, corpse, and life. The corseted womn was the symbol of the desirable feminine. Proper dress was not only a social indicator of class, but also one of morality and respectability. (9) Victorian women were captivated by the corset, one of the first mass-produced articles of clothing to reach the market. In the early 1900s, the curves of the ideal silhouette reached an extreme, and women coveted the 17-inch waistline, as they believed that a small, circular waist, as opposed to the natural oval shape, indicated good breeding. (10) The physical and social underpinnings of the garment moulded the image of the woman tight laced within.

The structure of the garment fetishized the waist by emphasizing the curves of the bust and hips, using a form-work of eight steel bands, structurally fitted with closely set whalebone to create an immobilizing armor. One set of bands measuring more than 1” wide followed the median curve of the body towards the front, in line with the liver, stomach, and large and small intestines. Women commonly experienced a purplish bruising along the pattern, leaving creases in the unbound flesh. These discolorations were about three to five inches wide, stretching from the sixth to the twelfth rib, directly over the diaphragm. (11) This constant unyielding and increasing compression on the ribs would certainly cause physical discomfort, but perhaps more arresting, it induced a certain constitution.

The pressure of the binding on the body had a two-fold effect. Its restriction on the abdominal area caused shallow, breathless gasps and a flushing in the face and neck, comparable to sexual excitement. The rigid formwork of the bodice also severely reduced activity, physically preventing women from unrestricted movement. This "incapacity" or weakness was considered a natural and virtuous femininity.

 Image 8 / Victorian fainting couch. Image from http://www.periodcharmrentals.com/

Image 8 / Victorian fainting couch. Image from http://www.periodcharmrentals.com/

Fainting was considered a regular occurrence in the Victorian era, an act embedded with social meaning, representing the physical and emotional fragility and delicacy of a woman. The fainting couch is an emblematic furnishing of this period. The lines of the couch cushion the curves of the delicate lady; soft, yet poised flesh against plush padding. The Victorian lady is both contained and exhibited on the fainting couch, molded into the figure that fits the impression.

Overcome by passion, the role of the female was to "fall" and the fainting woman embodied feminine passivity: unconscious yet voluntary subordination. (12) A woman’s disposition to weakness, even illness, was evidence of true femininity

 Image 9 / Hysterical attack, Rummo, two plates from the  Iconografia fotografica del grande Isterismo  (1890), dedicated to Charcot. In Georges Didi-Huberman,  Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière , MIT Press, 2003, 120

Image 9 / Hysterical attack, Rummo, two plates from the Iconografia fotografica del grande Isterismo (1890), dedicated to Charcot. In Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, MIT Press, 2003, 120

Victorian doctors related fainting spells to emotional distresses rooted in sexual frustration or dissatisfaction. An excess or suppression of internal forces was believed to filter poisonous vapors into the body and effect the mind.(13) In the late nineteenth century, three-quarters of women were considered “out of health,” and it seemed that almost only women were diagnosed with a mysterious ailment, commonly referred to as “the vapors” or hysteria.

French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot hoped to unlock the mystery behind hysteria by photographing and recording its appearance. He documented his patients' every physical gesture and facial detail during their hysterical attacks to create an iconography of hysterical symptoms. In these images we read the physical traits of her hysterical body, a silenced embodiment of the dangerous yet mysterious female, seized by unknown and therefore threatening desires.

 Image 10 / "Aids That Every Woman Appreciates," 1918. Print ad. Sears Catalogue

Image 10 / "Aids That Every Woman Appreciates," 1918. Print ad. Sears Catalogue

A proper Victorian woman was not to be devoid of sensuality completely, but to be prudent and passive in temperament. Manual manipulation was a customary and accepted medical practice; as it was deemed inappropriate for her to touch her own sex, it was quite common to call on the doctor when bothered by symptoms of hysteria at home. Medical physicians induced a release of nervous tension by stimulating the female genitals towards “hysterical paroxysm.”

Vibrators eventually replaced the doctor’s hand. Sold alongside household appliances, the vibrator was considered an instrument of therapy in the Victorian era, and did in fact aid many "ill" women by allowing them to explore their physiology and experience a measure of temporary satisfaction. However, its controversial position between pleasure and health quivered uneasily for moral authorities. To require a vibrator suggested frigidness, a disinterest or a lack of sexual energy; but to want a vibrator suggested an aggressive sexuality, a desire for the exploration and satisfaction of self-pleasure. In both cases, the vibrator challenged the phallocentric view of sex. (14)

Eventually, hysteria was reduced to signs and symptoms; any specific or veritable cause remained obscure and could only be qualified through an extensive list of correlating and/or disparate traits. Eliminated from medical terminology for decades, the word "hysteria" continues to be an adjective commonly used to describe unreason or irrationality. More frequently than not, it connotes a feminine characteristic. The absorption and normalization of hysteria into our vocabulary reveals the direct influence medical definitions have on the language we use, and their ability to manipulate socially accepted "norms."(15) Instead of questioning the definitions that we use, we learn that there is something wrong if we cannot properly play our part.

 Image 11 / Fetus in Womb, 1908. Plaster cast. American Museum of Natural History, New York

Image 11 / Fetus in Womb, 1908. Plaster cast. American Museum of Natural History, New York

hys·ter·a

[Greek “womb,” matrix]

1. a hollow muscular organ lying within the pelvic cavity of female mammals. It houses the developing fetus and by contractions aids in its expulsion at parturition.

2. Sense of “place or medium where something is developed,” from Old French matrice “source, origin,” from mater (genitive matris) “mother.”

 Image 12 / Jan van Riemsdyk, The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, 1764. Copperplate engraving. National Library of Medicine

Image 12 / Jan van Riemsdyk, The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, 1764. Copperplate engraving. National Library of Medicine

This womb is viewed as an object, a receptacle for a function. Anatomical illustrations depict organs in a state of dissection, parcelled and viewed from an arm’s length away, in emotionless objectivity. Dismembered and displaced it no longer belongs to a body, nor anybody. Distinguishing the womb as an autonomous force, within but independent from the woman, reduces her stature as human being to a mere container for the reproductive organ. There is no place for her own sexuality, nor for her subjective experience in the phallocentric schema that she is conceived into. Science has expurgated the body and summarized the processes of life, while proclaiming parcels of knowledge to be more or less integral to vitality.

 Image 13 / 3B Scientific “Deluxe Torso.” Educational anatomical model. 20-part, 87 x 38 x 25 cm, 7.6 kg

Image 13 / 3B Scientific “Deluxe Torso.” Educational anatomical model. 20-part, 87 x 38 x 25 cm, 7.6 kg

 Image 14 / Parts list, “My Dreamy Dollhouse” assembly kit by Kidkraft

Image 14 / Parts list, “My Dreamy Dollhouse” assembly kit by Kidkraft

The word organ comes from the Greek word organon, which is also used to describe a tool. The body is understood as a collection of parts—a four-pronged, 7,500-piece apparatus—that carries out the processes of "life." By cutting the body into pieces, it becomes easier to manage, to handle, and to navigate the whole. Each part becomes its own definitive instrument, detachable from the rest of the body. Moreover, specialized experts target specific members and produce a practical knowledge in isolation of the whole. These "pieces" of bodily knowledge are assembled, like a modular construction, into the form of a complete body.

The Latin word for “body” is corpus. The use of corpus directly refers to the physical body, but is also used to describe a “body of work” or a collection of parts. Through anatomy, medical science positions and defines all the visible functions of the body by measuring and analyzing its forms. The separation of individual components allows for a definitive categorization of our living parts; each member can be scrutinized and defined. Taxonomy parcels out and assigns each member a place within the body’s composition, defining a locus as well as a functional bearing for each part. At the same time, this partitioned approach reduces the study of living structures to categorical and empirical definitions. Each person’s unique physiological composition is generalized in order to qualify a norm.

 Image 15 / Clemente Susini, Anatomical Venus, “closed” position, 1782. Wax anatomical model. La Specola, Florence

Image 15 / Clemente Susini, Anatomical Venus, “closed” position, 1782. Wax anatomical model. La Specola, Florence

 Image 16 / Clemente Susini, Anatomical Venus, “open” position, 1782. Wax anatomical model. La Specola, Florence

Image 16 / Clemente Susini, Anatomical Venus, “open” position, 1782. Wax anatomical model. La Specola, Florence

During the Renaissance, the anatomical Venus was used to attract and educate the public audience, promoting the exhibition of the body through the aphoristic command to “Know Thyself,” inside and out. Representing the life-sized female form, she was made to look as live as possible. Formed with precision and detail, wax was used to mimic the texture and colour of living flesh. In her "closed" position, the outer form is exhibited. She is modeled from head to toe with a smooth encasement of skin, often adorned with pearls or flowers, captured and exposed in a moment of ecstatic ravishment.

Skin is like an anatomical veil. It is a sensual surface, allowing accentuation and identification. The skin pronounces yet binds the inner forms. Its taut envelopment draws attention to its concealment. For an anatomist, skin is a boundary that impedes vision and must be pierced and peeled away.

 Image 17 / Anatomical theatre at Padua. Diorama. Wellcome Library, London.

Image 17 / Anatomical theatre at Padua. Diorama. Wellcome Library, London.

The anatomical theatre is an edifice designed for the dissection and demonstration of human anatomy, the study of living structures. Starting in the sixteenth century, the first permanent anatomical theatres were built in Europe for educational institutions. Resembling an amphitheatre in form and performance, the anatomical theatre was designed to host the sight of the body, built for spectators to witness it live under examination. The tools of dissection were applied to mediate beyond the surface of the body, both uncovering as well as defining a new perspective of our interior space. Under the scalpel, the anatomical body became the site of lived experience, a territory to carve, explicate, and conquer. These findings, illustrated and defined, were made into prints and bound into manuscripts, compiled into the form of a new body, a body of knowledge. (16)

 Image 18 / Frederick Hollick, The Origin of Life, c. 1902. Anatomy flap book. Duke University Libraries

Image 18 / Frederick Hollick, The Origin of Life, c. 1902. Anatomy flap book. Duke University Libraries

Science must speak of sexuality from a purely rational and logical stance, and does so in the most objective manner. Revealing how the body works, the scientific peep show is not sexual in manner, but of another type of discretion, the knowledge of the private interior of the body. In addition, the appropriation of "peep show" in the image above suggests that the scientific view is one of voyeurism, of an intimate but one-way exchange. It is an empowered perspective, an objectifying and penetrating approach to the body. This scientific display does not present the body in its live and candid state, but posed within a curated, directed, and sanitary framework.

 Image 19 / “Scientific Peep Show Tells How Our Bodies Work,” Popular Science Feb. 1938: 54. Print

Image 19 / “Scientific Peep Show Tells How Our Bodies Work,” Popular Science Feb. 1938: 54. Print

 Image 20 / Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490. Pen and ink with wash over metalpoint on paper. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

Image 20 / Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490. Pen and ink with wash over metalpoint on paper. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

The artist Barbara Kruger describes the body as a battleground. Open for scrutiny and surveillance, the private interior of the body becomes public territory, the site for potential control and influence. Institutional authorities fight for control over individual bodies, the body of the masses, and the body politic. When we begin to look at the body as analogous to our constructed systems, it infiltrates our language, it becomes a means of experiencing and describing our relationship to our surroundings. Inevitably, the way in which we describe and define the body’s constitution and experience is reflected in the methods we use to construct our built environment. (17) Architecture organizes the body by defining its movement and posture; it is a directed manifestation of our bodily expressions and ultimately shapes our identity and sense of place. The walls and floors that accommodate our belongings are not simply protective surfaces made of beams and posts. Buildings become extensions of the body, enlarged representations modeled on the occupants within. They contain and frame us; they are the stage upon which Life is played out.

 Image 21 / Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1947. Ink and pencil on paper. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Image 21 / Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1947. Ink and pencil on paper. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

 

Endnotes

(1) Constance Eileen King, Dolls and Dolls Houses (London: Hamlyn Publishers, 1977), 132.

(2) Miriam Formanek-Brunell, Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830–1930 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 20.

(3) Judith Flanders, Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), 6.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Lucy Worsley, If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home (New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2012), 179

(6) Flanders, 6.

(7) Eileen O’Connor, “Medicine and Women’s Clothing and Leisure Activities in Victorian Canada,” Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine (Summer 2007). Web.

(8) Formanek-Brunell, 11.

(9) Leigh Summers, Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset (New York: Berg, 2001), 19.

(10) Ibid., 20.

(11) Ibid., 102.

(12) Ibid, 137.

(13) Rachel P. Maines, The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 35.

(14) Ibid., 10.

(15) Elaine Showalter, Hysteria Beyond Freud: Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 329.

[16] Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (New York: Routledge, 1995), 2.

[17] Juhani Pallasmaa, The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture (West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2011), 120.


April Wong built her first cardboard prototype in 1991 and has been experimenting with spatial design ever since. In 2013, she acquired her Master of Architecture and founded TUMBLEhouse, an independent design studio. Currently based in Toronto, April continues to explore the walls we build and destroy, and their effect on our lived experiences.