The living doll phenomenon, girls and sometimes guys who aspire to look like ball jointed dolls or Barbies, has been popularized this past year through YouTube and news media around the world. Sometimes intertwined with anime or alternative Japanese fashions like gyaru or lolita, living dolls have captured media interest. On January 1st, 2014, TLC’s My Strange Addiction interviewed three self-claimed living dolls, of which two girls involved with lolita fashion took part.
I wasn’t sure if I could handle watching the show after seeing the clips and preview photos, but when I found myself with some time to spare and my boyfriend’s cable box last night, I took the plunge and watched the hour-long special. (I also had fun live-tweeting the experience – it felt like I was watching alongside all my Facebook and Twitter friends!)
I will not really be covering Justin, the Ken Doll lookalike in this article, as he isn’t involved in alternative fashion. I fully support however he wants to look with plastic surgery so long as he’s not risking his health, and I thought he looked kind of cute.
The Venus segment went much as I expected; there was no new information in watching her many attempts to turn her YouTube success into a real dollars-making business. The episode shows Venus practicing Japanese from a guide book, making typical “kawaii” sounds in the mirror, and signing a couple autographs at a local shopping center. Her elusively-seen stage mom makes an appearance, showing off her white lady dreads styled into a bun covered with bows and in a matching Bodyline baby blue onepiece. The segment finished with some details and footage of Venus’ trip to Japan, which we now know is part of the infamous Mr. Yan “Venus Fall in Dream” scandal. (For more on this topic, there is a round up article here.) While they did not mention Bodyline by name, there is currently a legal debate about the footage she took in Japan and may open up a whole other issue for TLC, but that’s not really applicable to my review.
More disturbing to me was the highly scripted segment for Emily, the “living doll” from California. There had been online discussion that Emily was unaware to the subject matter of the show and had only been told she was being interviewed for a lolita fashion documentary, but this was clearly not the case. Emily spoke frequently about how she wanted to resemble a doll, and that she hated her own physical appearance without circle lenses, wigs, etc. While her style is very cute and not necessarily lolita, lolita fashion makes numerous appearances through the segment and doesn’t really differentiate to the viewer the difference between lolita fashion and “living doll” lifestyle. If I was a casual average viewer, I’m sure I would consider the two to be indistinguishable.
Emily talks about her obsession with pale skin, eating only very little, weighing herself several times a day, and corseting to the point of having a pushed-in rib. She also mentions that she has an alter ego and different name, Luna, when she wears her dolly style, which again is not made distinct from lolita fashion. (Luna, incidentally, is the alter ego name for a lolita-dressed character from the popular anime Tsukuyomi, English title Moon Phase.)
In another segment, she dresses in her doll makeup and wig along with bloomers and pink thigh highs and lolita shoes to go job hunting. I’ll be the first to say I thought her outfit and face up was very cute, but not something I would wear to walk around on the street, let alone apply for work in. As I mentioned in another reality-TV-lolita episode, Jessica Simpson’s the Price of Beauty, bloomers, petticoat, stockings and thigh highs are considered to be underwear by lolita fashion standards and are not to be worn as visible clothing except perhaps for clubbing or fancy dress parties.
In this outfit Emily applies to work at a Chinese takeout shop and an auto repair shop, most likely places chosen by the film crew for their obvious controversial aspects. Both refuse her on sight, saying that her look is too off putting and will never land her a job. As I stated on Twitter, this assumption alone that lolitas or other alternative fashion enthusiasts are too weird-looking to get real work rubbed me the wrong way. I know lolitas who are animators, film editors, accountants, stock analysts, physicists, librarians and businesswomen. In fact, the best lolitas often have high-powered jobs – how else do they afford all of their brand and designer clothing and beauty products? Still others may be grad students or in doctoral programs. The classic trope of “weirdos don’t get jobs” was enforced strongly here.
Further on in the segment, Emily attends an informal “dolly” meetup, mostly her personal friends dressed in some lolita brand, some more costumed style including antlers, and an outfit bordering more on himekaji. They sit on the ground in a public Japanese park and drink tea out of a real tea set, and have brought cupcakes decorated with meringue puppies for the occasion. Again, from my experience, this also looked heavily scripted. I’ve filmed in similar TV appearances where the crew and director want a “tea party”, but bears little resemblance to the tea parties I’ve attended. For example, the location and snacks were rather impractical. In my real lolita life, usually tea parties are held at tea salons or restaurants. (I’ve even had TV shows give me inedible cupcakes or fake tea sets to achieve the look they wanted for this classic stereotype scene.) These girls, called her “dolly friends” did not to my mind seem to consider themselves to be living dolls and found the conversation of “how far would you go to be a doll” rather uncomfortable. Here the line blurred even further about what is alternative fashion and what is the living doll lifestyle. Many of the girls did seem as though they were being interviewed about lolita and cute fashion, not dolly life.
What bothers me most about the meetup shoot was that it completely lost the line between living doll enthusiasm such as the Anastasiya Shpagina and just fashion enthusiasts. Japan, anime and lolita were heavily mixed in and the show just ate up the idea that we think we are “princesses”. I have no problem with the living doll ideal if that’s what you’d personally like to pursue. I do object to painting all lolitas as living dolls. I’m sure that next time I walk around the city, the average Joe tourist may ask me if I’m a living doll after they saw this TLC special.
There also seemed to me to be an underlying Asian fetishization current, or the racist trope I’d call “oh those whacky Japanese”, where everything heralding from Japan must be in the category of anime, weird costumes, or strange porn. It also strikes me as no coincidence that the show chose a Chinese takeout restaurant for her job application – just a random Asian thing thrown into the mix. Unsurprisingly, the gong sound effect was used whenever something Asian was mentioned, which is common for American reality TV. It’s a subtle othering of Asian people and culture throughout the show.
Here’s a prime example of the public reacting in live time via Twitter. They even mention my lolita community, New York City.
In short, this episode and Emily’s portion in particular is another black mark and gross misrepresentation against lolita and other alternative fashions in the eyes of the average American citizen. The fact that it seemed very scripted makes it even more damning in my eyes – it twisted alternative fashion to fit its own agenda of “weirdness” and it used actual lolitas and fashion enthusiasts to be complicit in our own stereotyping.
After that, the show’s next feature was on women who drink paint and eat mattresses. This is who lolitas were featured alongside. I think that illustrates my case clearly enough.
All photographs are used from various TLC promotional sites and TLC blogs.