IN NEARLY EVERY EPISODE of the plastic surgery reality TV show Botched, a contestant feigns his or her desire to become doll-like, requesting larger implants, bigger lips or a thinner waist. In Season 2, the doctors meet Katella Dash, a charming buxom woman in a mini zebra-print dress dotted with hot pink and kelly-green flowers that accentuate her cascading blonde hair and glossy pink lips. More eye-catching, however, is the open-mouthed blow-up doll that is propped up against her hip. ‘This is Katella number 2,’ she squeals. ‘This is my idol, this is what I aspire to be.’
From plastic-surgery obsessed reality stars to the growing army of Kylie Jenner lookalikes, silicone aesthetics have become near-ubiquitous beauty ideals. But attraction to the synthetic is nothing new. In The Sex Doll: A History, Anthony Ferguson follows the predecessors of today’s silicone love dolls, from seventeenth-century dames du voyage, masturbatory cotton replicas of the female form brought aboard ships to entertain depraved sailors, to what he refers to as the first modern sex doll – a sculpture inspired by a fifteen-year-old girl in ‘little white socks’ created by German surrealist Hans Bellmer in the 1930s.
When you order a silicone sex doll online, a giant, coffin-like box arrives. Inside, a headless doll lays naked, skin gleaming and perky breasts pointing upward. Her head is likely to be wrapped up in styrofoam, cushioned gently in between her knees. To the average person she appears corpse-like, an immobile piece of human-like plastic teetering just beyond the uncanny valley. But to iDollators, doll owners with an imagination, she’s a blank canvas for a fantasy world.
Today, sex dolls are seen as both works of art and objects of desire. ‘You can act out any sort of fantasies with them, whether its sexual, or non-sexual,’ synthetiks advocate Davecat tells me over Skype. For Davecat, synthetiks, a catch-all term he coined to describe love dolls and humanoid robots, are beings – artificial people who should be treated the same as their human counterparts. ‘Sidore has always been in the back of my mind,’ he tells me of his purple-haired silicone wife of seventeen years. ‘She’s a representation of the ideal girlfriend/wife that I would one day like to have. She embodies a lot of things I find attractive in women, with visualised ideals.’
Like Katella, modern sex dolls simultaneously evoke the power of limitless creativity as well as the oppressive force of heteronormative beauty standards, and the desire to create a simulacrum of the ‘perfect’ human form. For doll owners, crafting the ideal humanoid involves not only picking out their wigs, makeup and clothing, but also creating an imagined personal history that dictates the dolls’ personality and unique style.
Like Mattel before them, sex doll creators capitalise off this thirst for individuality, offering customisable features, removable body parts, and interchangeable face plates for those who get tired of the same old doll. On the website of RealDoll, a popular American sex doll manufacturer, customers are invited to customise their future companions with a range of skin-tones, wigs, and eyes that come in colours like ‘kush green.’ Other suppliers sell eerie childlike forms or miniature dolls with gigantic breasts. Sinthetics specialises in male dolls1 and fulfils requests for custom blue-skinned avatars, while Teddy Babes exclusively deals in plush, human-like designs with fuzzy orifices to match.
With ready-to-buy dolls from American companies costing upwards of four thousand dollars, sex dolls, like plastic surgery, appear to be a rich person’s game. But for iDollators like Davecat, who spent a whole year saving up for his fantasy wife, it’s simply an opportunity for creativity. For many doll owners, dress up is more important than sex – and there’s a world of underground synthetik fashion to prove it.
The first mass-produced sex doll was created in Germany and distributed throughout Hamburg’s red light district in the early 1950s. More of a gag than a functioning object of pleasure, Bild Lilli (meaning ‘good-time girl’), was a 11.5-inch model of her scantily-clad human counterparts. Subsequently, she evoked a seemingly pornographic character, a three dimensional companion for those who could not afford the real thing. Bild Lilli came with a little red dress, arched eyebrows, and an exaggerated feminine form which was, according to Ferguson, an inspiration for Ruth Handler – the creator of Barbie.
It’s not uncommon for modern iDollators to treat their companions like little girls treat their dolls. Playing dress-up enables doll owners to craft an identity for their companion and show them off to their peers online. On Twitter and in doll forums, you can find endless stylised portraits of synthetiks, ranging from simple webcam shots to full-fledged shoots with post-production that render the models almost uncannily human. A web magazine called Coverdoll is dedicated to pin-up style portraits of dolls, featuring a ‘coverdoll of the month’ series, including vitals and questionnaires answered by the dolls themselves.
Noteworthy is one iDollator’s forum called ‘Keira This Week.’ Each post contains a photo of Keira perched on the edge of a four-poster bed – legs dangling off the edge to accentuate a line up of sky-high stilettos positioned on the carpet below. Her outfits range from ‘coral jeans and a fringy little sweater,’ to festival-worthy heart-shaped sunglasses, jeans, and a frilly shirt. ‘She dresses fairly conservative,’ Kiera’s owner tells me. ‘If I had a theme it would be to dress her in kind of timeless, classic looks that I would notice on the street… If I had to pick a ‘go to’ image I guess it would be “early Kate Middleton” (pre-marriage).’
Other iDollators are less inventive and dress their dolls in simple outfits, like short-shorts and cheap lingerie. The disproportionate sizing of some dolls, along with their lack of dexterity, can make it hard for doll owners without the time and strength to dress their companions in more elevated looks. Lifting the dolls’ arms can wear down their silicone skin, so getting a doll into a bandage dress is impossible, Davecat tells me. Nevertheless, doll forums are full of tips and tricks, including how to dress your doll in sheer tights to make it easier to put shoes on and off, and why to avoid dark colours (they can stain the surface of light-skinned dolls).
For Davecat, dressing his dolls is a way to both express their unique identities as well as the influence of his own style. ‘I’ve always had a fascination slash attraction to goth girls, being a somewhat lapsed goth myself,’ he tells me. ‘I focused on a traditional, early-to-mid eighties appearance for Sidore.’
Along with his wife, Sidore, Davecat has two other dolls: Elena, a bisexual Russian woman who, according to an episode of Love + Radio, saw Davecat and Sidore on TV and decided to move to America to be with them,2 and Miss Winter, a pale goth with a lip ring and indigo-streaked hair. ‘I conceived [Sidore] as a character in a story I was writing back when I used to have a go at writing fiction,’ Davecat tells me. ‘I kind of view [the girls] as three dimensional characters in a book.’
In the 2014 documentary The Secrets of the Living Dolls, the camera follows female maskers, a underground subculture of men who dress up like dolls. Using rubber masks, body suits, and seductive outfits to match, the maskers embrace feminine identities ranging from ‘nasty hag’ to sophisticated housewife. If dressing in drag is an over-the-top performance of femininity, masking is on another planet – one where the ideal fantasy woman is made out of silicone instead of human skin.
I ask Davecat if dressing up love dolls could be seen as an expression of an iDollator’s femininity, or a latent desire to dress in drag. ‘It’s a valid point,’ he tells me. ‘I don’t see myself in a lot of mesh blouses but I’m sure it’s a lot deeper for a lot of iDollators. It’s like yeah, “I could see myself in that skirt or whatever if I didn’t have societal pressure or I wasn’t uncomfortable wearing women’s clothes.” It’s one of the many ways that synthetik are fantastic outlets for people.’
While love dolls can be conduits for companionship and creativity and offer the freedom of expression for folks with repressed identities, they can also act as a tool that promotes more nefarious forms of sexuality. Like Hans Bellmer before them, iDollators can purchase dolls crafted in the image of children. A recent post on ‘The Doll Forum’ (of Coverdoll Magazine), announced that the site would ‘no longer tolerate young-looking dolls in children’s clothing,’ a relatively disturbing insight when you consider the type of content that was allowed before.
‘Within the past two to three years there’s been a whole rising tide of “infidels” and “red pillers,” Davecat tells me, referencing the term many online Men’s Rights activists use to describe themselves. ‘Guys who are just like, “Now that we’ve got these dolls we don’t need real women.” People who are saying, “Sex bots will replace women, and yeah I can’t wait.” That’s contrary to what I believe in, and contrary to what anyone with any sort of conscience should believe in. I’m trying to get people to see artificial [beings] as people and not just sex toys.’
In another episode of Botched, a Barbie-like contestant named Alicia tells the doctors that she’s going through a process of ‘bimbofication’ in order to make herself look like the ideal male fantasy. ‘I want to look like a fuck doll,’ she says. ‘But I don’t want to be a fuck doll.’
For ‘red pillers,’ there is no difference between Alicia and the doll that arrives in a box. Both are objects to be played with, manipulated, and tossed away when they no longer serve their purpose. But for Alicia, like Davecat, blurring the line between fantasy and reality doesn’t necessitate exploitation. She isn’t molding herself into a flawless feminine object to be used and discarded. She’s exploring the boundaries of representation, subverting heteronormative standards of beauty by embracing her own distorted representation of them.
In a series of YouTube videos, iDollator Mishka Valentino gives in-depth tutorials on how to apply makeup and make repairs to silicone dolls. In each video, Valentino uses a low-fi computer-generated voice to read out scripts on behalf of his doll, Jasmyne. In one tutorial she dictates Valentino’s actions as he jams a needle through her nipple in order to fill her ‘slightly deflated titties.’3 In another video, her detached doll head sits poised on a metal stand.4 ‘I am known as Jasmyne on the doll forum and Mishka is the person applying the makeup,’ she says in a robotic, monotone voice. ‘Here he is eagerly making a tutorial on how he applies makeup to any doll… as you can see he uses a large brush to add the base foundation first…’
For iDollators, the ability to construct individual identities for other, human-like beings is both an exercise in power and an opportunity for exploration. Like Alicia, who pursues body modification as a means to construct a new identity for herself, synthetik enthusiasts find strength in the make-believe fantasy that is cohabitating with a life-size silicone doll. It’s hard to say that the proliferation of non-responsive and impossibly busty silicone sex dolls will lead to a renewed respect for the feminine form, but for iDollators with big hearts and a bigger imagination, all they can do is try.
Taylore Scarabelli is a New York-based writer whose work focuses on fashion, feminism and technology. She has written for Dazed, Flaunt, Real Life, Topical Cream, and Under the Influence, among others.
For more on male sex dolls, see the first episode of the Viceland show Slutever: https://video.vice.com/en_us/video/male-dolls/57f41d3556a0a80f54726060
See: http://loveandradio.org/2016/09/a-girl-of-ivory/ ↩
See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCUFC_tvS7M&t=519s ↩
See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jrr5yzaRCcc&t=359s ↩