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Fantastic Plastic Power
My daughter, Jane, is 5 years old, and as smart as a whip. As a matter of fact, she’s often been cautioned that “she’s too smart for her own good.” We’re talking cartoon character Lisa Simpson smart. But unlike her yellow spiky-haired pearl-wearing TV counterpart, who loves to play wth “Malibu Stacy,” my little Jane seems to have no use for dolls at all. That is, until last month. . . .

For years now it’s been a struggle to get Jane to commit to caring and tending for her vast harem of baby dolls. Since I’m a known doll devotee—a collector who has never met a doll she didn’t like and covet—friends and family have all assumed that Jane would be following in my footsteps. Unfortunately, even though she has received enough dolls to populate a valley, Jane has remained aloof toward her bounty. She much prefers romping with her stuffed tigers, wrestling with her sleek panda bears and spinning around her woolly lamb. What’s a mother to do?

Aside from turning to hypnosis and forcing Jane to fall under a Bratz spell (“You are getting sleepy, and Bratz dolls are cool”), I didn’t know what to do. Night after night, I’d be standing at the stove, stirring pasta, and I’d glance at Jane barreling full-force with her brother’s Iron Man action figure. Or I’d be balancing my checking book and would catch Jane tumbling across the kitchen floor, cradling a Spider-Man in one hand and a Batman in the other. Again, she was raiding her brother’s treasure chest.

I finally sat Jane down and asked her, point-blank, why she was so cold toward her own dolls. The answer was revealing: Batman can fight crime, Superman can fly, Spider-Man hangs from a thread and scales skyscrapers. What could her dolls do besides cry and wail and wriggle, or just lie there and look pretty?

Good question, and then a response dawned on me. I brought Jane into her room and we began to take her dolls off their shelves, out of their boxes and from their forgotten lairs. I lined up about a dozen of them. I pointed to a fashion doll that came with a puppy and a dog-grooming set. “You see this doll? Being a dog groomer is her day job. At night, she fights all the evil people who try to hurt harmless little animals. She is the Stray Saver.” Jane looked at me skeptically.

“And this one, Jane,” I continued. “She might look like a chubby toddler, but she has magical powers, like Harry Potter, but better. And this one. She’s dressed in an evening gown, but that’s because she is getting a prize for being the smartest scientist in the world!”

Together, we went through her dolls, ascribing super powers to each and every character, no matter how cherubic or angelic they may have seemed. Each of her dolls had a hidden and potent talent, a power that you never would have suspected lurked inside.

And you know what? That simple lesson in make-believe has resonated beyond that bedroom encounter. When I look at Jane—so tiny and sweet, so small but solid—I wonder what latent talents and abilities nestle inside of her. And, likewise, all the other pre-K girls that toddle through her school.

More to the point, what powers linger inside all of us? Just like the plastic pixies and the vinyl vixens who were scattered about my daughter’s bedroom, dismissed because they seemed ordinary and not special, how many of us have abilities and talents that we’ve let go untapped?

Photo Captions 

Would you believe these three Bratz dolls (top) represent a scientist, an explorer and a nuclear physicist? Well, they do to my daughter and me!

In her schoolhouse in Paris, Madeline (bottom right) is studying alchemy and sorcery. She's more potent than Harry Potter, in Jane's humble opinion.

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smilies/smiley.gif The imagination of a child is a wonderful and inspirational thing! I enjoyed your article.

Lady Laura , December 07, 2011 | url
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It's amazing how a young child can already pick up on the traditional roles ascribed to females as represented by her dolls. I think that is wonderful that the two of you are pondering over the day jobs and secret missions of her dolls.
Betty , April 15, 2010
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A fascinating, thought-provoking article, but one question for you and Jane? Why must the girl dolls do the same things as the boy dolls? Why can't they do girl things and be of interest to your bright child? It's not that women in real life can't be engineers, astronauts or even faeries, etc...but why are not traditional female pursuits intriguing too? Anyway, I really enjoyed this!
Jennifer Kohn Murtha , April 15, 2010 | url
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Fascinating piece. And a lovely way to use symbols (dolls) to talk to kids about roles, role playing, and visions of the way they see the world.

Imagine if another daughter might have gone down another path..."I want to look like this doll because she's like Brittany Spears" or a 6 year old who says "That doll is great because she's sexy."

Ms. Finnegan writes about how dolls allow parents to LISTEN to their kids and what they experience in the media and school and have conversations about these perceptions before real life comes rushing in.

I'll never look at a doll the same way. They express more than just some static piece of furniture. These may be one of the most dynamic little objects we have in our homes. I remember all the stories my daughter projected through her many dolls. The best part was that my wife and I listened to her. She is now 16 and we're really good friends. And her self-image is still reflected in ALL of those dolls that remain in her room, but SHE has control of how she uses them to nurture her own self-identity and her memories of her own growth.

Brilliant! Thank you.

Ken
Berkeley, California
K Hamik , April 12, 2010
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very fun and inspirational! I look forward to your next posting.
Billie , April 10, 2010
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I never realized Bratz had such big feet. I guess you need the ballast with those huge heads.
K. , April 09, 2010
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Stephanie, what a wonderful way to introduce dolls to children, delightful. I always look forward to reading your articles.
lorella falconi , April 09, 2010 | url
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Oh, Stephanie, this is beautiful! You've expressed the power and magic of dolls (and little girls!) in a way I've never seen before. Can't wait to read more.
Pune , April 09, 2010
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lovely and thought provoking article!
robbin , April 08, 2010 | url
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Great article! It's great that you and Jane were able to exercise your imagination together, and to put such an empowering spin on the dolls' stories.
Anne Marie Brooks , April 08, 2010

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