Many of us abandon our dolls, boxing up our G.I. Joes and Barbies and banishing them to the basement once we hit a certain age and lose interest in them or find it is no longer socially acceptable to play with dolls.
But other people develop a fascination with the inanimate objects that continues into adulthood as we see in Living Dolls. An hour-long version of the feature-length documentary, which recently screened at the Austin Film Festival, premieres on Logo TV Monday, November 4.
"I think dolls are really interesting because they look like us, and you can project your dreams on them, your wants, your desires, your losses, whatever they are, and the dolls can mirror them back," says Living Dolls director Maureen Judge, who had no problem finding adults eager to share their love of dolls with her.
But casting Living Dolls wasn’t about locating average collectors with curio cabinets full of Madame Alexanders. Judge wanted to examine people who view their dolls as much more than mere collectibles and have intense relationships—or at least what they believe to be relationships—with them. "To me, it was finding out why they are in a relationship with this collection and how it affects their relationships with other human beings," Judge says.
Ultimately, Judge profiles four people in the TV cut of Living Dolls (there are five subjects in the feature-length version) who are in deep with their dolls. Among the people featured is David Hockey, a middle-aged man who collects life-sized Real Dolls, which are made to look and function, in all the key physical respects, like real women. He tools around in his sports car with his favorite, Bianca, who is somewhat of a celebrity—she was one of four dolls featured in the movie Lars and the Real Girl, and he likes to do photo shoots with her. "Dolls make him young," Judge says of Hockey’s fixation on his faux women. "I think being surrounded by what he feels is all of this beauty gives him a sense of youthfulness."
Hockey, who is married, has sex with his dolls. Bianca was actually constructed as a prop for Lars and the Real Girl, and therefore, wasn’t made with a vagina, so Hockey brought her back to the manufacturer to have one, um, inserted.
Brit Debbie Barnes has a more innocent and childlike relationship with her dolls. The young wife and mother collects Ellowyne fashion dolls and delights in buying and making clothes for them. She started ordering Ellowynes online when she and her husband moved away from family and friends. She spends a lot of money on her obsession, and it is crippling her family’s finances. That made her even more interesting to Judge because Barnes’s story isn’t just about dolls, it is also about the perils of online consumerism.
In some ways, Debbie has never grown up, and neither has Mike Meireles, who can't get enough of Barbie and is seen venturing away from home—he and his partner live rent-free with Meireles’s mother—to a Barbie convention in Los Angeles. Meireles collected Barbies as a little boy but hid them away because he didn’t want anyone to know. When he finally came out as a gay man, his Barbies came out of the closet, too.
Elsewhere, Michael Sullivan aka RoboMike does terrible things to Barbies, gouging out their eyes and cutting off their hair, though it is all in the name of art. The New York City visual effects artist, who has worked on films such as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, has spent years transforming the plastic figures—and other types of dolls, too—into robot dolls for the epic robot doll sex film he has been working on for years. Titled The Sex Life of Robots, portions of the stop-motion animated film have been screened at the Museum of Sex. "Michael is an amazing, brilliant artist," Judge says, noting that she wanted to include him in the film because his relationship with dolls is far from personal. "For him, they’re an armature. They’re a framework on which to make his robots."
While we get to know the doll collectors, Living Dolls also introduces us to their loved ones, including Sullivan’s long-time girlfriend, who doesn’t actually live with him; Barnes’s mother and husband; and Meireles’s mother and partner. Hockey’s wife welcomed Judge and her crew into her home but did not want to appear in the film. "I tried to [include family members] as much as I could, to show them loved by other people, because I think it’s really important for us to understand that they are full people," Judge says. "If they’re just isolated and not seen in the bigger world, it’s not easy for us to see that they have layers, and they run deep, and they have real emotions."
The director didn’t want to trivialize her subjects, and she tried not to cast judgment on anyone. "When I’m filming, I just sort of hop on the train," she says. "I just go into their world, and I love it."
Judge isn’t a doll collector, but she remembers two dolls from her childhood with great fondness. "One was just a baby doll like every other girl had, and I could bottle feed her and change her diapers. I named her Elizabeth, my middle name," Judge says. "And then I had a nun doll. She was a gift from my grandmother, and she had been my mother’s doll. I was brought up Catholic, and every Sunday we had to go to church, and I would see the nuns sitting there in these fabulous ‘costumes.’ So I just love this doll because of her costume, which is the nun’s habit. I wasn’t at that point making the connection between their lives and their habit or who they were. I just wanted to wear exotic costumes."
Judge still has the nun doll, though it isn’t on display. She keeps it in a trunk in her basement.