June 30, 2004

Adult friends ... and dolls from the 1950s.

Nina has a post on the When-Harry-Met-Sally topic of whether men can be decent friends for women. I'm not going to wade into that other than to say all sorts of people can fall short as friends and real friendship among adults may be much rarer than we think it ought to be. I once heard Howard Stern--yes, I like Howard Stern--cut off a guest who was complaining about a bad friend with a harsh statement along the lines of: "I have news for you: adults do not have friends." That's sad and cynical, but his point was if you're looking for what you had when you were a child, you're going to be disappointed. Are your opposite-sex adult friends more disappointing than your same-sex adult friends? I guess it depends on what you were expecting. But I wasn't going to wade into that...

I wanted to talk about dolls in the 1950s. Nina has a photo of herself in 1957 with a favorite doll named "Johnny." This brought pangs of guilt to me as I remember upsetting my parents one Christmas in the 1950s by rejecting a rag doll my grandmother had made. In fact, as I was told repeatedly: she sewed it by hand when she was flat on her back in the hospital! My grandmother had made two cloth dolls, with beautifully embroidered faces and hand-sewn satin clothes. She gave the girl doll to my sister and the boy doll to me. I was outraged and horrified in that special ridiculous kid way, and I couldn't understand that my grandmother didn't know the offense of sticking me with--ugh!--a boy doll!

There are two other doll-related childhood perspectives from the 1950s for me. First, my sister and I maintained an elaborate "doll house" in the form of a large green bookcase. We had many "little dolls"--Ginny and Jill dolls, back in the pre-Barbie days. Ginny dolls were 7" little girl dolls, and Jill dolls were larger and suitable to be the mothers. There were no male dolls in this large family, but there was one Ginny doll that had lost its hair. That doll was named "Anquoinette," and it belonged to my sister, who glued on some of her own hair to cover the bald plastic. Anquoinette was also distinguished by her wheelchair, which made her the best and most important doll. I'm not sure how we arrived at that opinion--surely, not from some conception of political correctness! But Anquoinette was a princess among dolls.

The other 1950s doll story vaguely connects to the most famous dolls from the 1950s: dolls used in the social science research that was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In the experiments, black dolls were perceived by children as inferior. My personal story is that my sister and I had black dolls, which were bought probably around the same time that Brown was decided (1954). Our dolls were rubber baby dolls, perhaps the identical dolls that were used in the experiments. I still have mine, though it is somewhat melted from age. Why did we have them? At this time, I did not even know a single black person, though I had seen black people on the streets of Wilmington, Delaware, in part of the city that everyone I knew called, quite bluntly, "the slum." Why then did my sister and I have black dolls? Did some enlightened relative provide them? No, my sister and I saw them in a store and begged for them. Even though I can't remember other instances of my parents buying toys because we begged (quite the opposite!), they did buy these. They did not point out that the dolls represented black children, a fact my sister and I were supremely unaware of. We simply saw the dolls as different from any dolls we'd seen before, and we loved that. It was only much later I realized the dolls were black dolls, and it was strange to think back to a time when that was simply imperceptible to us.

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