Episode 126 – “Living Doll”

In our discussion of “The New Exhibit” we pointed out that dolls, dummies, mannequins and wax figures, and other three dimensional representations of the human body, figure prominently in several episodes. In that episode, we noted, the belief that the static wax figures were “alive” was only held by one individual. In “Living Doll” there is a doll and three individuals: a child, her mother and her father. It’s tricky to describe the child’s relationship to the doll. Christie treats the doll as a friend, but that’s something that you are supposed to do with dolls. She imagines that it is her friend, but deep down she knows that it is just a doll. The mother knows how important the doll is to her daughter, but doesn’t think of it as anything but a doll. The father, Erich, in contrast, sees the doll as a new member of the family, one who is a threat. In fact, when he is alone with the doll, it issues threats directly to him, or so he imagines.

It is appropriate for a child to take a doll to have beliefs and desires, but it usually isn’t appropriate for an adult to do so. How do we account for this difference? One way to get a handle on the difference is to describe the ways individuals speak or use language in the presence of a doll. Talking to a doll, like talking to anyone, is a rule-governed activity, a kind of game that one can play. The rules are not hard and fast, but there are norms that govern what it is appropriate to say to a doll, and how to interact with it in other ways as well. For example, Christie “feeds” her doll at the dinner table, but she is not troubled by the fact that the doll doesn’t open its mouth to accept the food, and doesn’t bother about cleaning the food from the doll’s face. Christie’s father, however, is bothered by the doll’s food-covered mouth, and he cleans it when no one else is looking. A different set of rules govern the interaction with dolls and adults. An adult can talk to the doll in the presence of a child, thereby participating in the doll-play language game. But in the absence of the child, the game is over, and the adult may not talk to the doll. Doing so would be like continuing to make moves in a chess game in which check-mate has been achieved and noted.

Of course, the doll, Talky Tina, in spite of her name, isn’t a player in the language games in which she figures. Talky Tina produces sounds that we recognize as assertions in English, but we also know that they are randomly produced on request. If they are appropriate in the circumstances in which they are produced, that’s only because they are not specific, and so are at best just not inappropriate. (See “The Nick of Time”). There are appropriate moves Christie can make in response to Tina’s apparent utterances, but there are no moves that Tina, as a 1960s doll, can make in response to Christie’s, or Erich’s, utterances.

While many of the talking dolls available on the market in the 21st century are no more sophisticated than Talky Tina,  there are now dolls with far greater linguistic skill than Talky Tina. (At the time “Living Doll” aired, there was an actual doll called “Chatty Cathy” on which Talky Tina was likely based).  Natural language interfaces widely used in personal computers and mobile devices can be ported to dolls and other toys, or implemented in computer games designed for children. “Living Doll” could have been fashioned as a story about future dolls. But its power is due to the fact that Talky Tina has no special technology-fueled powers.

Erich clearly has a problem, and this is evident to his wife.  Erich’s immediate dislike of the doll is a symptom of his discomfort with his recently acquired role as stepfather to Christie. Sometimes animosity manifests itself as dislike for something liked by some disliked. If someone you dislike is an ardent opera fan, you might find that opera rubs you the wrong way. Erich seems inclined to take his  stepdaughter’s likes negatively, even when she expresses affection for him! That this tendency leads to his imagining that Talky Tina intends to murder him is clearly a sign that he is not well.

Dolls and other three dimensional representations of the human body have faces, and just as we zero in on the faces of other human beings both to understand what they are thinking and feeling, as well as to understand their understanding of what we are thinking and feeling, the faces of dolls, dummies, wax figures, and the like, are designed to spark  our imaginations. In most instances, both adults and children keep the imagination in check. In Erich’s case, it is his unchecked imagination, not Talky Tina, that kills him.

Further Reading:

Baier, Annette, “Faces and Other Body Parts,” Reflections on How We Live (cited in “A Piano in the House”).

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