People keep asking me how the Crossroads Doll & Teddy Bear Show was, and that's my answer: Perfectly pleasant. When Blogtown readers voted on my Worst. Night. Ever., they narrowly, narrowly decided that they wanted me to spend a Saturday among dolls and teddy bears and the people who love them. Well, I did, and it was perfectly pleasant.
Okay. Maybe not perfectly pleasant. There was one thing about attending the Crossroads Doll & Teddy Bear Show that was pretty messed up. But we'll get to that in a bit, because, quite honestly, I don't think you're ready for it yet. First, let's deal with some of the other questions I've been getting.
HOW BIG WAS IT?
Big! The doll enthusiasts and their dolls—along with teddy bears, doll clothes, doll furniture, doll books, doll magazines, doll paintings, and flea market-style ephemera—filled up the entirety of the big room in the Kliever Memorial Armory, with four or five rows of booths spanning the room. There were also vendors set up around the room's perimeter and in the armory's entryway, where a cheerful old gentleman was taking admission fees and giving out hand stamps. If I had to guess, I would say there were roughly 20 million dolls crammed into the armory.
WAS IT CREEPY?
Yes, but not as creepy as you'd think. Mostly it was just kind of... sweet? Like a comic book swap or a bingo night, it was a lot of people who liked doing a thing getting together to do that thing. Yes, in this case, that thing can be creepy, because dolls can be creepy, and there were
a lot of 20 million dolls there—a great many of which, admittedly, seemed to have been forged in the Uncanny Valley by Chucky himself, wrought out of children's tears and toxin-laced plastic. But any sense of unease that I got from how legitimately fucked-up many of the dolls were was offset by seeing the friendly people—most of them women who looked like your grandma—who were just delighted to be surrounded by so many dolls! Add in the fact that the average age of attendees and vendors was around 50 (this was the kind of event where one of those TriMet busses designed specifically for carting around old people was parked right outside, and there was a good number of attendees in their 60s and 70s), and it was unexpectedly easy to recognize that while the dolls might be weird to me, all these other people loved them, so okay, sure.
That said: Turn off the armory's fluorescent lights, get rid of the nice old ladies, seal the doors, and put me alone in that room, and I'd probably scream my throat to bloody shreds.
WERE YOU MEAN?
No. You may remember that my colleague Dirk VanderHart, who arranged my Worst. Night. Ever. poll, was obnoxiously insistent with one of his trademark arbitrary demands: If I attended, Dirk declared, as if he had any authority whatsoever, I had to give at least five vendors the "hard sell" by sneering at their dolls and offering to purchase them for one measly dollar. I did not do this. (To be fair, I told Dirk I wouldn't do this, even before he put up his little poll.) Why not? Please see above, regarding the average age and demeanor of the event's participants. I'll be mean to a lot of people (children, mostly, and Dirk), but charming little old ladies who're clearly excited to be out of the house to show off their dusty dolls that they love more than their actual children? Nope.
WAS IT RACIST?
Um... yes? A little bit? Not super racist, but more... grandma racist? While there were definitely a few, shall we say, racially insensitive dolls being sold, even when they popped up, there didn't seem to be any maliciousness to those dolls' presence—just an outdated, embarrassing obliviousness. You probably know it as well as I do: When one spends time around people who grew up in a different, shittier era—at Thanksgiving, say, or in a retirement home, or, apparently, at a doll show—you sometimes stumble right into those generational gaps. Sometimes those gaps are filled with outdated expectations of what's okay and what's shitty.
The dolls I saw that inspired a "Hmm... is that racist?" response ran the gamut of "Oh, probably not" to "Jesus fucking Christ." Take the "Middle Eastern Dolls," for example, pictured below and going for $95 for the pair. If I had to make a call on these, I'd say they aren't racist—at least some effort seems to have been made to semi-accurately reflect the attire of that massive part of the world (the handlebar mustache, I guess, is artistic interpretation). More concerning, in this case, is that these dolls' eyelids do that horrific thing where when the dolls are upright, their eyelids retract and they look awake, and when the dolls are horizontal, their eyelids lower and they look dead.
This one, on the other hand: Pretty racist! This one was "MADE IN ENGLAND BY NORAH WELLINGS," so at least we know who to blame.
And so on.
You usually had to look kind of hard to spot the racist ones, though. How sharp are your eyes? Can you spot the racist one here?
Ah-ha! There it is!
I want to stress, though, that the vast majority of the dolls at the doll show weren't racist. Most of the dolls at the doll show were Barbies! So they were just sexist, not racist.
SPEAKING OF SEXISM, DID YOU SEE ANY DOLLS THAT LOOKED LIKE HOOKERS?
DID YOU SEE ANYTHING REALLY WEIRD?
I did not pose any of these dolls like this; this is how they were when I found them. As far as I can tell, the monkey is taking the puppy from behind while the lobster watches. At this point in the proceedings, it's unclear how the seagull and the fish are involved—if at all.
NO. I MEAN, LIKE... REALLY WEIRD.
WAS THERE ANYTHING YOU WANTED TO BUY?
No. But I if I were to get anything, it might have been Barbie Legolas (they also had Hunger Games and Twilight Barbies, as well as some Serena and Venus Williams Barbie knock-offs), only because I bet it'd really weird out Orlando Bloom the next time he comes over!
HOW EXPENSIVE WAS IT?
It varied wildly. Some dolls were over $1,000; other treasures could be had for less than $5.
ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS?! DIDN'T ANYONE STEAL?
While at the Crossroads Doll & Teddy Bear Show, I actually ran into an acquaintance. (Understandably, he wishes to remain anonymous.) This unexpected acquaintance, it turned out, had a fair amount of insight into the doll show—and when I casually remarked how easy it would have been to steal, say, one of the $1,195 Barbies that was just sitting in a display rack, there for the taking, he noted that most of the theft comes not from attendees but from other dealers. After noting that dealers sell most of their high-end dolls at the show not to attendees but to other dealers ("The dolls just kind of move around the room, from booth to booth, each year"), he pointed out that people who knew what to steal (and how to sell it) were a far bigger threat than idiots like me. So yes, apparently the threat of theft is there, but the high-risk times are when it's only the dealers in the room, not the public.
WERE THERE ANY JUGGALOS THERE?
Yes. There was one gentleman in attendance wearing what appeared to be a Juggalo hockey jersey.
WERE THERE ANY DOLL-CENTRIC ANNOUNCEMENTS OVER THE P.A. SYSTEM?
"Attention shoppers. Would the gentleman who need a large teddy bear repaired please come to the front. We have a resource."
OKAY, OKAY. YOU SAID "EXCEPT FOR ONE THING THAT WAS PRETTY MESSED UP" AT THE START, AND THEN SAID WE WEREN'T "READY FOR IT YET." ARE YOU GOING TO TELL US ABOUT THAT ONE PRETTY MESSED-UP THING OR NOT?
Yes, I will. I believe you are now ready for it. Let's start out with something I heard an old man say to an old lady just outside the show. The old lady was beaming down at a newborn baby she was lovingly holding in her arms:
"Whoa! For a second, I thought you had a great-great grandchild there! But that's... that's something else."
Indeed it was. That "something else" was a reborn.
- via reborn-baby.com
A reborn doll is a manufactured vinyl doll that has been transformed to resemble a human baby with as much realism as possible. The process of creating a reborn doll is referred to as reborning and the doll artists are referred to as reborners. Reborn dolls are also known as living dolls or unliving dolls. (Via.)
It took me a while to realize that some of the babies I'd been seeing women carrying around the show were not, in fact, real babies—not that you'd know it, from how they were nestled in the crooks of the women's arms, and dressed in baby clothes or gently covered by a soft baby blanket. It was only when one woman passed very close to me in the aisle that I realized how well-behaved her baby was, given that it was in a bustling room filled with conversation and strangers—which is around the time I took a closer look, saw how still the baby was, despite its open eyes. At which point I realized, with no small amount of dismay, that I was looking at a doll. An incredibly lifelike, jarringly detailed doll.
- via tenpinktoes.com
If you haven't seen a reborn in the flesh (so to speak), I cannot impress upon you how real the "good" ones look: Mottled skin, tiny little fingernails, that sparse, impossibly thin hair that real babies have. The really high-end reborns even have some kind of glistening, wet-looking schmutz that's been delicately painted around their eyes, mouths, and nostrils, making their orifices look moist—short of seeing if they're breathing or warm, it's just about impossible to spot any differences between one of these reborns and a real baby. Pictures don't do them justice, though they do convey how terrifyingly dedicated reborners are when it comes to portraying how babies actually look. Which is usually ugly, pinched-faced, and sour.
One woman at the show was selling reborns—including one whose skin was made of silicone rather than vinyl, which, she said, bumped the realism factor up considerably. (I wrote down in my notes that this particular reborn was being sold for $2,400, and I now can't figure out if I made a mistake in writing that number down—on one hand, given the amount of work that must have been involved to make this thing, it doesn't seem that astronomical; on the other hand, $2,400.) The woman who was selling it—and who, I should note, was very, very kind—was very excited about the silicon:
WOMAN: Have you ever seen a reborn before?
ME: Um, no. No, I haven't. I—
WOMAN: They're fun, aren't they?
ME: [Long pause] Ah... yes.
WOMAN: This one is different than the others. You see, the silicon, just the way it looks under the light....
ME: Yeah, yeah. It's—ah—this one fooled me. I, um, thought it was rea—
WOMAN: See this? [Gently inserts reborn's thumb into its open mouth, where it sticks]
ME: Oh. Oh... wow.
WOMAN: Have you felt it? [Offers me the reborn's jiggling hand] The silicon makes it feel just like—
ME: I HAVE TO GO NOW
It was when I was leaving the doll show that I passed two women, both in their 20s, each of whom was pushing a stroller. The strollers were the big strollers, able to fit three or four babies in them, and if you've guessed that they were packed with cuddled-up reborns, and that the women pushing the strollers were doting on them, well... yes. That is what happened.
My acquaintance, it turned out, later messaged me to tell me he'd run into the women too. After accurately describing their dolls as "horrifically lifelike," he added that his experience was a little more intense:
"As I passed, I overheard one of them say, 'It's so hot and crowded in here I can't believe they didn't start crying.' This was said with no discernible trace of irony."
Which hits on something pretty big and pretty distressing, in terms of grown-ups treating dolls like actual babies. I have no idea how to even delve into that, though god bless the people at Channel 4, who gave it their best: Their documentary about reborns covers the subculture and the women in it with some depth, including showing how some reborners cook their reborns in ovens to set their paint, which is one hell of an image.
I don't know those women who had the strollers full of reborns, just as I don't know their reasons for having them, or for fussing over them, or talking about them as if they were alive. (It felt like an inappropriately intimate thing to ask someone about, which is a weird thing to say about a doll.) I can say, though, that reborns were the one aspect of this otherwise perfectly pleasant doll show that made me legitimately, deeply uncomfortable. And I'll add that after doing a bit of digging, it looks like sometimes there are reborn orangutans and reborn sea monsters.
If you think I'm going to try to figure out why those exist... nope. That's where I'm drawing the goddamn line.