THE DOLL OF YOUR DREAMS
THE DOLL OF YOUR DREAMS
Interview with Allison de Fren, documentarian behind The Mechanical Bride
(Translated by Adam Abouaccar)
Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to be a little open-minded. Put your faith in documentarian Allison de Fren’s frank and non-judgemental approach and recognize a truth that you may not yet be aware of with the help of The Mechanical Bride.
Woman, transcending time and culture, has been conditioned (successfully or otherwise) through diverse means to please the opposite sex. This cultivated a fascination for many moons (dating to as far back as the legend of Pygmalion from Greek mythology) with the idea of ‘the perfect being’, embodying the features of a doll. Plastic surgery, the popularity of which is in full swing, allows for many women to get closer to this ideal. With a big shot of silicone, they can transform their bodies into something else, distancing themselves from their organic appearance in favor of one that is more plastic. But what about when it’s the flipside of the coin? That is to say, men who, despite the extreme disapproval of some, feel attracted – not only sexually, but also emotionally – to inert dolls. Currently on the market, it is possible, for a hundred dollars, to buy a handmade life-size doll that corresponds to one’s specifications. They are dangerously close to the appearance of a ‘real’ woman, and everyday we are making advances to improve this resemblance. How far are we willing to go to achieve this fantasy?
Allison de Fren focused on this topic by sitting down with various interviewees, from the people who make these articulated dolls to the fans that buy them. It’s now Spectacular Optical’s turn to inquire about this phenomenon that is far from new.
What motivated your intention to create a documentary about female anthropomorphic objects, their designers and their owners?
I have a longstanding interest in the human relationship to anthropomorphic objects, whether dolls, puppets, mannequins, or robots. My interest started taking a gendered turn a little over a decade ago, in my former life, as a digital interaction designer, while working in a future technology R&D company in Silicon Valley. It was there that I first learned about the Realdoll (a life-sized silicone love doll), and it was from a robotocist friend there that I first learned about a theory espoused by the father of industrial robots in Japan (Masahiro Mori) called the theory of “the uncanny valley” or bukimi no tani. The theory suggests that, as anthropomorphic creations like robots start to approximate humanness both in appearance and movement—therefore raising expectations of humanness—but don’t quite meet those expectations, they will seem creepy or scary (think old- time Disney animatronics). At the time, most roboticists like my friend avoided realism in robots for that very reason, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen as Realdolls started to move and act more like humans: would their uncanniness undermine not only their attractiveness for the men who buy them, but also the kinds of fantasies that are often projected onto them? Those were some of the questions that inspired me to make the documentary.
The introduction of the documentary where we see what looks like images of Mélies’ Coppelia: La Poupée animée clearly illustrates the themes of your film. Was it by digging deeper into the notion of the conception of a perfect doll in woman’s image that you came across more appropriate references than you anticipated?
Yes, as I refined what it was that I was trying to draw out, I found a surprising number of earlier explorations of similar themes, like the Mélies film. The film is called Illusions funambulesques [Extraordinary Illusions, 1903] and, in it, the central character seems to be engaged in a pygmalionesque project of building a perfect woman out of mannequin parts, which he attempts to bring to life through magic. He is, however, only able to conjure his ideal woman briefly; almost as soon as she appears, she unexpectedly transforms into a male cook with a grotesque clownish mask. The magician attempts to turn him back into a she, but each time he does so, she switches back into the cook (a cycle that continues until the magician, in frustration, grabs the cook and disassembles him into separate dummy parts). This is all meant to be quite funny, but (keeping in mind that, before becoming a filmmaker, Méliès was a political caricaturist) one might also read this film as a social satire or parody of bourgeois romance and the kinds of ideal images of love that we cling to even when a more disturbing reality keeps asserting itself. I chose an excerpt of this film for the beginning of the documentary because it is, in part, about the tension between fantasy and reality. Despite the many advances in technology, the current-day reality of artificial companions still falls far short of the age-old fantasy of creating the perfect woman, and the ways in which my subjects reconcile the two was a large part of what I wanted to explore.
Have the views that you had on the topic at the start of making your documentary changed over the course of your meetings with interviewees?
Yes, I began making the documentary with a feminist agenda, believing that the phenomenon of artificial love was primarily about control and/or misogyny and expecting to be somewhat put off by the people I encountered. I was, however, surprised by how much I liked many of the men I interviewed and how sympathetic I felt toward their concerns and motivations. I increasingly came to see their interests and activities as less a function of individual pathology than reflective of larger cultural forces that I felt were worth examining, and that impacted my approach to the topic.
It is quite easy to remain impartial when finalizing a work due in no small part to editing among other things. Something that you have succeeded in doing brilliantly. Conversely, in your encounters, I imagine that you must have experienced some unexpected emotional reactions in spite or yourself. I’m thinking, for example, about the men groping the large breasted dolls as if they were pieces of meet during the Erotica convention. Or the sad story about the old Texan. Or the disturbing story of the doll that was repeatedly mutilated. Was it sometimes difficult to keep a straight face during your interviews?
I’m not sure that I did keep a straight face during my interviews! The impartial tone in the editing of the documentary is less a product of my detachment than my curiosity about the topic and my desire to keep the interpretive possibilities open for the audience rather than dictating what they should think or feel.
Have you met people who are totally shocked by the subject matter of your documentary or, conversely, did you more so discover an openness in people?
I have encountered both reactions in men, women, friends, strangers, and even the members of my own family. I’d like to say that whether one is shocked and offended or as open and curious as I am about the topic is a litmus test of something, but I haven’t yet figured out what it indicates!
Certain interviewees speak, in your documentary, about the reasons for an absence of this same phenomenon among women. That is to say, artificial men embodying the criteria of perfection desired by their female lover. What in your opinion justifies this absence?
At one point in my documentary, Matt McMullen, the founder of Realdoll, says that women tend not to buy his dolls because, unlike men “who are visually driven,” they’re “happy with a vibrator and their imaginations.” There is a truth is in his statement, although I’m not convinced that it’s a biological truth. Whereas male sexuality stereotypically involves seeing, pursuing, and touching the object of desire, women are socialized to experience sexual identity, pleasure and even power by being seen, pursued, and touched (in media studies, we say that in popular culture, “men control the Gaze, and women are objects of the Gaze”). To put it another way, women are trained very early on to respond and cater to the kind of desiring attention that implies a discriminating consciousness. A doll obviously doesn’t achieve that kind of consciousness, and whether a robot ever will is, I think, difficult for most women to imagine.
I know that for many, including many women, the term feminist means something negative. Yet it was a movement that allowed for the emancipation of the female sex. What does this word mean to you?
I don’t want to dismiss the very real and retrograde cultural backlash against feminism, which I find distressing, but I do think that some of the negativity (particularly in young women) results from a confusion between feminism as a movement and various aspects of feminist discourse. I am an ardent feminist in the sense that I believe in the political, social, and economic equality of all people, however I don’t always toe the feminist party line. For example, once, after a screening of my documentary, I was asked: “isn’t this just the ultimate objectification of women and where is your feminist outrage?’ My response is that turning objects into women is not necessarily the same thing as turning women into objects, and that outrage is not the only proper feminist response to gendered objects.
THE MECHANICAL BRIDE screens on July 26 at 5:25pm and again on July 29 at 1:05pm, both in the Salle JA De Seve. More information on the film HERE.