A celebration of the bizarre, the beautiful and the uncanny is something central to Blythe Doll’s fandom. For many people, including kids, Blythe has an eerie quality. The word eerie (or ‘eery’) like uncanny, for which it has the same meaning, is originally a Scottish term for being filled with fear and superstition. Scotland, with its cultural roots stemming from ancient times and its geographical isolation, makes it a superstitious place much in the same way Japan developed its distinct folklore out of the mists of antiquity.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, following a German literary tradition of ‘the uncanny’ stretching back through the legacy of fairy tales, made a famous foray into this weird world in a 1919 essay called ‘The Uncanny’ (Das Unheimliche). In this essay, he explores the strange feeling that dolls create. He explains the irony that something so unsettling can come from something so familiar—a representation of us. When we encounter this feeling of unease it’s because we are in a state of confusion as to the authenticity of what we are seeing—a living doll almost.
If something that is not real, can look so lifelike, what else is not real? Our feeling of right versus wrong? Our feeling of pleasure versus disgust? This inescapable uncertainty then serves to form deep-rooted and existential anxiety within us.
Blythe Dolls, when first released by the Kenner toy company in the 1970s, were originally targeted at children, which is perfectly reasonable marketing as almost all dolls and puppets are sold in this way. However, it turned out to be a major error that buried the brand for over twenty years before Blythe’s correct niche was realized. This correct niche is of course adult collectors worldwide overlapping with the fields fashion, photography, art and film. The reason Kenner got their marketing so wrong back then was that they weren’t aware of the uncanny nature of Blythe. Her eyes and features give an otherworldly vibe that adults love but children often just can’t accept or appreciate.
In the world of science and technology, artificial intelligence is a burgeoning area that will undoubtedly and rapidly come to dominate every aspect of how we live. This and the science of robotics, particularly pioneered by the Japanese engineers, has provided us with a more modern analysis of ‘the uncanny’ and has given rise to the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’, a term coined by the roboticist Mori Masahiro in his essay ‘Bukimi no Tani Gensho’ (‘Valley of Eeriness Phenomenon’). In this follow-up to Freud’s original, he explores our reaction to human-like objects such as dolls, puppets, including Bunraku dolls, and mannequins.
As a fashion doll with enormous eyes and an unmistakable haunting gaze, Blythe occupies a place in this valley and a place in our hearts.
Like the figurines found throughout the ancient world and perhaps most intriguingly in ancient Jomon era Japan, to the futuristic world of household robots that walk, talk, look and think like us, akin to the bio-engineered droids in the movie ‘Blade Runner’, dolls have and always will be full of mystery and eeriness. They sit between the human world and the otherworld, between reality and fiction, and between the seen and the secret.
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