What is it that determines the gender of a story character or a doll? Or perhaps, who is it?
I would like to create characters that could represent many different gender identities, since this is what is out there in the world. ‘Girl’ or ‘boy’ is just not enough. In my doll-making, and in my illustration, I am the creator of new personalities and I get to determine their identity.
Often, I begin making a character with a clear idea of the gender I am aiming for, especially if there is a client commissioning the work, but sometimes I just begin drawing or sewing and let the personality develop as I go along. At what point along this line does the character take a gender? When I make the bodies? Most of the characters I make are young children, or have child-like proportions, so body shape or function is not a deciding factor for me. How about facial features? Hair style? Clothing?
I decided to photograph all of the dolls that I have made which are currently in my studio, wearing only their underwear (if they have any) and see if they already seemed to have a gender even before thinking about clothes. Perhaps there is something in the way I build faces, or sew and cut hair, that denotes a boy character, or a girl, or someone who identifies with neither or both.
Boy or girl?
Even adding underwear can be decisive.
So, is it clothing?
Is this why so many dolls I make spend such a long time waiting patiently for me to make their clothes? Because in dressing them, I determine a big part of their personality?
Again, boy or girl? What do you see?
Taking these photos led me to ask the next obvious question: since these are not living things, in whose eyes do they have a gender? What about the reader of the story, the viewer of the image, the one who plays with the doll? Regardless of what I think, perhaps they will see something different in my creations from whatever I had in my head as I was working on them.
My daughter was given a cuddly chimpanzee toy when she was a baby. It was named ‘Bobo’ after a book character we loved, and was a favourite companion. Bobo was dressed in all sorts of clothes and played all sorts of games. When my daughter was about 2 years old I asked her if Bobo was more of a ‘girl’ chimpanzee or a ‘boy’, and after some thought she replied that Bobo was a ‘student’. So that was resolved.
Can I just dress all my characters in gender-neutral clothing? Do I even want to do that? Illustration seems to be slightly more representative than doll-making in terms of representing gender; I am aware that in the hand-made doll market there is a prevalence of girl dolls above any other identity. Is this driven by demand? Or by doll-makers enjoying the wider range of clothing and hair styles open to girl dolls? And why even is it that girl dolls have more clothing options?
I suspect these are all questions which are difficult to answer, but which I should keep asking myself. Maybe the answers are not as important as the questions. Perhaps any question which keeps reminding me to try and represent many different identities in my work is worth returning to whether I answer it or not.
At the end of the day I am still left with a lot of dolls which will not be ready to go out into the world until I give them some clothes, regardless of their identity.