Amber Swanson’s Real Doll Project

August 11, 2007 at 3:44 pm (art, feminism, frightening things, sexism) ()

Amber Hawk Swanson is an artist who’s received lots of attention for a previous show examining young womens’ rejection of feminism. Her current project involves a Real Doll, which she had made to look as much like her as possible given the limited body types available for the dolls. She had the word “bully” tattooed on her wrist and the word “prey” inscribed on the wrist of the doll. Then she pretended to marry the doll in Las Vegas and took controversial photos with it.

Since the wedding Swanson has put Amber Doll to use in a project exploring the interplay between fantasy and reality in sexual relationships. The finished work, which is still untitled, will contrast stills of intimate “partnership” scenes with video reenactments of rape scenes from movies such as Irreversible and The Accused. Unlike “Feminism?” which spoofed sexualized depictions of women in popular culture, Swanson’s latest videos are meant to mimic them as closely as possible—with one main departure. In the rape scene reenactments, both Swanson and Amber Doll will be dressed as the victim in the film. She gets most of her costumes from Forever 21 and H&M, including dresses similar to the one worn by Monica Bellucci in Irreversible. “These places had the majority of the ‘asking for it’ outfits I was looking for,” she explains.

She gets right to the point by exploiting the dynamics that leave a lot of people feeling uncomfortable with Real Dolls. She mimics the power to sexually dominate a “synthetic woman” while invoking the feeling that it is a real, or “organic” one. And the resulting images of a woman re-enacting sexualized violence with a female Real Doll serve to draw attention to and question what may otherwise have been taken for granted by the more fully culturally indoctrinated: that in heterosexual relationships, the male partner is expected to have control over the female partner and women are often treated as commodities whose submission and commitment can be bought (note that Amber Swanson, as part of her project, bought her doll jewelry and other gifts before their wedding ceremony). This is important because I think that many mainstream viewers, for reasons both sexist and homophobic, might need to see this sort of behavior enacted by a woman to begin to see the social inequality that’s so prevalent among, and perpetuated by, the sort of straight men these dolls are catered toward before realizing how it’s rationalized in and by common portrayals and manifestations of heterosexual relationships. Because it’s now commonplace to equate domination and violence with love and sex, and still taboo to acknowledge sexuality that isn’t heterocentric.

So, there’s lots to think about here. And therefore, I think this is a pretty interesting project.

Via Pandagon.



  1. Will Stevens said,

    Do you know anything about the Austrian Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoshka? He had an intense affair Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav and after they split up he had a doll made, which included details such as genuine pubic hair, which he then used in still life paintings. I don’t know why I mentioned this, just thought you might find it interesting!

  2. Emily said,

    Wow, I had no idea about any of that. Thanks for the info!

  3. californiablogging said,

    There is lots to think about here. Interesting.

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  5. Francesco said,

    Here is an excerpt from our family history. Zu (uncle) Mariano was my grandmother’s brother. “Congregazione” is a cemetery. The episode occurred around 1898 in Sicily.

    “The whole business is rather unfair. Silent in their final resting places, the dead have no form of redress, nor indeed any course but to maintain their own version of omerta, not very different from the world they left behind. This necropolis was not likely to come under tombaroli (tomb raider’s) scrutiny; it was too well tended and too secure. We found Zu Mariano and his wife, whose ceramicized photo made her look alive and strong, but Papa Ciccio was sealed deep inside the crypt and the gatekeeper was urging us to leave. He was eager to be outside the wall before darkness fell.

    Mariano’s story is not a simple one. Before 1900, he had followed his brothers to America but soon became homesick for Caltabellotta and a girl he had been courting there. Returning to Sicily, he married the girl. They soon had two children and Mariano, who was an amateur sculptor and dabbled in photography as well as farming, began to prosper with incomes from both the land and a small photographic studio he had established in town. He was a scrupulous and possessive man in a land where it was normal to be paranoid. The Marcuzzi and other gangs were roaming the Girgenti countryside and their propensity for home invasion and the rape and abduction of women was legendary. Mariano used his skills to devise a chastity belt that he encouraged his young wife to wear whenever he was away from the house. He routinely sprinkled a thin film of talc around the entrance to record whether anyone had entered or exited the home during his absence.

    In spite of these measures, or perhaps because of them, his wife began to sicken and one day she died. Mariano was so distraught that he stopped working altogether, abandoned the farm, closed the photographic studio, and retired to an upper room of Pappa Ciccio’s house where the restaurant now stands. He used his knowledge of sculpture to fabricate a life-sized doll that resembled his late wife in the minutest detail and lived in the upper room with her, dressing the doll in the dead woman’s clothing and positioning her in a chair each Sunday to watch the passeggiata from their balcony as did the other townswomen. Neighbors and passersby were convinced they had seen a ghost.

    Each mid-day, he prepared a full-course meal on the family’s best china, then delivered the food to the cemetery, setting the tray in front of his wife’s tomb. He repeated this ritual until most of their china and silverware collection had disappeared. Eventually, Pappa Ciccio succeeded in convincing his son that insanity was not the best response to lost love and that he should at least reopen the photographic studio to try and distract his mind and fill his heart by productive work. One day, a sixteen year-old called Mariantonia called at the studio for a portrait session. It was her final portrait that we surveyed alongside his in the congregazione.”

  6. steven said,

    how much is this doll that looks like you

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