Forever young

The appeal of My Twinn dolls is not that they let parents hang on to their kids' childhood. It's that they let kids hang on to their childhood.


Joan Walsh
December 23, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

| I admit it: I'm one of those nutty mothers Sallie Tisdale wondered about in her column on My Twinn -- the outrageously expensive, customized look-alike doll being hyped this holiday season. Yes, I bought a My Twinn for my daughter, Nora, who's almost 9. Reluctant, repulsed, incredulous, I bought it anyway, because she wanted it so much, and I wanted to understand why.

Her father is horrified. Nora is ecstatic and grateful. I'm embarrassed and confused. But Tisdale misses something crucial if she thinks My Twinn is about moms wanting to hold on to their babies, to fix them eternally as adorable children. That's certainly part of My Twinn's appeal -- but to our kids, not us.

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Nora likes dolls, but she's all tomboy. Even when she became a fan of the ultra-femme Spice Girls, her favorite was the tomboy, Sporty Spice. Dressed up (which is rarely) she looks a little like one of the Twinn dolls' apparent models, JonBenet Ramsey -- on steroids. Not quite 9, she's 4 foot 11 and 110 pounds. Green-eyed, blond-haired, with a perfect bow mouth and a spray of freckles across her nose, she's quite beautiful when she deigns to comb her hair, wash her face and wear something besides oversize blue jeans and a San Francisco Giants T-shirt. Actually, she's beautiful to me in anything she wears, but her refusal to primp means she's left out of the ongoing third-grade beauty pageant/fashion show that seems to occupy so much of the time of her peers, the kind of girls Tisdale assumes My Twinn was created for.

So I was shocked when Nora brought me the My Twinn catalog, holding it reverently, pleadingly, like a map to a buried treasure. "I want this, Mommy." She knew how much it cost. "It can be my only present, Mommy." I looked through the catalog at the little girls with their little clone dolls, and I wondered if someone had cloned my daughter and snatched the real one, because what would Nora want with these scary talismans of feminine narcissism?

But Nora isn't the only tomboy I know who wants a Twinn. A friend's niece, a 10-year-old who wears boys' underwear and has never owned a doll, asked for the one with the matching midnight blue dress and headband with roses. And a boy I know wistfully turned down the page with the only boy Twinn doll and told his mom he wanted one, too.

What's with these Twinns? Maybe it's that our kids can sense their childhoods are fleeting, too. The children I know who crave Twinns are around 9, reaching the end of a kind of innocence, hurtling toward the sharp cliff of adolescence, their bodies morphing toward adulthood. Just this year Nora has developed a long neck, a waist (read: hips) and the hint -- is it babyfat? -- of budding breasts. This Christmas seems much more charged for her, generally. She's savoring everything about it, not just the idea she'll get her Twinn, because I think she knows this is one of the last years she'll be able to enjoy it all uncritically. The tree, the lights, my mother's crhche; she's taking it all in ecstatically, knowing she still doesn't have to grapple with Jesus, or even with being half-Jewish.

With so many choices of costumes for her Twinn -- ski clothes, gingham dresses -- which doll did Nora pick? The JonBenet Ramsey look-alike, of course. And she wanted the matching cranberry velour dress, even though she hasn't worn a dress since my brother got married over two years ago, and that was under protest. I tried to push her, a little, toward the My Twinn action wear -- ski sweaters, or the blue-jean overalls that used to be her uniform. She refused. And I caved in, frankly loving the idea I wouldn't have to force her into a dress this Christmas.

Somebody else would probably be most appalled by the ultra-femme Twinn Nora chose, but that somehow made it more palatable to me. I like the idea that she's playing with femininity, trying to picture herself as a "real" girl. Tall and sturdy and full of herself, she'll have to fight to feel like a girl as she gets older and realizes girl equals small and fragile and deferential. (Trust me; I'm 5-foot-11.) In fact, this seems part of her conscious motive in asking for My Twinn.

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"I don't have many girly-girl things," she told me shyly when I asked her why she wanted it. (I didn't remind her about the stash of hand-me-down makeup she plays with secretly.) "I think it would be good for me." Then she regained her trademark defiance. "But do I really need to have a reason, Mom?"

No.

So I bought the JonBenet Ramsey model, with the matching cranberry dress for Nora. When it arrived at my office three weeks later, I couldn't resist a peek. Co-workers gathered around as I opened the box, which looked disturbingly like a little coffin. The doll's face was swathed in pink tissue paper, a little like after a facelift, somebody said. I unwrapped the tissue to find a golden-haired, green-eyed, generic doll that looked nothing like Nora. Or maybe, since the coloring was right, it looked like Nora might after cosmetic surgery, with the baby fat liposucked from her cheeks and her nose perfectly tailored. Or Nora after a debutant makeover -- they'd pulled her unruly hair back from her face, even though it was hanging loose in the photo of her we had sent them. My co-workers gasped. "Nora is so much prettier," everyone insisted, and I certainly agreed. We probably could have found a doll that looked more like her just shopping among the prefab selections at Toys 'R' Us.

I was going to send My Twinn back, though I'd lose $25 on the order, which is probably all the doll actually costs to make. But since Nora had her heart set on it as her one Christmas present, I decided I had to show it to her, so she'd know how far the Twinn fell short of what was promised. I took her to my office one Saturday morning and warned her about what she was about to see. But when I opened the box -- the horror, the horror -- she fell in love.

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"I don't have anything this pretty, Mommy," she swooned. "Actually, she kind of looks like me, don't you think?"

I told her no, that actually I thought she was prettier, and Nora got indignant. "Since when does it matter who's prettier?" she asked, appalled at my sudden concern with appearances and surface beauty. I agreed to take the doll home and think about it. That afternoon my best friend came over and Nora enlisted her in a campaign to keep the doll. She put on the cranberry velour dress and Debbie pulled back Nora's hair just like her Twinn's. I had to admit I could see some resemblance. She stood there holding her doll, willing her features to mirror the Twinn's placid, WASPy beauty, a pleading look in her eyes. And I could see everything she wanted in that look: a sister, a twin, conventional beauty, eternal childhood, her mother's approval. I gave in. Nora hugged me, then tore off her cranberry dress and put on her jeans, and began tugging at the Twinn's hair ribbons, trying to mess up her debutant hairdo. I rescued the Twinn and put her back in her box under the Christmas tree, where she'll have to wait a few more days for her Nora makeover.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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