Playing with dollz

This isn't your mother's Barbie: Welcome to a Web subculture where pixelated gothic Lolitas, preps and weirdos are good wholesome fun.

Published October 7, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Petite but curvy, Lolita is a knockout in a matching black leather corset and knee-length skirt. Her wide, oval face and saucer-sized eyes are accentuated by rings of light brown hair infused with delicate blond highlights. This mass of curls is held back with frilly, girlish red ribbons that reveal a choker and an attached chain that drops between her small breasts. Under the skeletal remains of a Victorian hoop skirt, fishnet stockings end in mammoth Japanese-style platform boots. Lolita is nothing if not a study in contrasts.

But there is more to Lolita than a hyper-stylized, postmodern fashion sense, as the bloody stump of her right arm and her broken wings attest. Lolita is a fallen teen angel -- the very picture of innocence lost. With her smudged cupid's mouth and wide eyes bleeding tears, Lolita is both haunting and, somehow, impossibly cute. This, perhaps, can be attributed to the fact that even on her mighty platform boots, Lolita is 2.5 inches tall and occupies only two dimensions.

Scarred, brokenhearted and gothic, Lolita wants only one thing. "She's sad that her wings are broken and she wishes she had new ones to fly back to heaven," says Jenny, Lolita's 17-year-old creator. Lolita is a doll, but not in the traditional sense. She is, according to Chris, a 15-year-old California sophomore, a "badass Bo Peep." Lolita wants to go home -- to that great dollhouse in the sky.

Lolita is an example of a new type of doll found in the almost entirely female Web-based community of "dolling." Dolling is a hobby in which tiny characters are, at their most time-consuming, created pixel-by-pixel in graphics programs such as Photoshop, MS Paint, and Paint Shop Pro. These dolls are roughly from a half-inch to 4 inches tall -- about the size of a Nintendo character.

Dolling is not all blood and leather. In this Lilliputian world, postage stamp-sized, self-created fairies, manga characters, punks, hobbits, and gothic Lolitas peacefully coexist in the same infinite dollhouse -- a dollhouse with no physical location, but millions of windows in the form of computer monitors. The Web has become the setting for a new kind of play and dolls have shed a dimension, becoming flat like their paper ancestors. As a sign of the times, they've also gained a Gen-Y misspelling and are known now as "dollz" (usually) to their avid collectors.

Something of a rarity online, dolling is a computer graphics-oriented culture of women who value positivity, kindness and sharing. Dollers range in age from elementary school girls to grandmothers. Online, where young men tend to attract most of the attention for graphical artistry in video games, Photoshopping and related media, the dollz subculture is a breath of fresh air far apart from the frenzied demimondes of CounterStrike mods or "tourist guy" Photoshop contests. Like Photoshopping or game mods, however, dolling responds with lighting speed to trends in popular culture. It is more than an opening into an alternate dollhouse universe; it's yet another window into the zeitgeist.

But what, exactly, are dollz?

"Dolls are essentially little drawings of people," says Jessica, a 15-year-old student from Rotherham, U.K. A new doll is usually brought laboriously into being by hand and mouse pixel-by-pixel -- with or without a naked, mannequin-esque "base body" to draw clothes on. In this most complex method of doll creation true artistry can be found in the intricate shading of individual strands of hair or the barely perceptible texturing of clothes. Another, more beginner-friendly method, utilizes drag-and-drop software that works like the real-world paper dolls or the Fashion Plates of yesterday. In drag-and-drops, users select clothes, hair, and the features of their dollz just as easily as a writer switches on "bold" or "italics."

Whatever the doller's weapon of choice, doll-making is a pixilated game of dress up with an infinite palette where the doller's imagination is the only restriction. "Dolls are Barbie in pixel form," explains 15-year-old New Yorker Yumeioku, owner of Papaya Happy Doll Land. "Some people draw the Barbies, some draw clothes, some do both, and some people only draw completely dressed Barbies, but it's usually all to show off their hair, clothes, and make-up."

Individual dollz take on diverse forms, but most dollers work within established boundaries or types like the gothic Lolita. Some typical categories are divas, brats, mini chibies, xenis, skaters, preps, and weirdos. These classifications are handily broken down at Silver Lining's Doll Dictionary. Fashion-minded dollers often stick with dollz like divas (think fashion model) or preps (Abercrombie models) where the generic base bodies act as blank mannequins to clothe any way they see fit. These dollz have, over the years, had more intricately detailed gowns, dresses, and outfits slapped onto them than a thousand J Los or Nicole Kidmans. Couture for your computer.

Newer, more imaginative doll types reflect a Japanese sensibility familiar to any who have watched anime or played Final Fantasy. The gothic Lolita, the most popular new doll type, is rooted in Tokyo street-culture and is notable for its bloody nurses and leather-clad, bandaged goth girls who, presumably, listen to Bauhaus.

"It's a slightly Victorian style, but has more of a modern flair to it, and was said to be first created by the guitarist Mana of the famous Japanese gothic rock band Malice Mizer," says Washington State resident Jenny, a.k.a. Punky, the creator of our fallen Lolita and collector of Japan's 3-D version of Barbie -- the fittingly named "Jenny." Jenny, who is often credited with starting the Lolita craze in dolling expresses her love of Japanese fashion and culture in endlessly creative designs.

The gothic Lolita's appeal is powerful for dollers because it lends itself to unusual, inventive dollz that stand out in the crowds of preps and divas that litter dolling sites. Another recent strain of Nippon-inspired dollz are Angy Chan's runt-sized, big-eyed "sumomos," which, appropriately, she would like to some day include in a video game.

When exploring the multiplicity of genres and designs in current dolling, the eyes on dollz stand out the most. Their oversized, glassy orbs are a departure from the more Western squint of earlier dollz like preps and divas. Gigantic and physiologically impossible, the new doll eyes are powerfully expressive given the mere inches with which dollers have to work. Discussing her own work, "Sad Eyes" painter Margaret Keane once said, "The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are windows of the soul." Intentionally or not, many current dollz exist on the same continuum as Keane's doe-eyed creations. It is more likely, however, that dollers find their inspiration in anime and manga than in a relatively obscure '60s artist. Dolling's influences stretch beyond simply big eyes or anime bodies and you can count among them traditional fantasy art (Amy Brown, "Lord of the Rings," fairies, etc.), fashion photography and design, and comics.

Dolling, though not always as complex or varied in its inspiration, has existed since 1995 when Melicia Greenwood created her first doll for use on the Palace, a 2-D graphical chat program still in existence today.

"In late 1995, everyone on Palace was wearing either photos, or cartoons like Taz, and I got bored, so I drew a 'Barbie' body, and then clothes. I gave the avs [avatars] out to everybody who asked for one," writes Melicia on her "Originz of Dollz" page. "They weren't called dollz then, first they were called 'lil people,' then some of them were called 'skaters' or 'sk8rs,' some of them were called 'preps' or 'paper dolls.'"

As dollz began to evolve on the Palace, tensions grew between the company behind the software and its younger, more rebellious users. "Skaters and dollz were very much a folk-phenomenon of teen culture on the Palace," explains Jim Bumgardner, creator of Palace chat. "Although the design of the Palace, with its emphasis on customization and self-expression, very much encouraged this type of activity, this culture itself was initially an underground and anti-authoritarian movement within the Palace community."

"During those years, there was a long feud between the 30-plus community and the rapidly growing teen community on the Palace, each having somewhat different ideas of what constituted acceptable behavior," continues Bumgardner. An enormous rift between the proto-dollers and the older users on the Palace was in the making. "One of the very earliest examples of a teenage 'uniform' occurring on the Palace was the night when we were invaded by a 'gang' all wearing parrots on their shoulders and swearing like sailors; this was in early November, 1995. I was visiting New York at the time for a seminar, and remember getting a frantic late night phone call about the 'invasion,' and the dire need to beef up the security features."

After its chaotic beginnings on the Palace, the dolling community matured and grew into a kinder, gentler, more focused subculture that has, in many ways, abandoned its rabble-rousing roots. Though it is impossible to ever truly determine the social make-up of a given Net-based community, it would seem that dollers, by and large, are women, which just might have something to do with the supportive, generous atmosphere that permeates the dolling world. "It must be said that the number of women outranks the number of men by far," says Josephine, 27, an engineer and artist from the Netherlands. Chris, the high school sophomore from Southern California agrees, "there are a few guy dollers, but simply not enough to even out the population. There's like 200 females to 1 male to put that into scale." Dolling's true diversity can be found in its wide range of ages. "I know retirees to young children who are involved," says 24-year-old Krystyn, a play therapist from Ontario.

Supportiveness and friendliness may be prized in the dolling community, but there are rules that dollers are asked to obey and there can be repercussions if they are broken. But given dolling's female, kids-to-retirees make-up, standard doll netiquette is a relatively genial set of standards and practices created to protect against idea theft. "We want credit for our hard work. Who wouldn't? Thus we want links back, to generate traffic to us, and also, if a person is interested in our work, we want them to be able to view the rest of it at our respective sites," says Chris of

There are bad apples. Dolling's high crime is the blasphemous "Frankendoll." Diedra, a 20-year-old Pennsylvanian, explains the sacrilege as "taking pieces of other peoples dolls i.e. hair, clothing, props, and claiming the work as your own." Infringing on copyrights is also a no-no in dolling and, according to Diedra, it can get "pretty ugly" when it happens. But dollers, on the whole, are a reasonable bunch and all that they ask is that when in Rome, do as the Romans do: credit sources for bases, link back to sites where dolls are "adopted" from, and give constructive, not mean-spirited, criticism. Dollers would rather spend their time creating and adopting dollz or developing friendships than chasing frankendollers or getting into flame wars. "The doll community is a very positive place," says Suzy, a 20-year-old artist from Stockholm, Sweden. "People are friendly and willing to help out."

Dolling's closest online analogue is the "skinning" culture that has grown around the best-selling PC game of all-time, "The Sims." Skinning involves the creation of new external layers, like clothes, for pre-existing video game character models. In Quake III, for example, the game engine's code makes it possible for a game modifier to take the standard space marine character and "skin" it to become Homer Simpson or Hellboy -- or anything else, for that matter. The internal code remains the same, but the outer layers change; as if you took a Cabbage Patch Kid and threw it inside Robocop's metal uniform. The internal structure is still a Cabbage Patch Kid, but for all intents and purposes, it is now Robocop to the eye.

Sims skinners work from standard humanoid bases to create armies of Britney Spears' skins wearing a never-ending variety of outfits or new furnishings for their Sim homes by using established models. In many respects, "The Sims" is an eternal Barbie play date where even Barbie's face is subject to change. By actively promoting customization within the game by its players, "The Sims" has enjoyed unprecedented longevity (and sales) in the gaming community. Sims fans can create their own furniture, their own decorations, and, most importantly, their own characters.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the dolling and the Sims cultures share many members. A vastly larger group of people are involved in skinning for "The Sims" and a great deal more of them are men, but the dolling and skinning worlds still bear comparing. David Fernandez, a 30-year-old Sims fansite creator from Barcelona, Spain, gets to the heart of the matter when saying that "["The Sims"] ... is like a dollhouse for your computer."

Sims characters are basically moving dolls with, as anyone who has played the game can tell you, an unceasing need to go to the bathroom. In dolling and in "The Sims," as well as any action figures or toy, the attraction is that we control their fate. Miniatures, in video games and out, grant us the opportunity to play God in an otherwise unmanageable world. Anyone who has ever called down a tornado on a Sim city, crushed a rival army in a real-time strategy game like Warcraft, or taken a cherry bomb to a Lego building can attest to that.

The similarities don't end there. Like Sims skinning, dolling is a mirror image of trends in pop culture. "Dolling responds frighteningly quickly to current trends in pop culture. Within 24 hours of the latest Harry Potter book hitting the shops, doll pages were flooded with creations based on and inspired by the text," says Jessica. Any film, book, or trend's mass popularity can be gauged by the number of skins you find on a Sim's fan site or the number of dollz you uncover in the forums of a catch-all dolling site like the Realm of Silliness. Anime, for example, has clearly reached a position of mass pop cultural saturation as the sheer number of anime-inspired skins and dollz online tell us. And as excitement builds around the next "Lord of the Rings" film, you can bet that a veritable army of flamboyantly dressed Legolas' will invade dolling pages across Middle Earth.

Despite dolling's overwhelmingly positive, enthusiastically creative attitude, the playground accusation "You play with dolls?" is a virtual inevitability from the uninitiated. Spoken with the right mix of contempt and superiority, this question-cum-insult should be familiar to anyone who took a little too long to put away their favorite Barbie, He-Man, or any other miniature plaything of youth. In one masterful stroke, maturity is challenged and monkey bar eminence disputed. In the great pantheon of childhood taunts, this is near the top; surpassed only by "you throw like a girl" or "My Dad can beat up your Dad." Somewhere along the line to adulthood we forsake our dolls and their imaginary worlds. We toss our action figures into a dark corner of the closet or blow them up with firecrackers for fear of being thought childish by the cool kids, or, God forbid, girly.

Only later do we learn that "kids' stuff" is, more often than not, the good stuff. We want our dolls back, and will pay to get them, but the sense of fun that made us love them in the first place is often a casualty of the pursuit of nostalgia. Today, the buying and selling of vintage dolls and action figures is a very serious business.

It is, then, refreshing to find this Web-based community of women that values those things that originally drew us to dolls and action figures -- imagination, fun, creativity, and friendship -- while fully embracing the pleasures of "kids' stuff" without guilt, irony, or too many thoughts for what the cool kids think. Ruled not by Mattel or Hasbro, this is the new non-commercial world of dolls. These dolls are safely out of the closet.

In its boundless enthusiasm and creativity, dolling thumbs its nose at those who would, like pundits did with Margaret Keane's big eye paintings in the '60s, call it kitsch. There are few physical rewards for a doller other than a "job well done" or a "you're very talented" on a message board. Here, the only accepted currency is cute. There is, in fact, no greater compliment to a doller than "your dollz are so cute!" In the end, the dividends of dolling are in the sense of accomplishment gained from the creative process and the friends that you make along the way. "I enjoy the freedom," says Chris, the 15-year-old sophomore from California. "I really like making myself heard and I like creating artwork. It's quite a nice pastime. It's soothing and relaxing, I think. Just as any art can become. The creating is fun, and nice, I put a bit of my heart and soul into everything I make, whether it be a doll or a digital painting or otherwise. Every creation of mine is precious to me. I like the community very much. It's like, how shall I put this ... A home away from home in your home?"

Dolling is a fun place to visit, and you might just choose to live there -- even if it is girly. Just don't forget your wings.

By Mitch Borgeson

Mitch Borgeson is a three dimensional writer living in Los Angeles.

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