For the love of a good doll


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May 08, 2024

For the love of a good doll

Text by Shanti Escalante-De Mattei Photography by Kendal Walker Traversing the uncanny valley with Pasha Setrova of Pasha Pasha, a preeminent designer of the ball-jointed doll community She is

Text by Shanti Escalante-De Mattei

Photography by Kendal Walker

Traversing the uncanny valley with Pasha Setrova of Pasha Pasha, a preeminent designer of the ball-jointed doll community

She is long-limbed and fully articulated, with a high, round forehead, sculpturally carved cheeks, and pouting, breathless lips. Her eyes: blue, framed by impossibly long, soft lashes and set under a prominent brow. She is wearing a crown of icy blue lace. When I arrive at the Pasha Pasha studio in Harlem, she is in the midst of an Alice in Wonderland-themed photoshoot: Rococo set dressing abundant, ring lights trained.

She is 54 centimeters tall, and she is a doll.

“She is heavy, like stone,” said Pasha Setrova as she passed Alice (full name: Alice of Royal Blessings) to me, bedecked in an elaborate satin ensemble, complete with a surgical mask, a cape, and thigh-high boots. “Even when you touch it, it’s soft as marble.”

Setrova is a doll designer—one of the best within the small but intense world of ball-jointed doll (BJD) collectors and creators: an obscure faction of people who have kept loving dolls far outside the bounds of childhood. Though the defining feature of a BJD is its joints—a feature now found on newer generations of Barbie and other dolls and action figures—a true BJD is elevated by craft, made in small batches and customized to perfection. Their faces and bodies are beguiling, having stretched the definition of humanoid into all of its potential, fantastic manifestations.

As Pasha Pasha, Setrova, her two assistants, and her wife and business partner Erika Liu create what are thought to be some of the most highly engineered dolls on the scene. Setrova demonstrates Alice’s malleability, detaching her hand from her forearm. “It’s a magnet, it will go back.”

Setrova’s dolls boast 33 moveable parts, including a complex shoulder joint that Setrova herself invented, and is constantly, obsessively improving upon. This mad engineer, who started modeling at the tender age of 15 in her native Russia, wanted her dolls to move like she could—arching the neck, pushing the ball of the shoulder forward, curving the torso in on itself. I look at Alice, and I look at Setrova, and I notice they have the same witchy hands, the same flared eyes—though Alice’s hair is white, and Setrova’s is pink, and while Setrova is slim, Alice and her doll kin are skeletal.

Blanks (unpainted dolls) are lined up on trays—naked, missing parts. They live in the atelier proper, a room separate from the photo room. Set against the clutter of the studio—littered with fabric, sewing machines, paint brushes, and glue guns—the dolls await their eyes and the inset of the four little teeth, visible through their parted lips. The two assistants—like dour elves in Santa’s slightly fucked up workshop—work at them, one painting a face, the other constructing a wig.

When fully dressed, the dolls gesture at modelesque proportions: Bare, they are something extreme. They are very long, the torso is made in four parts, recalling the anatomy of Avatar’s Na’vi. The thighs are more femur than thigh. The sheath of her back is pinched up in the middle: her knobbly spine.

But then there is genitalia. Back to reality. Though Greta Gerwig’s Barbie may profess, “I do not have a vagina and [Ken] does not have a penis,” Setrova’s dolls, if brought to life, would make no such claims. And might appreciate, moreover, the thought put into the delicate curls of pubic hair attached down there, dyed to match hair color, or in certain cases, outfit.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Setrova’s dolls, both online and in person. They are truly bewitching, both beautiful, and other. Yet there’s a feeling of unease—I’m supposed to find a doll like that suspicious.

“In the end, dolls are still representational, but not necessarily aspirational.”

Of course, there was my 2010s Tumblr training. Post-Y2K, pre-Barbie movie, the Mattel doll found herself at the frontier of debates over representation, which, given her origin story, isn’t at all surprising. The story goes that she was designed to replace the baby doll, allowing the girl child to stop seeing herself as a future mother and instead, as a future young lady. But that waist! I recall seeing some graphic about all the brutal ways Barbie’s body would malfunction if, indeed, she found herself no longer made of plastic but of meat—organs not fitting, and such. By putting Barbie in the hands of girls, we’ve set them onto a path of self-destruction, telling them to model their bodies against a physically impossible ideal.

But for an adult who collects, plays with, and perhaps centers their craft on their dolls, the issue of representation should be resolved, because the onus of protecting impressionable minds is removed. Yet adults who play with dolls, and dolls themselves, so often provoke a negative reaction. Even in adulthood, it seems, many of us still don’t trust what it is that dolls represent and what they might mean to us.

Upstairs—past the studio door with its fingerprint-encoded biometric locks—is Setrova and Liu’s apartment. It is appropriately whimsical: red walls; portraits in gold-painted frames; two beautiful, snub-nosed cats, one of which curls up on a decorative porcelain dish in the middle of the table once we sit down.

“You need to be playful to your core to allow yourself to buy a doll,” said Setrova, who got into doll making after seeing a doll in a shop window that she couldn’t afford.

Her clients (the likes of whom include Guillermo del Toro) are mostly women and gay men. One collector told me most people in the community are “not neurotypical.” But aside from all having probably liked dolls or action figures as a kid, there’s no one type of collector, and there’s no one way to interact with one’s doll.

Some people open the box, and then close it again, only taking them out to brush their hair. There must be other private gestures—gazing and holding, I suppose. But the most common (or at least discernable) pastime for doll collectors is to take pictures of them, in either static shots or image series that unfold narratives. This is partially why Pasha Pasha dolls are in such high demand: Their exceptional mobility opens up a range of naturalistic poses.

There are many collectors who become creators. If not of the dolls themselves, they might become specialists in the careful art of painting body blush and makeup, or else become amateur wigmakers, or miniature clothing designers. One doll might bear the mark of four or more different creators, from her custom resin eyeballs to her 3D printed shoes—barter, trades, and sales abound.

“You don’t need to catfish anybody, this is your avatar,” said Setrova. “There are so many of these accounts of people’s dolls and you look at them and get this impression of a person: ‘Oh, isn’t she so stylish, isn’t that such cool makeup.’”

Tastes, of course, diverge. What Setrova doesn’t quite understand is the collector who dresses their doll in sweatpants, and sets them up in a scene with a computer and a cup of coffee. Her own vision as an artist is maximalist, with collections featuring tributes to Iris van Herpen and Vivienne Westwood, and accessories which have no human counterpart: fetishwear that holds a unicorn doll’s horn and ears in place; a complicated piece of lingerie that is part lederhosen, part panty, part dick sheath.

There was a time when I craved the luxuriously simple beauty of the messy bun, of looking casually perfect in leisurewear. It might be as cathartic to achieve that aesthetic for one’s doll as it is satisfying to pull off an uber-complicated Victorian get-up, corset handmade and miniaturized. And lest you think everyone is cooking up their own unique trends, Setrova has noticed that the qualities that people like in their dolls, both physical and aesthetic, tend to follow broad regional patterns.

“Russians like super skinny girls—whimsical, but skinny,” said Setrova. “Americans like chubby children, mostly children with big eyes. [In] France, they like the monster-esque, mermaids or little dragons with little horns. [In] Japan, Korea, it’s very anime, with those ruched dresses.”

In the end, dolls are still representational, but not necessarily aspirational. They are small portals to the unified aesthetic worlds that we can tap into via our imaginations, and hunt for in music, books, movies, and art. It’s true that the worlds BJD dolls bring us closer to are not commonly articulated in quotidian media, whether it is the gothic, erotic, razor-sharp beauty of Setrova’s dolls, or the cutesy, stub-legged children of DoDollsDream. These are hyper-specific trends that express notions of age, gender, style, and erotics that we’re not primed to deal with.

“People will say, ‘Oh, that’s creepy,’ when they see my dolls, and then I’ll just say, ‘You’re not invited back to my house,’” said Allison Hernandez, a BJD collector with a YouTube channel where she talks about dolls and interviews people in the community in her deep South Carolina accent. “I hate to be that way, but it’s such a big part of my life. I’d never go to someone’s house and say that something they love or are passionate about is creepy.”

Fortunately, Hernandez’s family has always been supportive of her love of dolls, as have the people at her corporate job, and her husband, who collects vinyl records. “[My coworkers] say I’ve got the most interesting Zoom background in the company.” She goes to a collectors meet-up for doll people in the Carolinas twice a year, chairs a doll convention, and has a good friend just 10 minutes away from her who also collects.

Not everyone is so lucky. One of the messages Hernandez receives most from her followers are those asking how she managed to find people who could accept her interest in dolls.

“They’ll ask me how I can be so confident, how I’m not embarrassed,” said Hernandez. “I always tell people, just be confident with it. Don’t hide it. If you act like there’s something wrong with it, and you’re hiding it away from people, then they’re gonna think there’s something wrong with it.”

There is a sad flinch that comes each time I speak with a BJD collector, a moment of acknowledging and remembering moments of intense rejection, disgust, or plain teasing. In taking a casual survey about what it is, exactly, that my peers found so disturbing about dolls, the uncanny valley was often provided as an answer.

The uncanny valley is an inverse bell curve. On the high points of the hills reside, to the left, non-human things that look non-human that we like—stuffed animals, a cartoon of a person. On the other hill reside the humans who look human. Those objects that look human, but are not quite—a prosthetic hand, silicon over a robot face—define the valley between. IRL, the closest thing to looking human but not quite is a dead body. So there is corpse fear, pathogen avoidance: I’m not quite convinced that’s what provokes the shudder for the BJDs and its attendant community.

Another answer might be found in our response to object fetish, which, again, seemed a popular theory. And there is something to it, insofar as we look at the history of the ball-jointed doll. Modern BJD are believed to have originated in Asia, but Setrova postulates that they entered the European imagination with the German artist Hans Bellmer, who became famous for the large, ball jointed dolls he created for his surreal, sexual, sculptural works. Bellmer, in turn, was inspired by the 16th century wooden articulated dolls in the collection of Berlin’s Kaiser Friedrich Museum (now known as the Bode Museum).

The one articulated doll from this era that I was able to find in Bode’s collection is “Female jointed doll, Nuremberg c. 1520.” Carved out of boxwood, an unknown craftsman created her out of a stunning 57 parts crammed gracefully into 22 centimeters of height. Like modern BJDs, the parts are held together with internal elastic string, though in this antique case, the string is made of sheep gut. The craftsman carved her a bonnet but no other clothing; her pubic hair is intricate; and she sports a sweet, contented smile.

As mentioned in an article published in the Berliner Morgenpost, because the doll was too finely crafted to have been made as a typical artist’s model, and too naked to have been intended for children, the object should be considered a work of art—even if it’s advanced articulation encouraged interaction. Yet, when interaction is offered, some of us play a little too hard. At some point in the doll’s provenance, someone hollowed out her genitalia, and painted the area red, prompting the writer to ask if this object could be considered Berlin’s first sex doll.

What to do with our urges? And first, to be clear, not every doll collector has an erotic relationship with their doll, but most of us did as children. Our parents looked askance when we made our dolls fuck, as sly as we thought we might’ve been when enacting these moments of aggression, confusion, and lust. At some point, we either have to curb our impulses or unleash them onto others. The consensus is that children should be allowed symbols of their futures or their fantasies, but at a certain age, these proxies signal maladjustment. The feeling is that at best, a doll should be an art object one collects at remove, and the relationship should go no further.

I might feel the same way if I hadn’t met Rush.

Rush describes himself as the only man in the Bronx who owns a BJD, maybe the only straight man who owns a doll in this entire city. He knows two men who own Pasha Pasha dolls—one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn—and they’re both gay. The rest of the Pasha Pasha collectors he knows of are women. It kind of happened by accident.

“I didn’t know I was in a community until I was knee-deep in it,” said Rush. He’s a fit Black man who looks 35 at most but is in fact, in his 50s. He’s wearing black-rimmed glasses and sports a goatee that ends in a long twist.

More than five years ago, Rush had spied the very first Pasha Pasha prototypes online. They were bare, unpainted, and unclothed, but full of those amazing joints. A cartoonist and illustrator, Rush figured that what he was seeing was some highly advanced version of the wooden artist’s model. As he tracked Setrova’s development of the doll, he came to know what it was, and bought one anyway. Now he has seven.

“I’m not a collector, seven is enough for me,” said Rush. “When I bought that first doll, I said, Okay, I’m gonna use this doll for art, case closed. Then I started learning about who makes the best pants and who does the best face-ups. Through the community, I’ve learned to expand my own creativity by doing the wigs, the face-ups myself.”

Aware that he’s a rare breed, Rush has a clear idea of what brought him to where he is today. As a kid, he loved GI Joe, who, unlike Barbie, possessed a great deal of articulation—the neck could swivel 360 degrees, and so on.

“Since I’m a man now, I’m less interested in being a soldier and more interested in being a boyfriend,” said Rush, hence the switch from GI Joe to Pasha Pasha.

Rush describes himself as a dude’s dude: “I’m a beer and football, punch my buddy in the shoulder kinda guy.” And yet, he appreciates the opportunity his dolls give him to be closer to the feminine.

“Femininity, it’s attractive to me. I like the whole high heels thing, the dresses, and the makeup,” said Rush. “I found dolls [were] a safe way to explore that, to feel creative with that. It’s a way to be controlling without being possessive. And who doesn’t love waking up to a few beautiful women every morning?”

As he describes it to me, the doll is a “perfect taco” that you can season just as you’d like. Whether they’re representations of the self, projections of fantasy, or verging on the parasocial, the concentration of aesthetics coupled with the ability to focus one’s tastes on a single object is a powerful sensation. But it is just this height of manifested desire that, I think, triggers an ick for the image of the dolls and the people who like them.

I can spend all day on Instagram looking at these beguiling dolls and only feel further pulled in by the strange artistry of them, even begin to covet them. But it’s when a collector posts a picture of their doll in human context, their bedroom, say, lined up with other dolls, or at a convention center, that I get this profound feeling of the abject—the distance between fantasy and reality is overwhelmingly stark. I cringe.

But why? We live in a society in which projections of fantasy and aspiration rule social economies, both on and outside the internet. There is not all that much separating the influencer, their persona, the shilled content, the pretend candid view of their life (which is mostly made of hours of setting up tripods in solitude) and the doll. What is the internet but a drip of softcore erotica: workout videos, Twitch streaming in push-up bras, and OOTDs—13-year-old girls and grown men abound, watching. Projecting, aspiring, admiring, something unified. God forbid we acknowledge the artifice, take it into our hands, and face the impossible beauty we crave.

What does Rush love about his dolls?

“I can get as close as I want.”