Puppetry International: Valley of the Uncanny Dolls (written / interview)

Valley of the Uncanny Dolls:
An interview with Allison de Fren on The Mechanical Bride

(Originally published in Puppetry International, 2012)

Mechanical Bride, Still courtesy of Allison De Fren
Mechanical Bride, Still courtesy of Alison De Fren

The Mechanical Bride is a feature-length documentary that explores the sf fantasy of creating the perfect woman and the current-day reality of artificial companions in the sex and robotics industries. Filmmaker Allison de Fren approaches her subjects with depth and sensitivity, exploring the roles of Doll/Owner, Real/Synthetic, and Living/Dead. I caught up with her in LA, where she teaches in the Media Arts & Culture Program at Occidental College.

Marsian: For those readers unfamiliar with the kinds of dolls featured in the documentary, could you briefly describe them?

Allison de Fren: Yes, they are life-sized sex dolls, many achieving a remarkable degree of verisimilitude. Materials and appearances vary: the American dolls are made out of solid silicone shaped around articulated skeletons, whereas the Japanese dolls have a silicone cyberskin stretched over a foam interior, which makes them lighter weight and somewhat more flexible (in fact, I think there is an analogy to be made in the differences between American and Japanese love dolls and cars). The documentary also looks at the current attempt to animate and enliven the dolls, through such technologies as motion sensors, actuators, and artificial intelligence.

M: What inspired you to make this documentary?

AdF: I have a longstanding interest in the human relationship to anthropomorphic objects, whether dolls, puppets, automata, or robots. The seeds of the documentary were planted over a decade ago, in my former life as a digital interaction designer, while working at a future technology R&D company in Silicon Valley. It was there that I first learned about the Realdoll (the most famous sex doll in the world), and it was from a robotocist friend there that I first learned about a theory espoused by the father of industrial robots in Japan (Masahiro Mori) called the theory of “the uncanny valley” or bukimi no tani. The theory suggests that as anthropomorphic creations, like robots, start to approximate humanness both in appearance and movement—therefore raising expectations of humanness—but don’t quite achieve it, they will seem creepy or scary (think old-time Disney animatronics). At the time, most roboticists like my friend avoided realism in robots for that very reason, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen as Realdolls started to move and act more like humans: would their uncanniness undermine not only their attractiveness for the men who buy them, but also the kinds of fantasies that are often projected onto them? Those were some of the questions that eventually inspired me to make the documentary.

M: Julie Newmar who played Rhoda the Robot on the short-lived ‘60s TV series My Living Doll could not have been a better choice for a narrator. How did she get on board?

AdF: When I was a child, Julie Newmar was my favorite catwoman on the TV show Batman, so getting her to narrate the documentary was a real thrill. Early on in production, I looked for old episodes of My Living Doll, but was told by everyone (including one of the main writers for the show, Howard Leeds—who, by the way, went on to create Small Wonder, a sitcom in the ‘80s about a little girl robot) that CBS had buried the series and I would never be able to find any episodes, let alone license them. As I continued to work on the documentary, however, the estate of Jack Chertok, the producer of the show, was searching out, restoring, and re-licensing as many of the old episodes as they could find (in fact, they just recently released a DVD through MPI Home Video). Their licensing manager, Peter Greenwood, not only made the episodes available to me, but also put me in touch with Julie Newmar.

M: You draw comparisons at various points between love dolls and puppetry and interview Victoria Nelson, author of The Secret Life of Puppets. What connections do you see between the two?

AdF: Dolls, puppets, and automata are obviously all humanoid objects falling somewhere along the spectrum of the “uncanny valley” and endowed with varying degrees of animation and lifelikeness. Although their cultural functions differ, I’m particularly interested in their connections as performing objects. An artificial companion is one thing in the privacy of her owner’s home and another when presented in my documentary or a film like Lars and the Real Girl (2007)—or better yet Fellini’s Casanova (1976)—where her inertness or mechanicalness helps to defamiliarize what might otherwise seem like a stereotypical romantic encounter, a role that has resonances with some forms of puppetry and puppet animation. Within German Romantic literature, one finds a connection between the mechanical females in the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann—who serve as ciphers of metaphysical possibility—and the figure of the puppet in Heinrich von Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theatre.” It is the performative, literary, and representational aspects of synthetic companions—rather than their use as human surrogates—that, I think, has particular relevance for puppetry.

M: You interview Robert Parigi, director of Love Object (2003)—the first film to use a Realdoll as a character—who noted that the dolls are not as convincing in real life as they appear in advertisements and, thus, require of their owners a large degree of “willed psychological projection” to bring them to life. Is this the same as the suspension of disbelief on the part of puppetry audiences? 

AdF: One of the things that I try to draw out in the documentary is the tension between fantasy and reality, as well as the subjective and objective experience of the dolls. Realdolls, in particular, are ordered piecemeal (head type, body type, hair color, etc.) so that they are constructed to the exact contours of their owners’ desires, and doll owners often speak about their dolls in highly idealistic terms, as if their dream girl had become a reality. The stark reality, however—the dead weight and immobility of the doll; the degraded silicone around the eyes, mouths, and joints of older dolls; hair and fingernails that have been rendered askew through repetitive use—is apparent to anyone who looks closely. The impression given by men and their dolls is not all that dissimilar from that of a child and a favorite plaything whose eyes and fur have been loved off. No matter how much obsessive specificity goes into ordering the doll, at some point, it becomes so emotionally and libidinally cathected that the exterior reality fades from view. One might say that a similar phenomenon happens in love relationships between people. I’m not sure, however, that this is the same thing as the suspension of disbelief achieved by puppetry, which is often experienced at a remove and requires a skillful operator.

M: One of the doll owners you interview has a fondness for Japanese culture, which he believes has more of a reverence towards dolls because of Shintoism, the belief that everything has a soul. What differences did you find between Japanese and American dolls and the relationships that their owners have with them?

AdF: Japan as a culture seems to be more comfortable with anthropomorphic objects, in general, and to cultivate relational attitudes towards them in a way that we don’t in the U.S. Indeed, Japan has the largest love doll AND humanoid robotics industries in the world, the latter funded by mainstream corporations like Honda and Sony, whereas the doll and humanoid robot efforts in the U.S. tend to be small-scale and driven by individuals rather than corporations. The difference might be attributable to Japan’s long-standing history of dolls, puppets, and automata, but yes, there is also Shintoism, which one might contrast with the Judeo-Christian fear of playing god (or Frankenstein complex) in the west. What I find particularly interesting is the way that these two disparate mythologies inflect the appearance of anthropomorphic objects in each country. In the U.S., we tend to like our robots and dolls realistic or hyper-realistic (Realdolls, for example, look like playboy models or women who have had plastic surgery), perhaps all the better to convince ourselves that we should fear being replaced by them. In Japan, where such objects have their own ontological status and where traditional aesthetics as influenced by Buddhism favor evocation over description, dolls are doll-like and robots are robot-like or toy-like. To put it another way, because it is culturally acceptable in Japan to have relationships with inanimate (or animated non-human) objects, it seems that there is no need for them to “look like us”.

M: You interview the Geppettos of kink who are attempting to make the dolls robotic. How technologically advanced are they?

AdF: Unlike roboticists, who tend to work from the inside out, pushing the technological envelope and then trying to fit their advances into a humanoid body, the love doll industry works from the outside in. The beautiful body comes first, after which they attempt to incorporate various kinds of functionality, so the dolls are not particularly impressive technologically. I was, however, somewhat blown away by the movements of the Andybot, a “sexual android” currently in development in Nuremberg, Germany (of interest: the Andybot’s developer likes to call himself “The Creator”—clearly referencing Germany’s legacy of mad scientists—and sees himself as part of the tradition of toy and automata building in the area. In fact, the first automaton in human form was purportedly built in Nuremberg in the mid-sixteenth century). I had already seen prototypes capable of “pelvic motion” in the U.S, however, in each case the movement was a strictly forward and backward affair, accompanied by the distracting sound of a powering motor. The Andybot gyrated in silent, fluid, circular waves; it was beautiful, erotic, and disturbing all at the same time, and it really brought to mind the “divine geometry” of Kleist’s marionettes.

M: Towards the end of the film, we see dolls with blue skin, pointed ears, wings, horns, and even cartoonish features. Have you noticed a growing taste for non-human features?

AdF: I think that the American market has, to a certain extent, followed the lead of Japan, where anime dolls, in particular, are quite popular. Also, I think the trend is influenced by the growing cultural influence of Comic-Con and the popularity of cosplay (“costume play” in which participants dress like characters from anime, manga, fantasy and sf films, etc.). As experimentation with alien and fantastical costumes, masks, and features becomes increasingly mainstreamed, I think we’ll see a growing trend toward sf and fantasy erotic play, including within the love doll industry.

M: What are you working on next?

AdF: I would eventually like to get back to media making, but at present, I’m working on turning my doctoral dissertation—which explored “uncanny” or “disarticulated” artificial women in art, literature, and media—into a book.

Allison de Fren is a media maker and scholar based in Los Angeles, who divides her time between creating, writing, and teaching about media, gender, and technology. She holds a masters degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a doctorate from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. She is an Assistant Professor of Media Arts & Culture at Occidental College in Los Angeles. You can find out more about The Mechanical Bride at www.mechanicalbridemovie.com.

Marsian De Lellis is a Los Angeles-based performance artist and secretary of UNIMA-USA, whose artist talk, Object/Fetish: Staging the Suspension of Disbelief in Everyday Life, examines erotic practices that exist at the margins of what is traditionally considered puppetry and object theatre. Marsian is writing a show inspired by people who fall in love with buildings and inanimate structures, Object of Her Affection – an animistic foray into a woman’s search for love that is just beyond her reach