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Men & Dolls
Benita Marcussen creates a "provocative, awkward, and fascinating" photographic introduction to a discussion of sex robots.
Read time: about 10 minutes This week: Starting a conversation about sex robots with Benita Marcussen’s project about Men & Dolls. Next week: Actually, I’m not entirely sure yet…
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The class went well, though it focused on a topic that promised to be a bit unsettling and might have caused people to clam up. That unease was reflected in the readings for the day — a law review article by a Harvard Law professor, a chapter from a recent book by a UK journalist, and an article that appeared in a leading engineering publication. The topic on the syllabus was “sex robots,” where technology and human beings profoundly and maybe perilously meet. (I’ve written about sex robots before.)
Seminar participants were all first-year Duke undergraduates, hand picked for the “FOCUS Program.” Sex is often a fraught matter wherever you are in life, but I think it’s probably most fraught for college students. They’re experiencing a new environment, suddenly untethered from the restrictions of home and parents and cast into a new community of new people. They’re saddled with more challenging academic work than they ever experienced before. And, in my seminar’s case, have to deal with a demanding, though grandfatherly, professor twice weekly, face-to-face, and through “daily missives” that land in their email inboxes every weekday. (This Substack covers Thursdays, by the way.)
On top of all that — adolescence. You get the picture.
I started the session with photographs of Benita Marcussen, a talented photographer living in Denmark, who took on a project to document men living with with life-sized dolls (not animatronic or AI-equipped robots). The photographs stood on their own in the first part of the class session, and I chose to do that for a very specific reason. The seminar is about “our complex relationships with technology” and I wanted to focus particularly on the word relationship rather than on technology. We could very easily have first moved into legal terms and discussions with the law review article or some of the engineering questions or (as the book chapter relayed) some of the details of manufacture at a leading doll company. But I thought Men & Dolls — Marcussen’s months-long project — depicted some of the human element of relationships that mostly aging men attempted to have with carefully sculpted silicone.
It was a good place to start, I think. Students felt some of the texture of experience depicted in the photographs. They felt the strangeness and the tenderness of the scenes. They may have whiffed a certain desperation, too. They decided that they didn’t want to meet the men who appeared in the photographs, but they felt a certain sadness, maybe empathy, for them. And they knew, going into the discussion, that this was not “about” technology — levers and sensors and lubricants and AI-created voices — as much as it was about more fundamental ties binding technology with human beings.
I emailed to Marcussen after the session to say thanks for her project. I had hoped to hear from her, too, in order to exchange some messages, ask some questions. I was delighted when she responded and invited questions. I asked my students to think about what we might ask about the pictures earlier this week, as we looked once again at the photographs on Marcussen’s website.
This email exchange, reframed as an interview and lightly edited for clarity, came from the questions my students posed and Marcussen’s responses.
What was the beginning of the idea for the Men & Dolls project?
I saw a documentary on the topic, but the men were depicted as “freaks.” I found it very suspicious, since we all know that this kind of “journalism” pays well but often isn’t true! So I contacted the men through the dollforum.com After a hell of a lot of research and six months of waiting, they came back to me. They were very suspicious themselves since they were used to being used by media. They invited me to a meet-and-greet in England, and it all began from there.
How did you find the people who were depicted in the collection?
I went to meet some doll owners in the UK and slowly one took me to another. I later went to the US for another meet-and-greet to find more participants. My criteria for them to be in the project was that they should have been related to a partner before (some of them are even married, but their wives don’t share the interest in the dolls), they should be mentally fit, and ready to be seen in media. A lot of negative comments will follow this kind of story.
I found that many of the men had difficulties meeting women, and perhaps they were also interested in younger women but not under-aged women. This is very important, as the doll community actually has rules regarding how you can dress your doll, etc. They will not tolerate anything that can be interpreted as under-age!
The men have an online forum to keep in contact. It is great for them to have a worldwide forum to talk with fellow doll owners, and in here they arrange to meet. There are men “in between” who feel lonely, and both the dolls and the relationships with other doll owners makes them feel less lonely.
It could be that some of the men wanted to be anonymous. Why did the men in the photographs agree to be photographed? Did they speak about their reasons for participating? What did those who declined to participate say about their decision, if they responded to you?
It was not an option to be anonymous. The men who wanted to be anonymous had good reasons, they could have important public careers — one was an attorney for a case with worldwide coverage at the time. Others had kids who didn’t know about the dolls. Men with adult kids had often told the kids about their interest.
The project includes many settings, some fairly informal. Others are more staged, studio shots perhaps. Some others depicted what looked like distribution centers or doll manufacturing settings — photographs that accentuated the dolls as “products” and things. You photographed in documentary fashion, but also in closely directed studio shots. How did you manage the artifice, the composition, of the shots?
Some of the photos were shot in a short amount of time, the family photo for instance. Other shots on the black background where taken during a meet-and-greet, and I tried something else, as reportage photography was extremely difficult since the dolls weren’t moving, and the men often were other places talking with each other.
What was the social dynamic that played out during the photography sessions? Were you introduced to the dolls? Did men seem to regard the dolls as possessions? as companions? How did you pick up on the cues of the relationships of the men and their dolls? In a sense, these questions ask about your role as photographer and the demands that the situations placed on you as an artist, if those were at all different or new in comparison to other portraits you've done.
Men were aware that the dolls are dolls. But the dolls have names and some even identities, for instance: an actress — the doll Bianca from the film Lars and the Real Girl. Other dolls are fans of this doll and get their pictures taken together. Some dolls love shopping and using the credit card of the men! The men treat the dolls with great respect, the dolls are anatomically correct and bought as advanced sex toys, but it doesn’t mean that you can touch other owners’ dolls. In that way, they were extremely respectful, as well they have always also been very kind and respectful towards me as a female photographer.
The dolls are quite heavy and difficult to move around, so they become more of a thing that you can’t avoid being attached to, because they look real. But it is more like, they say “good morning” and are happy to have someone/something to come home to, someone who doesn’t leave them while at work. Needless to say, many of these men have had bad experiences with marriage. But they don’t pretend that they are married or bring their dolls shopping, etc. Dolls are their fantasy.
I always talked about the dolls using their names, but I never talked directly to them, and neither did the men. As a photographer it didn’t feel different from other assignments, but the challenge was that we couldn’t move around too much, because the dolls were difficult to move around.
Your pictures reveal some of the complexity of the dolls by showing them in human settings that are, as you wrote, “provocative, awkward, and fascinating.” The dolls are more than mere things, and your photographs capture some of that. Students wondered whether your perspective on the dolls and the men changed as you executed the project. Did you have a growing empathy for the people who took part? Did you have less?
With the project, I’ve tried to show a subculture that exists. I wanted to inform about this (as I also didn’t know anything) but was not trying to change any point of view and was not saying, either, that this is “normal.” I wanted to portray the men as I saw them and not as the “freak show” that they have been exposed as.
When it comes to our sexual interests — they are private. I agree that buying a doll starts off with being a sexual desire — but the friendship, loss of loneliness overtakes sexual desire. It is quite difficult to prepare the dolls for intercourse. I sure have empathy for the men — some have neighbors who don’t say hello because of the dolls.
I’m also wondering whether your photographs have been included in an exhibition. If so where and when? How has the project been received? I imagine that you hear from people who have quite diverse views, perhaps even some rather hostile ones.
Photographs have been exhibited here in Denmark, Russia, and Serbia. They have been in media worldwide. CNN broadcast the story, and a doll owner was suddenly confronted by his colleagues after seeing him with his doll. It all went fine though. But of course there are many hostile comments, and I can’t be bothered about that. But the men take it in.
Got comments? If not, please check your pulse.
Tags: sex robots, adult dolls, technology ethics, photography, loneliness
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
More photographs from Benita Marcussen’s Men & Dolls project: Design You Trust. “Inside the World of Men and Dolls,” November 2014. https://designyoutrust.com/2014/11/inside-the-world-of-men-and-dolls/.
Hollywood has had at it, too. The film was nominated for many awards, including Oscars. “Bianca” (the doll) plays a starring role. Lars and the Real Girl Official Trailer #1 - Ryan Gosling Movie (2007) HD, 2011.
This robot isn’t very sexy, but it depicts a relationship of man and … a washing machine-torso-ed machine who is also a friend named Charles. Delightful trailer of a heartwarming movie that was part of 2022 Sundance Film Festival: Brian and Charles - Official Trailer [HD]. YouTube video, 2022. “After a particularly harsh winter Brian goes into a deep depression; completely isolated and with no one to talk to, Brian does what any sane person would do when faced with such a melancholic situation. He builds a robot” (Internet Movie Data Base).
Interview in Danish. The video depicts photographs that were part of the 2015 Copenhagen Photo Festival, including some pictures of nude female dolls. Benita Marcussen: Men & Dolls, 2015.
From last week’s “daily missives” to members of the class:
Williams, Thomas Chatterton. “A Game of Chance.” Harper’s Magazine, October 2020.
Fletcher, Hattie. “How to Avoid Taking Edits Too Personally.” Jane Friedman (blog), October 18, 2022. https://www.janefriedman.com/how-to-avoid-taking-edits-too-personally/.
Dollé, Marie, Quentin Franque, and Benoît Zante. “How Will We Write in 2030?” Substack newsletter. In Bed With Social (blog), October 27, 2022.
Parker, Nick. “Electric Sugar Elopements.” Substack newsletter. Tone Knob (blog), October 28, 2022.
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