doll collecting is hotter than ever, but is the stigma really gone?
welcome to strong feelings! Essays by writers we love, in which they share their most impassioned opinions on a given subject. If you love our usual advice column — don’t worry it’s not going anywhere. This month for strong feelings, fashion historian and adjunct professor at CUNY Lauren Richter-Suriñach dives deep into doll collection culture, past and present.
Sometime during the wake of the pandemic, I was at a restaurant and overheard the table next to me gushing about Sonny Angels: small, collectible toys of little boys who wear quirky hats. It was that season of the pandemic where everyone was rediscovering forgotten passions and exploring new hobbies. But this was the first time I’d heard people with my specific hobby — doll collecting — discussing it so openly in public. For so long, judgmental stares and comments from non-collectors taught me to separate my hobbies from how I presented myself socially. This cultural shift would shake my world view. Has the stigma started to disappear?
Growing up, the “creepy doll” label tainted any interaction I had with my collection. For many people, there is a big difference between having a friendly and familiar Barbie doll and a whole room lined with big-eyed Blythe dolls. Media has played a big role in this. Movie franchises like “Child’s Play”, or books like Stephen King’s “The Tommyknockers”, cemented the creepy doll trope in the collective consciousness. So much so that when I was young, other children would call my dolls “creepy”. On top of that, it’s often seen as infantilizing when an interest in dolls or toys associated with childhood evolves into a hobby past the accepted age of play. Even by the time I was a pre-teen, my continued interest in dolls signaled to people that I was “immature” for my age. Adult doll collectors are often perceived as people who are maladjusted to societal norms. Over time, myself, like many others, learned to keep our hobby a secret for fear of jeopardizing our social life, and even careers.
But now doll collecting has experienced a resurgence in the post-pandemic world, particularly online. The embrace of authenticity and individuality on platforms like TikTok — in contrast to the meticulously curated Instagram personas of the past decade — has bolstered a newfound visibility of the hobby. The most popular dolls and toys collectors are currently gravitating to are Bratz, Monster High and Sonny Angels figures, for their mix of nostalgia and “trend”. The latter has amassed such a large community that even The New York Times covered its meet-ups where collectors trade and mingle.
“I’ve always liked dolls and wanted to get back into them when I was older and less worried about seeming ‘grown-up’,” says Alexandria Acord, who rediscovered dolls as an adult and has since become a collector. “I’d heard once, a long time ago, that C.S. Lewis dedicated The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to his goddaughter for her to read once she was 'old enough to start reading fairy tales again,' and that quote always resonated with me. Dolls are my fairy tales.”
But the world of doll collecting is tricky, and navigating the intersection of sentimental value and financial investment requires balanced thinking. For many collectors, their collections are worth more than they would like to admit both to themselves and others. From personal experience, trying to explain to non-collectors that my financial investment in “toys” is equivalent to what others spend on designer clothing can often garner judgmental glances, rather than understanding. As a result, fostering an emotional connection with your collection and being thoughtful about preventing undue financial strain is necessary. One common strategy employed by collectors is to pursue their dream doll or "grail girl," allowing them to focus their spend on items that resonate deeply.
The pricing landscape for dolls varies considerably, influenced by factors like rarity and demand. Contemporary commercial-grade dolls like Bratz and Monster High, for example, may be relatively affordable, while older, out-of-production releases of these same dolls can command prices that exceed a thousand dollars. Take for example a 2006 Bratz Class Sasha doll would have retailed around $10-$25 at the time of its release, on eBay it’s listed for around $3000. That being said, higher-end collector's dolls, like Pullip and Blythe, made with higher quality plastics and fabrics, can range from a few hundred at the time of release to several thousand dollars once out-of-production.
While the collectors I interviewed echoed sentiments of happily funding their hobby, the hyper-materialistic aspect of it doesn’t escape them. A collector, who goes by the moniker ‘M’, advises newcomers to approach collection thoughtfully. "It’s an expensive hobby, and it is a very consumerist-centric hobby too. I am still grappling with this side of things as I consider myself fairly anti-capitalist…but a lot of my collecting hobbies do center around physical merchandise, so, I feel like the best I can do is make sure that my items are really being cared for.”
The plastic dolls most modern collectors covet are actually very delicate in nature. This is especially noticeable in commercial-grade dolls meant to take a beating in the short-term by their young owners. If not cared for properly, collections start to deteriorate. This can include plastic melting or cracking, clothing fading and fraying, and hair breaking off. To combat this, many collectors customize rooms to display their collection and shield them from the sun and dust. Setups can range from simple shelving to archival-grade UV blocking display cases.
While entering the world of doll collecting may initially require investment, many collectors have managed to turn their passion into thriving small businesses by using dolls as a canvas for creative expression. Some collectors-artists get into customizing dolls by carving and giving them new “face-ups” to create distinct collectible items. The craftsmanship and artistry that goes into these custom dolls creates household names within the customization community. Charon, who runs the successful Charon Dolls has been able to make a living by customizing dolls, creating her own original dolls, and designing limited-edition clothing collections for them. She tells me “I do feel the stigma but I try to share the joy that I’m feeling through education or simply sharing what I do [...] That takes confidence but it’s also important to keep reminding ourselves that we haven’t done anything wrong; we simply love to play and be creative.” Most often, collectors engage in doll photography where they set up photoshoots using their dolls as models and then share the images with each other on forums, Instagram, and private Facebook groups to foster creativity and bolster visibility for their hobby.
Acord notes that this connection between dolls, fashion, and creativity can also be an extension of self-expression, though not often one she shares openly. “I’m not super confident, so I tend to lean towards dolls with fashions I love but would feel self-conscious about wearing in real life,” she said. “Lots of goth, steampunk, and pastel stuff.” Though the online doll communities provide safe spaces for collectors to express themselves, the social stigma of doll collecting forces many to keep their hobby a secret. Another collector who goes by “cell air” expressed anxiety over this, “I struggle a bit with this stigma that my collecting comes from a lack of maturity, or reverting to a ‘weak girl or woman’... only my IRL close friends and partner know about my collecting, and of course my doll friends online and IRL.” Although she attests to the stigma, she notes that “[…]people in the arts community were very accepting and understanding of my collection, so it's possible I might not have to keep this a semi-secret forever.”
By contrast, when talking to younger collectors, many were more open about their hobby. One such collector, Anya Tisdale, says “ I’ve put so many people onto the things I collect. I talk about it all the time. I take so much pride in the items I have because they’re really cool and I like sharing that with other people”. The matter-of-fact way she says it made me question why I never took this approach myself. My joy for the hobby was tempered by the vastly different society I grew up in, which seemed to have changed in the course of a few short years. As the post-pandemic world unfolds, the changing social media landscape has played a pivotal role in renewing an emphasis on authenticity which is slowly reshaping the perception of doll and toy collecting.
When another collector, Skyli Alvarez, tells me she collects “not so much to heal [her] inner child, but to tap into [it],” it finally clicks with me. It’s almost cathartic for me when she continues, “It’s so fun to look back at my interests and mannerisms, and overall outlook on life as a child and realize I’m the same. If my younger self saw me now she would be happy I didn’t get rid of my dolls.” While still a present issue for some, the stigma that once shrouded the hobby is gradually giving way to a new understanding — a celebration of the artistry, creativity, camaraderie, and emotional resonance that underpin it.