For my French class, we read an article called “All Dolled Up: The Commodification of Childhood” by Greg Thomas, which is about the commodification of children, particularly young girls, in Impressionist paintings. It was interesting to see how little has changed today. In the article, Thomas sees the Impressionist paintings as propagating a commodification of childhood that arose in the late nineteenth century, where children were seen as “symbolic capital visualizing the affluence and status of their parents and families” (33). These children are the dolls of their parents; miniature versions of them, dressed up to show off their parents’ wealth. Thomas argues that painters like Renoir depict children, particularly young girls, as so doll-like that it is hard to know which of his figures are human girls and which are toys. Not only does this perpetuate the idea of children as commodities, but it also establishes an image of femininity in which girls are passive figures that exist to do housework, look pretty, and please their husbands. Painters like Renoir use the doll trope to make girls look hyper feminine and hypersexual. He gives his subjects soft skin and red lips. In many of the paintings Thomas examines in the article, the viewer is invited to gaze upon women and young girls alike in an erotic and objectifying manner.
Thomas provides an example of the commodification of bourgeois females with Renoir’s painting Mother and Children. The painting depicts a mother walking in the park with two young girls, one of whom holds a doll in her arms. Thomas writes, “The four figures’ rouged white faces, floating lips, blank stares, and frames of fluffy hair bind them all as one commodified type, with luxurious clothing highlighting their high class” (49). Indeed, the figures do all look more like objects than real women. They have flawless, milky white skin as perfect as that of china dolls. They all have the exact same expressionless eyes, like mass-produced dolls. Even the actual doll in the picture has the same, blank eyes as the human subjects. The figures are all rendered erotic by their long, flowing blond hair, which they wear let down. According to Thomas, “femininity is again being cyclically reproduced, with mothers creating and conditioning girls according to popular visual models” (49). This painting teaches girls that there is one type of beauty that they should all reproduce. It is a beauty without character or personality. It is the beauty of a doll–a perfect object with no agency that exists to be taken care of and look pretty. The painting also sends a message that young girls are little adults. We can already look at them in an erotic way, and think of them as mothers, wives, and housekeepers.
The article and the painting reminded me of the documentaries we watched at the beginning of the semester, “Dreamworlds 3” and “Killing us softly 4/Advertising’s Image of Women”. These documentaries showed how women in the media are infantilized while young girls are sexualized. Young girls in the media are often dressed up and covered in makeup–made to appear as doll-like, miniature reproductions of sexualized women. Conversely, grown women are depicted in bright, girly outfits, and posed in silly ways-made to look as dependent as the children they once were. How interesting that in 2013, our media still depicts women pretty similarly to the way it did 150 years ago.
Thomas, Greg M. “Chapter II: All Dolled Up.” In Impressionist Children: Childhood, Family, and Modern Identity in French Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.