The Doll Games is a hypertext project that documents a complex narrative game that Shelley and Pamela Jackson used to play when they were prepubescent girls, and frames that documentation in faux-academic discourse. In “sitting uneasily between” different styles of discourse, the work enlists the reader to differentiate between authoritative knowledge and play. Although the dolls in question are “things of childhood,” the project reveals that in the games the authors used to play with these dolls, one can find the roots of both Pamela and Shelley’s “grownup” lives: Shelley’s vocation as a fiction writer, and Pamela’s as a Berkeley-trained Ph.D. in Rhetoric. Throughout, the project plays with constructions of gender and of identity. This is a “true” story that places truth of all kinds in between those ironic question marks. The Doll Games is a network novel in the sense that it uses the network to construct narratives in a particularly novel way. The Doll Games is also consciously structured as a network document, and plays in an ironic fashion with its network context.
The Doll Games explores the boundary between triviality and seriousness, challenging the reader to separate the tongue-in-cheek from the authentic. The introduction to the project establishes the tone of the work as a whole:
As scholars and artists look closer to home for inspiration, and once-despised genres reveal wondrous molecular structures under the lenses of academe and art, the doll games remain the province of what we still fondly and dismissively refer to as ‘little girls.’
The Jackson sisters conclude that the concept of “little girl” itself must be interrogated, that the “little girl must be defrocked.” The project of The Doll Games is at once a mockery of the New Historicist strategy of unearthing historically neglected genres and recontextualizing them within a framework of identity politics, and a fairly thorough utilization of that strategy on the authors’ own personal fictions, the games they played as young girls.
From the title page of the work on, the authors play with the semiotics of network communication. The title page offers three images, the title of the work, and the authors’ names. The three images are mysterious close-up photos of dolls: the neck and jaw of one, the drawn-on lips and nose of another, and the third a witch doll’s mouth. Moving the mouse over each image pulls up another: a “naked” doll photographed from behind, a doll with enormous eyes painted blue, and an abstract image that might be the “sex” of a doll. Yet clicking on each image leads the reader nowhere. The gray title of the work, the most static element on the page, is the only one that links to the rest of the project. The splash page draws the reader to certain elements, which in turn refuse to yield. From its first page, The Doll Games signals that the reader cannot expect the work to yield easy meanings, but will require unconventional and non-trivial effort.
The first page past the title page, which includes the “serious” introduction mentioned above, also includes a small gray footer with the keywords “...doll sex, doll mutilation, transgender dolls, prosthetic doll penises, doll death, doll dreams....” These keywords may be intended to cue readers as to the content of what will follow, but they also serve a function in how this particular HTML page will be read by the network. The Jackson sisters likely knew how search engines operate, and placed these keywords conspicuously on the front page in order to draw a particular readership for the work. Indeed, for a time The Doll Games was the first site returned by a Google search for “doll mutilation.” The savvy placement of phrases such as these by the Jackson sisters can be used to draw readers to network literature, in this case readers who are pre-qualified as interested in The Doll Games by virtue of their interest in doll mutilation.
The Doll Games is a metafiction. At its center are the actual games that Shelley and Pamela Jackson played in their youth. The section of the work titled “definition” and subtitled “a funhouse mirror” is ostensibly written by J. F. Bellwether, Ph.D., a scholar who has made the study of a “ground-breaking series of theatrical performances by Shelley and Pamela Jackson that took place in a private home in Berkeley, California in the first half of the 1970’s” a focus of his scholarly work. This section serves two narrative functions: it places the work within a mock- academic mode of satire and underneath that satire establishes the project as a serious investigation of the relationship between play and gender roles. Bellwether’s voice is that of an audaciously self-important scholar:
The ending point of the doll games is easier to locate, though too much weight has been placed on Shelley Jackson's famous dictum (1976): “People are more interesting than dolls.” (I argue this point at greater length elsewhere; see “Did the Doll Games Ever End?” Postmodern Culture MDXIXVIIIIIX.)
Bellwether situates his commentary as if he is fighting for turf within a critical industry centered on this game played a quarter of a century ago by two young girls in Berkeley. At the same time, Bellwether’s introduction offers the authors’ likely motivation for putting the project together:
The doll games emerged in Berkeley, California at a time when race, gender, politics, and sexuality were fiercely and publicly debated. Indeed, as the dolls were taking their first steps toward literary history, the artists' family was opening a feminist bookstore just down the street from People's Park. The Jacksons’ privately staged confrontations between androgynes and “dainty ladies” took place in the context of a public discourse on gender of which they were, therefore, entirely aware. That the artists took both parts (and all their myriad refractions and reflections), changing identity and gender at will, not only reveals the inherent flexibility of the form, but goes some distance toward explaining why these games still hold their mystery after all these years.
The placement of the project within a satirical framework at the outset has the odd effect of enabling the authors to seriously explore the formation of their own identities through their girlhood play. Because they approach the topic from self-effacing, comic perspectives, the authors are able to offset any ridicule that may have been directed at the project were it a “serious” academic project. The Jacksons employ comedy strategically, striking an ironic pose in order to employ the tools of theory on material that they might have been unable to address in an official academic context.
The Doll Games is a self-consciously polyvocal work. In the section titled “Introductions,” Shelley and Pamela each introduce the games and establish the focus of their adult interest in them. A third voice, that of the fictional editor Bellwether, intrudes in a footnote to note that the introductions are “marred by the self-consciousness which stifled the project in its infancy.”
His note is followed by a link to his own introduction, which concludes with the question that the reader will of course ask: “Is it possible that I am neither the critic nor the audience, but just the latest dummy of the Jackson girls...?”
The third voice complicates our understanding of the work as collaboration. Did the two authors construct Bellwether’s voice together? In what sense is the critic’s voice the “real” voice of the work? Is the critic the construct, or is each of the “Shelley” and “Pamela” voices just as artificial as the fictional third?
The section of the work entitled “dolls” makes effective use of visual rhetoric to establish the dolls as both “characters” and as possessions that reveal something about their owners. The section resembles a cross between a museum catalog and a series of character sketches. Each of the twenty pages includes a doll’s name, a paragraph about its “personality,” role in the game and/or provenance, and a photo of the doll. The photographs are particularly effective as “texts” in that they present the dolls not only as objects but also as representations of the particular characteristics that the girls ascribed to them. The photograph of “poet and libertine” Harvey shows a small doll with an oversized head and engorged member, shot in a kinetic blur against a cloud of red smoke. The photograph of Alanzo, the “darkly handsome” pirate, shows only his head from his eyes to his suave black hair, reinforcing the mystery that the girls ascribed to him. The written descriptions of the dolls, their roles, and their various mutilations wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without this visual component, the “photographic evidence” of each doll’s actuality.
The “artifacts” section of The Doll Games consists of a “Catalog of Objects Pertaining to the Doll Games of Shelley and Pamela Jackson, Omitting Manuscripts and Other Written Ephemera, which are Itemized Elsewhere.” The section provides descriptions of the various accessories and objects in alphabetical order. The objects—such as an apron, set of two barbells, barrette and bathroom commodities—are described in very dry, evidentiary terms, and not within the context of particular narratives. The editor notes that the list of objects “assembled cannot possibly fulfill the illustrative function for which they are intended, and serve as much to repulse understanding as to invite it.” Rather than clarifying or dictating meaning, the list of objects challenges the reader to in a sense join in the games, by imagining how the objects might be used within narratives involving the dolls that were cataloged in the previous section of the work.
The “documents” section of the work is a “Catalog of Manuscripts and Other Written Ephemera” supposedly written not about the dolls, but by them. Thus we have, for example, “Dieting the easy way by Dawn” and “Moments with Mara by Harvey.” Each of the manuscripts is presented in its entirety, along with scholarly and archival notes by the editor. The high seriousness and probing nature of the editor’s comments are juxtaposed with the juvenile epistolary style of the manuscripts themselves. The “documents” section effectively mixing discourse styles to show that the same cultural artifacts that might be casually discarded as playthings can take on deeper significance when they are filtered through academic discourse.
The “commentary” section of the work includes a variety of materials that contextualize the games in different ways. A timeline offers six historical periods running from “Prehistory” to “Decadence” and “Decline.” A glossary offers a list similar to the artifacts section. Rather than serving as a device to explain particularly complex terms specific to the work, however, the entries in the glossary explain the particular use of simple terms within the context of the games, e.g. “Money: No money was exchanged in the doll games. Dolls scavenged, stole, and crafted their own goods in the subsistence economies of pirate ship, outlaw den, desert island and orphanage.” The glossary helps to reinforce the idea that the games became a private world, with its own constructed culture and mythologies.
The “commentary” section also includes two drawings, one a comic by Pamela, showing a young girl curled up in bed with two dolls, waking to perform mock cunnilingus on one of the dolls, and the other a self-portrait of Shelley as Harvey, the libertine doll. These images serve to reinforce the idea that the dolls served as external projections of each girl’s internal process of gender/identity formation. This section also includes separate journals written by Pamela and Shelley as they put the project together, reflecting both on specific aspects of the games and self- consciously on the progress of the project itself. Pamela’s journal is constructed as a footnote-style hypertext, wherein specific phrases such as “nasty, dirty Eden” link to mock-scholarly references, which open in small separate windows. Shelley’s journal by comparison is more conventional, including sections numbered by days, each ruminating on a specific topic. The term “commentary” doesn’t necessarily describe the variety of material in this section. Each of the subsections varies in style and substance from the others. They are linked rather by the fact that they are all conscious recollections by the two adults, looking back on how the games shaped and informed their identities, and to an extent the way that they relate to others. Pamela writes in her journal, “Since doll games I have had Jesse/Lauries in my life... and Harveys and Willys... and Ainas... but never a big Josh*.” For each of the two authors, the doll games never actually ended but continued to develop into a kind of private language, a framework through which they still interpret their adult relationships.
The “tapes” section of the project continues the double meta-commentary of the journals —asking both “What were doing when we played the doll games?” and “What are we doing as we put this project together now?”—but in dialogue format. The conversation (or conversations) between Shelley and Pamela was presumably transcribed from an actual taped conversation. This transcript is divided into twenty-five sections, each given a specific subject heading. The section “webs of reference” bears particular relevance in understanding the project as a network novel. Shelley Jackson writes (or said):
S: I remember being fascinated with making something real by creating its history, and creating this body of documentation that in the non-fictional way made up a web of references that made the things of the world seem really real because they were referred to from all different directions. Which seems like a very postmodern art project, and also somewhat like a hypertext.
The Doll Games is a referential web. It’s worth noting that while all of the material in the project refers to the games of make-believe that the authors played as young girls, the individual games of make-believe themselves are never presented as coherent narratives. The authors approach the material from a variety of directions, using a variety of discourse styles and disciplinary approaches. The project is by turns an academic study, a psychological analysis, a documentary, a “making of” special, an archeological investigation, a photo study, and a comic book. The narrative structure is decentralized and fragmented. Like many works of hypertext fiction, The Doll Games resists tidy closure. The project makes the world of the games seem “really real” not by framing the games as a coherent narrative, but by spreading them across many varied discourse networks.
The last section of the work, the “interviews” section, places the specific doll games played by Shelley and Pamela Jackson in a wider context. The first two interviews, one with Shelley and Pamela’s mother and father and another with their younger brother, are specific to their games, but the remaining seven are with other writers, and tell of each writer’s relationships and games with their own dolls. This section is the area where the project is likely to continue to expand. The Jacksons include a “note to contributors” subtitled “come play” that asks readers to email in their own doll stories, and asks a specific set of seven questions to guide those contributions. The “note to contributors” also forbids explicit mention of Barbie dolls: “You- know-who will be called B***** on this web site, for our own protection, and to draw attention to the astonishing tactics of a certain little lady's lawyers.” The words “astonishing tactics” are an external link that leads to trademark.org, a site that details the extent to which Mattel has gone to protect its trademark.
Readers’ contributions to the interviews section of The Doll Games were reviewed and edited by The Doll Games’ authors. The authors warn that they “may also reject your contribution if we take a strange dislike to your email address, if your findings don't support our theories, if we have recently been rejected ourselves, or if we wish to give ourselves a feeling of power.” By including these other doll/identity narratives and by including the link detailing the Mattel trademark disputes, the Jacksons expand the project’s frame of reference. The exploration of the Jackson doll games becomes resituated as a case study within the universe of “all doll games.”
The Doll Games establishes its “literariness” through its self-consciousness as textual artifice. The authors constructed the work in such a way that its form echoes its content. The Doll Games itself becomes a game for its readers to play. The project is more potential narrative—the stories that readers are encouraged to construct from the wide variety of materials the authors have provided them—than it is a recounting of the actual games that Shelley and Pamela Jackson used to play. The authors can’t provide the reader with the same experiences of the game as they had when they were young. That central text exists only in their memories, or rather in their reconstructions of their memories, and is essentially unknowable. All that remains of their games are artifacts, interpretations of those artifacts, and interpretations of those interpretations. The Doll Games is a collection of texts describing and reinterpreting an absent center. Through their use of the fictional critic Bellwether, the authors of The Doll Games call into question the “triviality” of childhood play. Is Bellwether’s erudite historical analysis of the games, after all, any less trivial than the games themselves? The Doll Games suggests our understanding of the world is always mediated through texts, and artfully calls into question the ways that we distinguish between forms of knowledge. It flattens distinctions between traditionally privileged forms of discourse and others, such as the distinctions between a critic’s commentary on an experience, a transcribed conversation about that experience, and a comic drawn by an author reflecting on that experience. Ultimately, the serious “adult” format of the case study is equivalent to the box that the two girls used to contain their dolls. The text of The Doll Games itself is a language game, a work of literature that encourages its readers to “come play,” and to create meaning from that play.
Note: Adapted from Destination Unknown: Experiments in the Network Novel by Scott Rettberg. PhD Dissertation, the University of Cincinnati, 2003. URL: http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi?acc_num=ucin1044275671