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Enchanted Dolls by Marina Bychkova and the Magic of the Damsel in Distress

Siberian-Canadian artist Marina Bychkova creates the best demonstrations of the ambivalent power of the "damsel in distress" that I have ever seen. Her Enchanted Dolls give me both the desire to look at them all day and an uncomfortable awareness of the way other people may or may not look at me (and, in the near future, my daughter) as an objectified woman.

Here are a few pictures of Bychkova's work on Pinterest, the only imaginary world where I can afford to "collect" these dolls. (Thanks to writing friend Christina Mitchell for the tip--that's her face floating on the left edge of the screen!)

Bychkova's Enchanted Dolls provoke the same visceral response in most people who see them--the desire to gaze at them endlessly and to hold and touch them. They are all little damsels in distress--small, fragile, feminine, beautiful, childlike, sad, sexual, anatomically correct, and disturbingly lifelike. Interestingly, the things that make them look weak or vulnerable give them the greatest emotional impact.

But they sound sort of like an ad for violent pornography, right?

Except that they are also explicitly expensive. The dolls are not only dressed as precious princesses, queens, and mythical fairies, but they are actually made of valuable materials and meticulously hand-crafted. The opposite of disposable "trash," these are objects that elicit the desire to keep them locked up in velvet cases or displayed atop a stack of the softest doll mattresses.

I think we've all met that person--male or female--who is ready to denigrate, even abuse, one woman based on her so-called "weaknesses" even as they worship another woman with similar traits. I believe that sometimes the belief that it is acceptable to dominate, bully, or manipulate a woman has to do with the abuser's perception of her social class.

I am not going to pretend that I'm an ethereally gorgeous wee maiden, but I am a woman who fits the most basic beauty standards of the culture I live in: thin, fair, and well under 40. This is a major set of privileges that marks me as inherently valuable, unlike women of a different age, shape, or complexion. I know that the genetic lottery, and my stage in life, protect me from a lot of discrimination--and it's an icky knowledge, that some of the good things in my life have come to me through no effort of my own, and that other women who put forth all the same good energies into life get less in return. These enchanting dolls remind me of that superficial value placed on a certain female appearance, which makes me uncomfortable.

These dolls also remind me of the sickening reality that when I go out in public alone looking unkempt, like a "cheap" skinny blonde bitch (no makeup, glasses on, ratty clothes--not cheap as in hot-to-trot but cheap as in not rich or important), I get harassed and followed by greasy dudes. And when I go out in public dressed to the nines (much more attractively and also like I'm a person of higher social standing), I get compliments but zero creeper aggressions. People treat me like I'm valued, adored, and respected instead of an easy target. The lower elements don't even make eye contact with me let alone cross the path I'm walking in six-inch heels.

That ambivalent power of appearing non-threatening, pleasing, submissive, and objectifiable [white, non-poor, thin, and young] comes with a protective power that makes other people want to help me and is also dangerous at times, flagging me as an attractive target for predators. As I get older and the effects of my appearance mellow out, I feel a sense of relief and also an increased nausea each time I look back on my life, as if I have been climbing a mountain, and the drop looks deeper the further I move away.

Maria Bychkova's work makes me think of so many revolting, stunning, powerful, and beautiful truths about existing in the world as a feminine woman. Exploring photo galleries of her works has given me a boost of inspiration for writing my next twisted damsel-in-distress fairy tale novel. I highly recommend that you also take a closer look at Bychkova's Enchanted Dolls... but not at work!


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