the doll games
shelley and pamela jackson


a scholarly point of view.

"a funhouse

The Doll Games: 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.

The Doll Games cannot be precisely dated. 1970 and 1976 are generally understood to mark the limits of the period of greatest energy and invention, though any attempts to identify an inaugural moment are defeated by the nebulousness of the phenomena under discussion. The Doll Games did not spring fully formed out of a Mattel box, but evolved by degrees out of earlier games (stuffed animals, "Kleenex dolls," Kiddles). When did the Doll Games begin? As Babette Jackson has said, "that depends on how you define doll games." 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.)

The Games' highly conventionalized narratives drew elements from epic, comedy, romance, and farce (tragedy and gothic horror, though deliberatedly excluded from the doll world, visited the Doll Games from without, a point I make in "Laurie Reborn: Death, Resurrection, and the Chaste Hermaphrodite in the Doll Games of Shelley and Pamela Jackson," Per/forma 11, Summer 1998). Giving the Postmodern pastiche a comradely nod but eschewing its cynicism, the Doll Games have confused some critics. Never afraid of acknowledging wish-fulfilment as narrative's primum mobile, the Doll Games presented a resolutely cheerful Weltanshauung, leading some scholars to dismiss them as naive. This scholar, however, would argue that their optimism was a radical gesture, given that the values the narratives affirmed were in stark contrast, certainly to playground norms, but also to those of the larger society around themö a contrast of which the artists were very much aware.

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 Doll Games' privately staged confrontations between androgynes and "dainty ladies," their outlaw utopias and anarchic child societies, and their uncompromising moral vision, cannot be understood without reference to the larger public discourse within which they took place.

The Doll Games held up a funhouse mirror to their times, and what survives of them are historical documents of a wobbly, comical sort. But the Doll Games transcend their epoch. Intricate, obsessional, moral, violent and sexual, funny and tragic, the Doll Games propose doll games as a true folk art form, renewing itself with every performance. Obedient to no rules except those its practitioners invented for themselves, completely collaborative, the Doll Games defined a truly interactive art form. In this theater of two, every audience member was a co-creator.

J. F. Bellwether, PhD