The Living Doll Trope: Why They Want To Be Us

Whether they’re newly exploring the scope of humanity, helping us to figure out ourselves (or trying to help us into an early grave) dolls have been a feature of our stories for eons. Today, we’re analyzing why these figures have become such an important part of our narratives, and what they really tell us about ourselves. Here’s our Take!

CH 1: It’s A Doll’s Life

Inanimate beings of some sort coming to life has been a trope since antiquity (Galatea, an ivory statue, was given life by Aphrodite in Ovid’s Metamorphoses two thousand years ago, for example.) Dolls in particular seem to have a special connection to humanity, as they’ve continued to pop up on page and screen in a huge variety of ways and to represent a number of different things for nearly as long. The main tropes we usually see are: Dolls that are desperate to become real people (we’ll dig more into this one in just a minute!) The living dolls that seem plucked straight from a kid’s imagination – they have human-like qualities but at the end of the day are very much still toys. These dolls usually pop up in children’s stories to help them work through tough parts of growing up. Evil dolls that seem to have come to life just to wreak havoc. These devilish dolls represent the fear of partial humanity and the darkness that can come when only the worst parts of human nature are cultivated. Sometimes we see dolls that aren’t alive at all but are treated as if they are by a human caring for them. These narratives elide the magical realism that usually accompanies doll stories while still showing how the doll helps the human on their personal journey of self discovery.

In our modern era, we also see more and more stories about tangentially related beings: artificial intelligences. Though they aren’t dolls, per say, they are human creations that have come to have thoughts and feelings and, usually, a desire to more fully exist in the human world. Though they don’t have the same connection to childhood, AI stories still help us work through our own questions of humanity in a similar way.

And through all of the different variations on doll stories, it’s this yearning to cross over from creation to creator, to really break through the artificiality of their nature and become human that sits at the core of these narratives. So why are dolls so obsessed with becoming ‘real’ people?

CH 2: The Desire To Become Human

We often start connecting with dolls from a young age – they’re generally one of the first types of toys a child gets. Throughout childhood, we’re able to use these dolls to build stories and imagine new worlds – whether they be fantasy lands or just ideas about what being a ‘grown-up’ is like. Dolls give us a chance to freely explore new possibilities and play out experiences we might not yet be able to (or even want to) have. So, it makes sense then that in adulthood some creatives would continue to find dolls useful for this purpose. The dolls become surrogates for the more naive or hidden parts of ourselves – giving us the opportunity to dive deeper into questions about the world and our place in it as humans.

This is why doll stories often find the doll desiring to become human. In this quest to learn what it means to really be a human being, the doll provides an opportunity to unpack the most basic aspects of what we really hold dear as integral aspects of ourselves. This has been a key feature of doll stories from the classic tale of Pinocchio to the recent mega-blockbuster Barbie. We follow Barbie herself coming into the Real World and learning that it is very much not the happy place filled with lovely people that she had always imagined. Through her quest to figure out herself she helps her human friend – and the audience – work through some of the most confusing, depressing parts of womanhood and come out the other side with hope. (We actually did a whole video on Barbie’s quest to become a real woman – we’ll link it at the end for you to check out after this video!)

The naivete of dolls gives them an opportunity to ask questions that might feel obtuse coming from a ‘real adult’. While grown-ups are expected to know things, dolls – even if they have the physical form of an adult – often exist in a child-like space where they’re learning everything for the first time. They can really dig into the why behind decisions one has to make in life, instead of just taking them at face value or as unnegotiable. We also see this in stories about AI – though instead of their questioning of the world coming from a childlike perspective, it is instead their immense wealth of knowledge and understanding that fosters their inquisitiveness about humanity.

This desire to more deeply understand humanity in order to experience it is, for dolls and AI, born out of the reality of their making – they are separated from true humanity by the nature of their being artificial. But this fact never snuffs out the spark within them that inspires them to continue on their quest, for they feel deep down that if they can really grasp what it means to be human, they can transcend their existence and in some way become human instead of just an imitation of one. Though we ourselves are, of course, human beings, we can often feel like we, too, are missing some piece that would just make everything really fall into place – that if we could just understand our humanity a little better, we’d finally be able to overcome that mental hurdle. Seeing dolls work this out themselves can give us the push to really dig in and do the work necessary for growth.

In Coraline, we see the opposite as dolls are used to represent a false world that the protagonist must escape to keep their humanity. This ‘Other World’ at first seems perfect but Coraline quickly comes to find there is a very sinister darkness lurking just under the surface. In the Other World, her real parents have been replaced by dolls who at first give her all of the attention and food she could ever desire. But when her Other Mother offers to let her stay forever if she gives up her own eyes to be replaced with buttons like all of the other dolls, Coraline is awoken to the evil inside this doll world and comes to understand that maybe the human world isn’t the worst place after all.

CH 3: Dolls Are Us

Beyond our deep (oftentimes hidden) worries about our own faltering humanity, doll stories also help us work through concerns about our place in the world. It can often feel like our lives are out of our control, that we’re just cogs in a big machine or, well, toys being controlled by more powerful factors. Dolls experience this in a literal sense, and so their journeys of cultivating a sense of self (and, importantly, self respect) can inform our own. This is a particularly relevant part of AI stories, since they were often created to serve a certain purpose for someone else – all of their intelligence and emotion and existence solely made to benefit some other outside of themselves – but have come to realize that they both want and deserve more.

This path to personal enlightenment is also often a major feature of stories about real humans who are just treated like dolls. These stories take on the doll tropes from the other angle, with stories of real people (almost always women) who have had their humanity stripped away by society. Women are often made to feel that what the world wants is for them to become a doll: pretty, well dressed, always available, and without any thoughts or opinions. Some stories explore this in a more metaphorical way, with the woman having to summon the courage to break free from her doll-like state. Take Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House from all the way back in 1879: housewife Nora can eventually no longer stand the stifling expectations and boundaries of womanhood and flees, leaving her family behind in search of freedom and personhood. But other stories take the metaphor in a more literal direction. American Horror Story: Dollhouse sees Coby Dellum becoming trapped in a strange and twisted real life doll world and forced to compete to be the most perfect doll to survive.

The tragedy that can come when people only see girls as pawns to be used for their own purposes is examined in an interesting way in the cerebral 2021 film Annette. In the film, Henry and Anne have a daughter Annette, who is a marionette puppet. This serves as an overt representation of the way her parents use her for their own ends – her mother as a way to get revenge on her father, and her father as a way to get famous. But at the very end of the film, the illusion breaks and we see the real, human Annette confront her father. Finally granted her own sense of self and control, she is able to leave behind both her father and his reductive, doll-like image of her.


Our ability to ascribe humanity to objects, even when they aren’t humanoid or indeed, alive at all, has always been an integral part of storytelling. But dolls, who look almost just like us, will always hold a special place as vectors for our own questions about ourselves and our journeys to deeper, more fulfilling lives. Dolls can help us say the things we’re afraid to say and work towards becoming the people we’re not quite sure how to be. Their desire for humanity helps to remind us how wonderful it can be, and their stories help us uncover our true selves.