Power, Patriarchy, and Playing with Dolls: Introduction to “The Dollhouse”

I began The Dollhouse to explore my personal history as an adoptee as well as to interrogate the ideas of identity, feminism, and home. When I was a child, I wanted to control the world because, as an adoptee, I felt I had no control. Children play to control the world. Tiny themselves, we create even smaller worlds populated by all sorts of figures, friends to have tea with, monsters to defeat, new microcosms to explore what is inside us via the outside world.

I often created dioramas, imagining myself into another life. It didn’t matter the tiny stage, these were worlds into which I disappeared for an afternoon.

When I was 29, I learned that my birthmother had become pregnant with me and had been sent away to a home for unwed mothers—The Guild of the Infant Saviour, in Manhattan—I realized we had more in common than just the circumstance of my birth: we both had disappeared inside fantasy worlds. Mine was tiny, imaginary, and voluntary; hers was all too real.

Creating worlds through play allows me to design utopias where women rule on a 1:12-scale. Dolls and dollhouses represent a hyper-sexualized way of thinking about women. I wanted to turn that idea on its head and acknowledge its power.

Much of what I write about is what I’ve deemed the Adoption Diaspora. What I mean by that is that being an adoptee feels like living a duality of self and other; of darkness and light; of home and metaphorical homelessness. This concept reminds me a bit of The Upside Down in Stranger Things, which like the majority of my childhood took place in the 80s. Being a woman and an adoptee makes me feel frozen in time, and held in place by something beyond my control; maybe it’s society, it’s definitely the patriarchy of this administration with their Madonna/Whore mindset and caveman-like way of thinking about women.

Whose culture do I claim as my own, the one I was born into, or the one I was adopted into? How do I return home when the concept of home itself shifts and transforms beneath my feet the more information I find? I feel between two cultures. How does that affect my notion of my identity and myself? Who can I claim to be? Adoption, you see, is its own form of erasure.

I suppose that’s why I love the control that The Dollhouse brings. But control is also about comfort. Controlling my environment means being comfortable in my environment. What greater control than my Herculean hands moving furniture, people, babies, and an entire dollhouse around at will? To me, that feels powerful. It feels like I am responsible for my destiny.

The Dollhouse has been called many things – dark, creepy, weird, awesome. I’ve had my images scrubbed from Facebook for “offensive content” (whatever that means, I mean we’re talking women and babies!) I wear this as a badge of honor. The images have recently taken a dystopian turn thanks to this political administration.

You’ll notice that there is only one man in the Dollhouse and he’s dressed in a crisp suit, completely out of scale, with his arm extended around no one in a dance with an invisible partner; maybe with himself. In the Dollhouse he is always the butt of the joke. So be it. We can talk about absent fathers and the patriarchy all day long, especially given the current political climate.

We can also talk about fathers who are present, and feminist men who support women. I will talk with them and about them, but they aren’t who I’m focused on in my Dollhouse.

Play is a means of escape and a form of communication. Is it any wonder therapists use play with children to draw out their trauma narratives? As women, we are mining a collective trauma that’s playing out politically. It’s little wonder then, that these highly sexualized dolls with their vacant Stepford Wives stares, and the hard plastic babies with painted clothes scratched off from years of play, are frozen in time. Isn’t that how we feel too? We’ve fought long and hard for our rights, our bodies, and our lives. We won’t turn back time.

What I like most about the Dollhouse is the feeling of joy I get from being anonymous. I am not one, but all of the dolls; I am all the babies. They are my alter egos and my superpower. I’m everywoman in my dollhouse. I’m pissed-off, loving, vulnerable, powerful, snarky, smart, a virgin, a slut, a whore, mother, daughter, girlfriend, and lover. In real life I am all these things too. I’m complicated. Aren’t we all?

As an adoptee, what I’ve found with my play is that I’m circling around the idea of finding home. A real home, a place that is mine and mine alone. The more I play, the more I find that the feeling of home needs to come from a place deep inside of me. Maybe a home isn’t a physical structure. Maybe it’s a metaphor for residing comfortably within my own skin and finding peace.

With this political maelstrom raging outside, peace – true peace – seems to be the only thing that matters.

Does this tiara make the patriarchy look fat?


Megan Culhane Galbraith’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Longreads, Catapult, PANK, The Coachella Review, Hotel Amerika, Beyond, The Manifest Station, The Review Review, and Literary Orphans, among others. A fellow of The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and The Saltonstall Foundation, she directs the GIV/Young Writers Institute at Bennington College, was a Scholar at BinderCon, and a finalist for the 2015 AWP WC&C Scholarship judged by Xu Xi. She’s at work on a hybrid memoir-in-essays titled, The Guild of the Infant Saviour, which explores motherhood, the tension between nature and nurture, the transformation of New York City, and the many forms of shame and surrender. It will incorporate photos from The Dollhouse. Megan is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars.

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