Dolls of the ancient world

On Friday, Oct. 2, Brock University professor Fanny Dolansky held a special lecture at Wilfrid Laurier University. In the talk titled “Before Barbie: Girls, Dolls and Adult Ideals in Ancient Rome” Dolansky explained the role that many scholars believe dolls played in the lives of girls, particularly those of an upper class, in ancient Rome.

In her discussion, Dolansky highlighted the “conflicting expectations and ideals that girls were exposed to” through play with dolls.

For one, the jewelery and hairstyles characteristic of such dolls perpetuated a desire for perfection among young females. Even at this time, girls felt compelled to have the right hairstyle and the right appearance. However, at the same time, men were critical of women who groomed themselves too much – believing they were unchaste, or neglecting household duties.

Dolansky explained that “ancient sources [describe girls] as weak and passive and expected to engage in mostly quiet, sedentary activities.”

Additionally, it is suspected by scholars that dolls were used to teach young girls deportment because they had jointed limbs and could be maneuvered into various positions.

However, girls likely allowed the dolls to participate in activities like dancing, running and other traits that would have been discouraged by men of the time.

Lastly, Dolansky reasons that dolls resembling empresses were probably not designed with the same intended purpose as more generic dolls.

These special dolls likely resembled royalty because it was a chance for girls to live their fantasy.

Dolansky’s discussion on dolls of ancient times still has resonance today, whether in issues of body image, gender inequality, or living out fantasies. While Barbie may get a bad reputation the ideals of dolls were already entrenched well before her birth in 1959.

Dolansky is an assistant professor at Brock University. She obtained her bachelor of arts in classical Studies at Trent University, her masters in Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Victoria and her PhD at the University of Chicago where she studied Classics.

While studying children’s plays from Ancient Rome, Dolansky became interested in the influential role dolls play in the lives of young females.