Dakota Rose. (image from Galleryshooter.com)

The internet was once heralded as an egalitarian space holding all of the world’s knowledge just a few clicks away. New identities could form and gain power and respect online in a way that wasn’t possible in our white-, Western-, and male-dominated physical world. Donna Haraway‘s “Cyborg Manifesto” claimed that an embracing of our cyborg nature could liberate the contemporary female from male oppression. No matter what you like and who you are, the argument goes, there is a community for you online.

The internet gives us a space where communities can form that transcend location, sex, money, race, gender, and so on, and we have used it as such. There are chat-rooms for any problem, whether it’s troubles with alcohol, cancer, suicidal urges, or any item of a never-ending list. There are communities of stargazers, hackers, artists, Shih Tzu lovers, and everything in between. Fantastic, right?

Yet early on in the internet’s history, one of the quickest subjects to spread was pornography. Just as every interest has its niche, so does every fetish. It turns out giving humans free range revealed some of our darker desires and fantasies. The egalitarian platform meant that we also gave the worst of us a platform to speak. A book could be written about the emergence of websites dedicated to promoting the KKK, Monster Porn, or pro-anorexia (also known as pro-ana), not to mention the anti-icon Two Girls One Cup (no link necessary). We would probably benefit from such a book. Now, I am going to focus on just one specific genre of fetishistic online movement — Living Dolls.

I would never claim that Living Dolls as a movement emerged because of the internet, but their huge online presence and following has certainly bolstered their visibility. Social websites, be it chatrooms or YouTube, have helped promote and continue to push intensely unnatural body images onto women, causing amongst many other phenomena, this strange physical aesthetic.

Living Dolls are women or girls who make themselves appear to be just that: living breathing dolls. They dress up, wear make up, get plastic surgery, use camera tricks, and Photoshop themselves to embody a hyperreal notion of beauty that is unhealthy and unrealistic. Some of the more infamous Living Dolls are Valeria Lukyanova, Dakota Rose (blog and YouTube channel, and Venus Palermo.

Valeria Lukyanova. (image from Lettera43.it)

Scrolling though Lukyanova’s website of nearly 11,700 heavily photoshopped images of her extensively-edited body makes me queasy. Maybe I am missing something; maybe I am applying my own notion of what my ideal woman is onto these women; maybe they are taking control of their bodies and very carefully creating the image they like best. Although certainly artificial, this doesn’t seem to be the cyborg future Haraway had hoped for, however. It is a surreal feeling looking at a photograph of a living woman which for all intents and purposes looks like a Barbie doll. It’s like a bad horror movie character stepped out into the real world.

While Lukyanova is a model, Dakota Rose and Venus Palermo are YouTube sensations. For example The Sun writes about Palermo’s expensive and thorough Living Doll lifestyle and its online popularity:

With more than 30,000 subscribers on her official YouTube channel, plus a 20,000-strong following on Twitter and Facebook… Her 85 tutorials on her YouTube site, VenusAngelic, have been watched 10 MILLION times — with one on creating doll-like make-up seen a staggering 1.6 million times.

Polermo is 15 years old, and with the help and encouragement of her mother, plans to maintain the Living Doll look her entire life. Not only has Polermo and others embraced an unhealthy and un-empowered image, they are celebrated online for this very feat.

Venus Palermo. (image from whatsonshenzhen.com)

Possibly the most disturbing aspect of Palermo and Rose’s online presence is that their fame comes from revealing the secrets behind their Living Doll look. While there are many famous people who have turned to plastic surgery and other means to cover up their natural appearances, the Living Dolls are often embracing and spreading the techniques as much as the look — a quality that unfortunately means Living Dolls are going to most likely going to become more common in the near future.

In fact, Dr. Babak Azizzadeh, a well-known plastic surgeon recently noted “a significant increase in women between the ages of 30 and 40 years old undergoing cosmetic procedures.” It would be a huge stretch to blame Living Dolls or the internet for this increase, but one good place to look might be Hollywood. In “The perfect woman, according to Hollywood plastic surgeons” they write:

Just combine: Taylor Swift’s hair, January Jones’ cheeks, Natalie Portman’s nose, Scarlett Johansson’s lips, Halle Berry’s jaw line, Amy Adams’ skin and Penelope Cruz’s body.

The perfect woman in their eyes, it seems, is more like a Living Doll than anyone I’ve ever met, and that is depressing indeed.

Hollywood aside, another obvious influence on the Living Girls is Kawaii, the Japanese term for cute and lovable. Catapulted across the globe through anime, Kawaii has become a popular look in most countries. Of course the internet quickly spread a pornographic version of the Kawaii style, known as Hentai (NSFW, of course). The horrifying question I think the multiplying number of Living Dolls invariably asks is, will society demand an X-rated, Hentai-version of the Living Dolls fad just as it did to Anime?

What is important to remember is that Valeria Lukyanova, Dakota Rose, and Venus Palermo are products of their globalize culture. They are representatives of Kawaii, of social media, and Hollywood. It is un-productive to dismiss these young women as freaks and blame them for sharing online. The important issues to investigate are which systems led to their popularity. I hope that Hollywood and fashion designers begin to use more healthy models. I hope chat room moderaters do take these issues seriously.

In fact, although the internet has offered these young women a platform to share their hyper-sexualized and submissive look with the world, it will be the internet that offers young woman an alternative. Chat rooms both pro and against healthy body ideals are on the rise, my only hope is that those supporting healthy life-styles and self-respect are, or become, the most popular.

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...

7 replies on “Living Dolls”

    1. So you think that the Living Doll image is not new? I think Vogue has certainly influence these women and continued un-healthy standards for women, but I see Living Dolls as more extreme or a newer step.,.

  1. Well I didn’t know this existed, I think it is interesting to compare them to someone like Orlane who did also show her body transformations through the net widely. Although the intention may be different and the empowerment in her case could work.

  2. First, very cool that you’re covering Living Dolls on hyperallergic. I’ve been obsessed/fascinated with these girls for a long time and I don’t want to rant here, so just 3 comments:

    1) I feel compelled to clarify that Hentai is not a pornified version of Kawaii. Hentai, I would argue, stems from a long tradition of visual production of sexual – and not always explicit – images in Japan, while the Kawaii trend is a relatively recent phenomena since post-war Japan (look at Murakami’s work which directly engages kawaii and Japanese infantilism). Regardless, even if my understanding of the origin is incorrect, kawaii and hentai are in fact separate (although similar) modes of cultural production.

    2) Also, dude. Rule 34. (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/rule-34)

    3) I think it’s important to note that Venus and Dakota are coming from the makeup tutorial youtube sphere, a prolific outpour of women sharing tips and step by step directions for makeup and hairstyles. To say that their videos are “disturbing” because they reveal their “secrets” is a tad hyperbolic, IMHO 🙂

    That’s all – Thanks for listening!

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