Free Tilikum, or the Transfiguration of Amber Doll: Radical Passivity in Amber Hawk Swanson’s Doll projects

by on Oct.11, 2012


Others have adopted theories of radical passivity here previously; indeed, the blog is saturated in its submissions to art. These conceptions imbue passivity with agency – or rather, resist this passive/agentive binary altogether, instead recognizing the blurriness of boundaries between subject and object, agency and passivity, domination and submission, toward an aesthetics of mediumicity.

At SDS this year (the Society for Disability Studies conference), Eunjung Kim presented a fascinating paper on radical passivity in relation to sex dolls. The paper, “Why Do Dolls Die? The Power of Passivity and the Embodied Interplay Between Disability and Sex Dolls,” published here, poses a provocative intervention into philosophical debates over personhood recently agitated by Peter Singer’s argument for animal rights, which arrived, disappointingly, alongside a disavowal of the right to life/care of severely disabled (such as “totally unconscious”) humans. Sidestepping the problem of categorizing humanness, Kim turns instead to objects – in this case, sex dolls – with the aim of “undermining efforts to deny a being humanness on the basis of object-like status.” Reading sex dolls as an embodiment of disability in films like Lars and the Real Girl and Air Doll, she explores

how doll bodies make visible and enact passivity in its extreme form, thereby creating a condition for accommodation. The ethics of passivity is to recognize the unmodifiable aspect of object being that enables a subject to become an object to be acted upon, and to actualize the other within the self.  (95)

Lars and Bianca at dinner

Bianca, Lars’ RealDoll companion in Lars and the Real Girl, requires physical care and labor such as being bathed, dressed, and lifted into and out of her wheelchair (102). As those around her work to meet Bianca’s needs and fulfill her desires, they endow her with agentive properties. Bianca’s ability to communicate passively seems to extend offscreen as well – here’s Ryan Gosling in the film’s production notes: “Even when she’s not saying anything, she’s communicating everything. It was amazing to watch” (qtd. in Kim 102).

Dolls like Bianca, who seem to glow with a vital agency all the more powerful for being silent, produce a blurriness between subject and object, active and passive – a betweenness that ultimately proves too uncomfortable for their human companions. “Tellingly,” Kim writes, “their immobility, inaction, incommunicativeness, stupor, and catatonia pose such a dangerous challenge to the able-bodied, normative ontology that the dolls in the films must die” (100). Lars stages Bianca’s suicide by drowning and subsequent funeral, then goes on to pursue a “real” (human-human) relationship.



From Swanson’s web site (

In 2007, artist Amber Hawk Swanson ordered a RealDoll, a high-end sex doll, made according to her features and proportions, and named it Amber Doll. According to Swanson, Amber Doll acted not only as a prop for Swanson’s artistic endeavors but also as a personal companion. Crediting Amber Doll as her collaborator, Swanson orchestrated a number of Doll-related projects, including, among other output, a wedding ceremony and surveiled performances involving Amber Doll’s abandonment in public spaces. Where the doll-human relationship in Lars and the Real Girl is romantic and rather chaste, Swanson’s relationship with Amber Doll is often outright sadistic (Swanson’s and Amber Doll’s matching tattoos read “bully” and “prey,” respectively); but their roles shifted constantly, and the project provocatively complicates issues of agency and passivity, subjectivity and objectification, identity and emulation.

Their relationship’s frequent antagonism calls to mind Sianne Ngai’s great reading of Single White Female, which she describes as “a story about the violent production, if ultimately also the destruction, of non-singular female subjectivity, in both cases by means of antagonism between women” (Ugly Feelings 138). Ngai connects this reading to her discussion of antagonism within feminist group formation, asking “isn’t the combining of dual or multiple subjects into a single force or agency precisely the way in which group alliances (even fraught or uneasy ones such as feminism) are formed?” (137). In this context, Ngai reads the film as an animation of social anxiety over feminist alliance via the grotesque compound female subjectivity that Hedy’s emulations of Hedy produce; in the end, Hedy must die.

Amber Doll’s existence also ends in death – if a temporary one. When her personal and collaborative relationship with the doll drew to a close, Swanson staged Amber Doll’s funeral, acting once more as bully by leaving the doll unattended in a surveiled casket. “By the exhibition’s end,” Swanson writes in her artist’s statement, “Amber Doll’s nose had been cut off and the tears in her face had grown deeper. Further damage to her face and body occurred after the exhibition during shipping leaving her nearly destroyed.”

Destroyed, but not actually dead. After a period (of mourning, we might presume), Swanson’s doll project entered a new phase: transformation. In December 2011, Amber Doll’s simulated humanness was reorganized into a replica of Tilkum, a bull orca held captive at SeaWorld Orlando who has killed a trainer and been involved in two other human deaths. Here is the condensed five-minute video of Swanson’s week-long performance of this event (the full performance is documented here):

We can read this video simply as Swanson dismembering an object who’s functioning as her symbolic self; sure. But if we read Amber Doll’s performance as radically passive, it seems possible that Swanson is not simply producing Amber Doll’s transformation but enabling it. Swanson breaks for a massage as though preparing herself for mediumicity. This moment emphasizes her own corporeality in relation to its simulatedness in the dismembered Amber Doll arranged behind her (remember, Amber Doll is made after Swanson, doubling her features and proportions). Read as a collaboration, the performance of transformation blurs distinctions between acted and acted upon.













“The objects demand that a system be created that recognizes them,” writes Kim. “Certain bodies are oppressed not by ‘thingification,’ but by the specific mode of intelligibility with which the thing and other things are treated” (105).

With the transformation of Amber Doll into Tilikum, Swanson’s exploration of compound female subjectivity becomes an exploration of human-doll-animal intersubjectivity. Swanson figures Tilikum in the pose of the entertainer, with tail raised, greeting his spectators, with the collapsed dorsal fin characteristic of orcas in captivity; meanwhile his upward, unflinching gaze, communicates his enforced submission and his history of and potential for violence, inscribed back onto the female-gendered doll body that forms his own. Swanson as doll as Tilikum: the art object flickers with the radical passivity of these co-mingled subjects.


While I was writing this, Kate Durbin posted an essay on VIDA arguing for women as objects. From it:

17. A woman need not consider herself other than object, but rather, instead of rescuing herself from the objecthood inscribed upon her by culture, heroically fighting ideas in the clouds, she may find freedom in the low world of things, in making love to things. …

18. Never forget that an object might transform her indefinitely. Just as any thing in the physical world might mutate, melt, morph, die and be born, crawl and then fly.

19. If we are objects fused to other objects fused to other objects then our life goes beyond this one tiny body, this one prescribed gender, this one old sad song.

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5 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    really interesting post, Megan, especially the section on Swanson’s project, the idea of having a relationship with your own doll self. Reminds me of types of magical thinking (and I don’t mean “magical thinking” in any sort of negative way, though I know the term often has that connotation). But the roles dolls play in vodun and santera, for example. How the interior gets placed “out there,” how the depths of the self or some spiritual thirst becomes a surface, becomes wood and plastic and hair and fabric.

    Swanson’s project reminds me also of Paul Thek’s Tomb, where he made a grotesque effigy of himself. Strangely, it took on a larger symbolic role against his wishes, becoming “the dead hippie” when people spoke about it. As if this doll of the self had been given the weight of some sort of communal meaning. And that’s one of the eerie things about them too, I think. How anonymous a doll can become. Without interiority they’re like strangers we know with an uncanny intimacy. They seemed linked to the sense of deja vu.


  2. Johannes

    Wow, this is a rich post Megan.

    1. One thing I thought about immediately was the relationship of Hans Bellmer’s dolls and the dolls you mention here. How those photographs of female dolls that seem either about to be raped or already attacked, in part perhaps by the camera, which always seem to be in a private space.

    2. I’m intrigued by ow all of these doll works invite violence of sorts (and this is definitely true of Courtney Love – she was amazing in her performances of abjection-adoration). The care of Lars seems creepily violent to begin with and then the suicide is obviously not suicide at all, but homicide. Art has to be killed in order for Lars to live an adult life. Swanson’s double has to be killed to create a narrative, a complete project.

    3. Dolls are often throughout history related to “others”. FOr example there was that Will Smith movie a few years ago when the robots were obvious stand-in for Latin American immigrant workers with their threatening collective energies. I haven’t seen the Lars movie but Lars is an obviously Scandinavian name – immigrant kitsch for sure, the name is comic before the movie even starts – and Bianca looks like she’s black or at least Latin. So there seems to be an interesting subtext about ethnicity. But like I said, I haven’t seen the movie. I will though. Sounds really creepy!

    4. Dolls also tend to be associated (at least in my mind!) with the invention of photography – and the anxiety about doubles, likenesses without interiorities. There are all these movies and plays and stuff from the 1920s about the anxiety surrounding mannequins and dolls.

    5. Disability conferences are always the best. I still remember fondly the one you guys staged at UIC with Judith Halberstam.


  3. megan milks

    James, thanks for these comments! I encourage you to take a look at Eunjung’s paper: it’s got a section on magical thinking and how dolls relate to Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” that relates to some of your points. I had written a short section on how this all connects with transfiguration, then deleted it because I was already writing a fuckton, and forgot to change the title. But in short, this kind of magical thinking potentially functions in transfigurational ways, endowing the dolls with the glow of an “other” subjectivity (LIKE JESUS). And then of course Amber Doll being literally transfigured as Tilikum, her body crossed with/into another’s.

    Johannes, you’re right – Bianca’s death (and Amber Doll’s) is homicide. Your comment on the Will Smith robot film (which I haven’t seen) speaks to the parallels between robot and doll existence, and the parallels in human relationships with them – also how they (esp robots) are used in narratives to teach empathy and openness towards otherness — unless they’re about “bad”/evil robots, dolls, androids, cyborgs, which are all about, as you say, this anxiety over lack of interiority. And Eunjung’s intervention into these debates over personhood in relation to disability is very much in conversation with debates over the personhood of intelligent computers.

    On Bianca’s ethnicity: Lars presents her as a half-Brazilian, half-Danish nurse. Definitely see the movie – it’s fascinating. One of the most interesting aspects of Lars and Bianca’s relationship is its nonsexuality — Lars even asks his brother and sister-in-law if Bianca can live in their home to avoid sullying her/their image. Where asexuality is typically used in narratives to highlight a character’s perversity or dysfunction (the asexual sociopath, for instance, as in Dexter), here it’s used predominantly to de-perversify Lars (since sex dolls are commonly viewed as perverse) and make him more socially/morally acceptable. But it’s not until he “kills” Bianca to pursue a human-human hetero and presumably sexual relationship with a real girl that the narrative can end.

  4. Ross Sélavy Brighton

    @James (and @Johannes) re: dolls, passivity, the spectacle (passive object of observation/surveillance) I’m immediately reminded of a performance peice, I think by Guillermo Gómez-Peña (though I’ve googled for it and not found anything, so I’m not sure), when he displayed himself in a glass case in a museum environment, surrounded by indigenous “artifacts” (arrow heads etc) mixed with artifacts from his life (his high school diploma, birth certificate, etc). And his and Coco Fusco’s Couple in the Cage is kind of similar as well.

    Re: Courtney love, Amber/Doll, passivity and invitation to violence, I’m reminded of Ngai’s observation that the “cute” always entails an element of sadism as an aesthetic judgement – as it kind of so non-threatening and vulnerable that it almost pre-empts the violence that it lays itself open to.

  5. Jeroen Nieuwland

    Thanks, fascinating stuff! As usual, Lars & the Real Girl has a parallel in real life (well many probably, but this one stands out); have you heard about the doll Kokoschka (had?) made in the image of Alma Mahler, after she left him for someone else? (Crazy story no? a friend of mine wrote a play about it actually).

    & then, completely unrelated, there is Takeshi Kitano’s film Dolls: