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An interview with Marica Innocente about dolls, robots and gender roles

Marica Innocente is a photographer, sex worker and activist. I got in contact with Marica through her website DOLL$ which at the time dealt with dollification, a subject that I was interested in for STILL LIFE. I ended up interviewing some other people interested in dollification [1] for Issue 2 but finally met Marica and we had a wide-ranging conversation about gender roles and sexuality, starting with how they had left dollification behind. This interview includes a reference to rape and violence.

Marica Innocente: My thesis in 2011 was about dolls versus robots. It was about how being fake and feminine is recognised as looking like a doll but if you are a person who is asexual or masculine you are like a robot. It’s really interesting that feminine robots - gynoids - always have the semblance of a doll. My aesthetical research was on that; I define myself as gender fluid, but I recognise totally my body as feminine. Also because I grew up as a girl all the social construction and everything they told me was that I have to be pretty and I have to be delicate, I have to be like a doll basically. And I don’t think it depends on where you are born, in my opinion it’s all over the world. Unless we are coming from a really small tribe or a really small village where there is another kind of mentality, all the world is similar. It’s really distinguishing by gender. With LGBT+ rights, actually we don’t want to conform to a gender and we don’t want to think in binary. But actually the world for ages has been thinking like that so it’s really difficult to move forward. It will take a century, maybe: I’m not studying anthropology so I don’t know, an anthropologist will be more accurate about that.

My research was addressing this only from the feminine side: because that is how I recognise myself inside of this spectrum and I cannot analyse the masculine side of it. Dollification for me was a fetish when I was little because I was like, “Oh, I really want to look pretty and I want to please my grandparents.” But it was really conflictual with…basically if you are a woman now, it’s really difficult to be intelligent, cultured and pretty. Usually if you are intelligent and cultured it is really difficult to be defined as pretty. There is always something really grotesque ifyou don’t behave the way society wants a pretty girl to behave.

Hamish MacPherson: The grotesque; is that an internal value or can people see it?

MI: Grotesque is a term I really like. It’s from the dark ages. You know when you see something is really beautiful but there is also something weird and morbid about it, like a stuffed animal for example. You think, “Oh this animal is nice but it’s dead!” and it gives you some weird feeling. And I think when you see someone who is…I mean you can be cultured and beautiful but not intelligent. But beauty is a concept I will not use, because it’s giving you a sense of being only physically attractive and not mentally. The word ‘intelligent’ comes from the Latin intelligere, which means ‘I create connections’ so you can have a lot of culture but not be able to connect the things that you have in your knowledge. And if you are cultured and intelligent it’s difficult for people to perceive you as pretty. It’s also really difficult for a person, in my opinion, to be cultured and intelligent while behaving inside the standard society. This is why a lot of people, in my opinion, suffer from mental illness right now; because they can’t behave like they want to. The social construct is obliging us to keep certain things to ourselves or not to say certain things because they are ‘weird’ or ‘too much’. And as well, if someone is an intellectual they cannot let themself go to their primal instinct. To be human is to be like an animal so all we have is a perception that can never be reached, like the image of god. So I really like the idea of dollification because it’s something you can only aesthetically reach but it’s intellectually impossible.

HM: What do you mean intellectually impossible? Doesn’t it require…well there’s lots of different kinds of dolls…but often it requires a performance, a passivity…

MI: For me, dollification is not about passivity. It is about giving aesthetic pleasure and to be perfect aesthetically. That’s it. But I’m not thinking about that in a sexual way. For me a doll is like the one you give to your children to play; without sex. It’s maybe feminine but it’s completely asexual. I will talk in terms of objectification if it’s a totally sexual doll because you are treating something in a human shape like an object. This is why I distinguished between dollification and objectification in my research and it was really difficult to make people understand. If you go through a lot of body modification, so you take dollification really seriously, you can’t go back, there is a part of you screaming, “I’m like a doll, not an object”. It’s both for children and like something something human. Like a robot. Again, a robot is supposed to help humans to do tasks or to be intelligent or to calculate. A gynoid is basically a crossover between a robot and a doll.

HM: You say dollification is an aesthetic endeavour. Where does another person come in into this? Because my mind goes to the idea that it’s about image-making or the visual transformation of the body through clothes, make up or body modification. But whether it’s sexual or not, there’s often an interpersonal dimension to that, for example being posed.

MI: This is why I talk about objectification and not dollification because when you want to be used as a doll sexually, it is more about wanting to be an object; an object which is like a doll. There are some people that really enjoy to be furniture for example. [2] There is a really amazing Japanese book about that called The Yapoo. [3] It’s a book written during the 50s by a Japanese man and he’s talking about differences between races. There is a gynarchy [4] and white women are in power and white men are a lower level and Asian people are treated as animals and bred to be heavily body modified as sexual objects or furniture.

It was written by this Japanese man after the war. You know, it’s really…I’m a quarter Japanese and it’s really difficult because basically Japanese people are quite conservative and when they lost the war, there was this confusion between being amazed by the arrival of western culture, and the humiliation of how the war ended. There was this really weird feeling of, “Okay, we lost a war and we are really proud of our country.” At the same time they were thinking, “Oh they brought us from the Dark Age to the 50s…all the music, all the books.’ It was a lot to go through for them, they were having this love hate relationship and some of them were starting to become more conservative and the other ones were more like, “Okay I want to be like them” and they were thinking they were inferior to western people. The book was censored for ages. It was wasn’t published in Italy until 1995. And it was published in the seventies in a manga form in France. It’s really, really difficult to find a copy. I think you can find it in English. But for ages I could only get it in French because in Italy it was censored.

[We took a break during which time I looked up Yapoo online.]

Shotaro Ishinomori (1971) Gekiga Kachikujin Yapoo Volume 1 Chapter 6

HM: The book is really extreme in its portrayal of a racist, dehumanising future society.

MI: If you translate that in drawing it looked like a David Cronenberg movie. Actually Cronenberg and David Lynch tried to find someone who would finance a movie made from that book and they never found anyone. I found out about this book because I was working for a Japanese dungeon in London and the mistress of the dungeon gave me a copy and I thought to myself, “This is interesting but where is the Manga from?”

HM: I was wondering if we could go back to when you were talking about being pretty, intelligent and cultured. I was wondering if you could give examples of what you meant.

MI: It might be offensive to some.

HM: Okay.

MI: For example, a lot of girls say, “Oh, I don’t need feminism.” I’ve met a lot of women, who were purposefully not displaying their intelligence. I could tell that they were really cultured, but they were pretending that they weren’t smart because that way it was easier to get on with colleagues or a partner. It’s not related to heteronormativity, I also met lesbian girls who were pretending to be stupid to get in a relationship. And so I think when you see that so often, we are stuck and so equality is not going to come years, it’s going to be centuries if it’s happening at all because now we have Trump. We had Berlusconi, there was Sarkozy…look at what they look like and what their partners looks like.

HM: Can I ask how you navigate that personally?

MI: When I was little, I was really pretty and I had long hair and my grandparents dressed me like a ‘proper’ girl, so always with skirts, always clean, pink, white. Then when I was around nine, I started to feel really uncomfortable at school with people of my own gender. I was felt unwelcome just because I was talking about things I was curious about…I noticed that a lot of my male classmates were talking about everything with more freedom. And so I started to be more masculine; I asked my mother to cut my hair, I started to pick my own clothes and dress basically like a guy. As well I was really attracted to more physical experiences. That was in Italy and at that time there were a few gay people who were outing themselves, and also I was a child of drug dealers and they were telling me, “We’re the people with long hair.” For example, my dad wore nail polish because he played guitar, and he didn’t mind if the nail polish was coloured or transparent. I was mocked at my school and bullied because I was speaking my mind really loudly and I did that for ages. I’d been kicked by some bullies after primary school. They broke two of my ribs and I’ve also been raped by two girls because they thought I was a lesbian and that I deserved to learn a lesson. I’ve been through quite a lot and I was actually just avoiding being feminine, in order to be able to say what I was thinking. And I was always a fighter. I mean if they were kicking me I would say, “Okay, I’m not going to do your homework for you,” because I was pretty good at school, “I’m not going to behave like you want.” I come from a small countryside village, so you know, It was hard for me. I mean literally people were throwing stones at me when I passed by in the street.

HM: Adults? Or children?

MI: Young people, when I was an adolescent. Now people are scared of me when I go back to my hometown [laughs]. They just don’t want to engage because they know if I opened my mouth, something unpleasant will come for them, unpleasant but true. Then what happened is I had my first consensual sex and I thought, “Oh I’m sexual then.” I was a bit confused because I was supposed to not like men. So I started to explore more of that and actually I figured out that I was really missing being really feminine as well, like dressing, doing the make up…this was around aged 19 and I just flipped. I was really masculine and my hair was short. Then I allowed my hair to grow and I starting to look like a doll. I was really into Japanese culture because I have also this side to my family. My cousin was bringing me gifts from Kyoto and I was just starting pleasing guys, to behave childishly or stupidly. Just to pretend that all the trauma I went through never happened. It was a form of self-defense I think. Saying, “No, I’m not that person anymore, I’m just a cute thing” and everybody was complimenting me.

HM: It felt like people accepted that role?

MI: A lot. They were saying, “Oh you’re so cute.” I was listening a lot but I was not speaking my mind and I got into a strictly monogamous relationship with someone who was 11 years older than me and was into conservative politics. You can have people that are right wing who are quite cultured and intelligent and this is why they can be really manipulative. At first I was a bit manipulated but then I went to university and did my own research and that’s when the trouble started because I was really interested in body modification and the fact that my body can be modified forever. And when I did my thesis I was in that process to understand what I wanted to be sexually. And I was thinking I was really passive so I just want to look pretty. You know what happened? I just got bored of the fact that I was not speaking my mind when I was being really passive and I actually discovered through a mentor that I was pretending I was passive just because it was easier. I was actually very, very dominant but I was just afraid of other people’s feeling because I had so much emotional and physical pain before. I was afraid to do the same thing but actually if you do the same thing in BDSM [6] it’s consensual and if you are a nice person and take control the other person can totally rely on you. It’s a game. It’s why, after several years, I don’t want a monogamous relationship. I don’t want a 24/7 relationship which means someone is pretending to be my slave or my maid or my object 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don’t want that, it’s too much for me because I can never distract myself. I have always to be the mentor, the teacher, the dominant. And it’s not fair for the other person. Just like everybody has his own life as well. It was like, okay, I’m not going to modify my body in an acceptable style. I’m not conforming to a beauty standard which is plastic.

I started around 23 years old with scarification, tattoos and piercings but almost all of them were gifts from friends. I just started to travel and to explore BDSM in a different way, more as a switch [7] and dominant and I started sex work to support my research and to be more independent and they are gifts from people I met. So I modified my body. it’s not like I’M pretending it’s cool. It’s not a fashionable thing. It’s just things that happened. It’s like a scar. I’m far, far away from dollification now. I’m not the same person and I think it’s a really good thing because I evolved a lot. I’m not ashamed of that. I was one of those girls that was saying, “Oh I don’t need feminism. I’d like to have three children and to live with my husband.” And now I want to have children, I want to have a family but I want to have to have another kind of family, you know. I want to have children who are adopted and not mine because I think the world is already full of people who need love and care. I don’t want to look like a doll now because if someone is interested in my brain the body will follow. That is why I’m a bit afraid of people taking a fetish super seriously. Because basically their life is perverted in the Freudian sense of the word which is why I think BDSM needs to be just part of someone’s life, not everything. If something is your whole life this can be a problem because basically you are not engaging yourself in personal growth and you are not engaging yourself as well in politics because if that topic is the only important thing in your life, how can you engage with the everyday politics because you’re creating a subculture which is self-isolating. Let’s not make kinky things be something so different from normal sex. Because there is no normal. If you really want to be free sexually, just go with it.

Also I don’t understand when they say to me, “Oh, but you are not a prostitute” – because in Italian there is not an equivalent to ‘sex worker’ – “because you are not having sex with your clients”. And I always say, “Well if I put my fist in your ass I think it’s sex, you know” and they reply, “But you are not penetrated.” That means in everyday life there is this idea that if you are a female you are in a passive position and so it’s only sex if you are in the passive position. If you are active, it’s not sex. Its stupid to me.

HM: What about if you’re using like a strap-on?

MI: Yeah, they told me, “That is different’ and I said, “No”, but there is this perception.

[1] Dollification is a diverse kink that involves acting like a doll for example through costume and passivity, and being treated like a doll for example by being dressed or posed.

[2] See for example ‘Danny’ STILL LIFE Issue 1

[3] Shozo Numa (1970)Yapoo, the Human Cattle.

[4] Gynarchy is rule by women or a woman.

Bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, masochism.

[6] A switch is someone who enjoys partaking in both dominant and submissive roles.

Images by Marica Innocente. Instagram filter by Dan Moller.