Ryan Gosling, Dolls and Technology

Ryan Gosling, dolls and tech! What a difference 10 years can make

I’ve been keen to focus on the rare instances where love dolls, doll owners and the mainstream collide with each other. There’s a long history of comedic doll representations out there that mostly only served to create and maintain the walking stereotype of the doll owner as it is for many people today: the social reject, the deviant. We all know it, whether we’re part of this community or not. But as time goes by, there’s two parallel conversations happening. One might be about non-human companionship, like dolls, but the other’s about technology, AI and what it means to be human. It impacts on our community in ways we might not immediately know about!

They’re both rapidly progressing conversations, now that technology – and our consciousness surrounding it – has passed a tipping point, after which suddenly a non-human lover is starting to become a more fleshed-out concept socially. How is this conversation changing the view of dolls, and us as owners?

Ask Ryan Gosling!

Yep. Ryan’s played two roles which are worth looking at and considering. They represent a consciousness-raising over time, I think; a kind of litmus test for changing ideas around what it might also mean to love or interact with something that isn’t human. I’m talking about two movies: Lars and the Real Girl (2007) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Released ten years apart, they are very different films with very different lenses through which they look at humanity and technology. But they can tell us that something is happening, and it doesn’t just affect tech – it’s changing perceptions for the doll community too!

In Lars…, Gosling plays the titular character. Scarred by a traumatised childhood and a stunted ability to connect with people, Lars lives in the garage of his brother Gus’ wife. Gus and his wife Karin have been making a few unsuccessful efforts to draw the reclusive Lars out of his shell and into the real world, but it’s all for nothing – Lars really, really doesn’t want to hang out. It’s then that the movie drops its central plot point on you: Lars reveals to Gus and Karin his new partner, who is a life-like love doll (well, life-like for 2007) named Bianca. Bianca comes to dinner with Gus and Karin.

This sounds like the set-up for an Adam Sandler-tier comedy escapade. But it’s not, and here is where Lars… surprises and succeeds. There is a comedy to this film in the rich absurdity of the situations Lars and Bianca enter into, but it only complements what is a rich, gentle and humane story about the process of a warm, accepting township coming together to try to help Lars out of his trauma.

The interactions with Lars and his psychotherapist set the tone for the rest of the movie. The town compliantly follows that doctor’s footsteps by creating and maintaining a productive space for Bianca to join into town life. They’re trying to help Lars in his delusional state by playing along. They’re all working together to help Lars process his trauma by supporting his fantasy, gently transforming it into a conduit for his healing. Bianca really does get to join in on this extraordinarily wholesome American small town – she’s on committees, helping out at school, getting makeovers, really getting in. Lars expresses frustration that he doesn’t get to see Bianca enough at one point. But the integration of Lars’ doll lover into real life coaxes Lars into the light as well, and as he transitions, so does he begin to tackle his traumas and allow himself to connect with the people around him.

One trope-challenging aspect of the movie is the apparently non-sexual relationship that Lars has with Bianca. This is a very common part of doll ownership, and it’s nice to see it acknowledged by the film. Many doll owners love their companions, and it’s not just about sex. I was glad to see this incorporated into the story. Another impressive part of Lars… is the surprisingly progressive way the film considers Bianca’s real-life role in the world around Lars, which in turn forces Lars to grapple with ways in which Bianca doesn’t just exist for him. It’s a breath of fresh air for me, and I hope it is for other doll owners too, because it asks the audience to consider that having a doll doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting communication, consent and so on. The reality is quite different. We can be considerate, caring and loving, and Lars… asks audiences to reflect on that.

Still, this is a film about trauma. That’s what’s happening in Lars and the Real Girl. As Film Inquiry notes, “Both the script […] and Gosling’s portrayal of the character prevent the viewer from seeing Lars as someone who is “sick” or someone that should be pitied, despite his delusion and the acute social isolation that helps to bring it on.” We’re asked to accept from the outset that the relationship he develops with Bianca is fundamentally a delusional, pathological one. Stereotypes about doll ownership are being maintained here, not challenged. We’re not ever asked to consider whether there might be a wholesome and redemptive aspect to a relationship with a doll – that isn’t part of this movie’s scope, sure, but it may never have crossed the filmmakers’ minds. All the redemption comes from real people. And the idea that a doll owner might not be fundamentally broken? Or that they might not even require redemption? Never touched on. It’s all a missed opportunity for our community, and although I loved the movie, I just wish that one of the only positive stories incorporating dolls in a mainstream Hollywood movie didn’t tie them in with the idea of being delusional!

A whole different set of considerations are touched on ten years on in Blade Runner 2049. Gosling stars as K, a replicant (that’s an android) who works as a blade runner –someone who’s job is to hunt other rogue replicants whose AI has gone ‘rogue’ (ie. they’ve developed too much freedom and independence). Along his path he finds himself hunting Deckard, Harrison Ford’s famed possibly-human, possibly-replicant from the classic first Blade Runner (1982). Without spoiling the movie, 2049 is loaded with the heaviest of questions about what constitutes humanity in a world where androids can, in the end, seemingly do all of the things that organic humans can do.

Sci-fi and doll ownership touch on the same subject matter in a few ways. One is in asking us to consider our relationship with dolls in light of the uncanny valley. I intend to write about this as it concerns love dolls in greater detail in the future, but basically, the uncanny valley “…describes how as robots become more human in appearance, our empathetic responses to them increase. But this only happens up to a point. Once a robot appears almost (but not quite) human, our response quickly shifts to one of revulsion. Only when a robot is indistinguishable from a human being, do we return to a more positive response.” You can see more on this in the article How Blade Runner 2049 prepares us to welcome robots for real

Both of Gosling’s movies end on fundamentally humane notes for non-humans in the film. But in particular in Blade Runner 2049 we get to identify with the full humanity of non-human characters, even if we can see them do very uncanny things like heal their own skin at a touch and so on. There’s an exciting prospect here: that as technology proceeds, and as our consciousness around AI develops, we may find advancements sufficient to be able to clear the uncanny valley phenomenon altogether! Perhaps the whole idea of the uncanny valley isn’t just informed by the limitations of tech – it could also be informed by our fears of tech, which is in turn influenced by scary sci-fi narratives and so on. As these narratives change, I feel that things could turn out promisingly for the integration of doll owners and their relationships into broader society.

Another difference is that stories ask us to imagine a world, and in so doing, they set a tone for how we see our world in the future:

“The more that fiction portrays robots as just like us, experiencing “human” emotions that arouse our sympathy, the more likely we are to accept the existence of such beings in real life. Granted, the Deckard and K we see on screen are not really near-human machines, but very real human actors. Our sympathetic response to the character may have more to do with the real humanity of the actor. Even so, the positive response we have to his human portrayal may just carry over to an artificial counterpart, provided it could appear equally human. Whether such machines could actually approximate human characteristics so closely is another question.”

So basically, the more we see more constructive representations of non-human companionship in stories like Blade Runner 2049, and to an extent in Lars…, the more open a society will be to these kinds of developments in the real world!

The original Blade Runner movie, and Philip K. Dick’s original novel upon which it was based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1972), were designed to make us feel some unease around the ‘blurred lines’ that come from the indistinguishable nature of Deckard as a replicant/human. There is an element of this too in Lars and the Real Girl, in that Lars’ decision to suddenly just throw a high-end love doll into a real life small-town community is a bit confrontational to the sensibilities of that township – even if they do defy our expectations by playing along with Lars. But it’s different to 1970’s-era techphobia – by the end of the movie, we are endeared to Bianca. That never would’ve happened in an old plotline making fun of dolls and their owners!

What’s more, Blade Runner 2049, and Gosling’s role in it, reflect an interesting leap forward in the scope for societal considerations for technology and non-human companions. We are reconciled to the possibilities of inhuman technology as having memory, being capable of emotion, and so on. We’re slowly getting past this. We’re ready to accept that inhuman companionship can be achievable, and acceptable! It makes you wonder: what’ll Gosling be up to in 2027, eh?

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