From Teddy Bears to Sex Dolls: How Did We Get There?

The Nounours des Gobelins suggest a changing definition of transitional objects.

Posted Oct 25, 2019

 David Griff
Source: David Griff

On October 15, 2019, Bonjour Paris published an article I wrote, “Les Nounours des Gobelins: Giant Teddybears Take Over the Streets of Paris.” Ten days later, by October 25th, with no special promotion, the article had been viewed almost 20,000 times.

Psychology Today readers who follow “Life, Refracted” know that I am not a fan of using numbers to measure importance, but the difference in interest generated by this post compared to others I have written for or contributed to the same magazine was startling. Not only did the piece bring much joy to me personally, as I researched and wrote it, but it was apparently able to bring a similar joy to readers. 

I was convinced that the appeal of the article had everything to do with the teddy bears and the photos of these cuddly creatures and not much to do with me. Always the psychologist, I began thinking about the source of their appeal. What was the nerve that Philippe Labourel, the bookstore owner known as the “Papa des Nounours,” had tapped into only one year earlier when he began bringing the giant stuffed animals to his Paris neighborhood?

This blog is titled “Life, Refracted” because I love to write about the same topic from multiple points of view and am quick to pick up another lens when a news article or research finding sparks a connection to a topic I care about. The most central of those topics is love—ways in which we love ourselves and each other; ways that loving feelings of attachment and caregiving, friendship, and passion (see Sternberg's triangular theory of love) develop or erode over time; ways in which modern life with its technology and demands can interfere with loving and feeling loved. Across these topics and more, I have huge respect for imagination, its beginnings in pretend play, and expansion through creative expressions, potentially leading to more positive emotions and stronger interpersonal relationships. 

The article about the “Teddy Bear Invasion” brought a happy chance to revisit these topics and put them together in a new way. I do not have empirical evidence of the motives of people who have read the post, but I can speculate on some of the reasons why it might have attracted them:

  • The intentions of the “Papa des Nounours” reflect positive attributes of character:
    • Altruism: Philippe wanted to cheer up his neighbors, reflecting the temperamental origins of the personality trait of “agreeableness” and expressions of compassion.
    • Imagination: He created scenarios involving the bears, inspiring others to do the same. All participants (and certainly all observers) reaped the benefits of the imaginative play.
    • GenerosityHis single-handed gift to his community (that had begun with a search to locate a teddy bear for his own teddy bear) resonated with people around the world, who then supported it with their own contributions of bears, photos, stories, visits. During troubled times around the globe, people were reaching out to share a fount of smiles.
  • The characteristics of teddy bears:
    • They are imaginary playmates. Children have incorporated stuffed animals (along with dolls and materials representing them) into their play, assigning them roles in scenarios ranging from the domestic, mundane, and intimate to the outrageous, fanciful, and foreign for centuries. At least since October 14, 1926, when A.A. Milne published the first book in which Christopher Robin introduced Winnie the Pooh, stuffed bears have been the universal imaginary playmate, one a child could identify with regardless of gender, race, or cultural background. 
    • Teddy bears are usually soft and cuddly, pleasant to touch and hug. As I’ve written again and again, touch is critical to mammal well-being. Our enjoyment of it, its ability to reinforce attachment bonds, and its role in survival have been amply documented.
    • As such, stuffed animals also make a perfect “transitional object,” or stand-in for a primary caregiver who may be absent. The works of D. W. Winnicott underscore the positive place that a material substitute for a missing caregiver can provide in helping a person tolerate distress, maintain a sense of belonging to another being when they are physically alone, and define themselves within a world in which people are continually disconnecting and reuniting.
  • Altruism: Philippe wanted to cheer up his neighbors, reflecting the temperamental origins of the personality trait of “agreeableness” and expressions of compassion.
  • Imagination: He created scenarios involving the bears, inspiring others to do the same. All participants (and certainly all observers) reaped the benefits of the imaginative play.
  • GenerosityHis single-handed gift to his community (that had begun with a search to locate a teddy bear for his own teddy bear) resonated with people around the world, who then supported it with their own contributions of bears, photos, stories, visits. During troubled times around the globe, people were reaching out to share a fount of smiles.
  • They are imaginary playmates. Children have incorporated stuffed animals (along with dolls and materials representing them) into their play, assigning them roles in scenarios ranging from the domestic, mundane, and intimate to the outrageous, fanciful, and foreign for centuries. At least since October 14, 1926, when A.A. Milne published the first book in which Christopher Robin introduced Winnie the Pooh, stuffed bears have been the universal imaginary playmate, one a child could identify with regardless of gender, race, or cultural background. 
  • Teddy bears are usually soft and cuddly, pleasant to touch and hug. As I’ve written again and again, touch is critical to mammal well-being. Our enjoyment of it, its ability to reinforce attachment bonds, and its role in survival have been amply documented.
  • As such, stuffed animals also make a perfect “transitional object,” or stand-in for a primary caregiver who may be absent. The works of D. W. Winnicott underscore the positive place that a material substitute for a missing caregiver can provide in helping a person tolerate distress, maintain a sense of belonging to another being when they are physically alone, and define themselves within a world in which people are continually disconnecting and reuniting.
 Pixabay
Source: Pixabay
  • The relationship between a person and their teddy bear:
    • Control: The person who encounters a teddy bear does so with full control over the nature of the relationship. No longer are they at the mercy of a waiter who might be rude, a shopkeeper who ignores them, an aggressive seducer. The relationship can be fully responsive to the needs of the human rather than requiring accommodation, responsiveness, or predictability.
    • Development: The relationship between a bear and its person is free to evolve in ways that suit the needs of the person. In the film Lars and the Real Girl, the sex doll easily adapted to the developmental needs of the man who was afraid of real human relationships, especially those with a woman. As amply described by Adam Gopnik in his piece about Mr. Ravioli, imaginary playmate relationships are free to evolve as a situation changes. 
    • Memories: The teddy bear and its person share experiences. The bear can be an alternate memory source, more powerful than a stash of photographs because reminiscences are curated only by the unconscious. Through sharing memories, the pain of loneliness can be mitigated, a sense of safety invoked, and helplessness tempered.
  • Control: The person who encounters a teddy bear does so with full control over the nature of the relationship. No longer are they at the mercy of a waiter who might be rude, a shopkeeper who ignores them, an aggressive seducer. The relationship can be fully responsive to the needs of the human rather than requiring accommodation, responsiveness, or predictability.
  • Development: The relationship between a bear and its person is free to evolve in ways that suit the needs of the person. In the film Lars and the Real Girl, the sex doll easily adapted to the developmental needs of the man who was afraid of real human relationships, especially those with a woman. As amply described by Adam Gopnik in his piece about Mr. Ravioli, imaginary playmate relationships are free to evolve as a situation changes. 
  • Memories: The teddy bear and its person share experiences. The bear can be an alternate memory source, more powerful than a stash of photographs because reminiscences are curated only by the unconscious. Through sharing memories, the pain of loneliness can be mitigated, a sense of safety invoked, and helplessness tempered.
 David Griff
Source: David Griff

These are only a few reasons why we are attracted to teddy bears, the stories we create with them, and their escapades as invented by others (or by us). They help us embrace the child within along with our adult capacities to create, to invent, to transform. In their own way, they can potentially amuse, comfort, entertain, inspire, provoke, reassure, or empower us.

Do you (or did you) have a favorite stuffed animal or doll? What has it brought to you through the years? Do you need your own Nounours today?

Copyright 2019 Roni Beth Tower

References

Aries, P. (1965). Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life.  Oxford, England; Vintage Books.