Most women aren’t very good at pretending to be sex dolls. Scrolling through videos titled “Real Doll” on Pornhub, I can usually tell from the thumbnails whether they contain a product or a fantasy. This is not a complaint. A few years ago, while working on a poetry book, I became briefly obsessed with the RealDoll brand of life-size sex dolls. The book’s keywords might have been Asian, sex, and robot, and doing what I called “research” often left me feeling like I’d been torn into slimy quarters and thrown into a well. It was on one of these nights, trawling those depths, that I found the video.
She had blue hair: anime hair. Like most dolls, she had enormous tits and a sweet, placid face. I was impressed by the timing of her blinks. Then I doubted: Was she real? Something about her seemed different from the other dolls, but how could a person lie so still while this was happening—as if the body were cut off from the head? It had to be a machine. Was it? Was she?
Ten minutes of this. Then she gagged—a tiny gag, so subtle it couldn’t have been programmed—and I had my answer.
I wore a blue wig once in my freshman year of college, for a notoriously raunchy annual party. I’d just seen Closer and was in love with the idea of disappearing into sex. With the wig and my Asian face and what I perceived to be the enormity of my school’s student body, I was ready to be anyone. Specifically, an anyone who would grind her body against strangers, who was open to offers, a stupid, slutty, gawkable thing. And when I detached myself from a boy’s mouth and left the party, when I walked out alone into the October night, my hope was that I could take off the wig and take her off too—the thing of me.
Of course, it didn’t work that way. Not only did thingness follow me around, but I panicked every time I saw the boy I’d wrapped myself around that night—or a boy I thought was him. The blue wig and dirt-cheap vodka, it turned out, had anonymized the world to me rather than the other way around. Unlike a doll, I couldn’t stop feeling.
I watched the video of the woman with the blue hair over and over, talked about it to everyone I knew. It’s maybe the queerest thing about me, or the most Korean thing—to love being torn up by an image. All the more so if the image is a monstrous version of what’s supposed to be me, by which I mean an Asian lady, by which I mean submissive, inhuman, calculated, kink, estranged from language, spookily competent, and on and on. These were stories I’d heard my whole life, stories that had been broken into me with hands and jokes and long glances. To see her there, my thingness—the rumor that had been following me around since I was a child—lit me on a kind of sticky fire. I watched again and again, trying to catch the first signs of her breaking. Is it a problem that I could interpret the force of this meeting only as arousal? Or is this what arousal is: horror, mixed with recognition, mixed with a need to see more?
“Have you ever heard the term Asian persuasion?” said the blond boy I met one summer in high school. I hadn’t. Years later, he would fail to persuade me to have sex, though my refusal didn’t matter much to him. It happened as if I hadn’t said anything at all, as if I had just been lying still, flushed and blinking.
For years, I forgot about that night with the blond boy, the night he scrubbed my words out of the air between us. Then one day I remembered. I remembered it, and remembered it again, and each time there was nothing: no sadness or pain or anger, no feeling at all, just a story. First; then; finally. I wondered whether I was broken or brave. I wondered if it counted as assault if the memory didn’t hurt.
Why would anyone want to become a thing? The answer to that question is about as long—and as fraught—as the history of feminist thought. The question makes me nervous, considering that the objectification of women like me has consequences I carry around like a stone—like a well where my heart should be.
And yet it’s hard to imagine wanting to be a person all the time. How exhausting—all that chattering and burping and remembering and clock-checking, the constant gagging on one’s failures. All the grief of being a tool of empire and capitalism, the grief of the things men do with their hands. Still, all I want is to live to spend another day walking into rooms and saying, I, I. What a racket.
So, like everyone, I depend on my technologies of disappearing: blue wig, rabbit hole, Bota Box. Like everyone else, I shatter my self through orgasm and sweat, or scroll it away. I hang up my personhood to try to save it from wear, and in the meantime, I become the room, the phone, the smooth repetitions of my knitting needles. To become an object, I mean, is both life-annihilating and life-saving. This is my tiny, secret pleasure—a few extra doors to slip out through.
Sara Ahmed, writing about Heidegger, says, “When the hammer is working, it disappears from view. When something stops working or cannot be used, it intrudes into consciousness.” Pablo Neruda writes, “If you ask where I come from I have to start talking with / broken objects.”
Maybe what I felt when I watched the woman trying to become a doll wasn’t arousal but love. That is, I admired her for being a better object than I could ever be; I loved her for refusing, ultimately, to be one. For staying so still, for severing her smile from the horrors happening below, for being so useful, so perfectly useful—and then for failing. In gagging—that tiniest, unprogrammable gag—she failed, finally, to disappear into the smooth gears of all that makes us into objects. She broke, and I blinked. And somewhere between I and I, a door swung open.