Behind placid suburban facades, in seemingly normal neighborhoods, restless housewives are dismembering and enucleating babies, baking them in ovens in pursuit of that gently throttled look, then selling them to strangers. And, no, it's not Satan who's making them do it—it's eBay.
Thanks to a recent British documentary, My Fake Baby, the world at large now knows about the "reborning" community, a mostly female subculture of artisans and collectors organized around vinyl infants who begin life as inexpensive, plain-looking dolls and, through the meticulous craft of maternal Dr. Frankensteins, metamorphize into super-realistic creatures that look and feel just like genuine lifeless babies. The rarest specimens fuel high-stakes eBay bidding wars that can reach upwards of $5000.
Naturally, the reporters behind My Fake Baby present the phenomenon as a disturbing trend. Grown women fussing and fawning over trompe-l'œil zombie tots who stay cute, silent, and unsoiled forever, an infinite repository for uncomplicated maternal cuddling? Cue the sad keyboards and all the dsytopian foreboding they can conjure! Punch up the narrator's voice-over with a touch of sterile sci-fi detachment!
But why the need for judicious alarm every time some new species of low-tech android manifests itself? Have the men who love women crafted exclusively from stain-resistant silicone taught us nothing about the future of interpersonal relationships? Ten years into the RealDoll phenomenon, you'd think we'd be comfortable with the fact that Canis lupus familiaris's days as man's best friend are numbered: Clearly, the future belongs to more convenient, customizable, obligation-free companions.
As with sex doll sculptors, the goal of reborn artisans is verisimilitude, the production of artifacts that "feel incredibly real and will flop in your arms just like a real newborn baby." The hair that decorates a reborn's skull and brows often comes from genuine humans, or at the very least, well-bred goats. After multiple layers of paint, a reborn's tiny face and hands bear all the subtleties and imperfections of authentically blotchy and translucent baby flesh. Glass beads, polyfill, silicone, and on occasion, kitty litter, give them the heft and consistency of real babies. Some of the most ambitious iterations have begun to wiggle and cry; you can even obtain a "beating heart" for your parthenogenic bundle of joy.
For many women, reborns are just dolls, a new collectible to peddle or pursue, this decade's Beanie Babies. For others, the attachments go deeper, a fact that's reflected in the craft's unique lexicon. Reborns aren't created in workshops and sold via online storefronts, for example; the women who make reborns refer to their businesses as "nurseries." One practitioner doesn't just merely sell her products to customers; in her description, she "adopt[s] out babies all over the world."
But is any of this blurring of reality and fantasy reall so strange or threatening? Granted, it is a bit macabre that so many reborn producers give their businesses names like "Babies From Heaven's Garden"—there's certainly great potential for a pro-life horror flick wherein the souls of aborted fetuses inhabit the bodies of reborn dolls and wreak havoc upon the activist judges who've made Roe v. Wade the law of the land. Ultimately, however, it seems no less natural to invest great emotion in a relationship with an inanimate but extremely realistic baby than it is to do the same with, say, an iguana or a hamster, and when was the last time you saw a hand-wringing documentary over the alarming trend of pet ownership?
Because reborns don't perfectly simulate living babies yet, an aura of delusion attaches itself to the subculture: Conventional wisdom suggests that if you interact with non-human entities as if they are in fact human, you must be a little bit crazy. But, really, if what you're mainly looking for in a baby is a fleshy no-hassle security blanket, then it certainly seems saner—not to mention more humane—to choose a plastic infant over a real one, doesn't it?
Traditionally, only the very rich have been able to fine-tune relationships to the exact degree of obligation and reciprocity they prefer; fake babies, like fake adults, democratize that ability. If you want to adopt a dozen babies but you're not Angelina Jolie, all those diapers and nannies are going to add up. If you want to assemble a harem of servile blonde hotties, you'd better have a house with at least as many bedrooms and bathrooms as Hef's Playboy Mansion. Or you could buy yourself a half-dozen reborns or high-end sex dolls.
At the moment, human surrogates appeal only to those whose imaginations are vivid enough to see past their technological limitations. Eventually that will change and they'll be harder to resist. It's not as if we have very far to go either. Sci-fi movies tend to present androids and replicants as near-facsimiles of actual humans, but of course the real appeal of artifical babes and babies is their lack of human complexity, not their uncanny simulation of it. Equip a reborn with a few convincing facial expressions and a limited vocabulary of charming goo-goos and Ma-Ma's, and that will be enough: The rueful documentaries will be quickly replaced by fervent infomercials.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.