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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Emilie St.Hilaire, Humanities

Facets of the Reborn Doll Phenomenon: Non-reproductive Motherhood, Synthetic Relationships, Performance, Community, and Self-care

Date & time
Wednesday, February 28, 2024
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Nadeem Butt



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


This dissertation begins by addressing some basic questions about the hyper-realistic reborn dolls collected by thousands of women around the world, such as: How are reborns made? Who buys them? What are typical reactions to the dolls? And, beyond these initial questions, I consider the purpose and potential of these dolls as a hobby, and also as something more than a hobby. My second chapter delves into the culture surrounding not just reborn dolls but the whole concept of babies and reproduction in order to situate reborns in relation to motherhood. The connection between reborns and motherhood is not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance. Through the theoretical lens of the ‘good life’ (as described in Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism) I will describe how reborns emerge from pronatalist rêverie but also subvert reproductive optimism by offering an alternative to heteronormative reproduction. From there, Chapter Three examines how reborn dolls (and also sex dolls) provide fulfilling synthetic relationships that produce real emotions. These relationships are therapeutic for many and there is evidence that thousands of people are engaging in synthetic relationships all around the world. I argue for the potential of synthetic relationships to provide outlets for the rehearsal of power significant in the production of self. This chapter will also address the sense of control, pleasure, and self-worth that comes from managing one’s personal collection. The final chapter investigates the therapeutic elements of reborn dolls. Evidence from the context of doll therapy in dementia care demonstrates the benefits of doll play. Membership in a doll enthusiast community provides a sense of belonging for this oftentimes alienating interest. Big questions about the future of synthetic relationships (with dolls and also with artificial intelligences) are prompted by this investigation of actual doll relationships happening today. Reborn dolls are queer, fantastical, beloved by collectors from a range of economic, political and cultural backgrounds, and they will always remain uncanny. Understanding these fascinating objects tells us about a niche hobby grounded in physical touch, that is surging in popularity in the midst of the ever-ephemeral and intangible digital age.

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