In honor of the publication of Arielle Zibrak’s Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures, Avidly is running a series of essays on “Pleasure-y Guilts” — “The special frisson that comes from leaning in to the pleasures for which the world makes us feel guilty.” Enjoy! — Ed.
“Strawberry Shortcake Miniature Deluxe—Strawberry Shortcake and Sailboat. NRFB—box pristine with crisp corners, factory-sealed from the 1980s. Bubble is intact, never removed. No tyre-kickers.”
I buy and sell 1980s Strawberry Shortcake dolls as a “hobby,” I guess. I honestly don’t know why I do it. I describe them in forensic detail and price them based on extensive research from Ebay, Etsy and FB marketplace. I really enjoy that bit. I enjoy being able to name the differences between the 1979 and 1981 versions of the Strawberry Shortcake doll, and the nuances of their packaging. But I cancel the sales if I think the buyer is unworthy. I hate answering questions from tyre-kicking potential buyers who haven’t read my descriptions closely. So, my Ebay seller rating is low.
I have nobody in my daily life I can talk to about this, and my usually zen partner is being driven slowly nuts by the growing collection and my passionate rants. So, I belong to a social media group, where we discuss our favorite dolls, and our Holy Grail–Banana Twirl and her Berrykin, NRFB/factory-sealed, selling for about $1000. I don’t have her yet.
Actually, I’m part of a number of social media groups, which cross over between buyers/sellers, collectors and people who are just atavistically obsessed with a childhood toy. I represent all three groups. Frequently, an informed collector will crow about a Strawberry Shortcake “score” they found on FB Marketplace in one of these groups, and how they vampired somebody by paying $20 for the lot, knowing full well the real value is over $1000. I’ve been thrown out of groups for alleging that this act is a breach of the principle of natural justice and that this person is not Berry kind.
Why am I like this? There’s another side to my obsession with Strawberry Shortcake dolls. I love the dolls, I love their scents. I remember so vividly seeing my first doll in person—a department store, 1985, when I saw shelves of the dolls, boxed and lined up with precision, [on the opposite side of the department store. I’d been bribed to do piano practice in return for an Apricot doll with pet Hopsalot. I can look at my relatively modest shelf of dolls now and recall that experience. I can’t believe their scents have lasted 40 years — the wonders of plastic and mass production. The names of the dolls and pets give me a specific and irreplaceable joy — Strawberry Shortcake, Blueberry Muffin, Raspberry Tart, Cheesecake, Hopsalot, Custard. I have my catalogues from the 80s, where I circled each of the toys in the range that I coveted, which was all of them.
I love looking at the photos of display rooms people shyly display, packed full of dolls and playsets, as though you’re walking into a real store from the 80s and, unlike then, you can go and choose whatever you like. The packaging is important, and it’s important that it be as perfect as possible. I touch and hold the used dolls I have; I can tell this Butter Cookie was played with by someone who loved her, someone who dressed her into her romper and undressed her, until one day, they didn’t. She was put away in a box and then two decades later, sold on Ebay. But I can feel in my hands a sense of the kid who played with her–now an adult somewhere. Or was the doll sold as part of an estate sale?
I love the stories people tell about their finds. How, in 1986, when Candy was seven and growing up in a small town outside Flint, Michigan, her parents couldn’t afford to buy her the real dolls for Christmas so she got a generic Cinnamon Roll doll instead, but now, at age 43, Candy has the full frickin set. It’s retributive justice—we fix the harm that the 8-year-old suffered all those years ago.
Not that I actually missed out—on my eleventh birthday, my parents surprised me with the Berry Happy Home, even though they couldn’t afford it and a guilty part of me knew I was too old for it. It was my favorite birthday ever. So, my wanting is not driven by deprivation. It feels like I want the dolls for themselves—their scent, their soft hair, their bright clothes—but I know that’s not how desire works. What I don’t know, still, is what it is about me that makes perfectly-packaged dolls the thing I desire.
Honni van Rijswijk is a law academic who works on law, literature and tech, and a novelist with a forthcoming YA novel, Breeder (Blackstone, July 2021). Honni lives with their partner and kid and a lot of 80s toys.