It is the time of year again when we celebrate the most important holiday of the religion that most defines ‘the West,’ meaning Europe and North America. This religion is of course Rampant Consumerism. In Malta the grip of it is perhaps somewhat less, there being a strong competing religion: in UK for example, every year people are inundated with speculation of how good will the event be for retail, and subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that if you don’t buy loads of crap you cannot afford and that the recipient doesn’t want, the economy will crash. Then life as we know it will end, and the next Xmas will be spent scavenging for scraps amongst the ruins and battling mutants with home-made weaponry. Buy a new toaster, or start weaponising the one you have now, citizens!
Toys are a prime object to buy, and Rampant Consumerism dictates every child must have many or happiness is not achievable. Toys are a perfect tool to teach children the tenets of the religion, and also hard to resist: who wants to disappoint children? Adults are already hardened by life and expect disappointment, but the little ones still believe that Santa will bring them toys (since the adults have told them so). So off we go to buy suitable plastic objects for our loved ones, and the brats of relatives we feel obliged to give something to.
This is all really prompted by a suitable toy I saw for sale, hanging outside a shop in Valletta: a set of child-sized cleaning implements, a broom, a dustpan and a brush, all pink of course. They must have felt it was a star buy, since it had such a prominent display spot. Pink, of course, is a message that clearly demarcates the said toy to be for girls only, I hope I do not have to somehow justify the statement: any doubters can go to the nearest shop for children’s clothes and ask for pink anything for a boy. A toy catalogue I have seen even had the pages for “girls’ toys” edged in pink as a warning sign. Here be girly things! Stay away!
People who oppose criticism of pop-culture on any gender grounds, will always claim that sensible people are not affected by what they see on the screen, which would make advertising the biggest scam in the world – but everyone sort of agrees that children are impressionable, and accept for example age restrictions on movies and games. So what are toys for? Amusement? Yes, but hardly only that. You could ask what is playing for, and most psychologists and biologists too (young animals also play) would say that it is practise for adult skills. Much of it is just to develop basic motor skills, but at the same time other skills are learnt, such as social skills and specific skills. Like cleaning. Toys must have some significance, since like music and dance, they are found in every culture everywhere and throughout history. One of the oldest toys that has survived is a wooden crocodile that opens and closes its mouth, made by someone in Ancient Egypt many thousands of years ago. We can guess the maker mostly wanted to amuse a little child, likely his own, but surely some information was passed on as well. Look, child, this is a crocodile. Look what big maw it has. Don’t be eaten by one. Remember it is a holy animal. Religion and life skills are passed on in one package.
I was having the ‘we were happier than kids today with much less material goods’ discussion the other day, which is also obligatory ritual at this time of year. Thinking back, I was rarely disappointed at Xmas time. My relatives were all completely hopeless at picking presents, so my expectations were extremely low: when my uncle one year presented me with a bag of raisins, I thought, ‘Yum, raisins!’ and ate them. I do think I would have been disappointed by a pink plastic coffee maker though, which probably takes the prize for most pointless toy I have seen. At least the cleaning set presents some activity, the coffee maker just sits there and pretends to make coffee. It’s hardly surprising if the tots demand more toys, being bored with the ones they have, when each toy only really has one function: this of course suits Rampant Consumerism to a T. Something generic, such as building blocks, you can give a baby who will enjoy stuffing them in her mouth and drooling. Same blocks, unless chewed unrecognisable, will still be in use five years later to build a fantasy castle or a rocket launch site or whatever happens to be the interest of the day. Making toys that last for years is not a good strategy for a company that needs to sell more and more: like anything, toys that become obsolete or break and need to be replaced are more of a money-spinner. Same goes for toys that cannot be shared. Lego seems to have grasped this well: original ones were designed merely to inflict the maximum amount of pain without breaking the skin if you step on them*, but you could also build anything you liked from them, break them up and build something else. Now almost all Legos are model sets, you put it together and then buy another set. This also mean that they are mostly toys for one child only, you can help someone build a model, having three kids build one together would not work – unlike in their old packaging and advertisements that almost always showed a group of kids building something together. Lego also decided at some point girls were not going to play with them – removing all females from their ads, and then making separate pink sets for girls. These do not even fit with the standard blocks.
Lego is not in any way alone, there seems to be less and less of the generic children’s toys and more girls’ toys and boys’ toys, across the industry. This is not to say Lego still doesn’t make the best toys – at least according to us, the consumers. Lego recently surpassed Mattel as the biggest toy company in the world, and what can be said of the company that has Barbie as their flagship?
Mattel is not as recognisable as Lego as a brand, since they operate through several. Let’s see what other brands they have besides Barbie: American Girl, Little Mommy, BoomCo and Max Steel, among many game and movie tie-ins. Say no more? Difference is that Mattel has always been connected with these gender specific toys, like the girly dolls, while Lego was not. I will for now not talk of Barbie, since I think so much has already been written of the ubiquitous mini-woman. Still, it could be noted that before Barbie, the first successful toy they made in the late 40’s was a toy ukulele, something you could present to a boy or a girl. If you own earplugs or are completely tone-deaf, of course. So progress has happened, but in a surprising direction.
The more you can narrow down your toys to certain group, by age and gender, the more toys can be sold. The next step is probably racial profiling. It is not like these companies have some hidden agenda necessarily, except Lego’s secret foot-torture one*, they just like the parents’ money. You could argue that toys merely reflect reality; I have heard it said that girls naturally like pink, as if that was somehow genetic – even though pink=girly is a recent invention, from the 1920’s or so. Blue used to be girly, and red male, since red is an active colour and blue more calm and passive. It may be possible all children like pink: a nice, bright, happy colour, and it is merely boys are trained to dislike it. Whatever, it’s just a colour, it is the way it is used as gender demarcation line that is sort of skewy.
So, looking at toy advertisements and toys themselves, do they just reflect reality?
Firstly, there is almost never girls and boys playing together in TV ads or pictures on packaging, which seems odd. I don’t remember it like that from my childhood, and surely if you do not segregate siblings by their sex even today? Girls do often play with other girls, and boys with boys, but it can’t be that exclusive. Secondly, a lot of play involves imitating some sort of adult activity, like various jobs and home life (also bullying, gossip and back-stabbing at the playground trains you for office politics later on). Girls often ‘play home’. So, let’s imagine an alien or an amnesia victim, who has to learn about human life solely based on the Mega-Bumper-Monster-Toy-Catalogue. Apparently the society mostly consists or stay at home mums who are really hot, possibly have hobbies like ballet and take care of ponies; meanwhile men drive fast cars to the nearest war. Very few people have jobs other than police, pirate, race-car driver, cake-shop keeper and pet groomer. Women use inordinate amounts of time on grooming and make-up, but men and women rarely ever spend any time in the same space, never mind interact, yet there exists quite a lot of babies. Reality? Not so much. Besides dads with their kids, male nurses and policewomen, I have even seen women drive cars that are not pink convertibles!
Well, given the choice between shooting or dancing with my pink pony at home, I know which I would choose, if it was real life. Bullets hurt and kill, so give me a pony and picket fence any day, despite the copious amounts of pony dung that has to be dealt with. Boys are not really served better by this selection of stereotypes: it is still less acceptable for a boy to act like a girl, than the other way round. Girls are also trained for some things resembling real life. You will probably take care of children and make coffee at some point, whatever your gender, while boys are told to aspire for things that are alien to life: combat, death, space, machines and robots. Girls are meant to be nurturing, boys are not, which is not natural; most boys might not play with dolls, but how many boys would not want a puppy? Girls can break out of their pink-fenced compound, they can like maths and building things, and be praised for it. Girls are not expected to show aggression, but they can take up martial arts without much fuss. Boys cannot really expect any encouragement if they want to play princesses at a tea party.
Since it is a time to be jolly, fa-la-la-laa, and children need to be placated with gifts or jolly will not be had (and remember, smoking ruins, mutants, starvation and possibly Terminators – you were warned) at least pick something fun and functional, or something that takes at least until New Year to dismantle. Maybe some art supplies. Or could be some books, or does it even need to be an object? Give them a trip to the aquarium or movies or similar. If you go with a puppy, remember it is not just for Xmas!
* Call me a conspiracy nut, but I am firmly convinced that Lego has the research locked in a vault, somewhere only the CEO and two trusted adjutants have access to.