Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Toy Story...Well, not really “story”. More like an “assigned blog posting”.

My toys never meant anything to me. They were mere instruments for my enjoyment, devoid of any semblance of a meaning. Toys were not social constructions with messages; the only message I received from my toys were that I should not be "afraid of no ghost." Yet at a young age I was cognizant of the idea that certain toys were for boys and certain toys were for girls. For example: guns were for boys and Mall Madness was for girls. Wrestling figures for the young dudes and Barbie dolls for the young gals. Creepy Crawlers for the little boys, and EZ Bake ovens were supposed to be for…you guessed it: little ladies. And obese little boys. The distinctions were clear from the start about which toys were admissible for me to play with. The only time I considered it acceptable for me to play with what could be considered a doll is when I would mash it together with Batman, celebrating his success in saving the world with simulated, hard plastic coitus. If I were caught with one of these dolls in my possession, the owner of the doll (usually my cousin Louise) would claim that I shouldn't be playing with Skipper because dolls are for girls, and then she would call me a girl. At the time, it seemed like nothing more than childhood teasing from a cruel, Angelica Pickles-type cousin, but in retrospect one could derive a lot of meaning from that one instance. While toys are a way for children to use their imaginations, toys are also used by children to understand the world around them. In this case, toys were used to define gender. Without knowing it, children shape their definitions of which values are considered masculine and feminine based on what they play with. What children do not realize when they are playing is that toys are tools used within society to fit children into molded, traditional, definitions of gender.

In The Sexual Politics of Interpersonal Behavior, Henley and Freeman state that "Environmental cues set the stage on which the power relationships of the sexes are acted out and the assigned status of each sex is reinforced" (85). As an integral part of any child's environment, toys are important in assigning status within the sexes to children. Toys are used within a society to ingrain at an early age what is valued, and what is to be expected from a child. For a young boy, action figures of superheroes and larger than life characters embody the physical strength as well as the emotional strength expected from males within the society. Not only do these characters have idealized physical prowess, but these toys symbolize the bravery, aggressiveness, leadership, and toughness that is considered "masculine" within society. For females, the idealized images presented to females are a bit different.

Upon doing my toy shopping for a ten year old girl, the first toy on the list was a virtual pet. And so I went about looking up the most popular virtual pet there is: the Tamagotchi. While ostensibly being gender neutral toy, Tamagotchi had a primarily female consumer base, at least 60% according to www.tamagotchi-connection-virtual-pet.com. At face value the Tamagotchi is nothing more than another Japanese import that kids gravitate to, but has no social ramifications, much like Hello Kitty Doll's, karaoke, or the bird flu. Yet at a closer look the Tamagotchi provides young girls with a very powerful message about what their role should be in society.

A Tamagotchi, while considered a "virtual pet" could easily be interpreted as a "virtual child." It has to be fed, played with, put to sleep, changed when they virtual poop, and generally maintained or else they die. And so in order to play with a Tamagotchi, one had to keep it alive by nurturing the tiny electronic bundle of joy. As a plaything, the Tamagotchi teaches girls that it is important for a girl to be maternal. Girls are taught that it is a very important to be able to take care of a helpless little being. Ultimately the Tamagotchi is a training ground for young girls in order to fulfill their future in the traditional role in society as a mother. The importance of maternal values are stressed in this toy, so much so, that if one stops simply paying attention to this toy, the Tamagotchi dies. In a weird type of way, the Tamagotchi not only advocates maternal values, but it also seems to be a proponent of young girls growing up to be stay at home moms. A message is sent to these girls that if they don't keep a constantly vigilant and if they pursue other activities, their little electronic mistake may cease to live. Now compared to the messages boys receive from their toys, the gender roles endorsed by the Tamagotchi is a bit more subdued. While the playthings of boys preach aggressiveness and strength, the Tamagotchi's domestic message preaches a type of submissiveness that is tied to being a good wife or mother, a certain acceptance of one's maternal duties as the definition of a female's life.

In the case of the Tamagotchi, toys dictate to children what is to be expected from them in adulthood, and which gender defined values would be acceptable to society. But toys also define gender by teaching children which characteristics within society they should value. Plastic manifestations of people define to children what the ideal male or female look like. Action figures are not made in all shapes and sizes. Almost all action figures depictions of men (with the exception of Antonin Scalia dolls) are made to look muscular, defined, and rippling in a bathing suit. To a young boy, this toy is what a real man should look like. Meanwhile, females live in the tall, leggy, svelte shadow of the Barbie doll. Like many age appropriate girls, the girl I must shop for played with Barbie. While it is specified that Barbie was played with, with the intentions of popping off her head, she none the less had these dolls. For generations of girls, Barbie dolls defined what a beautiful woman looked like. Heck, as an eight year old boy who didn't know anything about girls, I knew that Barbie had terrific legs. Much like the action figures for the boys, the Barbie doll sends a message to girls that there is a concrete definition of what a woman should look like, and Barbie encompasses that look. For girls it creates what Gilman calls an "aesthetic obsession" (73). And so it is no surprise that upon adulthood many girls dye their hair blonde, and get physical enhancements. While they don't necessarily undergo these "improvements" with the notion of looking like Barbie, the end result of these "enhancements" leave them looking closer to Barbie's definition of what is aesthetically pleasing than anything else. Ultimately, children are taught that identification within their gender is tied into looking like their toys. In order to be considered a real man, boys must grow up looking gruff and toned like a G.I. Joe, while in order to be a beautiful woman, a girl must grow up looking like they are smuggling Christmas hams in their shorts and traffic cones in their blouse.

    While Barbie may not have been designed as a self-esteem assassin to little girls with a terrible message for little girls, and Tamagotchi's weren't designed to mold young girls into June Cleavers, these toys do represent cultural values that accepted within society. These values go unnoticed to a child, and slowly these toys begin to shape the way a child thinks about gender. While seemingly innocuous, toys play a large part in the development of a child, as they mold children's definitions of gender through the various messages they send.






  1. www.tamagotchi-connection-virtual-pet.com
  2. Gilman, S. J. (2000) Klaus Barbie, and Other Dolls I'd Like to See
  3. Henley, N. , Freeman, J. The Sexual Politics of Interpersonal Behavior



dob said...

What alternative, if any, do you suggest to this? Make a bunch of ugly toys, or force kids to take home both a Barbie and a GI Joe on each visit to the toy store? Or worse yet, just round up all subtly manipulative toys in existence, stick them on a transport and burn them all in some perverse experiment in plastic cleansing? This Barbie-and-Kenocide, this Dollocaust, if you will, won't solve anything. Worrying about the lasting impression doll's leave on a child's psyche is just more modern alarmist bullshit. Every girl that gets a Tamagatchi and unconsciously develops ideas of "What a girl should be" eventually grows up and listens to the Spice Girls, or their modern day equivalent, (Clay Aiken?), sing about the appealing aspects of Girl Power, and suddenly she's a powerful and independent girl. She watches some more MTV and catches videos from every end of the female spectrum. She sees a few other crucial developmental movies that are thinly-veiled tributes to female empowerment, (Kill Bill, Tomb Raider, John Tucker Must Die). She'll absorb these movies with the same appetite she had with her Barbie Dolls. Eventually, she gets older and, thanks to a steady diet of contrasting ideas of what women CAN be that started with her first tamagatchi, she can make a decision about the kind of woman she's going to be. Take your pants off, because here comes my thesis statement.
We are raised by Pop Culture, and it's a damn good thing. We start with the really simple distinctions, (Women wear nice clothes and take care of babies, Men wear capes and don't have genitals), and it gets increasingly complex as we get older. (Genitals now?) Pop Culture is so thorough and all-encompassing that it provides every possible personality type encoded in its dolls, TV shows, video games and songs that, by the time we're at an age where we have to decide who we are, we have all the lessons taught by Pop Culture from which to learn.

Joe V said...

Mr. Dob is correct, as ultimately I provide no alternative, and I don't seek to. While I observed and criticized the effects of toys in developing gender identities for a child, I never provided what alternative there could be. That's simply because there is no alternative. The blogpost wasn't that Barbie and GI Joes should be pulled off the market because they are harmful, or that we should should drop an A-bomb on Tamagotchis, like some sort of "Nagaski on Tamogatchis," but instead it was about how these thing send messages to children and shape how they may view certain things. These toys are part of a larger social construct and it would be ridiculous to blame societal and gendered issues on toys for children, and I don't seek to put societies ills on these toys. Instead I tried to say that these toys, as a part of a larger social picture, help mold children into what they can potentially become. To this I believe that Mr. Dob can agree with.
The second part of this response (pantless thesis)is where I believe the divergence is. It is without question that we are all affected by pop culture, but the idea that pop culture provides is with contrasting ideas from which we can pick and choose which messages we accept as part of our own personal identity is where we diverge. Pop culture, while entirely pervasive on all our lives, still provides a limited scope of the human experience. While pop culture tries to be an all inclusive setting in which all can relate, pop culture only usually deviates from the normative expectations of white, attractive, and heterosexual. Most other representations of people who don't fit these mold are reduced to stereotypes (see: Jazz from Transformers. I believe cracked.com had a great article on transformers you should check out) Something like this shapes one's identity of what they define other people as. This homogeneity is not just restricted to potrayals of people, but also messages sent. While something like John Tucker Must Die or Legally Blonde try to portray a sense of empowerment towards women, when reduced to its core, its message is very close to the same as the one's sent by something more banal, such as The Hills or whatever the hell kids are watching today (Frasier?). I...I really can't do this anymore. This isn't about toys, and I agree that eventually we choose what we become. I just wanted to defend what I wrote.

And so, the state rests, your honor.

Elizabeth said...

Replying to the Replys:

Pop Culture is all-encompassing yes, but I do not think that it is a good teacher by any means. The Spice Girls for example - "Girl Power" - okay, that's a good front. But they're still dressed in tight, short dresses with extremely high heels, dancing around stage! I'm not seeing the Girl Power in that (also, an aside: Spice Girls reunion tour?!)

Comments on the blog:

The messages sent by dolls such as Barbie and more modern, Bratz (the name alone) are long-lasting and continue to be reinforced by images of the Spice Girls in their short dresses, pre-KFed Britney, etc. Those ideas of body image are not as stressed and important in the male sector of toys. Why? Why are girl toys so focused on image and appearance and boy toys more behavior and attitude oriented?

dob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dob said...

"Those ideas of body image are not as stressed and important in the male sector of toys. Why? Why are girl toys so focused on image and appearance and boy toys more behavior and attitude oriented?"

With due respect, that's ridiculous. Have you ever SEEN a GIJOE? Every male action figure is enormously ripped and tougher than tough and their coolness and popularity is directly proportionate to just how tough and badass they act. Being a man means being tough. These toys are dictating what it's like to be a man, (a real man fights, has rippling biceps a toned, sexy ass and usually a crew cut), just like girl toys. And while a girl toy emphasizes looks and shopping, the coolest male action figures are inherently non-thinkers.
Imagine you're a fourth grade boy who likes cooking and reading. They don't have a GIJoe for that.

Make no mistake, I still hold onto my idea that Pop Culture is beneficial and these effects, though at a certain age very influential, are hardly *lasting.* I was just trying to make it clear that females don't have the market cornered on action-figure-induced-identity-pressure.

Elizabeth said...

It is still more socially acceptable for males to be overweight and not as attractive or acceptable for females. More diet products are marketed towards women, more women get plastic surgery, the cosmetic industry is HUGE. I'm not sure what would industries be comparable for men (not that there isn't anything, but are they as popular with men as these other products/services are for women?)

How many successful overweight actresses are there? Roseanne? Rosie? Kathy Bates? How many successful overweight actors? James Gandolfini (probably most actors in The Sopranos), Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill (of recent Knocked Up, Superbad fame), Jack Nicholson. There is a huge disproportion there. I'm not saying that those GI Joes don't at all carry stereotypes for boys as to how men should look, but I don't think they are as widespread as body image stereotypes are for women and girls.

Elizabeth said...

One more thing, perhaps the the influence of Barbie isn't lasting in the sense that girls my age in college or a little younger in high school as trying to look like Barbie herself. She's been replaced by real women - the actresses and models that such a present force in pop culture and entertainment "news". And while 21-year old guys aren't trying to look like GI Joe, they may find the images of the body builders on Muscle magazine something to aspire to. Or they'd like to have Brad Pitt's physique.

While the influence of the toys per se isn't lasting - they're inevitably replaced with something else.

dob said...

"While the influence of the toys per se isn't lasting - they're inevitably replaced with something else."

But, do you really think that what they're replaced by is influential? I mean, both you and original author Joe V seem to take the same stance on this point that I take issue with- The very fact that you acknowledge the body-image problem as proposed by toys and the media suggests that it isn't a problem for you, and I don't really think it is for any other intelligent American.

No intelligent human being that I know of sees a picture of professional grinning-skeleton Keira Knightley and says "I hope to look like that someday." As a matter of fact, everyone says she's disgustingly skinny and could stand to swallow a meal or two, (an initiative that I personally wouldn't mind spearheading).

Recognizing the standard that celebrities and toys set as impossible is proof that the effect isn't lasting or invasive. If you really thought Barbie and these models and actresses were influential, you wouldn't be talking about them like a problem, because you wouldn't see it as a problem. You'd be trying to look like them.

Who are we even talking about when we're worried about the effect of pop culture?
A whole lot of smart people like to get together and complain about the effect that celebrities and Barbie Dolls are having on this vague, intangible group of...of who? Show me who. Show me a respectable, mature twentysomething who was raised on pop culture like I was that's brainwashed into thinking Keira Knightley's Bones-In-A-Zip-Lock-Bag look is something to strive for. Everyone involved in this discussion clearly isn't impacted by the impressions of dolls or celebrities, or they wouldn't be part of this discussion. Who are we looking out for? Stupid people? If you're 21 years old and you list your influences and role models as Paris Hilton and Bath-Time-Barbie, well then pop culture influence is the least of your problems, because you probably eat glass and shower with microwaves too.

Joe V said...

Note: Rocknsock5 is JoeV, and Dan0Brien is, well you guys can figure that out. (here's a hint, check the initials)...really? you still don't get it? It's dob. The guy who's been posting on my blog. We've been fast friends here on the interweb.

Dan0Brien (11:27:21 am): I'm having such a good time with your blog.
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:27:29 am): dammit
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:27:34 am): you post something else?
Dan0Brien (11:27:46 am): Yea. I don't know if I was as clear as I wanted to be with my latest thing.
Dan0Brien (11:29:10 am): There's a big point I'm trying to make, it's just hard for me to explain right now. People are always saying "These skinny actresses are a bad influence," but the fact that they're saying that shows me that they recognize and are therefore not impacted by these skinny actresses.
Dan0Brien (11:30:42 am): It's the same thing with Jazz. You pointed it out as a black stereotype, but the fact that you and I and the rest of the theater laughed it off proves that it's...well, a laughable stereotype, you know? If it wasn't so blatantly ridiculous, that is, if we weren't intelligent, informed human beings raised on pop culture, we wouldn't be laughing, we'd be saying "Yes, that is how all black people talk and act. That n*gger robot sure is true to life."
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:31:39 am): really? because i think its more so a pervasive thing where people don't practice necessarily what they outwardly preach. I think its far more common for people to criticize an extreme case, like a Keira Knightley, but at the end of the day they strive to be skinnier, and fit into that role of what pop culture has defined as aesthetically beautiful.
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:33:10 am): i dont think so. While I agree Jazz was funny because we are supposedly (no we are) intelligent and such, for a little 8 year old kid that's a portrayal of black people thats seen every day.
Dan0Brien (11:33:17 am): Well at the end of the day, I think most people if not everyone do want to be beautiful, yeah, but it seems like you're suggesting beauty is objective and pop culture dictates what beauty is?
Dan0Brien (11:33:42 am): Yeah, and a little 8 year old kid things Barbie is what women should look like and that men should play football. But that little kid grows up and becomes us.
Dan0Brien (11:33:47 am): *thinks
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:33:48 am): i dont think it dictates it, but it advocates a certain theme for what attractiveness should be
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:34:05 am): but not all kids do, and we ultimately consume the same culture.
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:34:53 am): i think you are bogged down by the argument of intelligence. you mention intelligence all over your last post, but what percentage of people are self-aware, secure beings that see something in culture, see that its popular, and don't try to emulate it?
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:36:11 am): while no intelligent person you know may see a fossil covered in saran wrap, and say, i wanna look like that...im sure we both know a lot of people that may criticize that look, be completely intelligent and attractive the way they are, but still seek to get smaller just because its expected or because of the embedded idea that its better?
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:36:48 am): and while disgustingly skinny celebrity
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:36:55 am): oh no...that last sentence didnt make sense
Dan0Brien (11:38:28 am): Well maybe I am getting tripped up by this, but I think the people who want to waste money on plastic surgery and throw up so they look like Keira Knightley are idiots, or they have some severe medical issues. I won't deny that people will see Keira and try to emulate her look, but I think it's unfair and lazy to blame pop culture. Pop Culture is everywhere, and it's the same for everyone. It's always been doing what it's doing, putting out these images of beauty, whatever. Pop Culture is the constant, but we're still blaming it even though pop culture's influence clearly isn't consistent.
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:40:16 am): But that's the thing, i dont blame pop culture. I'm saying like in a regression model, pop culture isnt the cause, but it is an influence on people, whether bad or good. im not stating a cause and effect relationship on how a person turns out and what pop culture theyve consumed, but instead its aggragate effect along with other things, and what it's potential messages are.
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:45:25 am): and i think you are getting tripped up by this intelligence thing, you are making value judgment on what you think should be acceptable based on you and your baseline. Let's face it, ultimately you are a male with terrific parents, terrific siblings, and a decent looking bunch of friends. your values are going to be different. and to say that these people are unintelligent based on their strive to look like a plastic tit-monster is based on what you are accustomed too. you said before how GI Joe sends a message of looks on what a guy is. And while you may not have fallen into that trap (well, you do work out more now, but ill attribute that to trying to get chicks and general health), the Gi Joe still sent a message about what a look should be. and thats all im arguing. Pop culture sends a messages, sometimes a negative one. and sometimes, people arent "smart" enough to resist these messages, and they fall to the negative messages transmitted by pop culture.
RoCk N SoCk5 (11:49:18 am): are you on this last Cracked article?
Dan0Brien (11:50:43 am): I've never tried to say that pop culture doesn't send a message, only that the message isn't lasting and doesn't invade my entire life. And maybe my answers are always going to be skewed because I'm using myself as a reference point, but what choice do I have, really? Moving on, because you mentioned my great parents. There are two kids that, at eight years old, are identical, because at that age, everyone is. GIJoe tells both of these kids what a man should be, one of these kids have parents who explain how patently absurd GIJoe's prescription is, and the other one's parents buy that kid nunchucks and a crew cut. Pop Culture sends messages, but it's ultimately nowhere near as powerful as parents. Yea, I pop in in a few spots. I had a pretty delicious joke about Bill Cosby getting smothered that didn't make the final cut.

Full said...

Hmm, interesting debate. My problem is that if we aspire to look like GI Joe or Ken then why is the most popular male enhancement the penis size? Surely we all have larger penis's than the toys we grew up with....
In fact I think that these toys should be made with gigantic penis's just to see the social effect of the future generations.
Personally I don't think I was influenced at all by it, I just found out what made me happy in life and did that regardless of whatever the new craze at the time was.

Jessie said...

Joe you have quite the debate going here! It really surprised me to see this amount of activity on the final (alphabetically-organized) name on the roster...interesting!

Jessie said...

Joe- Overall your post is well done and makes several great points that are supported by the readings. While I'd take issue the "bird flu" and lack of social ramifications, I thought that your analysis of the Tamagotchi toy was quite interesting and a great choice for analysis (particularly because it's an electronic toy and the association with care-giving could be easily overlooked) :o).

For the next assignment, you might want to break your paragraphs up a bit more so that there is a single (primary) point that's contained in each paragraph.

The introduction is interesting,
but rather long for an intro; however, the intro contains a key statement that could be further analyzed. Therefore when looking for places to potentially examine on a deeper analytical level (and also consolidate the intro simultaneously), you could move the part about batman and his "celebratory" simulated sex acts to a separate paragraph (or two) and analyze the violence issue as a critical aspect of the toy's "marketed" purpose and the implications about masculinity when Skipper's involvement as an object of celebratory (violent) gratification. Sex and violence are extremely tough to find in isolation from one another in pop culture, which is also clearly apparent even in toys for young children.

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