What does a trip through Toys R Us teach us in regards to how our children are playing with toys in today's world of heavily licensed creations? Tarleton Gillespie takes us on such a voyage...
The logic of the entrance to Toys R Us is not obvious at first glance. Whereas many stores put their big-ticket big-promotion items up front to catch the most eyes, Toys R Us funnels customers through a long aisle of clearance items. Perhaps it's a way to dump storeroom overload, but what it ends up being is a graveyard for licensed toys. Last year's celebrities line the aisle like lost souls; Xena dolls and Small Soldiers remind us to buy smart and fast, because this year's model will be the highlight of next year's garage sale. Tensions run high at Toys R Us -- there is nearly always the sound of a child, wailing or pouting, piercing the din of the forced air system. Most often it is a child pleading to a beleaguered parent about how they simply must have that toy, how they simply cannot leave the store without it. Much of this agony is a manifestation of the planned obsolescence built into the toy industry, the same obsolescence we are ritually reminded of by this toy graveyard. All toys die, not just the Tamagotchis. Though it was not always this way, toys are now like young movie stars; they burn brightly, then disappear from memory, left to expire in clearance bins like, "Where are they now?" magazine articles. Kids know this all too well, and what's more, they feel it like a stomach ache. "I want this one, Mom." "You have a motorcycle at home, in the closet." "But I don't like my toys!" That child knows that his closet is a toy mausoleum -- a tribute to the once beloved, but definitely not to be disturbed. Licensing A few steps farther and the clearance aisle is a mere memory, a shadowy contrast to the zip and fizzle of the rest of the store. And licensing is clearly the name of the game. The action figure aisle is like walking directly into the television schedule or the film listings: Beast Wars battles Wild Wild West, A Bug's Life crowds out Godzilla, and Major League Baseball, the NBA, and NASCAR compete for shelf space like it's air time on SportsCenter. It's hard to locate a character that isn't already fitted with its own narrative, already appearing on a screen near you. From the start, animation has been a commercial venture. Winsor McCay knew from his days in newspapers and vaudeville that people would eagerly part with their spare change to see his drawings come to life. He probably did not know that he could also make Gertie plush toys that roar when you squeeze them, package them in boxes that describe Gertie's world and all her dinosaur friends (the woolly mammoth and the sea serpent are available a few steps down the aisle) and sell them at a thousand stores nationwide. However, that realization did come; Felix and Mickey soon graced their own storefront displays. Now we are not surprised that the cartoon world has been cloned in durable plastic and die-cast metal -- and, conversely, that toys can come to life on the screen with the help of ink, celluloid, or computer. What is, but should not be, surprising are the extremes to which licensing has reached -- beyond the Darth Mauls and the WWF stars and the Catdogs, the licensing ideas often prove downright bizarre and patently absurd. (Such skepticism must tread carefully; themarket does have a way of making its own opposing argument. If these toys are moving off the shelf, someone is finding them meaningful somewhere, and while such interest may need explaining, it should not be dismissed.) Barbie now has outfits to match all the NBA teams -- and in these gender-conscious times, Mattel is careful to outfittheir star in the uniforms of the players, not the cheerleaders. She also wears 101 Dalmatians t-shirts -- not only can the child buy a licensed product, but they can buy one that "buys"licensed products herself. Not to be outdone by the aisle of pink, GI Joe has temporarily returnedto its doll-sized stature to teach a pro-social history lesson: replicas of Teddy Roosevelt, a "save the tiger" hunterwith his white tiger companion and tranquilizer gun, Bob Hope in his USO best, and most peculiarly, a Ted Williams "Korean War fighter pilot" figure -- in his bomber jacket, but neverthelessholding onto his baseball bat and ball.
In the 1980s, there was concern among academics about the practice of character licensing. Scholars who study animation usually doso because it offers a glimpse into the experience of children's culture. Whether the debate du jour is violence or commercialism or education, one insight is the stories and images children are drawn to, and what they do with them. When the intermingling of toons and toys became so obvious, and distressing, academics began to note its impact on children's experience and imagination. Of particular concern was a new sequence of events: once, stories were told because they were compelling as stories, and related toys merely followed; now it seemed the toys and the toons were born together, and often designed simply to help each other sell. Tom Engelhardt dubbed this seemingly new approach to children's media "The Shortcake Strategy," after its most strawberry-scented example.
The concern about licensed toys was thatthey tend to substitute commercial pleasures for narratives ones.The toys sell because they have a fantasy world already created for them, but that fantasy world was designed simply for commercialappeal, not psychological resonance. In the `80s heyday of the "program-length commercials" of Care Bears and He-Man, the distinction nearly disappeared. Today things have calmed a bit, but the worry remains: are the fantasy worlds of children's imagination depletedby licensed toys? If the toy is fitted with a pre-existing story -- this is not just some plasticine hero, it's Tarzan, and we know what he does -- does it spur the imagination, or eliminate any need for it? Did the child play more creatively when they toy they manipulated was storyless, an empty narrative ready for the child to fill? One thing that is clear exploring Toys R Us, the toys are trying very hard to invite the child into a pre-existing fantasy world, one that is appealing because it has been fully thought out. An example: in recent years the Koosh, that glorious little spindly ball, has morphed into a series of characters -- Koosh balls with plastic faces and arms protruding from a rubbery center. These have often been licensed characters -- Koosh Bugs Bunnies and Koosh Daffy Ducks. But the newest in the series are the "Cool Scenes Kooshlings;" the box proclaims they are "Doin' the same stuff you do!" Apparently kids are surfing, painting works of art, and playing electric guitar, because these Koosh creatures come with plastic paraphernalia for each specific hobby. Ignore for the moment the decision to spoil the strangely compelling Koosh with hard plastic protrusions that nullify its capacity as a ball. What is fascinating here is this insistent imposition of narrative, which suggests that today's toys are made appealing by constructing a fantasy world for children, rather than giving them the materials to do so themselves. Many critics cite this kind of example as proof that modern marketing is steamrollering children's imaginations. But this criticism is based on a nostalgia for some collection of toys that inspired vast imaginary worlds -- a nostalgia that may be more hazy fiction than hard fact. But more importantly, the world of animation might remind us that we do not need vacant playthings to inspire creativity. The pleasure of the cartoon has always been engaging with an already fleshed-out fantasy world. And despite the assumptions of many parents and politicians, children are not passive, brain-dead, unimaginative lumps when they watch cartoons. They play, they react, they make up stories about their favorite characters. All this even though children are experiencing a fully formed fantasy world. Clearly, imagination is made of hardier stuff.
In fact, much of the innovation of the modern toy industry has been, in effect, to make toys more like cartoons. Once upon a time it was a wind-up robot that shuffled awkwardly across the floor until it fell, legs still swishing in vain. Today, the toys talk back to you. They sing. They watch you move with their eyes. Tigger bounces when you squeeze him. Lollipops spin inside your mouth. A Phantom Menace droid reacts when you've entered the room. Furbies learn your language, and teach you their own. Nearly every toy on the shelf begs to be squeezed so it can show off how "animated" it is. (Even the Spice Girl dolls, perhaps the most cartoonish of them all, have plastic buttons where their navels should be; when pressed, we hear Posh Spice tell us, "It's always the same, I never know what to wear.") As Norman Klein points out, cartoons have always been the most extreme example of our fascination with the artificial, the automata -- the cartoon "has a life of its own, but that life is controlled by gears." (77) But here the fascination seems to have reversed directions. Rather than the cartoons being overrun by toys and fascinated by machinery, it seems the toy store and all its devices are trying desperately to become a bouncing, singing, laughing, shaking cartoon world. Combine the current fascination with interactivity with the emphasis on the narratives so crucial to character toys, and Toys R Us itself becomes the most interactive toy-cartoon of them all. Of course, theme parks do it with more finesse and finance, and the theme park logic has already been imported into the world of shopping malls by the likes of Disney and Warner Brothers. But even here, in this fluorescent warehouse of color and clamor, the store becomes a simulation of a cartoon that you can walk into through the front door. It's an animated fantasy world inhabited by an array of nearly living creatures, characters constructed by the hand of man but somehow brought to life. That liveliness is all the more desirable because it's fragile, fleeting; we are reminded even as we walk in the door that characters often get canceled. Toys R Us increasingly offers up the magic of cartoons -- only this time the magic is not the way the film projector tricks our eyes into seeing motion, but rather a complex circuitry of motion sensors and voice synthesizers, along with a half-dozen AA batteries.
No longer is the world of animation being subjugated by the dictates of the toy industry. The toy industry has instead realized that it is cartoons that best capture the imagination, and the more closely they can approximate "cartoon-ness" with their toys, the better they can appeal to an audience whose penchant for playing with images and ideas may supersede any interest in plastic knock-offs. References Engelhardt, Tom, "The Shortcake Strategy" from Todd Gitlin, ed. Watching Television. New York: Pantheon, 1986. Klein, Norman, Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon. London: Verso, 1993. Further Readings Jenkins, Henry, "Going Bonkers! Children, Play and Pee-Wee" in Constance Penley and Sharon Willis, eds. Male Trouble. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Kline, Stephen, Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children's Culture in the Age of Marketing. London: Verso, 1993. Seiter, Ellen, Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993 Tarleton Gillespie is honing his academic skills in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. He teaches courses on children, media, and animation; his dissertation currently in the works focuses on sampling as a cultural technique and the implications for authorship in a digital world. An essay (co-authored with Chandra Mukerji) analyzing how its ambiguity in Animaniacs speaks to the cultural experience of childhood will soon be available in Symbolic Childhood, a forthcoming volume edited by Dan Cook.