Babes in Toyland: Children as Consumers

My back to the family VCR, I hear unmistakable orchestration and like a contestant on Name That Tune announce to my hosts after two notes, "Oh, The Lion King." I not only recognize the music but know most of the film's characters, can name the humans who do their voices, give a synopsis of the plot and state with certainty that the 3-year-old plopped before the screen has watched it a gazillion times. Never mind that I myself have never seen the movie and don't have children. Inadvertently, I'm a Disney consumer, too. Last summer a 4-year-old I know had a bathing suit, beach shoes, and other products (more than 1,000 of which exist) related to Disney's Pocahontas before she even saw the movie. Like thousands of other kids, she watched over and over a promo trailer that came as part of the home video version of last year's The Lion King. Surrounded by similar Disney addicts, most of my relatives and friends who are parents simply throw up their hands, acknowledging defeat with phrases such as, "We played our 45s over and over and we survived." Many of us grew up to become excellent consumers, I might add. When Barbie celebrated her 35th birthday in 1994, The Economist wished the world's best- selling doll- and her 775 million clones- long life. The magazine further noted that sales of Barbie (including accessories) reached $1 billion in 1993, helping to make her owner, Mattel, America's biggest toy maker. Even after Mattel acquired Fisher Price, another American toy firm, Barbie's contribution to its sales stayed at 40 percent, since "the average American girl" (yes, I realize the phrase is grounds for another article) "owns eight Barbie toys and buys two or three new ones each year." As serendipity would have it, The Economist's story appears on the same page as another that announces economic "troubles" at Euro Disney -- a story that seems to have faded into the background of buying frenzies associated with Disney "stars" Ariel, Jasmine and Belle. And let's not forget Pocahontas, who is helping to ameliorate the already healthy business connection between Disney and Mattel: According to the Detroit Free Press, Mattel launched its most extensive movie tie-in to date with the release of more than 50 Pocahontas items, up from a high of 30 for The Lion King. Mattel's worldwide sale of Disney products reached a record $400 million in 1994, with Pocahontas expected to do even better, closing in on Barbie's high heels. The problem isn't just that Mattel and Disney are getting rich off Barbie and Princess Jasmine. It's that hapless consumers, in this case little kids, are easily mesmerized by repetitious advertising mantras. These messages turn kids like my friend in her Pocahontas bathing suit into walking billboards who unsuspectingly reproduce consumer ideologies. In her recently published and delightfully readable Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Susan J. Douglas underscores this process. "Shortly after seeing a few of the Disney fairy tales, both old and new, my daughter announced, at age three and a half, that she would no longer wear the unisex sweat suits and overalls I'd been dressing her in," she recalls. "It was dresses or nothing. Her favorite pretend games became 'wedding' and 'family,' with her as either the bride or the mom." Soon after, although still too young to engage in reproduction herself, Douglas discovered that her daughter's Barbie population "began to multiply like fruit flies. "Mothers who attempt to interrupt the Barbie brainwashing -- for example, by pointing out the doll's improbable anatomical proportions -- "do so fearing that this is an ideological battle they can't win," Douglas concludes. While Douglas doesn't mention fathers in this segment of her discussion, Lawrence Jack Cohen laments his parental relationship to Disney dolls in a recent issue of Mothering. In "Ariel Anonymous," Cohen admits that when his 3-year-old daughter asks for the second time in less than an hour if they can play Ariel, the Little Mermaid, and Eric, her lover, he says yes, not even repeating his "brilliant -- and totally ineffective -- lecture on Ariel and female masochism," or commenting "on the patrilinear, patrilocal marriages" of recent Disney heroines. Meanwhile, the "doll" versions of these characters are the same size and scale as Barbie, he observes. "They have interchangeable heads, but their bodies (notably their ridiculously large breasts) are identical, including permanently deformed feet to fit high heels." Is it a mere coincidence that today's "super models" also appear to have interchangeable heads on identical bodies? Just as I once accepted the fact that television is not going to go away, I've recently acknowledged that postmodern capitalism isn't going to go away any time soon, either. So I've set about devising ways to co-opt it, particularly where the imaginary meets the real. One possible way to do this is by playing games that send alternatives to the messages inscribed in Disney tales. My 4-year-old friend and I constructed one such game the first time I consented to "play Barbies" with her. When she, voicing Barbie, said she had just come from a meeting, my doll asked whether it was a social or a political one. "Political," she answered, establishing "toys" as its agenda." Oh. So you discussed nonviolent toys at the meeting?" I asked. "Yes!" she replied. If I'd thought of it at the time, we could have segued into a discussion about the creation of Barbie, providing lessons in both history and anatomy. Citing Emily Prager's article, "Our Barbies, Ourselves," I could have told her that Jack Ryan, who designed Sparrow and Hawk missiles when he worked for Raytheon Company, also designed Barbie when he worked for Mattel. "Did Mr. Ryan design Barbie as a weapon?" I could have asked, quoting Prager. "Because it is odd that Barbie appeared about the same time in my consciousness as the feminist movement -- a time when women sought equality and small breasts were king [sic]." A time also when the Boston Women's Health Collective drafted the first run of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a work that became a manifesto on women's rights to claim the care and maintenance of our own bodies. If we don't work feminist messages about the emancipation of the body into playtime, Barbie and Disney dolls will continue to symbolize for young girls the power that society exerts over their bodies as women. Michel Foucault calls this "bio-power": institutional oppression related to health, pregnancy, life expectancy and psychological examinations. Small wonder that Caroline Knapp, writing for the Providence Phoenix, chose to mark Barbie's 35th birthday by imagining '90s versions of her design that suggest bio-power, including "Recovery Barbie," "Prozac Barbie," "Twentysomething Barbie," "Bulimia Barbie" and "Bisexual Barbie." Knapp's irony aside, perhaps individuals can take their concerns about Barbie's nexus with bio-power directly to Mattel (or for that matter, Disney). If the toy makers can produce Native American Barbie and Astronaut Barbie, why not Politically Responsible Barbie, a flat-footed, anatomically accurate variation on theme? In addition to creating an entire new market (since she will not be able to share accessories with Princess Jasmine and Pocahontas), she would give designers suffering from ennui something to look forward to at the drawing board. Attempting to undermine the cultural dominance of Barbie, an entire academic industry has proliferated around her sign. For example, lesbian scholar Erica Rand, whose Barbie's Queer Accessories has been published by Duke University Press, discusses the "doll as dildo." Just don't expect "Lesbian Barbie" anytime soon, warns the July 1995 issue of Newsweek, since "Mattel, holder of the Barbie trademark, recently put the kibosh on a photo feature showing pairs of Barbie dolls abreast in an Web [Internet] magazine" called Urban Desires. Editor Kyle Shannon responded by saying, "It's image control, I guess." So, while Barbie's image remains pristine, the images that our children, especially our daughters, have of themselves continues to erode. Too bad Shannon has no advice on how we can take control of the messages our children, particularly our daughters, internalize when playing with Barbie and Disney dolls. The owner of 20 or so of these dolls (along with a real-life feminist mother), my 4-year-old friend -- also a dancer, swimmer, and biker -- already has begun to question the shape of her own body. In a recent telephone conversation with me she doesn't want to talk about the fact that she is perfecting the crawl stroke. Instead, she prefers to speak of her latest acquisition. "I just got Pizza Hut Barbie," she says. I immediately think of how, a few months earlier, my 7-year-old friend cried until I took her to Pizza Hut to buy movie tie-in junk related to Casper. "Certainly you don't need another Barbie?" I say. "Well, I need a lot more boy-Barbies, because I only have two," she answers after a brief pause. I should praise her for the symbolic way she inverts gender signification, conflating male identity with the feminine, but let the moment pass to challenge her with a simple, "So?" "Well, a lot of people -- they want to get married," she says. "Well, why can't they marry each other?" I ask. "The girl dolls, I mean." Following her long silence I tell her, "You think about that one."

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