Our friends are having a birthday party for their two year old daughter Olive, and our friends in Virginia will be having one soon for their son Joseph, so we made a run to toy stores in New Jersey. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a toy store and really looked around. Really looked around. I’ve run in to whatever toy store happens to be at the mall to see what used Playstation/Playstation2 games they have while Maria shops but this time we really looked at what they are selling.
What an eye-opener! But it’s probably not news to parents. I couldn’t believe how cheaply made the toys are- worse than I remember- and that even toys like Tonka trucks are mostly plastic not metal. The thing that really set us off was that more than half of the toys are linked to a non-toy, non-child product. Forget the tie-in between entertainment like music, cartoons and movies with figurines and play sets, that’s ancient history (pick an era: Red Ryder BB guns, Radio Flyer wagons, Star Wars action figures, Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, etc., etc.) and seems pretty benign. We looked at the cute plush animals and noticed the signature shapely light-green Coca-Cola bottle in their paws or hanging from around their collars. I tried to ignore gender-role stereotyped toys- many or even most of the toys are color coded pink for girls, blue for boys- and looked at how in with the play ovens and hand bags are toy shopping bags filled with toy brand name consumer goods and toy fashion cosmetics. We took at hard look at toy lunch boxes and toy bags and saw them filled with toy McDonald’s hamburgers and fries, toy Pepsi cans and toy pizzas. Toy cell phones. Toy laptops. Toy stereos. This consumerism stuff makes the gender-coded toys look good. We found ourselves asking each other if we’re somehow snobs for not wanting to give to a child a toy cynically marketed to tie them for life to a brand name.
There were some bright spots: there were many more educational toys than I would expect, the Fisher-Price preschool toys haven’t changed much except that they now make more electronic noises (just what every parent wants), the variety of board games was great, there were lots of activity-type toys and the construction toys (all kinds of blocks plus Tinker Toys, Erector, Lego, Knex, Capsella and others) were more common than I remember.
We did settle on toys, by the way: a Raggedy Ann doll for Olive and a Tonka truck for Joey. I’ll worry about the implict sexism some other time. Right now I’m still worrying about how we’re cultivating good little consumers of fast food and brand names with everything in the toy box.