In America, toys are us

Culture | From toys to television, the culture is pressing children into premature adulthood

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1998," Dec. 5, 1998

Culture wars, gender wars, and controversies over family values are spilling over into children's playthings.

Toys are us.

For example, feminists are accusing toy companies of sexism because they persist in manufacturing dolls and kitchen sets for girls and guns and action figures for boys. And of these action figures, very few of the monsters, superheroes, warriors, and World Wrestling Federation figurines are females. "I'd be surprised if they make one female character for every 50 or 60 males," complained Sarah Dyer, creator of Action Girl comics.

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The problem, though, is that little girls just don't like to play with action figures. "We don't really have any specific action figures targeted towards girls," admits Lisa McKendall of Mattel. "We've done them in the past, but they haven't been very successful. The category itself is really heavily boy-oriented. Boys like to act our established story lines, while girls like to make up their own stories, which is why Barbie is so popular. She has no personality."

When it comes to toys, boys will apparently be boys, and girls will apparently be girls. Children refuse to be politically correct.

Toy industry executives insist they are only giving children what they want. "The perception is that we're pied pipers, leading the children," says Gene DelVecchio, author of Creating Ever-Cool: A Marketer's Guide to a Kid's Heart. "Anyone on the outside knows the opposite is true. Kids are running over hill and dale and marketers are trying to keep up with them." In the brutal, dog-eat-dog world of toymaking, the marketplace rules. "Much of what you see is what children have told us they prefer," says Mr. DelVecchio. "If marketers don't pay attention to those preferences, they will fail."

Those preferences are growing more sophisticated. Barbie, with her fill-in-the-dots personality, may be popular, but her demographics are changing. Throughout the course of her 40-year life span, Barbie appealed to little girls from 2 to 8. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, 7- and 8-year-olds are now considering themselves too old for Barbie.

Instead, 7- and 8-year-old girls are adopting the tastes of teenagers. Instead of playing with dolls, they are more interested in make-up, cool clothes, and heart-throb CDs. Ten- and 11-year-olds are no longer showing much interest in conventional children's movies, those cartoons about talking animals. They are tending now to dismiss children's programming as being "for little kids." Instead, they prefer to go to movies rated at least PG-13. Their favorite TV shows are not Saturday morning cartoons but programs about the young, the beautiful, and the sexually active like Friends and Melrose Place.

The problem, as Neil Postman and Michael Medved have been noticing, is the disappearance of childhood. Children are no longer being protected from the pressures of adulthood and the seamy side of the real world. They are no longer allowed a carefree childhood of innocence and play. Left increasingly on their own by working parents and turned over to the loving care of the entertainment industry, they are forced to be grown-ups, without having grown up.

The Wall Street Journal article cites focus groups of children aged 10 and 11 put on by the children's network Nickelodeon. They found that 45 percent of the children make their own meals. The majority have TV sets in their own rooms and can watch whatever they want.The major worries of 10-year-olds? AIDS, the environment, and-significantly, showing that they are still kids after all-divorce.

The fact is, despite children's burgeoning allowances, it is mostly parents who shell out the $24 billion spent on children each year (a figure that is triple what it was 10 years ago). Adults are the ones who constitute the marketplace and who determine, by commission or omission, their children's lifestyles. And adults keep finding new ways to lavish money on their children.

One curious trend in the toy industry is the phenomenon of collectibles. Toys are not merely something to play with-they can be too valuable for that. By making innumerable kinds of plush animals in limited editions, the manufacturers of Beanie Babies are teaching children all about the laws of supply and demand, market pricing, and shrewd investing.

With the plush toys priced and traded over the Internet, just like the commodities exchange, a Beanie like Humphrey the Camel, originally priced around $5, was recently going for $800. As collections rose in value, the toys started being kept in their original packaging and displayed behind glass.

A similar thing happened to some baseball cards a few years ago-but bust followed boom. And, like investors in the adults' stock market, Beanie Babies investors may be facing, so to speak, a bear market. The Lady Di beanie has lost 40 percent of its value, dropping from $75 to $45.


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