Once upon a time, there was a young boy, he had lots of toys then he went to college and to University studied Cultural Studies and read an essay called Toys by Roland Barthes in the collection Mythologies, which like many things he read at the time greatly influenced his way of thinking rendering him the cynical and slightly disaffected adult he is today.
The young boy was me, I am still developing the adult. At heart, I am still a kid.
Barthes' essay is quite short and in it, he asserts the notion that French toys are essentially designed to prepare the child for the adult world. I am going to quote from the essay three times and explore to what extent his assertion is true in the UK in the 21st Century. Also I will explore the toys that mattered to me as a child and what they reveal about me now or how they helped me to develop.
'All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they are
all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size.'
(Barthes - Mythologies: Page 53)
'French toys are usually based on imitation, they are meant to produce children who are
users, not creators.'
(Barthes - Mythologies: Page 54)
'Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature.
Many are now moulded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness,
the humanity of touch.'
(Barthes - Mythologies: Page 54)
Normally, I wouldn't put the quotes together like that but somehow my mind tells me that this is the best way to absorb their content. Before I start in earnest, Roland Barthes was a French literary theorist, a philosopher, a linguist, a critic and a semiotician. He wrote the essay Toys in the Fifties and the fact that it jumped back into my head, some eighteen years since I last read it suggests that its content still resonates and its relevance has not diminished over time.
Sitting in front of me is an Argos catalogue. Everyone has one. They are as ubiquitous as the Bible in modern households, only not as edifying or instructional. I flick to the back section as I once did as a child as the Toy pages are located there. As an adult I am remarkably underwhelmed by the range of goodies on offer. The toys for young children consist of kitchen sets, toolboxes, work tables. In addition to more friendly looking toys such as pretty plastic animals that play music and other toys involving large plastic colourful shapes to slot into holes. Also baby dolls for the little girls that cry, urinate, vomit and spout inarticulate phrases. Cars and tanks etc for the boys. Little girls and little boys are being groomed into premature adulthood. Gender roles are being established.
As boys and girls get older, it's curious how the toys they are drawn to are those that feature on television or in the cinema. Toy creation and demand took on a whole new form after Star Wars and Lucas' decision to take a drop in wages in favour of a cut of the merchandising. Toys for older children are by and large characters from the latest kid friendly programme or film. They are plastic figures with umpteen dozen points of articulation. One day, I can imagine a character giving another character an extended middle finger salute, simply by moving the finger on the hand. Also for the slightly older girls, the Barbie and Sindy dolls still push the Dynasty lifestyle with their condos, sports cars and good looking, frankly Aryan boyfriends.
The one saving grace is Lego, this at least allows a degree of creativity rather than reenactments of scenes from a cartoon or film. Such a simple concept yet absolutely brilliant, small blocks that can be slotted onto one another in various configurations. Having said that, even this has been tarnished by the thematic Lego sets tying in with the aforementioned cartoons or films.
As a child, I had Action Man toys promoting the strong sense of masculinity. Action Man toys with their smooth muscular bodies like Daniel Craig, only with less phrases. One of the brand had a plastic ring you pulled and he would then spout choice phrases such as 'Give me some cover' and 'Enemy overhead'. I also loved Star Wars toys, Masters of the Universe toys and Transformers. Of course, I was sucked in by the adverts and films and programmes. My parents were forced into the position that many adults face how to satisfy your little monster as they adapt to the 'I want' culture that will continue as they too grow to give birth to little monsters. I also had Lego.
Interestingly, I also liked playing with my sister's dolls with her. Action Man and Sindy would regularly have a pleasant afternoon together in the ridiculously enormous Sindy house that resembled a hotel with a lift. If I ever have kids, I will try to help them develop their own identities as my parents did. I will also steer them away from the consumer ethic that is destroying Western civilisation. Apples are for eating.
I would suggest that Barthes' essay is still crucially relevant as he foresaw the nightmarish world that we are producing for our children. The only thing he couldn't have seen was how bad the world of branding, intellectual property and merchandising would become. We live in a world of synthetic man made substances. Kids have largely sadly lost the sensation of natural materials such as wood (Barthes makes reference to this in Toys too). As they get older, children become more and more the products of external influences. Their parents are less important than the latest film involving a talking Squirrel and his menagerie of friends. Plenty of raw material for a future of endless consumerism.
Books saved me. Books will save your children. Make sure that for every toy they receive, you give your children an hour of attention. Their souls, compassion and creativity are worth saving.
Barry Watt - 12th January 2013
If you want to read it, here are details of the Roland Barthes' collection, Mythologies:
Mythologies by Roland Barthes (Vintage, 1993)
The essay Toys is reproduced on pages 53 to 55 of this edition.