Angry toys are on the rise. Researchers from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand patiently catalogued the faces of the 3,655 different Lego figures released between 1975 and 2010 in order to uncover the trend towards anger.
The character of toys, happy or sad, wise or deceitful, has always been more in the eye of the child than the physical expression of the object. Throughout the history of toys, from sticks and stones through to early dolls and the first teddy bears, they have all shared one thing: they are lifeless objects, transformed by the fairy dust of children’s imagination into jewels to play with. For many people, our closest toy, doll or bear, stays with us for life, whether in memory, in the attic or passed down to the next generation.
With tie-ins, toys became one more way of making money out of global entertainment franchises, so it is true that their characters, or back stories, have become more developed. Dolls have been turned into celebrities and celebrities into dolls. Adultery, murder, friendship, love – all these are on display on toy shelves. As such, toys are doing what they have always done, which is to reflect the adult world to children in ways that allow them to imagine and learn their place within it.
But as such, toys are big business too. Four out of five children under the age of 12 receive more than 10 new toys a year. In research for our book, Consumer Kids: How Big Business is Grooming Our Children for Profit, Prof Agnes Nairn and I tried to explore the degree to which children accept the toy story that they are sold and how much they invent their own.
It was in a colourful classroom in the southwest of England that a small circle of primary school girls gathered in a circle to talk about their toys. The most passionate debate was reserved for their Barbie dolls. Alongside Lego, Barbie is perhaps the world’s most famous toy. Launched in 1959, the doll’s creator, Ruth Handler, wanted the doll to “project every little girl’s dream of the future”. Since then, more than 1bn Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide.
It is natural for dolls to evoke strong feelings. Dolls are designed to work as imaginary friends, something on to whom children can project their hopes and fears. But, far from being loved, in our research Barbie provoked reactions of rejection and anger. As soon as the image of Barbie appeared, the children expressed, one after another, how they had turned their dislike of the doll into play. Sold as cute, feminine and beautiful, Barbie was dropped out of windows, burned, broken and had her hair shaved off.
So, children use the fabric of their material world to grapple with age-old issues, such as fantasy, control and how to behave. That is why as a parent I am comfortable with buying angry toys, alongside the happy ones. The idea that we can all just be content doesn’t fit too well anyway in a world of inequality. I am all for well-placed anger and for boys and girls alike to learn to express and handle that. The art of co-operation is knowing how to handle occasional conflict.
What would be nice to see, though, is some parental anger over the kind of stereotypes in children’s entertainment that send a backward message over gender roles. When you walk into a toy store, as the campaign Pinkstinks has argued, it is as if feminism had never happened.
Plato argued that stories are central to childhood, and that if there was one thing parents should get right, it was to take care about the stories children hear. Toy rage may be coming to a bedroom or nursery near you. But to be angry about the right things is not new. It is a noble cause.
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