Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Toys with Character

Before Westley was born, I would occasionally visit the homes of people with children and think, "This will never happen in my house. No way. This is out of control." Because there would be toys everywhere. What seemed like thousands of them. And most were noisy, plastic, or based on licensed characters (usually some combination of the three).

I was, with that new-mother determination, bent on keeping licensed characters out of my house. I could say it was because I think licensed, media-linked toys stifle creativity and imagination, and put decisions about "play" in the hands of big corporations (and I think they do), but really? I just find most licensed characters and the toys themed on them unaesthetic. And I find their ubiquitous-ness exhausting. A few superheroes here, a splash of Muppets there is not a problem. But when everything - from flatware to crib sheets and everything that false range encompasses - has Elmo on it, I kind of want to gouge my eyes out. With a Superman spoon.

So far, I have managed to keep the linens, table settings, and other housewares relatively character-free. However, I am astounded - absolutely astounded - by how many of Westley's toys feature the casts of "Sesame Street" and "Yo Gabba Gabba." Especially considering my original, "not in my house" stance on licensed toys. I feel like I'm watching my dream of Waldorf dolls and wooden toys die, one Elmo doll at a time.* How on earth did this happen?

Well, for starters I suppose, I loosened way up on my TV stance. While we no longer have TV signal, Westley does watch a fair bit of television on DVD, and the characters have captured his imagination. Nearly everything he watches is (ostensibly) educational, but with their bright colors and easy-to-understand personalities, Muppets make an easy transition to the toy world. And I think Westley gets that. (Marketing and design folks certainly do.)

There's also the issue of affordability. I hadn't realized, when I visualized a playroom full of wooden and 100% recycled plastic toys, that making my dream a reality would require more money than my family has to spend on playthings. High-quality European toys are pricey! (Because they have to come all the way from Europe, naturally.) When you do most of your shopping at thrift shops and the occasional big box store, you're not going to find eco-friendly stacking toys made from recycled milk jugs. You're going to find Elmo. And Cookie Monster. And they'll probably require batteries and sing songs you can't stand. Because those are the toys that don't get saved, to be handed down in the future.

Fortunately, those are the toys Westley loves right now. He loves that he can haul Ernie and Cookie Monster and Brobee and Plex around with him. Those characters are still real to him. They're not the creations of adults wanting to market to preschoolers; they're his friends.

*Westley has three (nearly identical) Elmo dolls. I still don't understand the appeal, but clearly, Elmo is preschooler crack.



Allison the Meep said...

Dude. I feel like I could have totally written this post word for word. (Except that you're a much better writer than me. So not exactly word for word, eh?)

I was so anti Disney and never bought anything like that for Julian. But at birthday time, ALL the gifts we got were licensed characters. And slowly, my strong stance turned into a shoulder shrug followed by a "meh."

And I won't even go into how crazy it got once he turned 4 and became aware of superheroes. We have ungodly amounts of superhero stuff in our house now. I'm kind of a comic book nerd though, so I kind of enjoy it all.

candace said...

Yup I totally understand. I try so hard to keep the plastic, character driven shit out of the house but somehow it finds its way in.

Partially I have to blame the grandparents. What is the deal with grandparents buying this crap? I mean Emma absolutely loves Elmo and Gabba, so really is it that bad? I guess I just try and keep it to a minimum.

We don't even have tv but the computer has a dvd player, itunes, netflix and all the pirated channels out there so she gets to watch a few things.

At least we are cognizant of it, and try to make good choices for our kids. It is the best we can do. And I totally agree, aesthetically Sesame Street and Gabba are really unpleasant to the adult eye (says the family with 3 art degrees)!

Jessica said...

I'm so with you on this one. There's a good mix in our house of wooden, aesthetically-pleasing and crappy plastic toys. I honestly keep the nice ones out for everyday consumption, the others go in baskets or boxes just for Hollis.

And I have to admit that I get a little thrill whenever Hollis recognizes a character on a pair of PJs at Target. It's like, "Hey! His memory is working! He's making associations! He has a preference!" I dunno - I bet I'm looking into it too much and really he just likes spacemen and trains a whole lot.

Amber, The Unlikely Mama said...

I HATE ELMO! Hmmm how to let Alexa watch Sesame Street and avoid Elmo? Guess we should find some old school videos, lol.

I don't really care for most kids TV, and luckily Alexa doesn't seem interested in it...yet. I do, however, almost always have it on. I like it for background noise. Always have. Wonder if I'm raising my baby the ADD way :P

Deb said...

You know, I felt like that when I had my first kids and stayed strong for the most part. But now, four kids later, almost 17 years, I just really DON'T CARE. Seriously. After so many years of non-stop BUSYNESS I said to myself, SCREW IT, I have more important things to attend to. Like my sanity. And if video games/Elmo dolls/cartoons give me a few minutes of peace, so be it.

I still do harbor fantasies of a total wood-silk-wool playroom, but it is just not going to happen in this lifetime. Hey, there are always grandkids, right?