Thursday, May 26, 2011


The Upholstery Eater is about to be five and I wanted to send a special gift, which was not as easy as I thought. The books in the bookstore were all dreadful, so when a friend with grandchildren suggested games, I went to the local toy store, not realizing that I was venturing into a cultural minefield.

I was pleased with what I finally bought—a building set with geometric pieces that stick together with magnets—but was otherwise appalled at the aesthetics and messages of toys for children. (And this wasn’t even Toys ‘R Us!) For little girls, it's all about clothes, plastic bling, princesses, coloring within the lines, and making potholders (Potholders! While I’m all for knitting for both sexes, I struggle to find relevance in potholders for a five-year-old in 2011).

And for boys, of course, almost everything has to do with replicas of gas-driven vehicles. Even things to build, like Lego© sets, are designed to duplicate a prescribed object. Nothing is freeform or left to the imagination.

After being away from the culture for a good while, it all looked like societal conditioning and materialistic indoctrination.

Another reason to be grateful for Lady Gaga.


LXV said...

While cleaning out a house, I recently stumbled across an FAO Schwarz catalog from 1953. It had all my childhood toys in it: wooden blocks, Lincon Logs, American Bricks, Playskool, some toys that later became Creative Playthings, like Colorforms. Microscope sets, Jon Gnagy painting sets, Play-Doh factories, dolls and costume sets, models. I never knew how good we had it. The last time I set foot in a Toys r Us, I was overwhelmed by magenta pink and a lot of plastic. The dolls they give to little girls now are loaded up with makeup and slutty personalites.

Rico said...

There is much truth in this post. I am the father of two 5-year-old daughters, and my wife and I wrestle with much of the cultural programming.

On the other hand, I remember going to some generic party store to get decorations for their first birthday. Of course there was a toy aisle, and it was divided; one side boys, the other girls. One of my daughters was completely un-interested, but the other took one look at the pink, plastic-frilly-wonderness and squealed; SQUEALED for christsake. Same home, same upbringing, same slightly-lefty, College-employed, feminist parents. Yet there was an immediate and clear assertion of her identity which has endured.

It all makes me question how powerful all this supposed imprinting really is. And as a painter, I always encourage them to color outside the lines.

I'm not criticizing you at all, I want to make that clear. Yet parenting has made me question a great many things, including many of my own long-held perceptions about the world, culture, politics and human beings in general. In short, seeing through their eyes has made me a better artist because I've had to see beyond my progressive comfort zone.

In the end, we try to allow them to be themselves, have a healthy perception/understanding of their bodies, feed their questing minds, and preserve their options. The best attempts of Disney and the rest to culturally condition are really just clumsy attempts to capitalize on short-lived childhood phases. You can still love The Little Mermaid when you're 4 and be a nuclear physicist, astronaut or artist when you grow up. And if you grow up "girly" in the process, who is really to say if that is good or bad but yourself?

Every culture conditions and indoctrinates in some way. I would prefer the onslaught of marketing (against which I can arm them with critical thought and awareness) to many other historical and contemporary rites of passage.

Perhaps the greater cultural dangers are the size of most babies' internet footprints, television, and parents on cell phones.