Through play children learn to share, laugh, create, pretend, succeed, fail and grow. Their props are integral parts of their themes and can be brand-name toys or the old standbys, such as sheets or large cardboard boxes to be transformed imaginatively into new objects each time they are approached. These props facilitate the trying on of roles which children will assume as adults. Unfortunately, many of the most popular toys available today have violent themes. As well, 'cartoons' that have been developed for the sole purpose of marketing these toys are dominating children's television.
Play in young children is very literal and concrete. What they hear and see, they reproduce. Unlike adults, they do not yet have the complex ability to deny that which causes discomfort. I recently attended a birthday party with my just-turned-three-year-old son, who is not allowed to watch violent television shows or play with war toys. After the children had played for a while in the host child's bedroom, I decided to join them. The three other boys were just turning four. (The two girls at the party were in the hallway playing with their dolls.) When I entered the room the boys were running around with ugly toy men in their hands, chanting, "Atomic Bomb....Boom!" I was horrified. Of course the words did not mean to them what they meant to me, but I cannot help gasping at the thought of bomb play by little children.
Are our children being desensitized to accept what our leaders maintain--that bombs protect us, that we are the good guys and "they" are the bad guys? I should not have been shocked by the play scene. These children were playing out what they had seen on TV and on toy shelves. What is reflected back to us by the television and the marketplace is what appears in our own lives and/or what the dominant social and political forces tell us to expect.
The toy industry is highly profitable. Logically, it will parallel the largest and most lucrative sector of the North American economy--the military/industrial sector. With military expansion the central theme of Reaganomics and with "American way" newscasts and sit-coms being delivered into our living rooms, the dominance of violence on children's television and on toy shelves fits. "Good" conquered "evil" in Grenada and Libya. "He-Man" and the "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" are available to do the job on TV and toy shelves. That such programs have become so popular can be understood, without being condoned.
Most of the toys with top sales can be seen on TV as full-length programs. How they gained such a high profile is an interesting, though disturbing, evolution.
These popular war toys first presented themselves on toy shelves, before they made their debut on TV. This sequence is the reverse of what happened prior to 1981 when Reagan facilitated the deregulation of the television industry. Before then, states Tom Englehardt in his article, "Saturday Morning Fever" (Sept. '86 issue of Mother Jones), television stations were allowed only a designated number of minutes of commercials in a given time period. Deregulation and the lifting of children's television guidelines which followed allowed for what Englehardt refers to as "the program-length commercial." Some of the current and past programs falling into that category include: "He-Man," "She-ra," "Masters of the Universe," "Transformers," "Care-Bears," "Strawberry Shortcake," and "The Smurfs." Englehardt points out also the noticeably poor quality animations which these programs display, and the repetitive nature of their stories, whether violent or sugary sweet. They are entirely without real people in the episodes, and are so simply and cheaply made (farming out parts of the production process to the Third World) that they require few domestic workers to produce them. This same strategy of shipping out production to cheaper labor forces is common in the process of producing much of what we consume. The toys being marketed via the full-length commercial program are flogged in shorter versions as commercial breaks during other children's shows. The ads always end with such blurbs as, "Each sold separately," or "New from Irwin." It is no accident that each of these programs has an entire series of toys (not just one doll) which it pushes. The more, the merrier the profits.
In earlier days when commercials were either restricted entirely from children's programming or limited in length to ten, thirty, or forty-five-second slots, a successful TV program often spawned the production of a doll representing the show's main character. The TV company sold the right to manufacture its main character and received a share of the profits. But with the move to deregulation and the introduction of program-length commercials, the toy manufacturers and spin-off industries (children's clothing, books, paper supplies, etc.) could eliminate licensing costs previously paid to TV companies for the right to market characters from their programs.
The sequence is this: A value (e.g. that might is right) is marketed by a series of dolls such as "He-Man," or "Masters of the Universe." A program is developed for children's TV with a variety of animated characters; the market is expanded, for "He-Man" is always introducing us to new characters--and corporate creativity thrives on children's need to play out what they see around them.
Derrick De Kerckhove in an article "A Blow for Peace," (Today's Parent, Sept. '86) writes that the spirit of enterprise and conquest that launched the industrial and colonial economy of the nineteenth century also pervaded the invention, building, and promotion of nuclear power plants and the bomb. That spirit of enterprise has fuelled the development of a theme of violence in children's television and toy production. One notes the absence of human figures and human emotion in these poorly-animated TV productions. This eliminates as well the need to pay actors and other crafts people. The finished product, whether a cartoon or a doll, is a culturally starved, weird little creature that is hostile, aggressive, racist, sexist, and void of feelings about what it has done to "conquer evil" or what the consequences were for the recipients of the violence, be they "good guys" or "bad guys." What is presented to our children as role models are distorted creatures who do not feel or think about consequences.
Enter the huggy, feely toys (e.g. Care Bears, the Smurfs, or the now has-been starlet, Strawberry Shortcake) which not only soothe the anxiety created by the violence but also corner the market in kindness and caring! Of course, each series has "individuals" who are "sold separately." They can be tuned in for a full half-hour weekly.
Where does this leave us? What toys and activities can we provide for our chilren and give as creative, inexpensive gifts? Good toys have many dimensions and can be used over and over in different ways. Each experience can teach something new or expand a previous theme, stimulating the child's imagination. Some examples are:
What can we say to our children who come home from daycare, neighbors' homes, or birthday parties and want us to buy war toys or play war games with them? My answer is, "Homes all have different rules. In our home, guns and war play are not allowed. Let's think of what else we can do." We should discuss the whole issue with other parents and in more depth as our children get older. Toy stores can be pressured to remove the destructive junk from their shelves and we can refuse to buy it. If lots of us make it an issue, we might convince our local toystores to become weapon free zones, and help our children find more constructive themes for their play.
From the beginning of next year, Finland will ban the manufacture and sale of war toys. The National Social Welfare Board in Helsinki said war toys, especially those imitating modern warfare, would not be imported, manufactured, or sold.
Last year peace activists in London, Ontario invented an unusual means of resisting war toys. Having requested without success that local stores not handle such toys, the activists simply bought every one in sight. Well before Christmas, not a single war toy could be found in the major stores--because they were all, unopened, in people's basements. Shortly after Christmas, the the purchasers began returning them to the stores, requesting refunds. Confronted with the proper receipts, the merchants were obliged to comply!