This is going to seem like an odd topic for a grown man to write on, but, that's never stopped me before.
The topic is the call for a boycott of the American Girls line of dolls by the American Family Association, a Mississippi-based Christian fundamentalist group headed by the the Rev. Donald Wildmon, whom you may remember for his bizarre 1988 charge that a scene in the Ralph Bakshi-produced New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, in which the title character was sniffing a flower, was really one in which MM was snorting cocaine.
Why the boycott of the American Girls line???
Because, according to the Rev. Wildmon, as well as the Pro-Life Coalition, a percentage of the profits from a set of bands or bracelets which can be purchased separately from the dolls, goes to Girls Inc, a 140 year-old organisation dedicated to promoting the physical, psychological and sexual health of girls, and which, on its web-site, states that it supports the right of girls and women to birth control and abortion, and isn't condemnatory of homosexuality, lesbianism or bi-sexuality.
Having looked at the pages on the Girls Inc site related to these topics, via the American Family Association's own site, where links to these pages are provided, I can see why the AFA would be upset.
However, they also miss the point that Girls Inc advocates an abstinence-first and sexual avoidance policy for young girls as well.
I won't go into those issues at this time, just simply because I want and need to keep on track here.
What that track is, you'll see in a moment.
The thing is that, according to the 3 articles I read about the subject, before doing a Google search on the toy line and the story about the boycott thereof, these toys were often proudly purchased by conservatives who saw them as being patriotic and wholesome before the whole issue about Girls Inc exploded.
Fine and dandy.
Hence, comes the point of this article, which is about the images that toys project, the kinds of symbolism they embody, or are seen to embody, and how toys reflect a given culture's ideals or fears.
Meaty stuff, eh???
Let's just hope I've the intellectual equipment and the Brass Balls to tackle it properly.
For the past four, nearly five decades now, there has been considerable debate and ink shed over the sorts of symbolism and ideals projected by the Barbie and Gi Joe toy lines in this country, and probably throughout much of the world.
What it can be crudely summarised as is this: Are Barbie and Gi Joe, in their actual and perceived symbolism and embodiment of characteristics considered desirable by this culture, and others, helpful or harmful to children in forming their views of the world and each other???
For many on the Left, Barbie and Joe are harmful, because of, until recently, Barbie's generally un-realistic female anatomy, and emphasis on consumerist behaviour, and Joe's mindless war-mongering and participation(symbolic, that is)in the various depredations of American Imperialism abroad.
Don't know what kind of beef the Right might have with these toys, but undoubtedly some on the Right probably do have some sort of beef or another, especially with Barbie's being a young, physically attractive woman, who ain't married nor tied down with a passel of kids, and, in Joe's case, with the idea of boys playing with any sort of doll, even if this 'un's a fully articulated, taller version of the traditional toy soldier.
For me, the answers, and questions, are a lot more complex than just those, because, having grown up with Joe and friends(Had Megos, Big Jims, and any number of other such figures as a kid and adolescent. Hell, even collected some of the 3 3/4th inch Joes in my early 20's), am rather torn about all that.
On one hand, I can see where those on the Left who make the charges that they do about Joe and Co. have a point, especially in to-day's charged and radicalised political and cultural climate, about how toys like 'im help socialise kids into un-critically accepting a lot of the spoken and un-spoken cultural premises about the rightness and invincibility of American military power, etc, etc.
That charge was made against the toy line in the mid-1960's, just as American involvement in the Viet-Nam War was escalating by the month, and, ultimately, a backlash against the toy line is what drove Hasbro to re-create Joe as an adventurer, first in 1969, and then fully(Well, not quite, really)breaking with its military past with the creation of the Adventure Team line in 1970, with which Hasbro continued until the failure and demise of its Super Joe Adventure Team line(a line of 81/2 inch science fiction themed figures that ran from 1977-78)in 1978.
It is, in part, fear of a similar backlash, as well as declining profits for both Hasbro's 12 and 3 3/4th inch Joe lines that prompted the company to announce that it would be retiring both lines late last year, and replacing 'em with an 8 inch line of Joes, based on characters from the Gi Joe: A Real American Hero line, called Gi Joe: Sigma Six.
So much for that.
The point is that, whether in the case of Joe, or Barbie, which was based on a German novelty doll called Bild Lili, which was marketed at, and sold to, adult men in tobbaconist shops and the like, in late '50's West Germany, both sets of toys, and indeed, all toys embody some sort of quality, whether idealised, or, in some cases, the opposite, in a given culture.
To take Lili and Barbie, for examples, Lili was based on a popular female comic-strip character that ran in the Sud-Deutsches Zeitung in the mid- and late '50's. This character was like a Marlene Dietrich character come to life, in that she was a fairly sexy and cynical young woman, who dated older, well-off men for whatever she could get out of 'em.
Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler, and her husband, spotted the toy while vacationing in Germany, circa 1958, and decided to adapt Lili for little American girls.
At the time, the Handlers, and Mattel, the toy company they headed, knew that the dolls aimed at young girls were baby dolls, and there was nothing in the way of a young adult doll for girls whatsoever.
Barbie would be the first such toy of its type ever made, and Mattel made a killing, thanks in part to the adroit use of television commercials for the line, in jig time.
Bab's first incarnation, which continues, albeit in a rather modified form, to this day, was that of a carefree fashion model, with lots of disposable income, and, slightly later on, with a steady, but very non-threatening, boy-friend in the form of Ken.
Physically, the first generation of Babses bore quite a striking similarity to their German progenitor, and, it wouldn't be until the mid-1960's, that Mattel, and Babs, would substantially change her look, so that she didn't, to use a William Holden line from the movie version of The World of Suzie Wong, "a cheap European street-walker."
Actually, one could say that Barbie looked more like an EXPENSIVE European street-walker, but why belabor the point????
Over the decades that followed, Barbie has been, in response to both market and socio-political pressures, a career woman of various sorts, astronaut, airline pilot, even a politician!!!!
Still, her core identity remains that of an attractive, though her bust size is now more generally reflective of most real women's anatomies than before, carefree young woman, with pots and pots of disposable income, and no real great desire to do much more in life than shop with her friends, and enjoy all the latest perks, privileges, gadgets and goodies of a consumer society.
So be it.
The American Girls line, which is a subsidiary of Mattel, by the way, is rather a contrast to Babs.
These dolls, there are about eight of 'em thus far in the line, I believe, are patterned on young girls of various eras in American History, and are of various ethnicities, except for Asian-American and Pacific Islander(Pity, that), and physically and socially represent very young girls and their roles in their respective American cultures and points in time in the American historical time-line.
Having visited the American Girls site, and seen the dolls for myself, I can't say that I see anything objectionable about 'em. But, I see nothing of any great interest to myself, either.
Not being the progenitor of a young female off-spring, is one reason, and the second is, the dolls, at 18 inches, are too large to compatibly work with the figures and dolls that I use in my pics, which are 11 and 12 inchers.
What's interesting about the line, as well as Mattel's involvement in this, and with Girls Inc, through the profit-donation programme that's causin' such alarm with the AFA and other related groups, is the symbolism and values behind 'em(In this case, that of young girls being and acting confident and self-willed, while having strong, loving relationships with their families), and, I think, Mattel's attempt to end at least some of the flak they've gotten over the decades for the un-realistic, looks- and materialistic-orientation of Barbie, by creating and selling this line.
Ultimately, toys like these, and just about any game or toy one could care to name, reflect, on the parts of their makers, and the cultures of which they're a part, even in opposition, the dreams, hopes, fears and anxieties of those involved, whether as producers, parents or kids who play with the damned things.
Barbie and Joe both embody, depending on one's perspective, elements of both the American Dream and the American Nightmare, in that both are young(23 years old at very oldest, I think), physically attractive, "go-getter" types, who are determined and successful at whatever they set out to do, whether it's takin' an enemy-held position or scoring a sweet little number at the mall.
You won't ever, I think, ever see either Hasbro or Mattel produce versions of Joe and Babs, like the Homeless Vet Joe or Meth-Head Barbie, because, being producers of mass-market toys for children, as well as adult collectors, it would neither be desirable nor profitable for those companies, nor for any mass market toy company, to do that.
That is something for individual collectors, especially those who like to kit-bash(taking various bits and pieces of a figure or dolls, and modifying them into an altogether new figure or doll), or for smaller companies, especially those aiming at adult collectors, to do.
It's also something that artists of various sorts, and working in various genres, and sub-genres, of the arts have been doing, especially in the last 15 years or so.
I include my own humble efforts, many of which are featured on this blog, as part of that artistic and social interpretation and re-interpretation of these toys and the meanings and symbolism behind 'em.
I have seen, heard and read jokes and other forms of commentary about these toys, and have told my share of jokes and done my share of interpretation and re-interpretation of 'em as well, as well over the years, and, if anything, these artistic efforts, jokes and other forms of commentary point to, depending on the commentator's point of view, achievements or defects, not only of the toys in question, but of the social and cultural presumptions behind 'em.
A Crack-Whore Barbie or Nazi-Skinhead Joe joke says somethin' not only about the toy line, or type of toy it is by itself, but also about what our society, like any other, choose to embody in clay, wood, bisque, porcelain or plastic, and what it chooses to over-look or deliberately ignore in favour of, generally, a more favourable and idealised image of itself, its ideals and values.
This is why debate, interpretation and re-interpretation of these toys, as well as other objects, artistic or ordinary-use, are needed, and will always be needed, to come to a greater understanding of our cultures, ourselves, our roles in our respective cultures and sub-cultures, and our ideals and values.
But, in parting, let me add that there's one factor that we should never forget, and that is how children, who are, after all, the target group for most of these items, interpret and re-interpret these objects and the ideals and values embodied by 'em.
While this really depends on the life experiences, etc, of the individual kid in question, I would like to tell grown-ups, whether toy makers, parents, collectors, commentators, what have you, not to be surprised if the way in which the individual kids, or group of kids, look at, and play with, the toys.
One can just as easily play house with Crack-Whore Barbie or Homeless Vet Joe, as well as with the official versions of the products, and, in the end, the kids will arrive at their own interpretations of what those toys embody and mean.
Maybe not in a conscious way, but in their own way, and that I believe to be their right.
As for the Rev. Wildmon and his boycott, all I have to say is this: Boys and Girls, if you don't like Girls Inc and American Girls/Mattel's support of their efforts, fine. Don't buy the damned things if you don't want to. Just don't expect everyone else in the world to hop on your silly band-waggon. If you do, then you're even bigger idiots than I already thought you were, and I've thought you were a bunch of drooling morons for years now.
Just leave others in peace to purchase, or not, as they will.
Here Endeth The Rant.