The historian Gary Cross published an editorial on toys, collecting and commercialism in the New York Times this weekend.
Cross’ scholarly work is very good. I’ve cited it, read it, and assigned it. But he’s also a dues-paying signatory to what James Twitchell has called the “jeremiad” against consumerism and commercialism, with all the particular and almost ritualistic intensity that this argument takes on when it addresses children’s culture.
Cross tries to argue that he’s really concerned with a new phenomenon, namely, the rise of toy lines that beg for completism and so encourage children to have too much of some kind of stuff, to become collectors. But first off, there’s nothing new about that in the context of postwar children’s culture in the United States. I haunted toy stores looking for Micronauts I didn’t have. My friends and I were always searching for the Colorform Aliens that we knew existed but hadn’t been able to find in any stores. (I miss my Colossus Rex, but I’m not about to shell out $850.00 for him.)
So at best you could say this is a more prevalent commercial strategy now, but I’m not even sure that’s true. Cross doesn’t really talk about the turmoil within the toy marketplace at present.
The article is a kind of quick and affectionate stroll down the memory lane of past crusades against toys, kidvid and commercials. Action for Children’s Television here, past FTC policies there, 1980 regulations on kidvid commercials, the good old days. Perhaps, he concludes, it’s “time to rethink the decision to allow the unrestricted advertising and cartoon promotion of toy lines”.
Why? I don’t know. Because there’s more toys bought and then discarded? Are there really? But in any event, so what? Do we need a public policy initiative to prevent the creation of more Velveteen Rabbits? No, it’s all about our children’s psyches, says Cross. So, exactly what was the social consequence of kid consumerism from the 1970s and 1980s? What bad things happened to the psyches of Generation X that are now visible in American life? What happened to me because I lusted after Time Traveller, Biotron and Astro-Nautilus the Man From Saturn? Am I less than I would have been if I had only had stickball and baseball cards to play with?
That is always the problem with this critique. It can’t really say what the consequences to kids are, and it can only make the vaguest of gestures towards some unspecified past when people were somehow better, cleaner, nobler than today because of the parsimony and authenticity of their toys. As if all America was once a happy, milk-fed Walton Mountain.
I’m laying it on thick here. Cross is smart and largely aware of most of these criticisms. He observes, for example, that kids do imaginative things to and with toys that go beyond the scripts that marketing and advertising establish for those toys. But that’s an aside for him, when it ought to raise profound questions about the arguments he relies upon.
Reading the piece, I was simply struck anew at the immobility of these arguments. Reading Cross is like coming across one of those Japanese soldiers hiding away on a Pacific island who didn’t know World War II was over. Action for Children’s Television? Come on, been there, done that. When there was regulation of children’s television and commercialism, it often led to perverse results. More importantly, the regulatory mentality was one of the key reasons why children’s television before 1990 was creatively weak. Look at kidvid since 1990, since cable, since it escaped from regulation. I bow to no one in my appreciation of the Saturday mornings of my youth, but let’s face it, kids who have grown up since 1992 have had access to better television, better films, better video games and, yeah, better toys than those of us who grew up before that date. I can see offering a cultural critique of very specific toy lines (I can get as wound up about Bratz as any middle-class parent) but of the whole shebang?