Friday, March 09, 2007

Electronics, Toys, and Why Dolls Don't Sell

I was directed to this article by CJ, about the inadequacies of electronic toys. I'm not against electronic toys per se (the article specifically highlights Simon, which I STILL think is fun, and I remember a Speak-and-Spell quite fondly), but I have long been puzzled by what exactly is the fun of many of these toys that makes them worth their often relatively outrageous prices. I have always found Teddy Ruxpin puzzling. You could put a book on tape in a tape recorder and hug a stuffed bear for probably less than half the cost. Or you could get a Teddy Ruxpin, have the tape recorder IN the bear, rendering it infinitely less huggable, and add creepy animatronics. If you haven't seen Tickle-Me-Elmo Extreme's seizure-like animatronics, you can check them out on YouTube. I hear from friends that most of the toddler target market finds these gyrations startling and unappealing.

Few of these toys use electronics in a constructive or useful way; mostly it's just to add literal bells and whistles (and blinky lights) to existing versions of toys. There are a few notable exceptions -- Lego Mindstorms, which is a ridiculously powerful robot building and programming "toy," leaps to mind -- that use electronics in constructive, interesting, imagination-growing ways. And I like those toys that are sort-of electronic versions of Jack-in-the-Boxes, where a toddler mashes a large button and is rewarded with something lighting up or playing music. Toddlers LOVE those. (And if you have a toddler, you know it, because your television remote control is exactly the same toy and it takes them all of two minutes to figure out if they face the TV and push random buttons, they will be rewarded with flashing screen, changing channel, noises, parental tantrums, etc.)

I'd been thinking about kids and toys lately anyway, having just read the American Psychological Association's Report on the Sexualization of Girls and I felt quite validated to discover that the APA shares my opinions on those terrifically creepy "Bratz" dolls -- or as a lot of parents call them behind their children's backs, the "Slutz" dolls, because wow, could MGA Entertainment be more explicit in its desire to tell its 4-to-8-year-old target market that shallow teenagers in trampy clothing are the pinnacle of feminine achievement and ought to be emulated in imaginative play? They even stand in suggestive poses, which is something particularly creepy when coming from a DOLL. What kind of seriously warped mind did it take to come up with sexualized dolls dressed as underage teenaged girls? There's something very wrong with a grown man who comes up with that, and I mean that quite seriously.

The New Atlantis article mentions Baby Alive, which has become progressively more complex and overprogrammed, and now announces to you that it "has a stinky." Even the voice on this thing is annoying, if you've seen the commercials, the sort of precocious little-kid voice that's like nails on a blackboard, like the kids Welch's prefers for its commercials.

All of which suggests to me that dollmakers, having been struggling for years to halt the slide in doll play in the U.S., don't actually understand what dolls are for. I've read that the age of doll play for girls has crept ever downward; in the early 20th century, it wasn't unusual for 14- and 15-year-old girls to still be playing with dolls, at least intermittently. Today, dolls are mostly "outgrown" by first grade (6 years old, for foreign readers). It's not because dolls aren't "sexy" enough (could that seriously be any more creepy as a goal of a toy?). It's not because dolls don't have fashionable enough clothing. Bob Mackie designs for Barbie, for heaven's sake. It's not because dolls don't have enough electronics. Baby Alive, at this point, is barely one step away from those "real baby" dolls they give teenagers in health class to discourage them from having actual babies, that scream and need feeding and changing and record it all to print out data for a grade.

It's really to do with cultural shifts. The purpose of doll play, by and large, is adult emulation. Children pretending to care for babies, the way their parents do. Today, families are smaller, so children don't see their parents engaged in child care nearly as often. Many more women work, so girls in particular have other options in "emulative" play. And, as the APA points out, girls are being forced into adult roles earlier and earlier. I also think it's telling that so many dolls today intended for play are also marketed as collectables (American Girl, Cabbage Patch Kids, Barbie, etc.), something that appeals to parents, or to older children wanting to have a better collection than other kids.

The New Atlantis article says:
“A lot of these toys direct the play activity of our children by talking to them,
singing to them, asking them to press buttons and levers,”
notes Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, co-director of the Temple University Infant Lab.
“I look for a toy that doesn’t command the child, but lets the child command it.”

Which is another reason why modern dolls sell poorly. Baby Alive tells you exactly what to do next. American Girl dolls, the real success story in the doll market for the last decade, are "just" dolls. (Dolls with terrifically expensive and well-marketed accessories, but still.) They don't DO anything. They're well-made cloth-and-porcelain dolls, whose only real "technology" is the closing eye when they lie down, which was patented in the U.S. by 1922. As such, they have nearly infinite scope for imagination. They don't DO anything, so they can do everything a child imagines. Children aren't limited or directed in their use. And American Girl has been terribly clever in expanding the market age back up by making these dolls with historical stories children can emulate, in addition to more traditional emulations with dolls, but American Girl doesn't force that use.

(Which is why I think, incidentally, that people making anti-Barbies -- dolls with traditionally male jobs, or Amelia Earhart dolls, or whatever -- are slightly misguided in their aims, in that all that their dolls are are anti-Barbies and will become as boring as quickly for girls. And as I don't see very many girls striving to emulate Barbie, I doubt owning a 12" Amelia Earhart dolls will make them strive to emulate Amelia Earhart. It's just another fashion doll. Besides, Barbie's been an astronaut.)

I wrote not long ago about my adventures in doll-clothes making, which I undertook for exactly the same reason little girls used to be taught to make clothes in doll-size: It wastes a lot less fabric when you're a beginner and screwing up all the time if you're making clothes for 16" tall people instead of 62" tall people. (You also finish a lot faster, and beginners at anything need a lot of "hey, I did it!" to get past the initial frustration!) The entire process reminds me a great deal of my primary childhood toy occupation, which was Legos. Read instructions, follow instructions, puzzle out the complicated parts of the instructions, and work with your hands to construct something, one step at a time, that starts out looking like a pile of bricks (or cloth) and ends up as a pirate ship (or dress). After a while, you learn the tricks and you can start building your own buildings, or creating your own patterns. (Which is where all the girls with the funkiest clothes in high school get them -- they make them.) I think if perhaps dolls had involved such a creative task when I was a child, I might have found them substantially more interesting, in a way that could be sustained over a period of time. Electronic doo-dads and collectability doesn't really achieve that; that sort of thing is fun for a while, but it gets boring quickly.

Electronic toys and dolls both are more interesting and useful to children when they give a broad, open scope for imagination and creativity. When adults get down on the floor with children to play, you usually find them constructing block towers or lincoln log houses, not fiddling with Tickle-Me-Elmo Extreme, because building block towers remains surprisingly satisfying into adulthood, if not quite the physical and intellectual challenge it was at age 3.

Tickle-Me-Elmo Extreme is cute, but it isn't going to have any lasting effect on the children playing with it (expect perhaps a lifelong aversion to animatronics that makes them refuse to go to Disneyland). Lego Mindstorms, however, is going to have kids programming primitive robots at age 10 and learning all kinds of computer programming and physics and robotics, much of it through experimentation, because they want to and it's play, not because they're being made to in school. Bratz dolls may satisfy an acquisitive, materialistic urge to own the latest thing, but a child learning to make a doll blanket for that same doll is using math and measuring skills and geometry* and learning to sew and create something, which is likely to be far more satisfying and interesting in the short term and useful in the long term than simply collecting dolls because their friends have them.


*Yes, the answer to, "when am I ever going to use this in the real world?" for geometry is "in quilting." There's a terrifying amount of geometry involved. Also for using the pythagorean theorem to see if a piece of glass would fit into the opening on my hutch, but that was just because it never occurred to me I could have just measured the diagonal. With the same measuring tape I was using to measure the vertical and horizontal so I could mathematically figure out the diagonal. So I don't think that really counts.


Vieva said...


I keep looking at toddler toys (being the proud mommy of the most adorable toddler ever) and so much of it is SCARY!

I found a drum that talks. Why does a drum need to talk? It's supposed to make a *thwack* sound when you hit it, and that's the extent of drumming. It isn't supposed to TALK!

There are so many great toys out there. Some of them use electronics very intelligently. Then there's the scary ones.

And ye gods are they ever scary!

Mahkno said...

The other day I was looking for a 'sit n spin'. Our 10 year had one and enjoyed it immensely. The current edition of 'sit n spin' is all tricked out with noise making garbage. I passed on it.


No wonder kids are going deaf.

The most successful toy in our house, the one that continues to be played for last seven years, is the humble Game Boy. Legos? Nope. Tinker Toys? Nope. Game Boy beats them all. I am talking the original Game Boy color. We have the two newer versions and they get used a lot too.

Legos do come in a close second tho. By far, Legos are the best toy ever.

Josh said...

The best thing to do for the noise to put scotch tape over the speaker. The more you put, the quieter it gets. There have been a couple times that I put enough tape on, our son has looked at me and had to think, why didn't you just take the batteries out?

Anon E. mouse said...

For an alternative to "Bratz" try "Groovy Girls"

Mahkno said...

The problem with battery powered toys is that the kids then want batteries for the toys. Taking them out just leads to whining and disaffection for the toy. It really doesn't matter how good the toy is when the batteries are out. In the eyes of child it is no longer 'playable'.

You are annoyed when the toy has batteries and annoyed when it doesn't. The battery manufacturer's are loving it for sure.

Why should a parent be subjected to that? Make a farkin toy that doesn't require batteries.

Anonymous said...

Electronic toys are really so annoying because of their loud sounds. And aside from that, you cannot use the toy again if the battery is already empty, that's why you have to buy again another one. And that means wasting of money. So if your kids want a toy and at the same time, you want it to be helpful in your growing child, why not buy those educational toys rather than buying expensive dolls, or expensive toys. It is more convenient and more economical, and at the same time, educational!

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