"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 December 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Toy Story



In the holiday season, toys are

as integral to our economy as

tulips were to the Dutch economy

of the 18th century. Still,

despite the simple Christmas

joys they bring, the happy

holiday cash flow they generate,

toys — and in particular the

mania that accompanies the

status toys of any given season

— are often under attack.

The Orlando Sentinel complained,

"People are lining up for hours

to buy one, taking away their

precious time when they could be

doing something more productive,

like feeding the homeless or

bringing world peace. We've

allowed marketing to control our

desires." A British busybody

whines in the Stoke on Trent

Sentinel, "I would like to see

toy advertising banned.... Young

minds are susceptible to

advertising. They see it and

they want it. They pester their

parents and parents feel under

pressure. Many spend hundreds of

pounds on presents." The London

Free Press opines, "We are

consuming ourselves to death and

the economic system is

responsible. [Toys] may have

something important to say about

the degree of brain washing and

outright invasive manipulation

we are subjected to." The

Arizona Republic calls mania

over a certain toy "deplorable"

in a headline.


This might all sound familiar in

the season of Pokemon, but in

one of those devilish,

not-utterly-transparent little

tricks journalists love to

deploy for cheap irony, I'm

really using a bunch of quotes

from last season's bygone mania,

Furby. It was ever thus: Toys

call forth not only happy smiles

from innocent children but

canned lessons on the foolish,

maniacal, wasteful pointlessness

of the capitalist machine on the

part of bored moralist pundits.


Unquestionably, we need Pokemon

about as much as we need Ellen

Goodman columns. But do these

predictable annual manias

(Beanie Babies may have

transcended the holidays, but

past Christmases have seen such

soon-eclipsed necessities as

Tickle Me Elmo, Teddy Ruxpin,

and, of course, those Chinese-box

Gorbachev dolls that kept the

waning Cold War hot, baby, hot!)

really demand such intemperate




Toy manias don't deserve such

abuse, as long as we forget

— and we as a people must

forget, in order to forge on

— that a toy provided a

flimsy excuse to team Arnold

Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, and Jake

"Anakin Skywalker" Lloyd in that

grim holiday "vehicle," Jingle

All the Way. Does the fact that

we as a people are willing to

stand in lines — not for

rotting bread or bathtub vodka

but for stupid dolls — make

us the "sick society" that the

punk rock kids in that episode of

Quincy fingered us as?


Toys, however, are Even More

Important Than That — and

not just in the sense that to

the early '80s generation

Cabbage Patch doll riots have

all the political resonance and

revolutionary nostalgia of the

Paris barricades of 1968. But

the politics have to be

subterranean to infiltrate

mainstream stores like Kmart.

Only in the grim, fetid,

red-strobe-light district of a

Spencer's Gifts are you apt to

find truly revolutionary toys

like the gorilla doll that barks

out a tinny version of

Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping."

Anarchy in the USA is coming

some time indeed! This

anarcho-communist totem is, of

course, made in that

former-capitalist, running-dog

paradise of Hong Kong. (In the

context of Spencer's Objective

Conditions, the toy suffers from

the right-opportunist error of

not making fart noises.)


Toys supply a vital weapon in

capitalist modernity: a chance

to construct counternarratives

of personal significance to what

the MAN is trying to sell you.

Professional enemies of

commercialism overrate the power

of advertising to begin with,

but playing with toys may well

be the early key to the power of

consumer resistance — in

practice. Maybe the makers of GI

Joe or Barbie create their lines

of spinoffs and accessories just

so we'll buy more damn dolls.

But we know, though Barbie may

date Ken, she's fucking GI Joe

(or maybe we learned that from a

commercial, too), and that

knowledge is bound to have later

repercussions. (We suspect

Barbie also spends more time

necking with other girl dolls

than with any dirty ol' boy.)



In fact, the only real potential

dilemma with seasonal-smash,

hard-to-get mania toys is that

your parents are apt to get

pissed off when you grimly yet

casually annihilate them —

the real fun (and in some

subterranean way, probably the

real purpose) of toys to begin

with. Yet every toy ruined that

your parents had to search and

scramble for, every pained stare

at your innocent glee in

ruination — in

deconstruction if you will —

shouts a firm, rebellious "Nay!"

in the face of bland,

unsatisfying culture and of

tyranny to boot.


The shelves of mall toy stores

are cornucopias of revolutionary

possibility, secret niches of

independent pure play versus

mediated hegemony. In a

laughable attempt at political

propaganda, toy stores last

season featured action figures

in the "world leader" series

(consisting, inexplicably, of

Benjamin Franklin, James

Madison, George Washington, and

Herbert Hoover). To call these

dolls "toys" is debatable. You

can be sure that Hoover, for

example, if thrust upon a poor

child in a misguided sense of

historical significance, is more

apt to be punched out by a

teeth-gritting Green Lantern

action figure than to get

walloped electorally by a

wheelchair-bound, nonsmoking

FDR. Kids, more into Santa than

Santayana, will gladly warp

history rather than learn

about it or repeat it.


While the marketing of toys

smacks of adults falling prey to

cheap advertiser blandishments,

it just goes to show that

Galbraithian complaints about

"created needs" miss the point.

Certainly we couldn't want it if

it weren't there or if someone

didn't take the trouble to tell

us it was there. Sure, our only

real needs as mammals on Earth

are food, water, shelter, and

totems in the form of beloved

rap/film impresario Master P.

But the cravings these mania

toys satisfy — status and

the joys of taking in the

detritus of the outside world

and making it uniquely part of

your own dreamworld — are

integral to being human as well.

Everything else may be just

tinsel on the Christmas tree.

But have you ever seen what a

cool fire a dried-up,

tinsel-coated tree makes?

courtesy of Eugen von Bohm Bawerk