Friday, August 24, 2007

On toys

I'm reading "Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole," by Benjamin Barber. It is simultaneously blowing my mind and echoing back what I think. I'm not going to quote the author, but I'm not even 100 pages in and it's already stirring up some pretty good questions, new ways to think about how we "all are."

When did adults start wanting toys? The deeper you get into this stuff, the weirder it gets. I first wanted to say it was the advent of the PC. No, it was video games (but weren't those first for kids? I don't think I knew many adults who played video games when I was a kid). No, it was muscle cars, points out my husband. No, maybe it was even before that. I go back to my life's source material, Little House on the Prairie, and I remember Pa whittling checkers and playing Laura, and then playing the men in town. Were all those men guilty of infantilism? Or is a game not a toy? I would hardly have thought the men who played checkers during the Long Winter were playing with children's toys, but does it fit under the definition?

When did marketers -- merchants -- ANYONE lose their souls enough to consider children "the prime target"? And can you protect a child, your own child, from this without raising them in the woods? We don't seriously consider having children, as I've mentioned here before, but if we did, I would push hard for homeschooling -- not to keep my kid safe from other kids or whatever they may have to deal with socially at school, or even to give them a better education than I think they could get at a public or private school. I would homeschool to avoid the Coke sponsorships in the hallways, to avoid Channel One and its Nike advertising, to avoid the story questions about "If Chris has four Oreos and Melissa has eight Oreos ..." with an Oreo coupon on the paper book cover.

I will paraphrase Barber here. He says: We may think we have a choice -- the choice not to participate in the consumption machine. But our only choice is really HOW we will participate, not if.

That is something I just don't buy, excuse the expression. I'm just not there yet. I don't think buying veggies at a farmer's market counts as participation in the consumption machine. I don't think making your own sweaters does -- even if you buy the yarn. I don't think making your bread does, even though you have to get the flour from somewhere. You could take it further back and say, like Father did in Farmer Boy: On a farm, a man is free and independent. You grow what you wear (they raised sheep), you grow what you eat, and you cut your shelter from your own timber. But Father bought the first pair of sheep from someone; they didn't rise from the ground like tree stumps. He bought seed potatoes and seed carrots. He bought the loom that Mother spun the yarn on. He bought the woodstove she cooked on. He bought the saw he cut the trees down with. You get the idea.

So that's where Father drew the line on participation in the machine. Buying the raw materials is OK; buying the finished product is not. For me, I draw it a little further down the line than that -- and hopefully it's not just because this is what I do. To me, it's about the where, and the who grows what you buy question. So tomatoes from Safeway are part of the machine; tomatoes from the farmer's market or the CSA are not. Bread you make yourself isn't, bread you buy is. A pair of jeans bought second hand is not. A pair of new jeans is. These are all my lines in the sand, and I'm drawing new ones every day.

My husband said, "I know you're just walking over this ground for the first time," with regards to consumerism dominating my reading, writing and most conversation. That's the truth. I just wish it hadn't even taken me this long to get here.

(Postscript: When I was in high school, I wouldn't buy anything unless it came from a thrift store. Six years later it was all Banana Republic, Victoria's Secret and Old Navy, all the time. So it seems I have been here before, in a sense.)


stp said...

I suspect that the trend is not that more adults want toys but that more people have been convinced that entertainment can be derived from manufactured and purchased physical items.

I think adult people have always craved entertainment but for much of the pre-industrial period that entertainment was derived from experience. You get together with people and talk or watch a play or hear some music or play a game.

But as the industrial system ratcheted up, items became plentiful and heavily promoted as a means of entertainment. Spend money, get stuff, don't depend upon other humans for your fun.

Perhaps the late modern period of this will be when everyone has the means to produce their own bespoke goods to combine the benefits of mass production with the suitability of personalized fulfillment.

I dig toys, I just don't think they can replace the entertainment I get from people.

tk said...

That's a good analysis of it - experience vs. products (and not making the products, just buying the things). How many toys do adults and kids bring home where the primary entertainment and joy was buying the thing, not using it? Probably a lot.

I like the stitch-and-bitch for that kind of thing. We don't all have to just sit around and talk, we can be producing a THING, but it's entertainment through working with the hands and work that's done in community, in the physical space where you exist.

misha said...

Children are only "the prime target" because they're the leverage used by merchandisers to shake disposable income loose from their parents. I saw a great example of this on a Dairy Queen marquee (about 20 years ago): "SCREAM UNTIL DADDY STOPS THE CAR." Just so — the children are pawns and collateral damage in this exchange, I think.

Cindy said...

A book I just finished "The Child Worshippers" talks about that very thing: the children are in charge of the family, so the marketers look to manipulate them. They decide where a family lives, where they go on vacation, how leisure time is spent, etc. (The book was written in the 60's btw. To think how much worse it has gotten since then)

tk said...

Misha, Cindy: you have examples from way before I even realised this was going on. Now, parents are referred to as inconvenient "gatekeepers," trying in vain to keep their kids from the malls and branding cults -- but really, the marketers say, this is a losing cause and not only that but one that is wrong-headed to even be fighting.

I need to read that Child Worshippers book.

Cindy said...

One of the more scary things I realized while reading that book is the behavior described is now seen pretty commonly. The book focuses on the upper class of the early 60's, and while some of the situations don't apply to the middle class (sending kids to luxury summer camps, for instance), much of the behavior of "everything being for the children" I see in my friends, who are probaby lower middle class.