By Lauren Kelly / AlterNet / December 6, 2012 |
If you, your siblings, or your close friends have children, you know that the holidays often involve toy shopping. And if you’re a progressive, you know that a trip to the toy store can be very depressing indeed.
It’s not that toys plastered with corporate logos, or gender-essentialist toys, or toys made from toxic chemicals are a new phenomenon. But with the holiday season becoming more and more consumer-driven each year, and awareness of these issues increasing, the “problem toys” seem to stick out more than ever. (At least for this writer, whose friends are all starting to have kids.)
What’s a truly ethical toy that kids will love to play with? A cardboard box comes pretty close to meeting that criteria, though it makes a pretty lame gift. It might be more useful to look at the characteristics you don’t want in a toy, and then you can narrow the field from there. Here are some prime examples of toys that might make your head explode.
1. McDonald’s “McJob” Play Set
What better way for a small child to escape into an innocent fantasy land than to … pretend to be a cashier at McDonald’s?
Indeed, for just for just $24.99 a child near to your heart can become the owner of a Just Like Home McDonald’s Cash Register 10 Piece Playset, which comes complete with a cash register with built-in credit card machine, a drive-through headset, fake money and food, and more.
This toy isn’t offensive because children should be taught to “aim higher.” On the contrary, it’s offensive because low-wage McJobs, like ringing up customers at McDonald’s, are becoming some of the few options available for American workers. As the recent fast food workers’ strike reminded us, these jobs are terrible for workers. Writing at the Atlantic last week, Sarah Jaffe noted that fast food workers across the nation are being paid less than what they need to live on while the corporations they work for reap big profits. And it’s not just kids who are doing the burger-flipping; plenty of older Americans have become trapped in these low-wage jobs too, with historically few opportunities for organizing. At the same time, “The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage fields.”
What exactly is so cute about a toy that represents worker oppression? (Not to mention it beats kids over the head with corporate branding?)
2. Easy-Bake Oven
Thirteen-year-old Mckenna Pope has a very good question for Hasbro: Why is your Easy-Bake Oven marketed only to girls?
In a petition featured on Change.org, Pope writes that she and her parents looked into buying an Easy-Bake Oven for her little brother, who loves to cook. It was then that they realized how gender essentialist the toy really is:
[W]e soon found it quite appalling that boys are not featured in packaging or promotional materials for Easy Bake Ovens — this toy my brother’s always dreamed about. And the oven comes in gender-specific hues: purple and pink.
I feel that this sends a clear message: women cook, men work.
If you go to the Easy-Bake Oven product page, you’ll see what Pope means. Everything is pink or purple, the desserts are topped with bows and hearts, and a prominently featured video shows a little girl making pink-iced confections. It might as well say “no boys allowed.”
This is a perfect example of how our society harms boys as well as girls; no one should be discouraged or encouraged to bake because of their gender. Sugar and flour are gender-neutral, and there are plenty of great pastry chefs of all genders in this world. Hasbro should take a cue from Sweden when it comes to marketing toys to boys and girls.
3. Makeup for Babies
Speaking of gender essentialism, this post from Lisa Wade at Sociological Images will make your eyes pop. In it, Wade features a number of toys dug up by the Alpha Parent that mimic makeup and beauty products … for babies and toddlers. And not just any babies and toddlers — girl babies and toddlers. Among the items:
“My Pretty Learning Purse includes a toy lipstick and a mirror; the Gund Sesame Street Abbey Purse Playset includes a compact and powder brush; the Lilliputiens Liz Handbag includes an eye shadow compact complete with three shades and an eye shadow applicator.”
And we wonder where little girls get the idea that they’re expected to look a certain way? Here are pictures of a few of the toys:
Like the McDonald’s cash register toy, the 7-11 Slurpee Maker lets kids pretend they’re low-wage workers. Fun fun fun!
This toy is also a 2012 finalist in the Campaign for a Commercial Free-Childhood’s annual worst toy of the year contest. The TOADYs, or Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children, call out “toys that promote precocious sexuality to children and push branded and screen-based entertainment at the expense of children’s play,” among other problems.
Of the 7-11 Slurpee Maker, the CCFC notes:
There’s nothing pretend about the sugar rush kids will get by combining soda and ice to make their very own Slurpee. But it’s the branding, not the empty calories, that really makes this toy so TOADY-riffic. The Slurpee Maker is emblazoned with the 7-11 logo and comes with a free Slurpee coupon, guaranteeing your kids will be nagging you for a trip to the convenience chain for a taste of the real thing. And with Slurpee’s 17 grams of sugar, your kid will down a full day’s worth in one shot – how convenient is that?!
Sounds like a contender.
Another 2012 TOADY finalist is the Lego Friends product series, or “girl” Legos, as they came to be known when they were released late last year.
CCFC notes that Lego Friends are “so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush.” The figurines are curvier than “boy” Legos (known until recently as just “Legos”) and feature scenarios like going to the beauty parlor and shopping.
The problem here isn’t so much that Lego made these new figures. It’s that they’re marketed exclusively to little girls, while the traditional Legos, which are better for building and engineering, are marketed aggressively to boys. Surely some boys would want to play with Lego figures that are more lifelike, and they shouldn’t be told by society and Lego’s marketing team that that’s not ok. Likewise, girls shouldn’t be pigeonholed into thinking that building isn’t for them.
It’s sad to say, but a Lego ad like this one, from 1981, would never be seen today:
6. Playmobil Figures (And Other Items)
Seven companies reported BPA in toys made from polycarbonate plastic, the same material formerly used to make plastic baby bottles and sippy cups. Most of the BPA-containing toys are Playmobil figures and play sets; the 248 toys reported contain 17.3 pounds of polycarbonate plastic, according to the manufacturer.
In addition, “Sixteen of the toys with BPA are Chicco brand rattles and other baby products made by Artsana.”
BPA, or bisphenol A, has been linked to problems with brain development, behavioral and other health issues in children. The chemical, which studies have shown mimics estrogen in the body, can be ingested when children and babies play with, suck on, and chew on toys containing the substance, according to the report.
Lauren Kelley is the activism and gender editor at AlterNet and a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out New York, the L Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.