Toy Stories

Toy Stories

Toy makers are churning out a host of learning-driven gadgets, but most of them assume Mom and Dad won't be around.

Read Time:
2m 10sec

the source: “Selling Compromise: Toys, Motherhood, and the Cultural Deal” by Allison J. Pugh, in Gender & Society, Dec. 2005.

If you’re a working mother grap­pling with the high-anxiety conflict between the demands of home and work, everybody from Oprah to your mother-in-law is lined up to give you advice. Then there’s the potent stuff that comes in subliminal form, through media such as films and advertise-ments. The multibillion-dollar toy industry, for example, sends a very clear message, writes Allison J. Pugh, a fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. Toy ads uphold “the contemporary received wisdom of children as needing nurture or an emotional connection but with one important compromise: The child does not need people, specifically a mother, actually to provide it.”

In 11 mail-order toy catalogs ranging from FAO Schwartz’s to the more offbeat Natural Baby Company’s, Pugh sees the promotion of an idealized concept of mother-driven parenting. The advertising copy feeds mothers’ anxieties by declaring what skills children should develop, then offers the soothing solution of educational toys. If working mothers worry that they neglect a child’s reading skills because they can’t find time to read aloud, they can just buy a Winnie-the-Pooh bear programmed to “read” books to children instead.

In the world of toy catalogs, childhood is a solitary and learning-driven time, with toys serving as proxies for parents or even other children. Thus mothers are enticed to buy Rocket the robotic dog, an electronic aquarium that lulls babies to sleep, and the talking Pooh bear. The vast majority of catalog images in Pugh’s survey de­picted a child playing alone. The catalogs “are not selling toys as the means for deepening the bonds between other caregivers and children or as a way for groups of kids to establish friendships and com­munity,” she asserts. “Rather, in these catalogs the child has no other human option for attachment or love but the mother; without her, the child can turn only to toys.”

Fathers remain on the outskirts of the idealized play world. When they appear in the ads, it is either as a role model or playmate who doesn’t supplant the mother’s position as the dominant caregiver. An ad for a tree fort sold by Magic Cabin Dolls promises that it will “captivate children three years and older (especially men—they love this).” And for men who are too busy providing for the family to go camping or fishing, another com­pany offers a miniature camping set complete with father and son dolls that provides “great fun even if it’s only pretend!”

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