On Facebook, one of my friends linked to an article about an artist who repaints the garishly make-up faces of contemporary dolls back into the innocent countenances of normal children. The results are quite charming: you can see the dramatic difference here on the Tree Change Dolls Tumblr. It is a very lovely art project and one almost wishes somebody would grab some of our overexposed overpainted reality TV stars & celebrities in order to do the same thing.
The post made me think back to my time as a toymaker, and the dark lessons of marketing. Like little moths to a meretricious flame, children are drawn in by things that they think of as being adult (which is why Barbie has had such a glorious run). Toymakers (toymakers who make money—so not me!) know this and exploit it. What ends up happening then is a sort of arms race where manufacturers try to create toys which are shinier, curvier, brighter, and more artfully stylized. Designers who are lazy and manipulative also try to incorporate adult-seeming things like make-up, coquettish fashion, and cell phones. This can result in atrocities like the “Bratz” (a line of child figurines which look like they have been turned out by a human trafficker), but it has strange results when applied over time to more conventional toys.
The same friend who linked to the “Tree Change Dolls” once brought out her old 80s “My Little Pony” toys in order to compare them with the reboots being sold to her daughter. Naturally the 80s ponies were already heavily stylized with big soulful human eyes, bell-bottom legs, and bright pink bodies, but they at least had pudgy/stocky bodies, equine faces, and a sort of childishness to them. The next generation of “My Little Pony” toys (which you can buy in a big box store right now) had somehow evolved pixie faces which an unknowing viewer would be hard-pressed to think of as horse-like. They had slender humanized bodies which made it look like they were working out in a Hollywood gym. The mane–which was already luxurious in the original toy–had grown beyond all measure into an entity bigger than the horse!
Something about this reminds me of birds of paradise or Irish elk. These animals compete(d) for attention by means of more and more elaborate display features (for the Irish elk it was gigantic antlers, for the birds it was increasingly gaudy feathers). It all works as long as the environment stays the same and there are no new predators, but if something changes, the exaggerated and affected appearance of these magnificent lifeforms can spell their doom (just ask the elk).
I am not Cato the Censor here to say that Irish elk, birds of paradise and showy imp ponies are bad (although I am saying that about Bratz—those things are nightmares). I am however saying that we are collectively making marketers (and other tastemakers…and even political leaders) act certain ways because of choices we don’t even know we are collectively making. I am highlighting this in toys because I used to make toys (and because they provide an extremely good example of marketing shenanigans), but the same trends are true across all sorts of disciplines and even in broader political, aesthetic, and philosophical realms.