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Singles-Day-590x835

Here in America, November 11th is Veteran’s Day, but elsewhere 11/11 is a very different holiday indeed.  China celebrates November 11th as Singles’ Day AKA 光棍节 or “bare sticks holiday” (a sad metaphor for flowerless & fruitless family tree branches).  The day is an opportunity for Chinese singles to party and hang out together…and buy crap online (more about that in a moment).

Single-Day-Dia-Soltero-China-2014

China has ancient romantic holidays with roots stretching back thousands of years into the mythic past.  Singles Day is not like that at all—it was invented in 1993 as “Bachelors’ Day” at Nanjing University when some guys without girlfriends realized the calendar date consisted of four ones.  They decided to go out and try to meet women, or, if that failed, to at least treat themselves to fancy dinners and little luxuries. The holiday gradually spread to the sprawling cities of the Chinese coast and then was popularized by Alibaba, an online merchant.  The hallmark of the holiday is a giant orgy…of consumption (sigh).  People spend a ton of money on online deals and at karaoke clubs, bars, and restaurants

1Singles-Day-400x266.

Perspicacious readers may be starting to note that this seems a lot like other lame contemporary holidays such as “Cyber Monday” &“Black Friday”(which it to say not really a holiday, but an excuse for selling stuff that nobody needs).  That seems about right: the main holiday tradition of Single’s Day (other than bemoaning one’s singleness or buying discount goods online) is eating fried dough sticks in the shape of the number 1.

Worker piles up manufactured goods at a plastics factory in China

Worker piles up manufactured goods at a plastics factory in China

This is disappointing. The Chinese are not prudes—they have no trouble with freaky sex stuff, and I was hoping to highlight some of that in this entry, but alas, everything I have found out about Singles’ Day emphasizes online sales numbers and the potential buying power of China’s vast middle class.  It’s too bad, I have “The Carnal Prayer Mat” right here on my shelf (a hilarious and horrifying bawdy Chinese novel from the 17th century), but I guess I need to write about online shopping at Alibaba instead.

Speaking of which, I have found things I like online on Alibaba, but I have never been able to figure it out—it seems like a wholesale site where one could buy multiple 2 ton stone garden fountains or a shipping container of paper lanterns (?).  But it must be a lot different in Chinese, since Alibaba sold 4 billion dollars worth of goods in the first hour of 11/11/15 alone. However, I am not a toymaker anymore…I have no skin in marketing and sales.  I don’t really care about how much junk sells online…not here and certainly not in China.

Oh, well that explains it then...

Oh, well that explains it then…

If you Chinese ladies get sick of buying discount hotpots and eating sticks of dough, give me a call.  I’ll be right here in my luxurious pajamas reading “the Carnal Prayer Mat” [opens book, reads sentence, and blushes]. *Cough* Splutter* Oh my goodness! Then and again, I guess I could use a shipping container of paper lanterns….or maybe I’ll just give up on Singles’ Day and reminisce about the heroic sacrifices of America’s proud military veterans or about the end of World War I.  This is a strange day worldwide.

Get your act together, humankind

Get your act together, humankind

Back to a simpler time! (art by treechangedolls)

Back to a simpler time! (art by treechangedolls)

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.

Yasmin from "Bratz Babyz"

Yasmin from “Bratz Babyz”

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.

"My Little Pony" (circa 1980s)

“My Little Pony” (circa 1980s)

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!

"My Little Pony" (circa present)

“My Little Pony” (circa present)

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).

"How are those gigantic antlers working out for you there, buddy?"

“How are those gigantic antlers working out for you there, buddy?”

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.

...or maybe it all really IS a result of Hellenization, just like Cato says...

…or maybe it all really IS a result of Hellenization, just like Cato says…

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