Toys for Empire

Toys teach us a lot about how U.S. culture paves the way for Empire.

Consider the forthcoming action figure from KB Toys — nothing less than the President of the United States in miniature. For $39.99 you, too, can be the proud owner of a 12-inch “fully poseable figure,” oxygen mask and survival vest included. Batteries are not applicable, we learn, so regretfully we must assume that it has not been programmed to say, “Bring it on” while essentially ducking for cover to keep his own “realistic head” out of harm’s way.

Coincidentally, the toy’s release date is set for a few days after 9-11.

Nothing like the anniversary of a national tragedy to release an insidious toy — another in a long line of militaristic playthings — this one the leader of U.S. Empire, dressed in full military gear, brainless but poseable, and set to do the bidding of children’s imaginations across the country.

The message to kids is: This figurehead — who has led the way to two U.S. wars in as many years, yielding thousands of innocent victims and overwhelming loss due to destroyed infrastructure — is nothing more than a harmless doll. You can play with him and make him do what you want. You can ignore the reality of George W. Bush and replace it with the 12-inch fantasy version (“actual sizes may vary”).

KB Toys extends a helping hand to Empire by turning our focus to the meticulously detailed “g-pants” (whatever those are!) and “parachute harness” of this “Elite Force Aviator.” Other pesky details — like the questionable morality and legality of recent invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dubious impact of our occupations in those countries, ongoing fighting and deaths on both sides; and the still missing weapons of mass destruction — recede. Who cares about all that stuff when you have a very detailed and miniature version of the President’s pants to study and…do what with exactly?

Which brings me to my next point. You can’t actually do anything with these dolls. It’s not like kids are going to play with them, after all. Everyone knows that action figures, like just about any pre-fabricated plastic toy, finds its way to the bottom of the toy box in no time, or maybe to some shelf where it joins the other children’s toys in the time-honored role of dust collector.

Best case scenario has some enterprising kids using the doll for something completely other than what it was designed for. That’s how it usually works with toys. The teacups are turned upside down and become the base of a pretend rocket launch pad. Barbie’s legs get added to the Lincoln Logs. President Bush’s parachute harness becomes the leash for the pet hamster.

The President Bush action figure teaches a sort of passivity towards power. It offers a studied ignorance of the horrors of Empire. It trivializes what matters the most. But in the end, it’s still only a doll.

What I find even scarier is all the ways we micromanage and prescribe for our kids, via toys, entertainment, and “kid-friendly” museums, the exact behaviors and self-perceptions they need to take part in society inside the Empire. TV, magazines, and movies constantly remind kids that shopping is their destiny, that decisionmaking is equivalent to choosing a brand, and that corporate loyalty trumps family and community ties.

Video and computer games put kids in an isolated bubble of a world where all their energy and self-expression are channeled into jamming the joystick around a 2-inch radius. Kids who are lucky enough to play sports are often in regimented, competitive, adult-led leagues that don’t leave room for spontaneous play or neighborhood-based networking.

Even the cultural events and museums that seem to offer an empowering, child-centered message help direct kids towards a view of themselves as isolated actors in a world that simply functions the way it does without explanation and without input from human beings.

“Before you throw away those plastic 6-pack holders, you should always cut them up because, if you don’t, small animals will get tangled in them and die,” said my seven-year old to the sea lion trainer at the New England Aquarium. We had just been through an hour-long show that impressed upon kids the idea that their personal recycling habits make a difference. At one point during the show, the sea lion balanced an empty plastic soda bottle on his nose and tossed it into a blue recycling bin — to thunderous applause.

“Very good,” said the sea lion trainer in response to my daughter’s suggestion of how we could all pitch in and save the environment. As a reward, she won the privilege of going down to the side of the pool and presenting her cheek to the sea lion for a wet, whiskery kiss.

Later, we viewed an exhibit that instructed kids to knock down their sandcastles and fill in the moats after they were done playing on the beach so that sea turtles wouldn’t bump into them and get disoriented.

It’s a seductive, almost mesmerizing, thought. If I level my sandcastles I could save a sea turtle!

Never mind that it’s almost completely irrational, given the scale of environmental destruction, to think that snipping the plastic 6-pack holders matters. To that sea gull that doesn’t get caught up in the deadly plastic loops, an outcome directly stemming from my conscientious garbage disposal habits, you can bet it matters! Right? Right. Or so we tell the children.

And in telling them, we’re sending them back to their private homes and their private sandcastles with the message that that is where you make an impact on the world. In this scenario, the larger systems and institutions that orchestrate environmental destruction are completely invisible. The next generation is kept well distracted from the Kyoto accords on the environment, which the U.S. refuses to ratify; from information about how federal supports encourage car travel; from understanding how the oil companies corner the energy market and prevent solar, wind, or other energy alternatives from reaching consumers.

It’s not that we expose these larger systems to children, but then fall back on individual actions because they are, one might argue, a more reasonable way for kids to participate. It’s not that we want to protect kids from overwhelming social forces that we imagine will make them fearful and irrelevant.

It’s that we are lying to them — regularly, actively, and purposefully.

It’s sort of a strange place that parents are stuck in. We reject the militarized action figures and the toys that glorify war and brutality. We are conscientious about taking our kids to enlightening educational venues like the New England Aquarium. But when we get there, blessedly if temporarily free of the video games and the teen magazines, we find our children being carefully groomed to ignore how and why things really happen. In the case of the New England Aquarium, the truth about pollution is carefully masked. Children are directed toward virtually inconsequential private actions. In perfect symbiosis with a popular culture that tells them to shop, the elite “educational” culture carves out narrow rigid parameters for how they can express themselves.

So what are parents to do? I feel loathe to offer more directives to parents who are already jerked around enough by the media and the experts who keep us enthralled to their directions rather than to the little human beings in our lives. But perhaps it’s worth offering some thoughts about how to avoid or at least respond to all the micromanaging and lies our children are exposed to.

1. Let the kids play. They don’t need educational toys that choreograph their learning. Make sure they are safe, emotionally and physically nurtured, and getting enough sleep. And then let them be. If some deranged relative gives them the George W. Bush action figure, and you are not able to get it in the trash before they see it, and they for some reason want to keep it, then explain why you think the doll is grotesque and ask them to keep it out of your sight.

2. Teach kids about how systems work — not just about how individuals do things. When your kid complains about the teacher being mean, you can help your child find ways of solving his or her individual problem, but you can also help her understand the pressures on the teacher. And you can let her see you address these systemic problems for what they are — overcrowding in the classrooms, the pressure of standardized testing, the pressure of functioning in an institution that values hierarchy and control over autonomy and self-expression.

3. Look for ways to teach kids about systems in the family. Everyone does chores not because Mommy says so or because it’s a good discipline or because you read in Parenting Magazine that kids should “pitch in.” Everyone does chores because if you don’t keep some order in the house, you won’t be able to function in it. That’s the reason for keeping it clean. All of you live in it, so it’s all of your responsibility.

4. Find ways to look outward as well as inward for explanations, understanding, and paths forward. When a 12-year old friend of my daughter’s was hospitalized with anorexia, we not only visited her in the hospital and showed her our love and support, we also set up a group of kids and adults to learn more about eating disorders, talk about body image, and consider the effects of sexist marketing ploys on growing girls.

5. Finally, go ahead and recycle. And flatten those sandcastles while you’re at it. But don’t make it a moral imperative. While it’s inaccurate (at best) to lead your child to believe that the health of the environment hinges on his or her personal habits, we can use our own actions as a starting place for further understanding. The things we do might lead us to wonder about what else could be done. While I carefully snip these six-pack loops, I’m wondering how it is that the plastics industry gets away with putting so much toxic and non-biodegradable waste out into the world?

And explain to me again, while I rearrange these grains of sand to facilitate turtle travel, why corporations are allowed to spoil great swathes of their habitat? You don’t have to have all the answers. And there isn’t always time for it as you’re moving at a clip through everyday life. But you can help raise the questions, wonder about things alongside your children, and provide concepts that widen their focus from the consequences of individual actions to the consequences of the systems that determine so much about the way we live.

Cynthia Peters can be reached at cyn.peters@verizon.net.

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