Old Man Blog: Barthes on Toys

I’m a dad now, and when I think of things, it’s usually with the tinge of what sort of horrible legacy my actions or thoughts will have on my daughter. I just dropped a small amount of cash onto some nice modern tactile BPA and gluten-free toys for her, with nary a grumble on my end. Of course I want the best for her. And I tremble at the threat of maybe providing slightly less.

I have the grumblings of my elders to fall back on instead. Here’s Roland Barthes, on the meaning of modern toys in his time.

First of all, French toys in Barthes’ time were apparently miniaturized replicas of objects in the adult world, the effect being:

…reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size.

I love the idea of raising a “homunculus,” like the weird shriveled thing Marlon Brando played piano with on The Island of Dr. Moreau. My daughter is too young for a play tea set just yet, but has at least a dozen bibs to absorb her drool, and about half of them have cute slogans, more or less emphasizing her cuteness, and transforming her into a small billboard for other people’s witticisms. One of them is “Mommy’s Mini-Me.”

Barthes goes on to detail how French toys of his time are exact, literal interpretations of adult things, including work environments, creating the appearance that these objects and what they represent are to be taken for granted, as though their forms are eternal, “natural.” They all have social meanings, and do not allow for any alternative interpretation or invention on the part of the child.

Again, my kid is too young for that kind of toy selection, but I can’t help but be reminded of the Lego brand, and the shelves of the local Target store, packed with pricy cross-branded Lego merchandise. These are interchangeable, cellular toys that ostensibly can be built into anything, but come with exactly the instructions required to construct only one or two branded things: a space fighter from Star Wars, a Quiddich set from Harry Potter, and so forth. These plastic pieces come in very specific colors, and often specialized shapes relative to the big bucket o’ primary colored Lego pieces you’d otherwise get. My guess is that a child feels the weight of expectation (and probably the desire based on brand recognition) to only construct and play with the toy displayed on the box, and probably to reenact the moments from the TV show or movie they viewed. On top of that, the substantial expense of these items could further induce the child (or parent) to keep this toy in its assembled form on a shelf, separate from the other Lego products. As a creative toy, these branded items are just a rebuilding of someone else’s interpretation of the “real” object, much like Barthes’ miniaturized adult plaything. None of this necessarily stops a kid from assembling these specialized parts into something else invented, but it must certainly influence that creativity.

Other things Barthes is worried about has already been processed by pop culture. For example, the implication of gender roles in a girl’s doll are not as big a concern for me:

There exist, for instance, dolls which urinate; they have an oesophagus, one gives them a bottle, they wet their nappies; soon, no doubt, milk will turn to water in their stomachs. This is meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as mother.

I feel (right or wrong) that society has already discussed this type of thing enough before having a child. I feel pretty well prepared to intercept any indoctrination aimed at my daughter, coming from a doll, anyway. What I have to wonder about is, what kinds of things are taken for granted in other toys and books she’s going to encounter. Maybe stuff I’m not so prepared for. As Barthes goes on to say:

…faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish.

And my first thought, at reading the above, is the blue glow on a child’s face as they hold a phone or tablet in their hands. These are devices that have evolved mostly to do three things: 1) act as “storefronts,” to sell people things 2) a means to “consume content” and 3) maintain “social” interaction (which I would argue these devices only do so that we stay connected to them, ever consuming). Since they’re basically computers, it’s possible to create with them (though nowhere near as much as with a full-fledged PC), but let’s face it, people do not turn to these devices to create things or explore new ideas. They’re there mostly for consumption of pre-made media, or “content.”

What about Minecraft, though? Does it answer this concern?

The merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge.

A lot of products these days are built on the tablet/storefront principle: make it interactive, make it so people will never want to put it down, and put a storefront on it, so it continues to make money. Make it so that when the device is put down, something is left behind that the user must come back to. Make it only work on that device, accessible only by our good graces.

As opposed to the single-use devices that Barthes worries about (think again of the tea se), electronic devices are forever changing their shape, and generally do not provide creative or play opportunity. For the applications that actually do allow for some creative play (Minecraft, the electronic version of Lego), the play is still locked behind a flat glass screen, and only accessible from behind that glass: it’s available nowhere else.

Minecraft is a tough one, though, because it is a brilliant game, and admittedly a good outlet for creative energy, as long as it’s “part of a complete breakfast” and not the sole obsession of a child. But its electronic nature remains its weak point.

Barthes rounds out his essay (which by now is much shorter than my own blathering nonsense) by comparing wooden blocks to modern plastic toys:

Many are now moulded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.

Growing up with mostly plastic toys that were actually pretty cool, I don’t know if I buy this, but he goes on to say:

…an ideal material because of its firmness and its softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal. When the child handles it and knocks it, it neither vibrates nor grates, it has a sound at once muffled and sharp. It is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor.

Which sounds a lot like a grumpy opinion, but also has the ring of truth. Plastic and metal are dug out of the earth, refined, blended, and arguably less “natural” and “warm” as something that was simply scooped out of a tree and carved. There’s a current movement toward simpler, more natural, and less processed foods and other consumer products, and though these  movements have plenty of skepticism aimed at them, there does seem to be value in looking more squarely at these highly processed objects and ask whether they’re really superior to something more primitive.

As I type this, my child currently has three objects that I can think of that she is most fascinated by (next week it will probably be something different). One is a hard plastic jukebox, made to look like a first-generation iPod with a brightly colored handle with moveable beads. The next is a music-playing giraffe, studded with flashing lights and buttons. The third is a big box of Quaker oatmeal, which I cover with a blanket.

She stares at the first one when she triggers the music and blinking lights, then picks it up and repeatedly smashes into the ground. The second, she gnaws on the horns of the giraffe as it also flashes and plays music. The third, she interacts with. She pulls on the blanket, sticks her hand in the side handles of the box, smacks the picture of the grinning Quaker and listens to the hollow inside, and tries to pull the thing over. The first two toys, she understands thoroughly, I think. She knows what they’re for. The heavy box with the blanket on it, that’s a project she’s still working on.

excerpts are from: Mythologies, by Roland Barthes, “Toys,”
and are copied from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR/toys.html

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5 thoughts on “Old Man Blog: Barthes on Toys

  1. This is wonderful! Speaking as a daughter, some of my favorite toys included: ballet costumes (fancy tutus from FAO Schwartz, back in the day when they were special); a two-story tall Sweetgum tree in my grandparents’ yard (with branches just MADE for climbing, and me the little monkey to climb them); Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars; a motorized, child-sized Stutz Bearcat; a tricycle that looked like a horse and buggy; a ;”Thing-Maker” (made these horrible rubbery creepy-crawly bugs); a pottery wheel; and above all – BOOKS!!

    Barthes writes of wood like a man who has never climbed a tree or pulled splinters from under painfully reddened skin. What he says about “ownership” or “usership” as opposed to creation rings true, though. A child should get messy. My mother swore children had to eat a pound of dirt to develop a healthy immune system. I’m fairly sure I did; I know for a fact I’ve swallowed several insects while running hard with my mouth wide open (Dad was right! Hah! Close it or you WILL catch flies.)

    I’m of the firm belief that if your child comes home after a day of hard play without at least a couple of bruises and a skinned knee, they’re probably missing out on being a child. When my son was two, we moved into a house; we planted a red maple in the front yard, so our children would have one to climb, like I had. I may be the only one who’s really climbed it, though. (No, my son used to sit in the lower branches and watch the world go by – so I’m not really the only one.)

    • Thanks for reading! Of course, toys are only a part of playing, but since they’re purchasable, they tend to get the focus.

      Incidentally, still I have a handful of wooden toys bought for me by my grandmother when I was about five, and I guess I will eventually dig them out and share them with my daughter. I also have plastic transforming vehicle toys, as well as fifty or so toy cars in a box somewhere. I’m probably still an edge case, but in general my generation tries to stay in touch with childishness, for better or worse. Those plastic toys, I am not sure my daughter will be interested in, and they’re horribly dated 80’s things, but the wooden ones (two cars and an airplane) will probably make it into her toybox.

      I am jealous of your Bearcat. Never had a kid-sized car when I was a tyke, though as an apartment dweller, my daughter isn’t super likely to have one herself. But bikes? Oh yes.

    • I think we still lived in an apartment when I first got the Bearcat. Hallways and kid-friendly neighbors, I guess, are the key.. 😉 Different era? (And I think I was a normally quiet, well behaved child. I tried to obey all the “rules of the road,” as best I understood them!) I had a little foot pedal-powered fire engine, later, too. You’d have loved that! Little ladders on the side and a bell to ring up front!

      But my best toy, now that I think about it, was my imagination. Everything else was just “props” for the play.

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