This past week, I contributed a post to In Media Res, a site which I have mentioned several times before, where academics share clips of contemporary and historic media content with critical commentary. Each week, In Media Res adopts a specific theme and invites in five scholars who come at that theme from different angles. Last week’s theme was “Toys,” and the result was an interesting series of explorations of how toy branding and advertising connects to issues of gender, practices of childrearing, collector culture, and transmedia entertainment. Raiford Guins, State University of New York, Stony Brook, extends Roland Barthes’ analysis of the move from wood to plastic in toys to examine collector culture and the practices which are designed to preserve value by keeping toys in their original packaging. Caryn Murphy, University of Wisconsin, Madison, shares a segment from Good Morning, America on Disney’s “Princess” franchise, which she reads through a consideration of media conglomeration (reflected as much by what the piece doesn’t say as in what it does). Derek Johnson, University of Wisconsin, Madison, shares some early animated commercials for G.I. Joe, which he describes as a prototype for the subsequent cartoon series; interestingly, these spots were developed for Marvel’s G.I. Joe comics in order to skirt regulatory restrictions on the use of animation in toy commercials, representing one of the few times that comics have been directly advertised on television. And Avi Santo, Old Dominion University, shares some examples of cross-universe branding — advertisements for Underoos and for action figures which mix and match characters from several different media companies, a practice common enough in actual play but far less common in the marketing of franchise related toys.
As for my own piece, I’ve reposted it below since I thought it would be of interest to my regular readers. It is closely related to a series of essays I’ve been writing off and on for the past decade on post-war children’s culture and its relationship to permissive childrearing. If you are interested in this line of investigation, you can find an essay on Benajmin Spock’s ideas about child sexuality in The Children’s Culture Reader, on Doctor Seuss and debates about the family as a seedbed for democracy in Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, on the ways Hank Ketchem’s Dennis the Menace retooled the “Bad Boy” tradition in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, and how Lassie got retooled to reflect shifting understandings of childhood and parenting in The Wow Climax. Someday, I hope to pull together a book which deals with the figure of the boy in the striped shirt as an embodiment of a particular conception of boyhood which shaped the baby boom generation. Needless to say, this involves looking closely at media texts, toys, and cultural practice which shaped my own boyhood through a historical and cultural lens.
“Sometimes My Kids Seem Like a Bunch of Kangaroos!”
These three commercials from the 1960’s suggest the roles popular culture played in promoting some of the core premises of what I am calling Permissive Child Rearing Doctrine, a set of ideas most closely associated with Dr. Benjamin Spock, but which were shaped by a much broader array of post-war advice literature.
Writing in the 1950’s, Martha Wolfenstein saw the shift from a culture of production (with its demands for discipline and regimentation) to a culture of consumption (with its expectations of a “fun morality”) as a major force shaping child-rearing practices in the twentieth century. The emergence of permissiveness in the postwar era, she argues, was partially a response to the expansion of the consumer market place and the prospect of suburban affluence, both themes which should be clear from these sample commercials. Permissive conceptions of the child embraced pleasure as a positive motivation for exploration and learning. The home was being redesigned to accommodate children’s impulses and urges. The family was being redirected from a Father-Centered to a Child-Centered model. Fathers were being taught to become tolerant and indulging playmates for their children. Mothers were being instructed to deploy pleasure to get children to do what was expected of them.
All of this is wonderfully summed up in this Madison Avenue fable of a mother who sees her pogo-stick-playing children as kangaroos bouncing through her kitchen. A previous generation would certainly have believed that they could, in fact, “change” their family through discipline and regimentation; she’s being told, instead, to change her floor wax and otherwise create a space which can tolerate their rambunctiousness.
Similarly, consider the ways that Trik-Trak assumes the children will be able to play “all over the house” and that their father will be happy to have their toys racing under his feet even as he reads the evening newspaper.
The Dick Tracy radio watch commercial extends the children’s play environment from the home into the entire suburban neighborhood, reflecting the freedom of movement experienced by the post-war generation. Sociologists in the early 1970’s estimated that suburban boys enjoyed a free range of 1,200 yards while their sisters might travel only 760 yards without adult permission.
By the end of the decade, conservative cultural critics, such as Spiro Agnew, will be blaming Spock for the counterculture’s anti-authoritarian views, suggesting that anti-war protestors should have been spanked when they were little boys and girls. Later child-rearing experts have rejected “permissiveness” in favor of more “authoritative” models for the relations between children and adults, insisting that adults need to set firmer limits on what happens in their homes. But, in the early 1960’s, these commercials were selling permissiveness as much as they were selling particular toys and products.
We can see these assumptions at play from a historical distance. But, how are contemporary models of child-rearing impacting the ways children’s toys are designed and marketed?