Toys - A Marker of the Anthropocene?
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
“I was at a conference and someone said something about the Holocene. Suddenly, I thought that term was wrong. The world had changed too much. No, I said, we are in the Anthropocene.”
~ Paul Crutzen, Nobel prize in Chemistry winner in 1995
The aforementioned quote marks the first recorded use of the term “Anthropocene” in the contemporary context, which not only sparked off several debates regarding the impact of human beings on their surrounding environment but also gave voice to several existing discussions. The lack of common consensus regarding the beginning of the Anthropocene distinguishes it from the preceding eras such as the Holocene and the Pleistocene. Literally translating to the “recent age of man”, the popularity of the term in recent years has been linked to the terra-forming capacity and technology of human beings, resulting in a destruction of the environment and ecological devastation. This human “-cene” is hardly a pleasant one, and has been increasingly linked to the anthropocentric privileging of human agency over other forms of being, a disregard and wilful ignorance towards ecological crisis and an exercise of Humanistic power – often accompanied by prescriptive notions of self-determination and free will – over other forms of being. However, when perhaps did this Anthropocene begin?
While the human impact has increasingly been felt in the past few decades, Yuval Noah Harari (Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow) likens the beginning of this period to the time “when our Stone Age ancestors spread from East Africa to the four corners of the earth, they changed the flora and fauna of every continent and island on which they settled.” Hardly any written record exists of the prehistoric human beings or hominids, but palaeo-anthropologists have found different ways to locate the impact of our ancestors on their environment, through small creations; manifestations of imaginative potential on raw materials of the environment.
These were the first toys, which, arguably, may be deemed to be markers of the Anthropocene. Toys have raised a number of contentions while negotiating humanity’s place with the surroundings, not in small part due to the very materials these toys are manufactured from. In different ways – their form and content – figures and models negotiate with the Anthropocene Era in their own ways. In fact, the very nature of materials used point to important scientific discoveries of their times. The “big business” aspect of toys began only when the transportation system had improved to an extent that they could distribute manufactured goods far and wide. Whereas earliest toymakers used metal or tin, Goodyear’s method for vulcanization of rubber created a whole new medium to create squeeze toys, balls and dolls. The leaps and bounds in the realm of artificial intelligence and programming have led to increasingly new smart toys and drones that can be activated even through the use of voice commands. The invention of plastic, in its time, had revolutionized the toy industry owing to its durability, cheapness and longevity.
Humanity’s mistakes litter the Anthropocene, quite literally, the image above. According to the UNEP report of 2014, the toy industry "is the most plastic intensive industry in the world", Word Counts labels toys as the most plastic-intensive industry in the world while the Word Counts deems that “90% of the toys are made of plastic". Plastic, through its refusal to break down in the wake of natural processes, is increasingly being regarded by the popular imagination as unnatural.
However, it also is very human. The desire to transcend bodily death and decay has been encapsulated in the popular imagination since days of old as well as critiques of the same. In Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, the protagonist reaches the island of the Luggnagg – which is deemed in-universe to be a site of Humanism and Englightenment – who celebrate immortality of a few chosen members, and it is only the series of events and the narratorial voice which brings out the imbecility of such a desire. Plastic was created to last, and last it did – not only through generations of households, in the garbage dumps, but also by mixing in the very rock structure itself through the formation of plastiglomerates. The lack of decay and degradation into natural compounds seems to make plastic playthings an alien “artificial” thing that should never have entered “nature”.
Source: https://in.pinterest.com/pin/472737292116362343/; A permanent impact on the rock structure by human ideals, backed by human thoughts is perhaps the greatest symbol of the Anthropocene Era. However, more attempts are being made to negotiate a more sustainable relationship between toys and their environment at https://www.thespace.gallery/post/toys-animals-and-nature-an-eco-critical-gaze-into-the-world-of-play
Plastic toys emerge as a humanist symbol, in their manifestation of immortal desire as opposed to the simple, antique toys of clay, wood and stone. Kim Toffiletti (Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body) remarks upon the plasticity of Barbie dolls:
“Her taut rubbery limbs extend out from a compact torso. Like armour, her plastic shell is rock-hard, forming a distinctive configuration of the body as contained and controlled – defended against the possibility of rupture. A synthetic sheen radiates from her surface, evoking a sense of smoothness and fluidity, despite the awkward joints noticeable between her plastic core and her waist, her head and neck, and her limbs. Something else resides beyond the rigidity of the mould. Barbie inhabits a form that is neither entirely inflexible nor prone to dissolution.”
Such a figure acts as a vessel for anthropocentric ideas of the fetishized female body – seemingly embodying the idea that “women in capitalist culture are themselves commodities to be purchased, consumed and manipulated”. This doll, with ‘her’ “long, thick hair", "small waist" and "petite feminine features" has often been known to inflict serious issues pertaining to young girls’ ideas about the body and the self. Even racial differences are commodified through the figure of this doll. Ann du Cille (Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandizing of Difference) remarks about the multicultural Barbie dolls which have an essentially similar figure, and indeed a visit to a nearby toy store would confirm the same. Attempting to pander to hyper-real consumerist ideas of representation has led to the creation of a host of Barbie dolls, similar in shape and size but with black skin or wearing Indian drapes. This tendency to exoticize aspects of a different culture ties into Edward Said’s notion of orientalism (Orientalism); the dominant notions of Self are imposed on the ‘Other’, while dismissing the latter’s alterity.
The use of Barbie as a cultural symbol that both adheres to and negates performances of ethnicity and gender, locates her in a wide capitalistic framework of figures created for and marketed through the use of binarist constructions. However, she is also an instance of a common trope, dating back to ancient times. Here, we may return to the ideas of the Anthropocene. While some locate its origin in the Industrial Revolution or the beginning of modern society as we know it, others liken it to the time when the first hunter-gatherers settled down, and yet others deem the Stone Age to be a proper starting point. A host of plastic dolls along the alleys which seem to glamorise the anthropocentric ideas of the body becomes oddly similar to marble figures of anthropomorphic gods and goddesses which are scattered throughout museums and galleries across the world. This symbolic reproduction, performed through an imaginative reconstruction of the idealized human form might be deemed to be a purely anthropocentric desire to propagate one’s own image – an idea that has cropped up through works of literature across space and time.
The ancient history of toys, involving not just human figures but also other playthings, has been analysed by palaeontologists, historians, archaeologists and anthropologists in their study of ancient artefacts. Palaeolithic excavations have shown signs of toys of small animals in cave sites, as well as finger marks (“finger flutes”) which point to the occurrence of play. Toys excavated from the Indus Valley Civilization include carts, bird-shaped whistles and figures of known animals – while offering hints about the erstwhile culture of a drowned city, such figures point to the timeless use of toys as vessels for the human civilization. Egyptian tombs contain an array of figures and the Ancient Greco-Roman Era had toys made of terra cotta or wax. Once objects of play, they now decorate the shelves of museums – these objects, from their original creation as items to play of prized collections not only bring them out as markers of human civilization on several layers. Firstly, it draws a commonality between ancient and modern practices of play, seemingly bringing out toys as a staple of childhood. Secondly, as relics of the past, they reflect the human desire to reflect back in time. Thirdly, their placement in museums or private collections signifies the anthropocentric desire to possess and own objects – marking the anthropocentric desire to look at objects as an extension of oneself, as believed by Russell W Belk ('Possessions and the Extended Self'). Often, these toys transcend their inherent value as objects of play to become high-end collectables, a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common – but by no means is limited to – the 21st century.
Several stores ('superherotoystore', 'entertainmentstoreofficial' and others), as well as companies (MacFarlane, Iron Studios), have taken to manufacturing high-end collectables, which are only intended for adult collectors and are often priced way beyond the economic capacities of kids or their parents. These collectables occupy roles similar to home décor. The very idea of collectors as adults who have gone back to buying toys or collectables – whether out of a nostalgic yearning to embrace their past, or for the inherent monetary value of vintage figures – forms a prominent demographic of the market today. All such parameters are encapsulated by the documentary, shot and recorded by the Indian Toy Collectors here. The bias against adults with toys, popularly seen in popular memes, is slowly dissipating or evoking humour in a self-reflexive manner in the very community itself.
As a vessel for human ideas, toys often adhere to social narratives of age and gender. We saw that with Barbie and her use as a symbol for cross-cultural pandering. Such biases are advertised to pander to popular taste instead of rethinking them. Doctor Francesca Ferrando, while talking about the word “human” (Philosophical Posthumanism) refers to the same as a privileged marker often denied to certain groups of people, and how a human way of life is often infused with dualistic biases – toys, in their capitalistic function, often essentially reinforce the ‘Self’/’Other’ binarism that often implicitly denies one class of people the playthings afforded to the other.
Source: https://www.change.org/p/kinder-joy-kinder-joy-blue-for-boys-and-pink-for-girls-bad-idea; colour-coded toys for boys and girls
Professor Blakemore voices her opinion on gender-typed toys – where, to speak typically, boys are relegated to playing with wrestlers and girls with dolls:
“We found that girls’ toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill, whereas boys’ toys, were rated as violent, competitive, exciting, and somewhat dangerous. The toys rated as most likely to be educational and to develop children’s physical, cognitive, artistic, and other skills were typically categorized as neutral or moderately masculine. We concluded that strongly gender-typed toys appear to be less supportive of optimal development than neutral or moderately gender-typed toys.”
Notwithstanding the division that rarely takes into account the self-ascribed aspect of gender, such forced segregations veer dangerously into the territory of enforcing gender-based and gender-biased expectations from an early age. For example, the very aforementioned argument regarding Barbie’s perpetration of harmful bodily stereotypes may have originated in such an emphasis on idealistic expectations of the body as portrayed through “girl’s toys”. Similarly, Blakemore adds, “the emphasis on violence and aggression (weapons, fighting, and aggression) might be less than desirable in the long run” for boys. These distinctions are constructed through advertisements promoting the sale of army figures, vehicles, kitchen sets, Barbie dolls and everything in between.
Such gender dichotomies are also evident in the several toys, which exist to promote sales of their franchises. Multi-media franchises like Pokémon, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Marvel Comics, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles operate with different licenses, trademarks and copyrights which cater to their different fandoms. For example, the Jurassic Park ‘toyline’ had been going strong since the 1990s, with each new film creating new waves of toys, using the same or different moulds, poses and paint schemes. Such toys adorn the shelves of many a collector, with the race for collecting resulting in prices soaring sky-high on eBay. Collecting is often associated with the rights of ownership, with fond associations of memory – perfectly encapsulated by the image below.
Source: One of my earliest memes that I had made, over at my profile at https://www.instagram.com/dinotoy.comics/
Such visits to the theatre involve two different kinds of purchases, one for use during playtime, and the other perhaps for indulging in memories of said playtime. Franchise toys, especially long-running franchises, are often vessels for fond memories. Toys often push the sales of other items such as MacDonald Happy Meals, one of my own personal favourites. I had failed to obtain one sold in collaboration with the release of the third Ice Age film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibX7pmKEWhc) and had cried to my folks for ages!
This desire to collect, however, does not end with franchises but goes beyond, especially through the emergence of companies such as Funko and YouTooz. Often, marketing goes hand-in-hand with the tagline “Collect them all”, a not-so-subtle message directed at children who often badger their parents, and often said parents themselves, to collect an entire series of figures for themselves or their children. Such collection is often associated with the gratification of owning something – of possessing said thing with oneself. Collecting Funko Pop figures most of who eerily lack a mouth, made in the likeness of celebrities and fictional characters from a host of media appeals to toy-collectors as well as business people, for keeping, playing and selling when their prices shoot up.
However, when we come to Youtooz – a company specifically creating figures in the likeness of actual people and celebrities – that our desire to possess reveals a side that has conventionally been closely associated with the Anthropocene. This Canadian-based company rides off the anthropocentric desires of controlling and possession to almost hyper-real standards – by creating mostly figures of streamers and YouTubers. A YouTuber is advised to promote the YouTooz collectable to their fanbase, whose desire to support, be a part of the fandom, or simply collect a figure of their icon ends up in a purchase. Toys become the receptors of a Foucaldian stream of multi-directional power play; while collectors seem to own a “toy” of their hero right in their own hands, said hero is able to earn profits from such a purchase and ensure their long-lasting support.
Collecting figures of celebrities is hardly a new practice in itself however as embodied in an image of Jackie Kennedy and her daughter in the image above.
Owning, or playing with “my” toy as opposed to “yours” has not only erupted in several schoolyard battles, through a microcosmical subtle ‘Self’ versus ‘Other’ dynamic that is mostly subtly reinforced through the difference in physical power of children (promoting aggression) as well as the difference in their parent’s financial status. This desire may be regarded as inherently anthropocentric, embodied in the darker side of collecting figures and collectables, which even has tiny living organisms inside them.
Yes, that is right.
The desire to possess and control is profoundly a cultural problem that perhaps offers an explanation behind human beings’ negotiations with their environment. For Amitav Ghosh, “climate change” is a profoundly cultural problem and a problem of our imaginaries. The Anthropocene, characterised not merely by environmental but social issues which create binaries and boundaries of seclusion, may be located in the humanist vein of owning. Such ownership is reflected, even if not limited, to the desire to trap small creatures in figures for the sake of quirkiness or delight.
However, let’s not dismiss toys as simple containers for anthropogenic ideals. They transcend such limitations, and also act resist dominant discourses of power through play, and the very use of toys can be regarded as post-human. The Anthropocene is not merely littered with our mistakes but also with genuine attempts to undo them. A mirror into the world of toys, both ancient and modern, raises the question that had been pondered upon by Doctor Ferrando – Have we always been post-human? It is such a theme that I have explored at https://www.thespace.gallery/post/toys-and-their-symbolic-significance-have-we-always-been-post-human.
Through my own work, I have tried to exhibit, establish and offer a counter-gaze to the ‘human’ centric biases which seemingly characterise the world of playmaking, but that’s a discussion for another blog – one, that can be found at https://www.thespace.gallery/post/a-post-human-gaze-into-figure-photography.
Feel free to leave your comments on my work at https://www.instagram.com/dinotoy.comics/