09 March 2010

The Cultural Reflection in a Local Toy Store

SPED 620, a class called Education in a Diverse Society, asks teachers to consider the impact of cultural biases in our classrooms. As a part of this discussion, we’re asked to look at possible sources of and reasons for racial and gender inequality. How, in spite of our nation’s growing diversity, do white middle class values achieve dominance in our society? One assignment, which I’ve chosen to present online via my personal blog, asked me to go to a toy store and consider what cultural perspective is dominant.

Toy Box is located on Merrimon Avenue, prime business real estate for North Asheville’s community. The high price of real estate and the overflowing parking lot of the organic Greenlife grocery store both point to a simultaneously wealthy and eco-conscious community. Social conscientiousness is a kind of currency in this neighborhood, and the streets are getting crowded with Toyota Priuses with reusable grocery bags in the passenger seat. I was interested in finding out what the neighborhood toy store could say about this progressive and affluent crowd.

In a toy store, certain cultural values seem to stand out more than others, and most notably we see how the toys reflect gender roles and represent racial diversity. I also wondered if socioeconomic status might be discernable, and I predicted at Toy Box I would see a selection of toys catered towards Asheville’s upper class. All these things became pretty obvious the moment I walked in the door.

Gendered pink and blue sections are obvious when you walk in the door.

First, gender issues: two colors stood out distinctly directly upon entering. Blue and pink; pink and then blue— these colors are still obviously associated with their respective genders and demarcate girls’ and boys’ toys. In the pink sections there were dolls, and in the blue sections action figures and models. This general perspective shows that there are still different kinds of toys for boys and girls, but it doesn’t show that this toy store is reinforcing negative gender roles like Barbie or G.I. Joe. Toy Box is doing much better; there are no Barbies or Bratz Dolls that make women into sex objects, and there aren’t any war toys in the entire store. The dolls, packaged in pink, were Go Go Girls— “healthy lifestyle dolls” dressed in athletic wear— an example of dolls attempting to break down old gender stereotypes. Also in the pink section were dress up outfits: fairy wings, wands, and tutus. Boys, it seems, don’t do dress up.

Taking education classes, one of the more harmful gender stereotypes we’re made aware of is the notion that boys are better at math and science, and girls are more gifted in arts and English. Toy Box had a good supply of educational toys— a commendable effort— but unfortunately the gender roles were represented, and thus reinforced, by many of these educational products. Most notably “The Dangerous Book for Boys” chemistry set, as well as the other science kits, were pretty clearly directed at boys, but the doll making kit, weaving starter set, and coloring books were all clearly directed at girls. It seems rather unfair to fault the toy store for reinforcing this stereotype, but its presence at even a progressive toy store is troubling.

Once again, I wouldn’t like to fault a small local business making efforts to be socially conscious, but, if product packaging is to suggest anything, toys at this store were all for white kids. A significant portion of wall space was devoted to Playmobil toys, and according to the store’s owner this is because Playmobil toys are consistently best sellers. It is certainly noteworthy, therefore, that not a single black or Asian child is on any Playmobil box, and perhaps less than 5% of the figurines available from Playmobil are something other than white. Playmobil sets, if you’re unfamiliar with them, are little models of society— hospitals, fire stations, houses— as well as imaginative fantasy worlds of pirates and pyramids. It seems the real and fantasy worlds of Playmobil, a German company, are not racially diverse, even if the real world is.

A hundred figurines and all the same color: Playmobil fails to represent diversity.

I predicted based on the location of Toy Box that its toys would reflect certain features of the North Asheville demography. Indeed, I found a good bit in the store that affirmed my predictions. Cool toys in the Toy Box weren’t cheap. “Inexpensive” items hovered around ten dollars each, and on the other end of the spectrum were dozens of Playmobil sets from eighty to two-hundred dollars. There was a significant collection of “green” toys also, like “Eco Kids” stainless steal water bottles, “Hand Made and Fair Trade” knitted flying discs, and tea and dinner play sets made from “100% Recycled Plastic.” The store had a wide selection of Plan Toys, a company that promotes itself for its sustainable practices. Wooden parts of their toys come from recycled rubber trees, they use special eco-friendly glue, water soluble dyes, and even have special recycled packaging printed with a soy based dye: all of which, the owner says, allows customers, “to feel better about buying a doll house.” Feeling better about buying a doll house will, however, cost a bit more; unfortunately, like organic groceries, sustainable products are still the privilege of those that can afford it.

I talked to the owner of Toy Box for a bit for a little more information. They have been in business along Merrimon for 22 years. I asked about their efforts to be a socially responsible toy store, and he explained to me in honesty that it was just a better business decision. Toy Box can’t go up against the likes of a Wal-Mart, so they don’t offer the same products: “We give people a choice of what to buy rather than where to buy, and consciously give them a better product.” Indeed, the toy choices Toy Box offers reflect its customers and their values.

To be the reflection
of an image
consumer demand
is also to be
its re-creation.

A young man looks
into his mirror
and allows what peers back
to change him—
he grooms,
or despises,
himself by what he sees.

The toy shop
what sells;
what's manufactured by companies
with more research than development who
analyze markets to market—
the toy shop is its market's mirror,
not as it reflects each buyer
but as it reflects to each buyer—
each subtle re-creation

the danger
of ignorant manipulation
within the system
of mirror and mirrored.
the cycle of a reflection
to change one,
be aware
for good
in you.

—EB, 3/9/10