Breaking the mould: how toys are changing the cultural meaning of play

03 Feb 2017

With Christmas been and gone, toy retailers are taking stock of the big sellers and reckoning the state of play for the coming year. But 2016 may well prove to have been a tipping point in the evolution of toys for reasons not obvious at first glance. From the unveiling of Lego’s first ever wheel-chair -using figure last January, to the social media buzz around pictures of Harper Beckham clutching her ‘disability doll’ last summer, conventional wisdom about the aesthetic, political and psychological meanings of child’s play seem more up for debate than ever, first stoked by campaigns such as #ToyLikeMe and Let Toys Be Toys but now making waves among manufacturers themselves.

So why does a certain global celebrity’s daughter’s choice of doll matter? Is the shift as significant as the digital soundings off suggest? Viewed through a semiotic lens, these campaigns and products bring a new dimension to the meaning of ‘play’, providing more relatable role models for young consumers and defining the escapism associated with a child’s imagination not in terms of ‘ideal’ bodies, but in terms of exploring the diversity of identity. Worries abound among authorities and campaigners about young people’s lack of self-esteem and body confidence when faced with the ubiquitous idolization of ‘perfect’ superhero and celebrity physiques – across tween and pre-tween markets – and persistent pressure to document one’s ‘on-fleek’ looks via social media. Could toys really be the remedy, a therapeutic antidote paving the way for a generation that is body inclusive?


Body Autonomy

One way toys promise a more body-positive, inclusive form of play is through customisation. Once upon a time, toys – especially dolls and action figures – came in a one-shape-fits-all form, literally moulded to the ideals set by manufacturers, rarely updated or changed (see Barbie’s enduring body-shape, virtually untouched from its launch in 1959 until last year’s introduction of new figures). But a DIY approach is being made possible by recent advances in 3D printing and prosthetic technology. Brands such as Makies, who have collaborated with the #Toyslikeme campaign, allow children to design their own figure online to suit their unique aesthetics, which is then 3D printed and personally customised. So far, the brand has created dolls with birthmarks, hearing aids and walking sticks. In cases like this body expectations are redefined, while the reach of the toy category is extended in unprecedented ways.


The ‘Real’ Deal

Toys that express newfound wonder in what would have previously been deemed ‘ordinary’ body aesthetics are also helping to re-orient the toy category, celebrating ‘real’ and ‘normal’ body forms over the idealised slim, trim and glamorous features many mainstream dolls possess – often leaving kids playing with bodies that are dangerously divorced from real-world biology. Prefiguring the aforementioned Barbie Fashionistas from Mattel, more believable and relatable toy bodies have emerged from such unlikely quarters as the Natural History Museum, whose ‘age-realistic’ Lottie Dolls have won awards as positive role models, while the Lammily doll project range is sold under the slogan ‘average is beautiful’ and includes Lammily Marks - sticker packs for adding spots, stretch marks, freckles and even cellulite to the dolls. These dolls directly challenge the idealised, female bodies represented so predominantly on the shelves of mainstream toy stores, framing beauty as a question of authenticity rather than visible perfection, with natural looks and bodily processes celebrated, not hidden.


Meaningful Bodies

Body pressures and idolised beauty aesthetics aren’t the only issues raised and challenged by contemporary toys. Various niche brands within the toy category are innovating with the narratives of those overlooked in mainstream culture. Through diverse toy forms and designs, children with illness or disability are increasingly able both to express and work through their own specific experiences in a safe and creative way. Brands and projects include Toy Like Me (a project that creates toys that represent various disabilities – or ‘diff:abilities’ as they coin it), Mattel’s Ella doll (a doll to help support children with cancer going through chemotherapy) and Second Life Toys (Japanese toy brand that encourages organ donation through plushies with mismatched body parts). In a more hi-tech example, Lego has partnered with the creative prosthetic system Iko to develop prosthetics for amputee children that they can customise and even play with through attachable bricks and changeable gadgets – body autonomy, expressive personal development and play all intimately combined. These toys take full advantage of the multi-dimensional meaning that is created in play, allowing the children to relate to their own difference as not just positive but a source of inspiration.

So as in other categories, the semiotics of contemporary toys reveal an increasing commitment to body diversity and inclusivity by brands. But perhaps more culturally important is the move into the mainstream of encouragement of empowerment through imagination – rich and meaningful storytelling that may well be changing attitudes in the real world.

To find out more about our work in the toy and games categories, contact eve@canopyinsight.com or sam@canopyinsight.com