Random craft moments: Playmobil knights’ castle

Parents! Ever felt that a long bank holiday weekend in the company of small children just isn’t tiring and stressful enough? Why not set yourself a hugely ambitious and unnecessary project such as building a massive castle for some little plastic knights? Look at me – I did it! And after much swearing and “not now, kids, Mummy’s wielding a lethal piece of DIY equipment” look what I’ve ended up with:

DSC00824

A castle fit for a Playmobil king! (Not that the ones Playmobil make aren’t and I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy one of those, too. This is purely a supplementary play resource *crosses fingers that this covers any legal issues*) Continue reading

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Pink LEGO vs the Imagination Police

Up until this morning the whole LEGO Friends kerfuffle had passed me by. I knew the product range existed and had guessed it arose from yet another desperately unimaginative attempt to appeal to all girls, ever. Nevertheless the only child I know who happens to want a LEGO Friends toy is my youngest and guess what? He’s a boy (and in case you’re wondering, it’s the Adventure Camper, £36.95 – and no, I’m not dipping into the Shoe Fund to purchase that). Anyhow, I wasn’t particularly annoyed that this range existed. After all, there are a million other crappy toys just like it. Indeed, some of them aren’t even that crappy. Looked at independently, “girls’ toys” aren’t any worse than those marketed at boys. The problem is our failure to think of them simply as “toys”, and the way in which, through marketing, this message then gets passed on to our children. Continue reading

Do little girls really love their dollies?

It may be because I’m mildly hungover, but today I am excelling myself at getting crap songs stuck in my head. Right now I’m in a café and they’re playing Lovesong by The Cure, and what am I hearing by way of a counter-tune? Uptown Girl by Billy Joel. Only it’s not even that, not the original version, nor even the infinitely worse cover version by Westlife. It’s an even worse version than that, because it’s one we used to sing in the playground when I eight. Indeed, back then, it was considered the height of comic genius. And so, in case you didn’t sing it too, I give to you Uptown Dolly:

Uptown Dolly

She’s been living in a Tesco trolley

She said she’s gonna go for Action Man

And they’ve been snogging in the A-Team van

It’s a pity there’s no mention of a soda stream but still, you’d be hard pressed to find four lines that shout early 80s more loudly than that. It’s like we all planned it just so one of us could go and discuss it on one of those “I heart the 80s” nostalgia programmes twenty years later. And we’d have done it, too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky Kate Thornton hogging the show.

Uptown Dolly was not the only toy-related parody song we sang, but the others are all too offensive to write down here. There was one about My Little Pony, but it involved rhyming “plastic” with an ablist term which I’m sure you can all make a guess at. Then later on the trial of the Butcher of Lyon – Klaus Barbie – provided ample opportunities for the creation of Barbie Dream Torture Chambers and the like. We were utterly self-centred, with no awareness of the context in which we made these nasty jokes. But what I think it also shows is that we held no reverence for our toys. We didn’t really want to be like Barbie. We all knew she was fucking ridiculous.

I cut off my Barbie doll’s hair. My mum told me it would never grow back. Like, duh, mum! It’s so much easier to dip your doll’s head in a tin of shoe polish if you’ve already cut off the hair. My brother tripped over my My Little Pony Show Stable, making the purple plastic roof cave in. It didn’t matter; the undignified mounting of Lemondrop by Peachy could still take place, with or without flimsy accessories. It’s not that I didn’t have toys I loved, just as my sons do now. But they were little, cuddly things from early childhood, not plastic zombie-women with miniscule waists or stupid ponies who separated themselves from their own tails if you tried to whirl them around your head while holding on to the latter (and ideally yelling something incomprehensible). I played with these toys but I was not in love with them. I no more wanted to be Barbie than my Eldest wants to be C-3PO (although he is in many ways just like C-3PO. I mean that in a good way).

When I look back on how I treated my Barbies, I think there are perhaps three possibilities:

  1. my friends and I were exceptionally weird or, slightly more generously, behaving like this is a Cumbrian thing
  2. girls today have grown up in a culture which has made them dumber and less capable of holding their toys at any critical distance
  3. girls today still do terrible things to Barbie and make up terrible songs about her

While I wouldn’t want anyone to emulate the all-round, broader offensiveness we embraced as children, I’d still like to think girls today are a bit like we were. And aren’t they, probably, behind our backs? Barbie will get you in the end and she will make you feel like shit. But in the meantime, you should at least be able to have a laugh (but remember, the songs will stay with you forever).

PS Christ, now they’re playing William, it was really nothing. I love this café! And I hate my stupid brain!

Throwing out Tiny Tears with the bathwater

What toys did you play with as a child? Would you say they were, on reflection, a bit rubbish? If the answer’s yes, did you by any chance happen to be a girl?

I’m pondering this following a visit to ToysRUs [sic]*, everyone’s favourite megastore for gender stereotyping fun. It’s easy to get into a state of mild-mannered liberal apoplexy in a place like that; you just have to walk through the door without leaving your brain and/or morals outside. However, following yesterday’s visit, I’ve started to worry about something else: cruelty to toys, in particular to toys marketed at girls. Scratch the surface and you’ll find it’s a bigger problem than you’d first imagine.

When toys are in the feminist firing line, it’s always the girls’ stuff that’s at the front. Stands to reason, I suppose; armed with lipgloss alone, Polly Pocket and Bratz can’t shoot back. Truth is, we’re a bit scared of the boys’ things; they promote violence, or might do, and it’s all a bit complicated really. With girls’ stuff it’s simple. When it comes to essential crapness – being a rubbish toy which makes the child have shit aspirations in life – it’s so much easier to stick the knife into Barbie than it is Ben 10 (I have no idea who Ben 10 is or what he does. My son has a Ben 10 pencil case. He has no idea either. We both agree Ben 10 is a rubbish name).

Barbie is not a realistic role model, but I suspect Ben10 isn’t either (it’s something to do with fighting aliens, I think. If so, it’s definitely not realistic – the aliens would totally have us). So why the fuss about Barbie? I think there are three main reasons:

  1. Girls seen as more “vulnerable”, ie more likely to have their little minds poisoned by some stupid post-feminist hell-doll.
  2. Boys’ stuff should just be “for everyone” (because heterosexual male experience is “real” while everything else is just mere misguided posturing or something)
  3. If girls play with “boys’ toys”, while it won’t necessarily make them as good as boys, it might make them a bit less shit. If boys play with “girls’ toys”, on the other hand, it’ll make them all gay.

In short, why can’t everyone just be equal, throw out all this pink fluffy crap and do whatever it is you do with Ben10?

I have a real problem with this. First, because all toys are cute in their own special way so we shouldn’t be being so fucking mean to them. Second, because lots of toys marketed at girls are way better than the equivalents being sold to boys. I know this because I was a girl and I had some truly ace toys. Alas, boys didn’t get to play with them. Hence I’ve compiled a list of the best girls’ toys of the 1980s. YOU didn’t get to play with them, chaps. Ha! Read it and weep:

1. Sweet Secrets The Transformers of the girls’ toy market. It’s beautiful jewellery to everyone else, but turns into playmates when you’re by yourself. So something you can wear (I had a necklace) turns into a real doll. Hours of fun. Way better than something of no use whatsoever (I think my brother had a pretend screwdriver or something) turning into a fake robot (robots are meant to do stuff. Dolls aren’t, so the doll wins). Why they aren’t currently making Sweet Secrets: The Movie I’ll never know.

2. Twirly Curls Barbie Yes, Barbie is too thin. No, she is not a feminist icon. But did Action Man have a twirly curler? I think you’ll find he didn’t.

3. Tiny Tears A doll that cries, yes, but also a doll that pisses itself. Tops! And let’s have none of this “indoctrinating girls into the drudgery of motherhood” crap. You’re a kid. You have a toy that wees. Bloody brilliant.

4. Rainbow Brite This is the story of Rainbow Brite / Who rides on a horse called Starlight /And happens to have a name that rhymes with “shite”. It might have been the type of school I went to, but that last bit (not featured in the TV ads) caused years – literally years – of fun.

5. Strawberry Shortcake Had hair that smelled of strawberries. And yes, the toys a girl has can affect her aspirations in life, and yes, I do still want to have hair that smells of strawberries. But tell me, is that really so wrong?

6. Makeup laboratory thing that I can’t remember the name of Which was WAY better than my brother’s crappy chemistry set. He had some test tubes and powders and shit, but I got to make lip gloss and perfume. And okay, iron filings are fun for a bit. But a lip gloss is for life.

7. Knitting Nancy One of those knitting dollies where you end up with a long sausage of wool that you can’t actually do anything useful with, but it’s pretty addictive all the same. Unlike, say, Meccano, which is only fun if you’re good at that kind of thing. And let’s face it, most of us, male or female, are crap at that kind of thing.

8. Sindy Town House Four floors of gleaming white brilliance. I wanted a Sindy Town House. I never got one. Mum and Dad, YOU’VE RUINED MY LIFE! <storms off to pull the stuffing out off some fucking stupid cuddly toys that I didn’t want anyhow, and no, Pippa is NOT the same as Sindy, she’s just some cheapo version, so you can just take her back to Woolworth’s where you found her, I hate you, I hate you, you’ve never loved me etc. etc.>

And that, I think, is just the tip of the iceberg. I think this because there were no doubt loads of other ace things out there but my mum and dad were MEAN and KEPT THIS FROM ME so I couldn’t be like everyone else. But anyhow, I’m not bitter or anything.

My sons play with cars, but they also play with one of my old Barbies. Admittedly they mainly play with the cars (what do you think this is, some sodding liberal shangri-la?). I care that they are free to make their own choices about what to play with. But most of all, I care about the toys. Toys are bloody brilliant. Be nice to them. They don’t get to choose their packaging.

* Damn that quirky backwards “R”.