Christmas keeps sneaking nearer every time you close your eyes, like those weeping angel statues on “Doctor Who,” so I decided I had to do it. I had to see what the kids were getting. I had to see if it were really as bad as all that.
I ventured into Target on Tuesday, a warmish day of early December, to scout the toy aisles and see what Santa was going to be bringing America’s boys and girls. I’d heard some murmurings about Excess Pink. But as Michael Buble’s dulcet tones wafted over me, I felt strong and reassured. How bad, I wondered, could it be?
Let’s start with the layout of the toys section.
It’s a little hard to see in this picture the steep gradient from pink to blue, but it is there. Pink zone to the right. Blue zone to the left. Disney in the middle. Barbie is careful to stand on her side of the line. She doesn’t want any trouble. Beyond the Pink zone, as off the edge of the old-fashioned map, there be monsters.
The first thing to catch my eye was this lovely Yuppie Kitchen Island. I realize that is not its real name, but look at the dang thing. You have the sense that these people are about to go to brunch.
She pours herself a cup of coffee before heading to her job at that Web start-up. He chats amiably with friends from the city. It’s almost time to take out the recycling and do something about their comically undersized dog — maybe walk it? I don’t know.
Look at the brickwork tiles! Look at the icemaker! I can’t tell if the cordless phone he’s chatting on as he lounges against the counter in his casual red polo and relaxed jeans is included or not. But it had better be.
This turned out to be a red herring, because never again did I see any boys in anything that resembled a playset kitchen.
If you prefer a more aggressively gendered environment for your playtime, these next sets are a better bet.
HE PLAYS WITH DRILLS! HE IS NOT WEARING A POLO BUT PLAID! He doesn’t OWN a polo! Polos are for men with cordless phones! He has a cordless drill, not a cordless phone! He doesn’t know the MEANING of brunch!
MINNIE TALKS TO HER WHILE SHE PREPARES THINGS IN THE KITCHEN! PINK THINGS!
SOON HE WILL GO PLAY WITH HIS TOY HULK, WHOM WE ARE GOING TO TALK MORE ABOUT LATER.
An aisle or two over (now safely ensconced in the Pink Section), we run into these FurReal Friends. (If you like to see good, healthy puns with glossy coats, puns that are healthy and thriving in their natural environment, puns that have not been overworked until they forget their original meaning, the toy aisle is a place to avoid like the plague. All these puns (“Sippy Pup”?) are the verbal equivalent of Victorian cab horses, staggering around whinnying in agony.)
These toys are great if you wanted to give your girl-child a stuffed animal but were worried it would not teach her enough about caring for babies. “Stuffed bears were good enough for Teddy Roosevelt,” you said to yourself. “But I want something that she’ll have to feed and burp and clothe.”
(These are also a poor idea because they encourage the belief that you can put a tiara on a cat, the cat will just sit there and take it. You will be able to identify people who were given these toys later in life by their cat-clawed faces and tendency to approach bears offering to burp them.)
The next item gave me some hope: a minority female doctor! In the pink aisle, of all places! Awesome!
In theory, this is great. In theory.
In practice, Doc talks and sings. Doc announces that she has a diagnosis. “I prescribe lots of love — and, of course, cuddles!” Doc McStuffins says. Clearly, she has been to medical school. “If you feel like you need a check up, of COURSE I’ll give you one!”
Then she starts singing. “Time for your checkup! . . . It’s okay if you giggle!”
Lambie has a solo. “I feel better! So much better! Thanks doc for taking all the ouchies away!” (With your pink glittery stethoscope, of course. If you didn’t know that was a Little Black Bag, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a glittery purse.)
Really this raises more questions than it answers. Does she sanitize the table after treating lambs on it? What is a lamb ouchie? To be frank, this looks like more of a veterinary practice.
Also, why is she friends with a dragon named Stuffy? I would not go to this clinic.
Over in the boys’ aisle, the talking toys selection is more varied, since boys can choose from Pretty Much Every Non-Princess Movie Protagonist Ever to carry around the house in plastic form and toss downstairs and form manly bonds with.
For instance, Talking Hulk. My biggest objection to Hulk is that he has a larger vocabulary than his real-life counterpart and seems kind of needy.
Hulk’s vocabulary includes 30 phrases, which, for anyone who watched the movie, seems awfully high.
“That was Hulktastic!” he exclaims, when you punch him in the stomach. “Hey, you’re pretty tough! Rurrrrrgh!” “Let’s have a smash party!’
But stop pressing him for a moment and he becomes nervous and alarmed. “Hey, buddy! Where did you go?”
Quickly you squeeze him again. “Let’s smash some more!” he crows. Then he belches noisily and you can hear the sound of him punching something. “You Hulk’s smashing buddy!” A moment’s pause. “Hey, buddy, where did you go?”
His conversation revolves mainly around smashing things and expressing gratitude for your friendship. It is, I regret, not limitless in its fascination. As you walk away, you hear his plaintive, “Hey, buddy! Where did you go?” following you down the aisle.
There are, fortunately, other options for talking companionship.
Batman doesn’t say anything when you squeeze him, which seems about right.
But give him a good hard punch and he says, “The Bat Signal is calling us.”
His conversation is about what you’d expect. “Criminals beware — Batman is here!” “Take that, Joker!” “It’s time to bring justice to Gotham City” and — a little more obscurely — “You’re no match for me, Killer Croc.”
At least he doesn’t sing.
Unlike Hulk, when you walk away, Batman says nothing.
Overall, my least favorite discovery was Lego Friends.
I knew they were going to be bad. Any toy based on the premise that “Girls Can’t Play With Anything That Lacks Their Accustomed Pastel Palette, Focus On Friendship And Alarming Waist:Hip Ratio, Not Even Blocks” was bound to be at least mildly odious.
But they really went all out. Look at these people. They all live in a place called Heartlake City, because that is a nice girly name for a place to live. Girls can’t live in places like Gotham or Metropolis or Cleveland. That’s in the boy aisle!
Everyone there attends Heartlake High, which, from the looks of it, is a small exclusive academy with just a few lockers, carefully coordinated in blue and pink by gender.
You can also buy other locales like Emma’s Horse Trailer, Olivia’s Newborn Foal (she can borrow Emma’s Horse Trailer for it! She and Emma are best friends so I bet Emma won’t mind!), Stephanie’s Soccer Practice, Emma’s Sports Car (I guess the flirtation with horses was short-lived) and the Downtown Bakery, which sells cupcakes, obviously the baked good most in keeping with this strange boutique pastel fantasyland.
The big showpiece is a Dolphin Cruiser peppered with actual dolphins on top.
Just for contrast’s sake, here is what a boat looks like in regular Legos, which I guess are now just “boy” Legos, based on their placement on the other side of the Pink Line?
Is that a shark?
No sharks here. Just dolphins. And Andrew, your shaggy-haired boyfriend or male acquaintance, on his jet ski, in his blue polo with the sailboat on it. You are only allowed into the girl aisle as a male toy if you are wearing a polo shirt. That is how they can tell you’re safe. You also have the option of being a non-human creature, like Sniffy or Nasal Congestion or whatever the dragon’s name was.
Here’s how it looks assembled:
Of course there is also a hair salon and kitchen on the boat, lest you forget for a second that this is a toy intended for Girls. I don’t know what happens if Lego pirates attack, but I assume you can beat them off with the hairbrush.
I don’t mean to be too hard on Lego Friends. This was like a Mensa playset compared to what was next to it:
“Bling it to Life!” Actually, at least this was a craft. I take it back. The next aisle was much worse.
The next aisle was the princess aisle.
Whole essays could be written about what it contained, but that seemed like shooting glittery fish in a Bling-ed barrel. Much ink has been used to describe Barbie and her off-kilter proportions and her total lack of resemblance, incidental or otherwise, to any people living or dead. The princess complex is always getting dragged over the coals. Just picture it pink and dreadful and you will be right.
The part I saw was depressing enough. Remember Merida from “Brave,” the one non-princess-ified Disney princess, with her unruly hair and defiant spirit?
She really cleaned up.
(It’s hard to see at this size, but her arrow is now just a fun accessory that “colors Merida’s hair.”)
I guess she had to, to fit in with her new friends. But as my mom would say, if they don’t like you as you are, are they really your friends? Also, why is Ariel wearing pink? Is it Wednesday?
On the bright side, Merida’s proportions now are so creepy and off that maybe if you hand her to a child the child will start to cry uncontrollably and you’ll have to give her Needy Hulk instead. That, or the child will develop wildly unhealthy ideas about body shape! One of the two.
If princesses aren’t your speed, here’s another doll option:
I thought you couldn’t get much worse than those FurReal friends, but you can, with Little Mommy Sweet As Me. “Every baby is born with style!” But that style had BETTER BE boho chic or uptown prep, or who even ARE you? (Also: Comic Sans!)
It was at this point in the afternoon that I began to feel a strange twitching desire to have a child so I could dress it up in colorful pink outfits and use it to accessorize. I headed toward the neutral zone between the pinks andbBlues, the Switzerland of the toy aisles, and tried to find something to lift my spirits.
What all the aisles seemed to agree on was that they didn’t know where to put the One Direction merchandise, but that it was important that you buy some. Maybe it’s best to separate the boys?
Yeah, that seems right.
All in all, I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe a single Nerf Gun with a girl on the side of the box?
No, maybe any girls on the blue side of the line who weren’t Star Wars characters? Maybe any boys on the pink side of the line who weren’t wearing those weird polos?
Maybe toys that wouldn’t send me running from the Target quivering all over like a Lamb(ie)’s tail?
They weren’t all bad. But they were worse than I thought they’d be.
I wasn’t a girl who played with dolls. I wasn’t particularly a tomboy; I just preferred stuffed animals and Star Wars figurines. My parents never made a fuss. They happily supplied me with whatever I actually wanted to play with. And once I had the toys on hand, I used them to tell my own stories anyway. That’s what you do when you’re a kid. Once it’s out of the box, it’s all fair game.
But that was what struck me about these toys. Pretty much everything in the pink aisle was designed in a way that limited the number of stories you could tell with it. In the blue aisle, accessories vary. There’s a Batman with a submarine. There’s a ninja with a castle. Not in the pink aisle. Everybody just had hairbrushes. Merida’s bow didn’t work for archery; it was just a hair accessory like countless other hair accessories. Lego girls didn’t get attacked by pirates. If you wanted pirates in the pink aisle, you had to bring them yourself.
I’m sure girls’ imaginations are just as charged as they ever were and they’ll take their toys on all kinds of adventures. I just wish we were making it easier for them, instead of suggesting that you use your Ipad as a makeup mirror. What else could you want with it?
Say what you will about Needy Hulk and Batman, they kept suggesting new adventures — all kinds of things to smash and new threats to Gotham to subdue, even if Hulk didn’t want you to leave him alone when you did it.
In conclusion, here’s a Hot New Barbie Set.
You will be relieved to know that this beautiful doll can be contained entirely inside her closet.
Of course she can.
Hiya, I’m @petridishes on Twitter!