By Jonathan Alexandratos
As Hasbro pulls the Trolls World Tour Giggle-and-Sing Poppy doll from store shelves, I can’t help but reflect on the long, hard legacy of accidentally inappropriate toys. If you’re not familiar with the most recent case, Giggle-and-Sing Poppy giggles and sings when seated. In order to do that, she has a button on her groin so that when she sits, it depresses and activates the feature. Without diving too far down the rabbit hole of Troll genitalia (which will lead to me dwelling on the innuendo in the phrase “the rabbit hole of Troll genitalia”), it is safe to say that, if Trolls have genitals that resemble the standard human placement, you’d find them right where that button is.
I don’t oppose the complaints. Parents’ petition to recall the doll included language about how this might make children more passive about sexual abuse and pedophilia, likening actual bad touches to the way in which kids would interact with this toy. I can’t and shouldn’t evaluate that assessment. I have no kids. I don’t know the statistics on how play translates into a child’s actual worldview. I do, though, feel strongly that messaging to kids about the harm of sexual abuse should be as clear as possible, and if this muddies that water in any way, I’m all for pushing Hasbro to make a better product. If it saves one kid, it’s worth it.
The part of all this that is my wheelhouse is just how familiar this all feels, historically speaking. There have been many toy recalls throughout the decades, and they all go roughly the same way: (1.) a toy comes out, (2.) the toy does something a toy should not do, (3.) there’s outrage, (4.) the toy is recalled, (5.) the toy shoots up in price on Ebay. Giggle-and-Sing Poppy just reached step five. Here are some other toys that did that.
Marvel Deluxe Shape Shifters Punisher explodes into my mind fairly quickly. It’s a Punisher action figure that transforms into a gun. Unfortunately, the barrel emerges from betwixt Francis Castle’s legs. This means that, in action figure mode, you can expose the barrel, making it look like the Punisher is, well, exposing his barrel.
The PG-13 version of this is the Terminator 2 Blaster T-1000 action figure. Here, the figure’s missile launcher pops up over the T-1000’s head. In order to do that, it needs to emerge from the rear, which means that the launcher is literally the rear. This figure didn’t face the same recall that other scandalous toys did, so you can still find it for fairly cheap. You should buy it. It’s a pretty solid encapsulation of how we all feel after too much Chipotle.
Beyond the realm of action figures, Mattel’s vibrating Nimbus-2000 Harry Potter broom had to disappear pretty quickly because, well, it vibrated. Watch a Quiddich scene and see if you can catch the problem with that.
And here’s a dump of more examples that are pretty much self-explanatory. Not all of those were recalled, but many frequently fetch a pretty penny just because of how suggestive they are. It’s as if we hold our toy boxes as such places of innocence that, when something so blatantly violates that, we can’t resist the urge to look at it. We wonder how it could have come to exist in the first place.
All of this speaks to bigger questions about the toy industry. Its self-regulation works with government safety rules to make sure their products don’t become the stuff of nightmares for parents, kids, and company shareholders. But these aren’t necessarily cases where the toy creates unsafe conditions through magnets that detach and are easily swallowed. No, the danger here stems from the messages each toy can affirm and transmit. Toy making tries to be a democratic process. Special test groups are brought in to try out new toys. Toy executives observe what attracts kids at conventions. Designers strive to balance the look of the toy with the technology needed to make it do what they want it to do. There is a lot done to observe how the public will react to new product. Still, there are some connections, obvious though they may seem after the fact, that just aren’t made until a toy hits the mass market.
This points to an interesting power that toys have: the ability to be vessels for messages and feelings. We know that because, in the best of scenarios, our O.G. Dino Megazord gives us a good, nostalgic feeling whenever we play with it. However, since the toys themselves aren’t sentient (yet…), their imagery becomes a reflection of our society – good, bad, and everything in between.
This explains why our rejection of objects like racist Mammy dolls, the Confederate flag on the General Lee, and swastikas on Indiana Jones villains matters. We know that, since we constantly imbue images with meaning, toys containing that imagery cease to be neutral. By rejecting the artifact of the image, we reject the ideology of the image, too. Therefore, reevaluation of and critical thought around toys that may cross the line into representations of malice, abuse, and harm are more than warranted.
So, to circle back to Giggle-and-Sing Poppy: I hope I’ve established that toy companies have set a precedent for occasionally letting slip some pretty sketchy product. I also hope that I’ve demonstrated that toys can contain and transmit messaging that is different levels of constructive or destructive. Given that, the Poppy doll’s button placement is at least implicitly destructive, and parents have every right to relegate that kind of oversight from a multi-million dollar corporation to the recall bin. Just, y’know, please don’t let Ebay separate you from at least $150 for a memento of the moment.
Hm. And I thought I was just sitting down to write an article about action figure dicks.