For this analysis I’d like to extend Barthes’ thinking on toys and what they really mean to children and adults into the 21st century. Much of what Barthes says still holds true today, especially the idea that “the adult sees the child as another self” (53). When Barthes was writing in the 50’s, basically every children’s toy represented a “microcosm of the adult world; they are reduced copies of human objects” (53). Essentially, toys like dolls, medicine and science kits, trucks, and cooking sets pre-condition the child into their assumed gender roles in adult life. The dolls prepare young girls for childbirth and motherhood, and the transportation and occupation toys assimilate young men into normal, usual society and the workforce. Barthes explains that these toys “literally prefigure the world of adult functions [which] cannot but prepare the child to accept them all” (53).

Though we’ve gracefully moved away from a society of wooden blocks and dolls with fully functioning bodies and into a technological world, Barthes’ message still holds up. Yes we can still find Barbies and Tickle-Me-Elmos and science kits and Easy Bake ovens in the toy aisle, but it seems to me that 21st century children are far more interested in computers and cell phones and virtual games. My favorite toy when I was eleven was my V-Tech toy computer, which I have no doubt in my mind began to condition me to become absolutely dependent on my cell phone and laptop now. Now into the 2010’s, children expect LeapFrog tablets, fake (or real!) cellphones, Disney themed mp3 players, etc. Even adults call their favorite gadgets their “toys.”

One of Barthes’ most striking arguments is the idea that the child “does not invent the world, he uses it” (54). Though we may feel in control of the world with our access to millions of apps and games, I would argue that we are still “using” our world, not “creating” it. We’re much closer than the children Barthes discusses back in the 50’s, but we’re still undeniably dependent on our alarm clocks and phones to wake us up in the morning and to tell us what time our meetings are. We depend on email and Facebook to remind us to stay in touch with Aunt Marge and wish our best friends happy birthday. By creating mini-versions of our technology for children, we’re only conditioning them to also need a cell phone, computer, and iPod to physically survive in this world. The basic idea – the pre-conditioning, the dependence, the creating of “mini-adults” – is still the same; the outlet has just changed thanks to a changing society. 

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One response »

  1. Michael K. Johnson says:

    Good clear overview of the Barthes essay, and you do a good job of updating his observations to 21st century technology. In some ways, we are also using other people’s imaginations. After all, it’s not my imagination that created the world of Angry Birds–I’m just using someone else’s clever idea when I play it.

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