October 3, 2022

The Toys That Played Us

Entertainment and commerce have always gone hand-in-hand


Netflix recently released the first four episodes of a new documentary series called The Toys That Made Us, which tells the stories behind some of the most popular toy lines of the 1950s through 1980s, including Barbie, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Star Wars. As a child of the 80s, and thus living exactly in the sweet spot of so much of what popular culture is aimed at these days, I was eager to check the show out.

I was disappointed. Though that may not have been the show’s fault, but rather because of its title.

Here’s the Netflix description for “The Toys That Made Us”: “The minds behind history’s most iconic toy franchises discuss the rise — and sometimes fall — of their billion-dollar creations.”

This is what the show does very well. It gets access to the most important players behind-the-scenes of these massive toy lines (with the notable exception of George Lucas) and weaves an irreverent tale about the creation, marketing, and reception of their wares.

What it doesn’t do, however, is something I had hoped for based on the title — take a look at how the toy lines of yesteryear have impacted the adults of today.

One person who has done this, curiously enough, is Chuck Lorre, creator and producer of hit sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.” Lorre ends each of his shows with a personally written “vanity card,” which can range in tone from comedic to sentimental to serious. Vanity card #568, which appeared at the end of an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” that aired in early January, discusses the issue of 1980s toys and animation on those adults coming into power today:

“In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan deregulated children’s TV programming. This allowed large toy companies to finance the production of thousands of hours of shows that were designed to sell toys. Rather than be educated and/or simply entertained, this very vulnerable audience could now be exploited for financial gain. Bad for kids, but good for me. Reagan’s mostly unheralded policy shift created an enormous demand for scripts, which allowed me to get my first job in television. In a matter of months, I went from struggling musician to gainfully employed scriptwriter. My life dramatically changed for the better, (comedically changed for the better?), because a Republican president decided the pursuit of profit need not be hindered by the common good. I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about this. For many years I’ve wondered if my success came at a price. Were children growing up in the 1980’s somehow harmed by the cynical, thirty-minute commercials that suddenly engulfed the after-school hours and all of Saturday morning? Well, wonder no longer. If 32-year-old, White House advisor Stephen Miller is any indication, the damage done to some of those kids was deep and irreparable.”

Though I think Lorre brings up some interesting points here—and makes me wish that his sitcoms were as regularly nuanced as his vanity cards—I do think that he might be simplifying both the scripts he wrote and their impact. Although he may describe them as “cynical, thirty-minute commercials,” I wonder if he saw himself as simply writing commercials at the time, or if he was earnestly working to craft entertaining stories for children that, yes, also were trying to sell toys.

Art and commerce have always gone hand-in-hand. Shakespeare may not have stopped “Macbeth” in the middle of the play to advertise “New Crunchless Meat Pies—For Women!”, but he was no stranger to adding some jokes about impotence in order to play to a crowd.

This has always especially been the case in television, which at its heart is a medium for advertising. The product sold by television networks is us, the viewers, and the content they air is simply a method to obtain more viewers that they can sell to their advertisers.

But that didn’t prevent “I Love Lucy” from getting made. Or “Hill Street Blues.” Or “All in the Family.” Although TV executives may be all about the bottom line, there is an important dividing line between the moneymen and women and the creative teams who actually craft the shows we watch and love.

Of course, sometimes these creative teams are just chasing after the all-mighty buck, themselves (I’m looking at you, “Young Sheldon), and thus it can be quite difficult to determine the line between earnest and cynical. So for every 32-year-old Stephen Miller, there’s also 32-year-old Bruno Mars, who certainly did a lot more with the weird stew of 80s and 90s U.S. pop culture that he grew up with.

And what Mars does with music, likewise writers of science fiction, fantasy, comedy, comic books, and, yes, animated TV shows do with the massive array of toys and cartoons that inspired them growing up. One has to wonder if, without the shows written by people like Lorre to sell toys, we’d get such wonderful creations as “Adventure Time” or “Gravity Falls” that tell moving, human stories that appeal to kids and grown-ups alike — and also happen to be good at selling toys.

Because kids are a lot less passive than we think they are. They take the mix of TV shows and storybooks and action figures that they’re exposed to and they create their own worlds. My own personal love of crossovers between different media franchises began with creating stories in my head so that my “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” toys could all meet up. Before I was writing plays or short stories, I was creating paper dolls of the obscure comic book characters that would never actually get their own action figures. I used the pop culture that was trying to sell me toys to create something new and unique that gave me comfort and company.

Children are the ultimate post-modernists, and the explosion of programming, advertising, and toy lines geared towards kids in the 1980s surely spurred on future artists as much as it may have also dulled senses.

There’s a fantastic documentary to be made examining this issue. Unfortunately, as fun as it may be, “The Toys That Made Us” is not that documentary.

Andrew J. Friedenthal
Andrew J. Friedenthal
Andrew J. Friedenthal is writer, an editor, a cultural scholar and historian, based in Austin, Texas. His book "Retcon Game: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America" is published by Univ. of Mississippi Press. He is regular contributor to Time Out Austin and the Austin American-Statesman.

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