For those of us who don’t often have cause to go into a children’s toyshop, said establishments can become unexpectedly fascinating sites for anthropological research. On a recent trip to Carlisle, I decided to see what I could find in their Early Learning Centre for my two adorable nieces. Considering I was an “early learner” myself when I last visited, I was understandably amazed at how things have changed since then. The ELC do make a concerted effort to offer a range of toys categorised according to area and skill development – problem solving, gross motor skills, hand-to-eye-coordination, thinking skills, learning to read and so on. I’m not sure about the amount of research that has gone into them, but no doubt these guides are appreciated by regular customers. At the same time, toyshops are just that: shops. Profit, not education, is the ultimate bottom line, and that means keeping up-to-date and “on trend”.
As an adult, you can’t fail to notice the sheer number of toys that continue to promote the usual stereotypical gender roles. Although both girls and boys are pictured playing with kitchen sets and tractors, the meta tags for ELCs online Xmas Shop still refer insistently to “top toys for girls” (pink phantasia, styling heads and prams) and “top toys for boys” (greens, browns, yellows, construction kits and cowboy costumes) in terms carefully avoided elsewhere on the site. The arguments that follow from such assumptions are well known and I won’t repeat them all here. Equally interesting is how a new range of toys reflect the technological changes of our own “adult” environments. Hearteningly, the same little girls who are expected to content themselves with fake washing machines, vacuum cleaners and fairytale castles are at least expected to leave the domestic sphere at some point and undertake the kind of labour that requires a multitude of tech gadgets. 😉 To illustrate:
A lightweight multi-purpose laptop with a “32 page workbook”. For 3-6 year olds? Wow. Is fun time over? Or are the links between creativity, consumption and productivity what is being encoded here as fun? A scale of consumer gradation means that eventually the toys start subtly to assume actual functionality; whether that be for work or entertainment. Try an image search for “Pink laptop” and you’ll probably struggle to differentiate the fakes from the real things. As Bind Apple noted a few years ago:
Since manufacturers decided they should improve the design and the colors of their existing products, the IT market has been flooded by the massive demand of pink products. Why pink? Because, unlike 10 years ago, technology is not for men only. Also, because the feminine target now represents more than 45% of the total consumers of the whole gadget market.
Of course, it all eventually comes full circle when the adult “gadgets” get marketed as though they were toys. The message seems to be that while children need to mimic their parents, their parents really ought to regress back to the colourful non-results-focused world of play. But isn’t that world becoming just a miniature version of what they’re doing anyway? In future, maybe we’ll have a separate queue for children at airport baggage screening areas. At the ELC, they could buy a multi-coloured, personalised tray to deposit their fake laptops, smartphones and tractor keys into. Just to make sure they really understand the implications of all of this sparkly social technology.
More seriously, there are of course clear links between play, games, learning, creativity and skills development, regardless of age group. Most people would agree that play shouldn’t stop the minute we get added to the electoral register. It’s a question though of what kind of play should be encouraged, and of what gets conditioned into us by the lessons embedded in the socio-cultural tools of the toyshop. Where do the chunky, bright buttons of the laptop and the smartphone fit within paradigms of “investigative” or “collaborative” learning? With the development of critical faculties and personality and “problematic” gender identity? Following the logic of the manufacturers, children will arrive at school already primed to be a certain type of consumer. If I were a parent, I might start to worry about the cost of the inevitable upgrades. That said, can I admit that I did find a lot of the toys pretty nifty?
This weekend, I went to the Manchester Opera House for the first time, keen to see its last performance of Zach Braff’s debut play All New People, which has been getting some very good reviews (and a few not so good). Braff is of course best known as awkward but loveable JD from the recently-departed US TV comedy Scrubs, however being a super-fan of “The Braffster” wasn’t a requirement for entry! It was a good event to go along to with my Mum (who was visiting this weekend) and I was interested in how and if Braff would make something theatrical from the same sort of semi-serious musings that we saw in Garden State, his first (and only) feature film as writer/director.
I’ve never really studied theatre so I certainly can’t claim to be an advocate of any particular approach or tradition! But I’ve read and seen enough plays to at least know the kind of experience that I expect from theatre as opposed to other artforms. All New People didn’t really fit with those expectations – and not because it was radical. The set was beautifully composed and the dialogue witty, but its characters and plot never took on more weight than you’d find in an entertaining adult sitcom. Okay, there were references thrown in to the fury of an Old Testament God; to rape, depression, and The Merchant of Venice – but these moments got scattered and lost. The rag-tag trio of kooks who assemble around Braff’s own character Charlie, offer him (and in turn us) little to engage with at first beyond their repartee or sex appeal. He is a suicidal former air traffic controller toying with the idea of hanging himself in a wintry beach house and, interrupted by the property’s letting agent, has a drink and drug-fuelled pity party/analysis session thrust upon him instead. Not exactly what he expected! Charlie and the other characters are of course meant to be post-modern, fractured, hiding under or behind facile personas. The trouble is that neither those personas nor the sketchy revelations about what lies beneath them are particularly significant or intriguing. Maybe that’s the point too in a way?
All New People’s televisuality is heightened by the fact that whenever Braff and director Peter DuBois want to reveal something “deeper” and more truthful about the reality of characters who are otherwise evasive, elusive, or just 2-dimensional, extra-large television screens drop down in front of the curtain to show us “flashbacks” while the actors “freeze frame” behind them. Rather than constituting a brave multimedia theatre experiment, these incongruous inserts revealed where Braff learned his approach to writing and characterisation; and where they really do fit best. For me, a lot of the energy generated by the cast’s dynamic was dissolved by those screens. When you’re sitting too far back or high up to see the actors’ faces on stage in any detail, it’s hard to recognise at first that it’s actually them! A minor point but this does add to the sense of sudden disengagement.
Impressive performances were definitely a highlight of the evening; whoever put together the Manchester cast did a really good job – working well as a four-piece, each one had perfect timing. I particularly liked the light comedic touch of Susannah Fielding, whose ditzy call-girl Kim combined elements of Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar in Some Like It Hot (complete with ukulele), Kaley Cuoco’s Penny in The Big Bang Theory, and Kim Cattrall’s Samatha from Sex and the City. Quite impressive considering how out-of-date and clichéd her character actually was in most regards! As for the others: Eve Myles’s Emma could have slipped unnoticed into the cast of Absolutely Fabulous, becoming a sort of wilder sister to Saffy; and Paul Hilton’s Myron would most definitely be somebody or other in 2 and a Half Men. Well, these are rough guides…and my knowledge of TV comedy characters is just about exhausted. So I have to say that Charlie…well…he is basically Zach Braff, who else? The writer watches on in amusement as he dabbles with the role of someone who may or may not be genuinely suicidal. There were definitely shades of Garden State here – but with less resonance.
Overall, All New People was enjoyable to watch and quite good fun – it just wasn’t as good as I’d hoped for. Even as a piece of television it was quite conventional and predictable when you consider what’s been achieved by a series like the always spellbinding Mad Men! Well, maybe Zach Braff was in Scrubs for too long? It’ll be interesting to see what his next play does, and if he gets a little bolder; more confident with the nature of theatre. I can only hope this review won’t get me any angry letters from Bill Lawrence! 😀