Toying with Our Selves
- Dan Fleming (Author)
Powerplay: Toys as Popular Culture. Manchester University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Pat Kirkham (Editor)
The Gendered Object. Manchester University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jill MacLachlan
These two innovative books share a concern with the ideological effects of everyday objects. If one forgets the old adage "never judge a book by its cover" for a moment, a glance at the suitably campy and colourful covers of the texts (both of which prominently display what Teresa de Lauretis might call that "technology of gender" par excellence, Barbie) provides insight into the vastly different approaches, styles, and conclusions which each brings to its subject. The Gendered Object is a collection of essays that focus on the ways in which everything from perfume to bicycles to guns and Strawberry Shortcake dolls is marketed not only to sell the products themselves, but to produce and circulate (while claiming merely to reflect) problematic notions of masculinity and femininity. On the cover, a busty blonde plastic Barbie doll with excessively teased hair becomes an even more distorted and grotesque example of plastic femininity by the close range at which the photograph has been taken. A shirtless Ken doll appears to have sidled up next to her, and is eyeing Barbie (anxiously and yet, his painted-on arched eyebrow suggests, also with an air of erotic interest?) as she looks blankly ahead. The little tableau provides an apt opening example of the point that, despite their divergent theoretical approaches and objects of study, the contributors to The Gendered Object are making: consumers need to become aware not only of their own objectification, but of the ways in which stereotypical constructions of gender are sold (as inherent, as fixed, as natural) through manufactured goods. Gender, we are reminded in this collection, is as "non-essential" as the shoes, ties, and clothes which commodity culture tells us we need in order to "be" or "become" socially and sexually desirable men and women in the public eye. Resistance does not appear to be futile: for example, Nicholas Oddy shows in his essay "Bicycles" how political movements such as first-wave feminism altered the manufacturing and marketing of bikes during the late nineteenth century.
Virtually every essay in The Gendered Object is, like the book’s cover, critically focused. What the essays lack in terms of length, they make up in breadth. Kate Luck’s "Trousers: Feminism in Nineteenth-Century America," for example, provides a fascinating and accessibly written "snapshot" of the history of women wearing pants, starting with the Bloomer craze in America in the 1850s. All the essays include detailed footnotes and would make perfect jumping-off points for scholars and students from a range of disciplines, such as Design or Women’s Studies, who wish to conduct further research into the subject.
In Powerplay, toys are the objects of close examination. The jumble of toys on the cover reflects the author’s design: to demonstrate through a set of enjoyable "readings" of various toys such as G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that toys are in fact a culture. Toys are carefully marketed to operate in conjunction with movies, video games, and, less frequently, written texts. Fleming’s cross-disciplinary approach in Powerplay has undoubtedly made the book richer and more comprehensive; however, it may also be the reason I found both the style and structure of the book as muddled as a toybox and, at moments, as dizzying as a merry-go-round. This book compromises lucidity and cohesion in order to fill discursive gaps. The relationships between toys and childhood development or toys and gender acculturation are complex ones, but Fleming makes it more difficult for himself and, ultimately, the reader by oversimplifying his arguments or by constantly switching the register of his writing in order to make it accessible to readers who are also parents. For example, Chapter One opens with a rather awkward segue into the concept of "Identity": "Identity, though, is not easy to write about.... In an extreme essentialist vocabulary people are their identities, there is no wriggling around inside identities, no hopping in and out, no weird out-of-body experiences that allow people to step outside their identities and take a long, quizzical look at them. We’re stuck with them because there is no difference between us and them." By contrast, Powerplay is at its strongest when Fleming speaks about the history of toys, and the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the mass production of toys as central to two new "cul tures": the "cult of the child" as defined by the "culture of play."
The Gendered Object, despite its broad range of contributors, coalesces into a readable, accessible, but still eclectic whole. Powerplay offers a great deal of potential and a new way of looking at toys, but it is unable to absorb the discourses of psychology, economics, and history as effectively or as smoothly as does The Gendered Object under the deft editorship of Pat Kirkham.
- Handling the Past by Tamas Dobozy
Books reviewed: On the Case: Explorations in Social History by Franca Iacovetta and Wendy Mitchinson and The Suburb of Dissent: Cultural Politics in the United States and Canada During the 1930s by Caren Irr
- Toying with Our Selves by Jill MacLachlan
Books reviewed: The Gendered Object by Pat Kirkham and Powerplay: Toys as Popular Culture by Dan Fleming
- Preoccupied Spaces by Meredith Criglington
Books reviewed: Mapping Canadian Cultural Space: Essays on Canadian Literature by Danielle Schaub and Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space by Stacy Alaimo
- Culture Up and Away by Len Findlay
Books reviewed: Concepts of Culture: Art, Politics & Society by Adam Muller
- Satisfaction Guaranteed by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: Eating Their Words: Cannibalism and the Boundaries of Cultural Identity by Kristen Guest and Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression by Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco
MLA: MacLachlan, Jill. Toying with Our Selves. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 158 - 159)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.