Where to begin. Where to begin. Let's start with a truism. Dads who are running at less than 80% of their parental operating efficiency should not be allowed to take kids into Target alone. I did that today. About $160 and 90 minutes later, I escaped. I guess I got out cheaper and sooner than if I'd been arrested by corrupt Mexican police who had planted drugs on me, but the feeling was the same. Lisa is shooting a wedding tonight, so she needed the morning to run some errands and get ready. We hadn't made a lazy Saturday run to the donut shop in a while, so I thought I could pry the kids away from morning cartoons by heading there for breakfast (and coffee I direly needed). Once we were out, I figured we could run some errands. I went to Target to get basically three things: some shirts for my daughter, a new home phone and a toy for a birthday party my daughter was invited to attend later today. It was that last item that complicated the logistics.
Trying to figure out what to buy for somebody else's kid whom you've never met is a challenging task. On the one hand, you don't know the kid, so you have no idea what toys she likes or what toys she has. On the other hand, you don't know the kid, so you're not that concerned if she likes the gift. The odds are against you actually getting something desirable that doesn't end up being snuck out of the toy box and later donated to goodwill along with a bunch of happy meal toys in an opaque black plastic bag that the kids can't see through and that's hidden in the back of the station wagon under a blanket and some beach towels. (Ummmm…. Not that we've ever done that.) At these group class birthday parties, whether staged at Chuck E Cheese, a "bouncy" place, a water park, or any one of the other levels of hell from Dante's inferno, the kids are always giggling and vibrating around like a bunch of players on the metal playing field of an electric football game from the 1960s. They'll never remember what happened or where the gifts came from. Any sense of excitement or disappointment is sure to be washed away in the Jacuzzi bath of adrenaline and sugar that's boiling through their cerebellum and cooking their brain stem.
So anyway… somebody asked somebody what this girl liked and the reply was "Oh, I'm sure she'd like whatever (my daughter) likes." So we eventually ended up basking in the neon pink glow of the Barbie aisle. I'm ashamed to say that as parents of a 6 year old girl, we have now fully embraced Barbie. When she was younger (our daughter, not Barbie), we had these grand aspirations of being parents who didn't perpetuate stereotyped gender roles and didn't acquiesce to our culture's vile body image messages foisted upon young girls. Five or six years later, we now realize that in comparison to the plastic tramps, sluts and whores that populate a good portion of the shelf space in toy stores these days, a standard Barbie looks downright wholesome. Whether it's a Bratz doll, My Scene or the "bling, bling" version of Barbie created as a part of the whole nuclear proliferation of sluttiness that started when Bratz began to push Barbie out of her own dominant market share, the portrayal of the feminine form in these dolls is appalling. Fishnet stockings, leather, chains, ridiculous pouty lips, and layers upon layers of makeup on already exaggerated eyes. And that's just on the baby doll Bratz.
A few Christmas seasons ago, we had a laugh at my dad because he'd been in the mall and was highly offended by something he thought was labeled a "call girl" Barbie. We looked in an ad circular and realized what he had mistakenly identified was a "Cali Girl" Barbie. Little did we know his erroneous vision was prophetic of upcoming marketing trends. With the ethnically diverse and suggestively clad Bratz dolls, what comes instantly to mind is the staff of some kind of under-aged and full service Bordello. Or more likely, a pack of street walkers from the worst parts of town. Okay, maybe it's my mind that's in the gutter, but I'm pretty sure that's the image the dolls are intended to conjure up. I'm not attracted to this ridiculous hyperbole of femininity, I'm repulsed by it. Polly Pocket on the other hand does something for me. I fear I might have a fetish for latex clothing, but that's the subject of another post. Or not.
Where I was headed with all this was a consideration of how this creeping cultural shift infects us all. In ten years, will Bratz dolls look tame? Will we be buying "free health clinic" playsets and domestic abuse Barbies? Instead of fade away tans will the dolls come with fade away bruises? I don't believe this is a vast liberal conspiracy to corrupt all the children of America away from their family values. I think it's a fairly obvious corporate capitalist effort to herd consumers like cattle by appealing to their basest and sometimes most powerful urges. I think they've just decided to start programming them even earlier.
Which brings me back around to my weakness with the kids. We hit the toy aisle first. I still had to select a phone amongst the myriad options and get some standard school attire shirts for Olivia. I had been thinking this school uniform thing wasn't bad. Although it did require us to purchase some new clothes, there are actually a broad range of options you can get and Lisa hit the thrift stores early and had us well stocked. She even bought a lot of standard school attire clothing of various sizes when she saw it available cheap and donated it to schools to make available to low income families (she's so altruistic). So shifting to uniforms was no problem until the crayon incident. The first time we run a laundry load of standard school attire there happens to be a red crayon in amongst all the khaki. Oops. And not a nice new washable crayon, but an old nasty one. So now we're back at square one trying to get school uniforms after every store in town has been picked over.
I'm tired (my caffeine hasn't kicked in yet) and distracted and trying to get things done. So of course wheeling two young kids up and down toy aisles is a great way of staying on course. They're both clamoring for different toys and I'm wondering how I'm going to be able to sort through the features on phones with whiny kids unless I can find a distraction. They can smell fear and/or a crumbling resolve and keep pushing till I hear myself saying "Well, I guess maybe you guys can pick out something small." I was thinking $5 or less. It would have worked okay, maybe, except for what my 2 and a half year old son wanted to get. Olivia was easy to please. She wanted a relatively cheap Barbie and it seemed when we were buying something nicer for her friend that I could pick up something inexpensive for her. I know. I know. It was the friend's birthday and she has way too many toys as it is. My mistake. But when Ben also wanted Barbie, I found myself in a dilemma. Despite my best efforts, he had no interest in Ken dolls. He wanted the Barbie baby photographer (a rip off on Anne Geddes). There was a lovely Barbie and three babies with different obnoxiously cute outfits to dress them in for taking pictures. Also a camera, tri-pod and backdrops. I tried to interest him in balls, stuffed animals, something. Then I started bargaining with Olivia to see if she'd want to put back her single Barbie and go in with Ben on this larger purchase which they could share. No dice. She smelled blood in the water. I get Ben distracted with some cheap stuffed elephants which enables me to get the other purchases I needed. All the while though, I'm wondering if I'm hung up on this gender role thing.
It bothers me that he wants to play with Barbies. Then it bothers me that it bothers me. He has a very sweet nature. He loves babies. He's warm and generally kindhearted. He's empathetic and sensitive and affectionate. He likes to put on his sister's dress up clothes. He watches her play with this kind of stuff all the time, right, so it's natural for him to be interested in it. It doesn't mean anything about his gender identity, right? And what if it does? I'm a more progressive and intelligent dad and shouldn't be bothered by this. But I am.
I'm second-guessing myself and also wondering why on earth I'm buying stuffed animals when they already have a zoo full of them and I'm wondering why I don't just put my foot down and say "No. We're here to buy a present for the party, not to get you guys toys" but I'm facing the prospect of watching them both mostly all day and if I start off at 9:30 AM with meltdowns in Target somebody's will have reported me to the Department of Children's Services by the time bedtime finally arrives. We get to the check out line and I decide to call my wife to discuss if I'm out of line by not buying my son the Barbie doll he wants. She was a huge help. After stating she wouldn't have agree to buy them anything at all she doesn't offer any insight about the whole Barbie dilemma.
This whole thing is way out of proportion now. But I can't figure out if it's worse to let him play with girl's toys then to fail to accept him for who he is. The funny thing is, I wouldn't have hesitated a moment if my daughter had wanted something Spiderman or a hot wheels car or some other kind of "boy" toy. What does that say about this supposedly enlightened parent? After a few minutes of indecision I take us back to the toy aisle one more time and get him the Barbie. In the check out line, I'm waited on by a large middle aged black man. As he's scanning my purchases, Ben's saying "I want mine. I want miiiinnnneee." Trying to cover I say "Here Ben, you can hold this sack." Ben says "I want my Barbie." Well, there goes my cover.
After we get in the car and I've handed my two spoiled children their individual Barbie boxes, my daughter says "Uh-oh. This is made in China." As if that matters at this point. Lisa's been trying to avoid buying Chinese products for socio-economic reasons long before the recent safety recall scares. But you just try and find a molded plastic toy that isn't made in China. I tell her it's okay. I look over the other products once we're home. The telephone I picked had the features we wanted and I liked the fact that it had a label that said it was made using sustainable practices. Still, it's a product of China. Barbies are of course made in China. The knit shirts were made in Vietnam. Of all the things I bought (and I of course got more than I went in the store for), the only thing made in the U.S. was a box of tall kitchen garbage bags. I think that's what they call "Ironic" with a capital "I".
Whether it is true or simply an urban legend, I've heard a frog will sit in boiling water till it cooks so long as you raise the temperature slowly enough. Has our consumer culture reached the boiling point yet? The pressure keeps going up and up and I think about all the good little American consumption machines that never give their lifestyle a second thought. Frog leg stew baby. I think my problem is that I keep jumping in and out of the hot water. I know a lot of what I'm doing isn't the best for me, my family, or the global economy, but I still do it 'cause it's convenient. And then I've got guilt and angst. Donuts, shopping malls, cheaply manufactured products, impulse buys, compromises, vehicles that burn fossil fuels. Where does it end? I guess it ends up with my kids suffering from juvenile diabetes, asthma, confused gender roles, poor body image, credit card debt and an inability to find a decent paying job. Despite my best intentions.