What makes a “good” toy?

This was not even one of the blurby posts I had in mind. So I might be doing a lot of these things. This should be the last one on toys for awhile, though. The others in mind are on steps to improve my work on this site and some weird realizations about language.

I was expressing my excitement about a new toy earlier today and a friend was confused because I had criticized the same line awhile back. So I’ve been thinking about the changes I see in toys today (especially girl toys), what bothers me about some particular toys and trends, and what makes me like something. I’m not an expert here, I don’t know if kids care about these things at all. But I think as an adult looking at it and thinking about the messages it sends and the things it says about what toy companies expect from our kids, it’s important.

So, what makes a “good” doll from my perspective? Why am I so wild about Monster High and loving Barbie’s new designs but was unimpressed by Barbie and hate the original Equestria Girls? Well, Monster High is about characters. When you look at most Barbies, even if you include all her friends, their clothes are pretty much just the same designs with very minor alterations. There’s no sense of style or personality. Monster High characters each have their own style and their personalities are referenced in the clothing. You can share clothes between characters, but it doesn’t quite look right because you can always tell by looking at an item of clothing who it was made for. It’s not just a piece of fabric, it’s a small representation of that character. Every piece goes into creating this mental image of who that character is.

Now if you look at a lot of what people think of as “boy toys,” you see something similar. A lot more simplified, since I’m thinking now of action figures and typically not changeable clothes or anything like that. But they are clearly designed to look like someone, they’re a representation of a character rather than a blank slate. You don’t expect someone to get a Captain America action figure and then call him Mr Star and then make up a story to play with him that has nothing to do with superheroes. The story and character are communicated in the design.

The original Equestria Girls line was particularly bad for me because they’re supposed to represent specific characters! It’s not like Barbie where she’s made to be a blank slate and represent that you can do anything, these are characters from a popular TV series with very specific archetypal personalities. And when you look at the dolls, that just doesn’t come out at all. This was a problem even for the earlier Friendship is Magic toys, where it seems like they tried to make the pony toys more like the old 80s lines with their brushable hair. So much of each pony’s personality comes out in their hair and facial expressions, when you reduce them to simple designs with hair meant for brushing and therefore not sculpted in any way, you lose that. Rainbow Dash with hoof-length hair. Ugh.

Equestria Girls seemed to be an attempt to better compete with fashion dolls by making the ponies human and therefore give them clothes. The cartoon is pretty cute. I don’t love Fluttershy’s design, but at least every character still has a distinct personality that is communicated in part by their appearance. The dolls do not match that at all. The faces look different, they have alien-like heads and weird clothes (they seem to like wearing plastic shirts with fabric skirts, I don’t know why), and they all have that same plain brushable hair. No personality in it, it becomes just about the clothes and the clothes aren’t even cute.

I don’t like that toy companies will take a girl-oriented series with strong characters and then put out toys for it that are basically just mannequins with similar coloring to those characters. These don’t seem to be intended as representations of the characters in the same way that action figures are, nothing about them brings that character to mind. So it seems to say that they don’t expect girls to play out the stories of these characters, they expect that girls are using toys mainly to play dress-up. They think that girls are watching Brave or The Princess and the Frog or Cinderella and seeing pretty dresses rather than strong role models who overcome difficult situations.

A walk through the toy aisles today showed something very different. Some fantastic dolls and playsets aimed at drawing girls towards science. Disney Princess dolls with more expressive faces and less sparkly clothes. And some new Equestria Girls “minis” that I can only describe as action figures. Multiple joints for posing limbs, sculpted hair that actually looks like it does in the show, actual real facial expressions, different clothing designs that look like something the characters would really wear. Although they do allow for some dress-up and style changing (the skirts are removable and since they’re all the same size you can switch them up), these are clearly made with the characters in mind. These aren’t for playing dress-up, these are characters meant to play out stories.

Disney should learn from this. They have a new-ish doll line called Star Darlings with short episodes online much like Monster High, Ever After High, and DC Super Hero Girls. This show is by far my favorite of all these. It’s engaging, a bit more complex than the others, and features a wider variety of personality types. Plus, the characters look cool and I had high hopes for the dolls. But the dolls are out now, and they don’t look anything like the characters in the cartoon. I really don’t know what they were thinking with these designs, it doesn’t seem like they had any knowledge of the characters when creating them other than vague color schemes.

What about newer, better dolls that don’t come with characters? Barbie’s new designs are specifically for the Fashionista line. I mentioned already that Barbie is meant to be a blank slate. As far as I know, although Barbie does have movies and therefore characters, the Fashionista line is separate. These aren’t characters, they’re blank models. I’m not sure they even have names – can’t find any on the website. But now we have more of those models. More ideas of what someone might look like and who a kid might build a world around. More options for whose stories get to be centered. As a kid I could build a world around a Barbie doll and sort of find a place for myself in it, but it was peripheral. I didn’t look like Barbie, and it was Barbie’s world. Everyone else was a side character. That doesn’t have to be the case anymore. Heck, get every Fashionista except Barbie, it doesn’t matter for the story because there isn’t one except what you provide. That’s pretty cool. The huge differences between each doll in this line (as opposed to just differently colored hair or slightly different faces) mean that the focus is on the person wearing the clothes, not what they wear. They’re not just mannequins anymore.

This is not a short post. 😀 I think what I meant by “short” is that I can write them quickly. I’m not doing a ton of editing, just spilling out all my thoughts. This would have taken about 2 hours if it was a more planned post, instead it’s been about 20-30 minutes. But it should probably end here. Back with less toy-oriented thoughts later this week.

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