Bangladeshi children traditionally engaged in free play with toys, many of which are self-invented. Brick particles or shoes were being used either to mark opposing teams’ boundaries, or as valuables-to-be-stolen in the games of Mangsho Chor, Fultokka and Bouchi. Playing Chor-dakat-poolish involved choosing random paper notes which assigned participants’ roles in the games as thieves, robbers, and cops.
Children’s play as such, not only contributes to their social learning but enables them to actively participate in social life. Historian Huizinga suggested that culture is created in the form of play because playing rituals helps societies to shape their worldview and interpret lives. Of all the cultural objects given to children, toys are the most significant because they provide a flexible and engaging tool of socialisation.
Among urbanised Bangladeshi children, free play has become rare due to space constraint and isolated neighborhoods. From the late 21st century, media and toys started being used as convenience goods to keep children entertained. With women’s increasing participation in the workforce, parents became busy and found a caretaker in television.
Many sociologists argue that this rapid rise of media technologies used in homes, is causing the disappearance of childhood by exposing children to the adult world. The debate over the ‘death of childhood’ (Buckingham, 2000) forms the basis of controversies on children’s exposure to and use of media, whereby popular toys are seen as “dumb and sexist, or depraved and violent”, and therefore harmful for children.
The concern that marketeers can exploit children’s vulnerability is often justified by sexualisation and gender roles attached to certain toys. While female toy characters such as Barbie are marked by exaggerated aesthetic codes such as pastel colours (pink), frills, endless quantities of hair and high pitched voice, male characters appear as superheroes with excess muscles and deep voice (Seiter, 1998).
A different argument is, children’s access to media can influence children’s culture in an empowering way by enhancing the extent of children’s participation in economy. Media opened up the availability and choice of goods for children who started demonstrating a say in purchasing decisions of the family and their own needs. For example, Barbie is represented in the media as a lifestyle brand. Hence it is not only a toy/cultural object, but also a consumer product.
A survey carried out to examine the role of Barbie doll in the lives of sixth-grade girls (Kuther & McDonald, 2004) showed that, while all twenty participants played imaginatively with the dolls, most children found Barbie’s body unrealistic. One participant, for instance, suggested that “they (designers) should make a fat Barbie”. The survey particpants’ imaginative play with Barbie included acting out scripts of fashion shows, family life, proms and dating.
Common gender stereotype associated with woman are, they are sympathetic, emotional, quiet, neat, artsy and housewives (Bengu, 2005). By dressing up Barbie and playing with it, these participants had explored their normative gender roles. However,some young girls also engaged in torture play with Barbie by damaging it and removing its appendages. They admitted that they did not treat other dolls as such, but only Barbie because she is seen as perfect!
Despite the argument that marketeers are evil brainwashers of innocent and naive children, the hostility shown towards Barbie demonstrates that children appropriate their play in ways that are not always in line with the expected norms set by adults. While brands such as the Barbie associates the young ones with consumer culture, media and play objects provide the basis of small talk and play for children. Most of them find commonality over knowing the same ads, toys, movies and TV shows.
Therefore children’s desire for toys is one for a shared culture with their schoolmates and friends, and a strong imagination of community. They use toys in both imaginative and practical ways, and often are intelligent and creative enough in their appropriation of consumer goods and media. No matter how vulnerable they seem, children have certain limited agency to resist being manipulated by marketeers and consumer culture.
This article is written based on my essay titled, Brand Child: Children’s Agency in Negotiating Culture.