- Cultured Toys
From Barbie to cyborg, ancient Greece to visions of the future, novels to comic strips, Piaget to Lacan, Lois Rostow Kuznets explores not only the depiction of animated toys in literature, but also the representation and function of toys as cultural artifacts in When Toys Come Alive.
Kuznets traces the myriad and complex ways toys and toy-like objects have functioned as cultural markers—how their uses have ranged from fetish and sacred object to a way of socializing children. In her discussion of the economics of toys, for example, Kuznets explores how toys have served as a means of commercialization as well as aesthetics. As emblems of conspicuous consumption, expensive toys have become markers of financial success for the adult collector and the privileged child. In such critiques as this, Kuznets often frames her discussion as an exploration of tensions—how toys have served as a means of ritual play and as tools of advertisers; how collecting dolls both signals a struggle between adults and children for the meaning and possession of toys and how it cites, for adults, a reaction against the development of technology (19). A central point in Kuznets’ argument is that toys cannot be isolated in a single category, that they “blur . . . the line” (15) between generations and functions.
Kuznets makes no claim to provide an exhaustive study of toys in literature, and she notes that “choices of both topics and texts owe much to my own tastes and fancies” (3). Yet her foci are both wide-ranging and incisive. Her study includes both children’s and adults’ books, ranging from A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Her close reading of texts is complemented by a range of critical interpretations, including feminist and psychoanalytic. Further, the scope and sophistication of her reading of literary texts is informed by multidisciplinary [End Page 148] analyses; as Kuznets herself states in the Preface, “[m]y scholarly and imaginative reading led me into not only fiction but history, psychology, anthropology, literary theory, and finally computer science’s struggle with artificial intelligence” (xi). In short, Kuznets presents a many-layered exploration of literature and culture, examining the varied notions of toys as well as the intersections of literature and toy as material culture.
Indeed, the connections between toys and literature have been longstanding. As Kuznets recounts from her research, John Newbery often used toys as a way to market children’s books, toy books have functioned as a hybrid of the two in play, and actual toys have inspired the illustrations of such books as the golliwog stories and the Raggedy Ann and Andy series. Kuznets moves between a cultural and literary analysis in each chapter, anchoring the literary texts within a cultural context. In the chapter, “Magic Settings, Transitional Space,” for example, she provides a fascinating study of how dollhouses set up hierarchies of class and race. Her examination of cultural artifacts even extends to museum exhibits, as she points out that “[n]o matter how much museum literature might like to emphasize the educational ‘facts’ about dollhouses, it often slips into anthropomorphism.” She finds evidence of this at a London museum where exhibit descriptions note how dolls have “settled comfortably” and are “living in the house” (120). Her reading of dollhouses then informs an analysis of Beatrix Potter’s use of the dollhouse in The Tale of Two Bad Mice. Later in the chapter, the function of dollhouses as transitional space is counterpointed with a reading of the dolls and dollhouses in such books as Sylvia Cassedy’s Lucie Babbidge’s House and E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle.
Kuznets’ discussion of play theories draws from Piaget, Winnicott, and Sutton-Smith, and she thus balances a study of developmental stages and psychoanalytic theories with cultural anthropology as a way to inform a close reading of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne (whom she mistakenly refers to as Alan Arthur, rather than Alan Alexander) and Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Kuznets describes how...