In this essay, I attempt to comment on why exactly the Calico Critters cake decorating set featuring Melinda the Poodle is incredibly small- small enough to hamper playtime through lost pieces and potentially even be a risk for children just over the age limit printed on the box, 3+. I propose that the reason why this set is tiny is to encourage young girls, to whom this toy is marketed to and potentially forced upon, to play in a discreet manner that takes up less space. I point to quotes in Bem's “The Lenses of Gender” in order to show that women being forced to take up less space is already trend that has been noticed by scholars as early as 1993 and to expand on how exactly this happens through the use of a toy. Toys are something that Bem only mentions in passing to demonstrate her theory of gender polarization or the strict guidelines between what the sexes can wear, enjoy, and do. Whether knowingly or not the Calico Critters company has created a toy that enforces that same gender polarization and reinforces that fact that females should take up less space than their male counterparts. I also introduce a new way to evaluate toys such as the calico critter set as well as other objects termed “size-ability” which refers to aspects of a toy related to its size, abilities, range of uses, and space needed to use.
I really struggled with keeping my evidence within my toy and linking all of my thoughts directly back to my thesis, but I feel like I have put my best foot forward in the making of this essay. Enjoy!
Discouraging and Dangerous… Cake Decorating?
On first glance, the Calico Critters cake decorating toy set including Melinda the Poodle appears to be a small, cute toy marketed mainly at girls that aims to build their creativity , boasting about the inclusion of over ten pieces; however, on a closer inspection, one realizes that it's small size is actually a hindrance to the idea. This leaves one asking why a company would knowingly produce such a small toy with even smaller pieces when they create such a huge flaw in the design. The only advantage that seems to shine through other than the appearance of the set is that it takes up a minimal amount of space and its characteristics encourage a similar style of minimalistic play as well. This phenomenon seems harmless in gender neutral toys, but the fact that this toy is directly marketed towards young girls and those buying toys for young girls makes it sound eerily similar than a theory touched upon by Bem in her text, “The Lenses of Gender,” in which she explains that the “androcentric lens” encourages women to to take up less space than their male peers (143). She proposes this is accomplished via “metamessages” or the subtle social conditioning of girls from a young age (139). Although Bem touches on this point, she does not expand on this in great detail or lend this idea to women's objects or, some of their very first objects, toys. It is clearly apparent that this toy's smaller size along with other key aspects such as its style of play sends a “meta message” to young girls that they should take up as little space as possible while playing with said toy. Many gender theorists such as Bem talk about how toys experience “gender polarization” based on attributes such as color and concept which code them as female or male and therefore restrict children into one of the two categories, but less attention has been paid to other restricting features of toys. A toy's size, style of play, and certain abilities are not only new ways to categorize toys into these predetermined categories, but also can restrict the toy further outside of this concept. I propose the idea of ‘Size-ability' is relevant to this discussion by using it to dissect the the Calico Critters cake decorating set to show the effectiveness of the set of traits that fall under this term when it comes to evaluating gender polarization and restrictions in toys.
In order to understand how the Calico Critters toy set markets to girls, one must first understand what marketing something to girls entails. There has been a long withstanding history of the gendering of children's toys that despite changes throughout recent years, is still present in many aspects. This gendering splits toys into “boys” or “girls” marketing strategies based on arbitrary features with the exception of some non-gendered baby toys, though some of the latter category are becoming increasingly gendered as well. Toys marketed towards boys feature traditionally masculine colors such as blue, red, black, and/or green. These toys also feature topics related to fighting, war, building, superheros, sports, robotics, aliens, and dinosaurs or typically violent or masculine ideas and themes. The opposite is true of toys marketed towards girls which happens to include traditionally feminine colors such as pink, purple, gold, and/or teal. They also feature typically feminine or passive ideas and themes such as cute animals, cooking, cleaning, child care, dresses, dress up, fairies, unicorns, glitter, ballet, art, and makeup. These two gendered types of marketing of course do not have to dictate what toy a child picks out in the store, but it places pressure on parents to confine their children to what seems to be the appropriate toy in any instance from simply buying Christmas presents that fit these roles to punishing children for playing with a toy in the opposite category.
This outdated concept of gendered marketing for toys is present in the Calico Critters cake decorating set featuring Melinda the Poodle despite not displaying all of the features mentioned above. The toy consists of a small poseable poodle doll wearing an old-fashioned, pink dress with a bow at the front. One large piece of cake, a smaller cut piece of cake, two doilies to serve as plates, a cake server, a cake knife, a cake pan, a happy birthday topper, three strawberry toppers, and a chocolate monogram topper. The toppers feature tiny pegs on the bottom allowing a child to fit them into corresponding holes to design the cake as they see fit. Although no extra dress comes with the set, the potential for dressing Melinda the Poodle in another outfit is possible due to the velcro flap on the back of her dress. Melinda the Poodle seems to have as much of a smile as a dog can as she is depicted on the front of the pink coated box cutting a piece of strawberry topped chocolate cake. The dress, the bow, the color pink, cooking, a cute poodle, and the option of potential dressup all make for a toy that is designed to be marketed towards girls.
Many gender theorists have explained how gendered toys such as this one can force young girls into being a typically gendered woman (Bem 139), but there is one factor in this toy that has not had such an evaluation before now- it's size. Size plays a huge part in any toy from its price, to it's cuteness, or even to it's playability. The entire Calico Critters playset can easily fit in the hands of a toddler and is incredibly tiny despite being upwards of 14 bucks. This smallness may seem like a way to add a level of cuteness to the toy when in fact, during play one may find the small pieces much easier to lose track of due to their small size. When it comes to a playset created around a designable cake, these pieces such as the strawberry toppings are crucial to the playability of the toy. Losing one piece erases any possibility for new creations since there are only five toppers and four peg holes in the cake. Losing more than one of these extremely small toppers ruins the fun of the entire set since the creativity aspect has all but vanished from the toy at that point. Plus, some of the toppers such as the chocolate and happy birthday toppers are the only ones of their kind in the entire set which means that losing one could end up with a parent trying to console an unhappy child about losing what could be one of their favorite pieces in the set with no backup piece. The doilies that serve as plates for the cake and cake slice are also extremely easy to lose. One might find that they blow away from the play area if they are not anchored down due to their paper-like quality. Even the biggest piece of the set, Melinda the Toy Poodle, is only about as big as a saltshaker and could easily get lost in the car or in couch cushions. The small size is actually detrimental to the toy's worth. Small toys such as this one could also be a dangerous choking hazard or potentially get lodged in a child's nose, especially when the toy is marketed toward kids as young as three and up. To put this a little bit into perspective, the topper pieces are as small as or smaller than the back end of a crayon and half as tall. Giving something this tiny to children under the age of five is pretty unthinkable. The only question then is why someone would create a toy of this size with all of these cons stacked against it.
The reason for this lies in what Bem describes in her text as “meta messaging” which is a way for society to reinforce gender roles as well as hurtful stereotypes through small subtle instances of conditioning such as positive and negative feedback (139). One such stereotype that is spread in this way according to Bem is the fact that “females are predisposed to position their body in ways that take up minimal space,” and she insists that even the small amount of space they do take up “might be seen as rightfully belonging to males and males alone,” (162). Bem also describes that this conditioning reinforces “gender polarization” which is the separation of women and men into separate and unequal categories when it comes to everything from toys to clothes (159). The metamessages can be as large as the actual physical punishments for women who try to become equal with their counterparts or a young child watching her mother tidy up around the house and mimicking the behaviors. Usually metamessaging takes on the latter less noticed form which is why some of the most sinister messages may go unrecognized by many.
The size of of this toy and its subsequent pieces is one of these sinister messages since, as mentioned above, it is incredibly tiny despite numerous disadvantages. The one advantage it seems to provide is the message that girls should take up as little space as possible since it is marketed mostly to girls and their parents. This is accomplished mostly unseen, but seems obvious when one is looking for it. The toy is so incredibly small in order to take up as minimal a space as possible, therefore allowing the child playing with it to take up less space as well and even potentially denying them space. Since the toys components are tiny, playing with the toy over a large area, for example, the living room floor, does not make the most sense. One would end up with 1 piece per square foot if they decided to do this. If one instead decides to play with the toy in the way it was designed to be played with, having Melinda bake a cake, then all of the pieces need to be close together to accomplish this- not spread out. The toy also does not favor cross-room play where the child is allowed to take the toy into various rooms and act out different scenarios unless only Melinda is being taken since the pieces could easily be lost in the process. Also since Melinda cannot actually grasp anything, in order to pretend she is making the cake one would be forced to draw in their arms closer to their chest and either bring the toy up to their face or crouch in on themselves. The act of crouching also diminishes the space that a young girl takes up while playing with this toy. The toy was designed specifically to be played with quietly in the corner of the room. If it were not intended to be like this, then it would boast larger pieces that could be easily spread out or transported. Although young girls playing quietly in a corner alone may seem like a relief to parents, it reinforces the idea that women and young girls should keep themselves out of others' way and take up a minimal amount of space.
Overall, this toy's size, abilities, range of uses, and space needed to use all provided useful information on the toy and how it helps foster the idea that young girls and by that extent women need to take up less space. These traits are all easily looked over, especially when it comes to arguments about gender, and possibly even race. They all fall under or directly relate to the term ‘size-ability' with size and abilities being directly referenced, space needed to use being the size necessary for an ability and range of uses typically being uses or abilities regardless of size. In this essay, size was used in order to assess the danger and ease of loss of the Calico Critter toy set, but it could just as easily prove that something is too large to be correctly deployed or to carry. Abilities was briefly touched on when the paper discussed how the cake in the set was meant to be decorated, but this aspect could just as easily prove that a pocket knife can do any job since it has many abilities. Range of uses was discussed in terms of how the toy did not favor cross-room play and preferred the designated function instead. This could also demonstrate how a tablespoon in cooking favors small quantities but can be used to measure out a cup of liquid in a more time consuming way. Space needed to use was relevant while talking about playing with the toy across the floor of a living room versus in a secluded space such as a corner, but this term could also be useful in talking about how sports equipment has to have a large area in order to be safely and properly used. This term and the uses of all of its pieces are endless. It could be used to evaluate other toys marketed to girls in exactly this way, examine objects associated with women such as cleaning and cooking utensils and their size, or potentially be used to discuss differences between toys targeted towards seperate races and whether or not the split demonstrates discrimination.
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