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TOYS FOR TOTS — On Saturday mornings, advertisers and programmers make sure that boys will be boys and girls will be girls By BARBARA LIPPER

There’s a lot of outrage right now about Beavis and Butt-head and the d

Obviously, the episode that reportedly resulted in the death of a child is a nightmare. But it’s simplistic to think the answer is to nicen up the Beav or Mr. Butt. Sad and unpretty as it is, B&B reflects something raw and true about our culture. It’s a show about watching TV. It also reflects the fact that TV is not written by a bunch of subversive jerks or morons, but rather, by big, smart kids who grew up in front of the TV and now do very well by writing it.
But being able to make knowing comments about the remote, detached, multi-layered experience of watching television – how a video image becomes more powerful than an actual image – is one thing. And being the parent of a 3-year-old is another. I have a little guy who loves to watch television. We try to limit his TV diet, but while clicking around it’s inevitable to catch something aggressively un-PBS-like, such as Charo-inspired, bodysuited women on Italian television who dance around and sing. (He loves that.) I also have some high-minded friends who say their preschoolers only see Sesame Street, say, once a month. (As a guilty parent, I hope that’s the equivalent of reading Playboy for the fiction.)
I know I could lock the cable box or get rid of TV altogether. But I haven’t figured out how to set those limits, since I think some shows, like Reading Rainbow and Eureeka’s Castle, are fun. What’s more, if TV is entirely verboten, it becomes a power struggle, which only increases the pull of TV. (Besides, given how I make my living, the act of getting rid of TV in my home seems a tad hypocritical.)
So it was Saturday morning and my son wanted to watch cartoons. I told him I’d watch with him and he could help me work (big mistake). Of course, teaching a 3-year-old to think critically about Captain Widget is a bit ridiculous. But the key, I hope, is to watch with them and keep talking about what kids see on TV – why it’s not necessarily right or smart or true or fair.
And I know that programmers have a million excuses, and so do toy makers and toy advertisers. After all, everybody’s just making a living, supporting their kids. I won’t even get into the content issues, or why there are so few cartoon shows for girls, aside from Little Mermaid. Because it’s upsetting enough just to focus on the commercials.
It’s hard to watch a morning of kids’ commercial television without zoning out. But if you don’t, the shock is in the extreme gender divides. Of course, there has always been some form of dolls for girls and some sort of guns for boys. But the surprise, in our enlightened, women-in-the-workforce, sensitive-Dad-era, is that kids’ advertising is more polarized than the Balkans. This is sex and violence, in some hard-to-believe time warp. The (mostly pink) spots for girls seem to deal exclusively with baby care and hair. The Sly-and-Arnie-style boys’ ads, not unexpectedly, are all about violence and power.
About the most active girls’ spot was for Paint ‘n’ Dazzle Barbie. (‘Design your own clothes!’) By applying enough stars and glitter, your Barbie can look like an aging country & western singer or Dolly Parton. I don’t see this as any great breakthrough. Still, Barbie is practically Bella Abzug compared to the rest of the baby care – and sometimes pet care – toys. Lest you think the pet toys encourage future veterinarians, forget it. The focus is on pet beauty (‘Crimp ‘n’ Curl Puppies! Wow! Let’s get styling now!’) or taking care of multiple babies. (‘Puppy or Pony Surprise: How many babies are there inside? There could be three or four or five!’)
This multiple-birth idea is all the rage. There’s a spot for the Fuss ‘n’ Giggles’ triplets, which makes those with Kathie Lee-like family values seem like Trotskyites. (‘How much better for me to be caring for three!’) Truly the scariest spot in the subverted, lobotomized obstetrical doll category is a commercial for a toy called ‘Mommy’s Having a Baby.’ It comes in two parts. In the first, while Mommy’s expecting (and Mommy, you see, looks just like Loni Anderson or Paint ‘n’ Dazzle Barbie), the owner gets her own little pink sonogram monitor and hose to hook up to Mommy’s belly. Then the announcer says ‘Mommy has a new baby to love! And a new dress!’ (I kid you not. That’s the actual importance they give the new dress.)
I’m going to leave gynecology and obstetrics for a moment to play beauty shop, with Li’l Miss Candystripes Doll. The focus has nothing to do with nurses, but rather, on making pink and purple stripes in the doll’s hair. After the hair and lipstick are taken care of, we’re told, ‘You can change her mini and her halter top, too!’ In her final outfit, the Li’l Miss appears ready for an appearance as an exotic dancer on The Montel Williams Show.
After these messages, we’ll be right back. Ready? ‘Battle Corps! Come in Cobra! I’ve got the first element for the ultimate weapon!’ This is for a G. I. Joe spot that also introduces the ‘Battering ram and missile launcher . . . So you can ram ’em, battle ’em, and slam ’em!’ A spot for Street Fighter II promotes the Crimson Cruiser, the Sonic Boom Tank, and the Beast Blaster, which fires ‘double trouble missiles.’ The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers morph into the ultimate battle system. Just a partial listing of the words in the Terminator 2 spot includes war, mission, defeat, destruct, terminate, harm and battle. Boy, was I grateful for a spot for Lickin’ Lizard, ‘the game where you try to catch the most bugs.’
Obviously, kids see these spots over and over, so that in the end, when the lines are drawn, the boys will be ready to kill, and the girls will be ready to dye their hair.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)