For this post, I decided to examine the use of Fischer Price’s Little People toys by my sister and I. Little People were first produced in the 1960s and marketed to the toddler-aged children to fill a gap in toy market demographics. Originally called the “Play Family,” a name that indicates domestic-themed play and imaginings, the toys consisted of figures that filled certain roles such as mom, dad, boy, and girl; cars, including a fire engine; and backdrops and settings such as a school, a farm, a town street, and a mechanic’s garage. The ideology behind these toys is less obvious and explicit than other toys from the period due to the age of the target demographic. Toys for toddlers, with the exception of dolls, tend to be somewhat similar across genders, and the various available settings indicate that Little People were for both boys and girls. Still, as toys that originated in the 1960s, the ideology behind them was clearly that of a simple, American dream type life that never truly existed as well as a promotion of the traditional nuclear family.
When my sister Emma and I began playing with Little People, we were two years old, right in their target demographic. Our Little People were old, obtained from various garage sales, and were still in the original, choking-hazard shape and size, unlike their chunkier successors that began production in the 1990s. They also retained much of the traditional family cast, though by this time it had been expanded to include an entire town’s worth of characters, as well as more racial diversity. Our first games were much in the vein of the toy’s intended use. They were simple and domestic, with the characters riding in cars and going to visit other houses or buildings. Still, we ignored many of the designate roles of the toys, choosing instead to create our own characters that did not fit within the nuclear family mold.
As we got older, the nature of our games began to change. Our continued use of Little People challenged the toy’s intended design merely because of our ages (we played with them well into elementary school). We were years older than their intended demographic of toddlers and small children, and our games had grown with us. In first or second grade we began reading historical fiction such as the Dear America and Royal Diaries series’, and we quickly became enamored with the past. Our games with the Little People took on historical themes. After reading the Cleopatra royal diary book, I remember playing out an epic tale with the Little People involving Cleopatra, her scheming older sisters, younger brother, and her father that involved attempted poisonings and plots to steal the throne. Another game I remember was set during some sort of plague, possibly the Black Death, that killed all of the characters until only one remained to slowly die alone (we were morbid children). Our games required a greater knowledge of the world and encouraged a more vivid imagination than the toy’s intended settings. We found those settings interesting enough, but you couldn’t really do anything with them, so we created our own. Our idea of play did not match the maker’s idea of child-appropriate games, reflecting the sentiment expressed in Griffin’s article Kings of the Wild Backyard, that childhood is a “concept of innocence, which has often little relation to the material experience of actual children” (103). The toys and the backgrounds that came with them were a sanitized, idealistic version of some past American life. Like the Polly Crockett’s in Griffin’s article who rejected the role of wife and mother in favor of adventure (116), our games existed in a world much more vast and violent than the safe, domestic world of the Little People.
Our games were also heavily female focused. This may be because although the toys were vaguely gender neutral, their similarity to dolls meant that their audience was more female and thus the female figures were more distinctive, or it could have just been due to the selection of Little People that we had, which combined with our exposure to female dominated media and the fact that we were both girls to create girl-dominated stories. All of our stories revolved around two friends named Tasha and (creatively) Yellow Hair with the other girls and adult women playing supporting roles and the more visually boring men and boys in the periphery (although there were exceptions). We ignored male-dominated stories in favor of characters that reflected us, and because these characters were entirely our creation, and not from a movie or book, we did not have to look to male characters to find complex, interesting roles like the Polly Crocketts did. The original Play Family did not emphasize men over women, but it did represent a family that fit into the patriarchy and lived in a much more boring world. The simplistic forms of the toys allowed Emma and I to re-imagine them in ways that more complex and gendered toys like Barbies would not.
Tasha Yellow Hair