September 13, 2010

Toy Stories at Wentworth

Traditional stereotypes are often reinforced through toys.

Children of the 1990s probably remember the Skip It. A small plastic ball attached to the ankle, the toy around was spun around a leg, forcing a skip with the opposite leg, a ticker counting each revolution.  The ticker would count each revolution while your brother pelted you with a Nerf football. What used to be a source of entertainment, however, has now become a subject of academia.

The students of the summer course Toys are U.S.: America at Play displayed innovation and creativity at the Casella Gallery in August. Taught by Assistant Professor Ron Bernier, Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Management, final projects ranged from the design and production of new toys to comprehensive histories of toy trends.

“Working together in small groups, students were asked to research, design, and present a project of their own choosing, drawing on the theories and ideas suggested by the course,” says Bernier. “The results were impressive.”

One project exposed the drastic dichotomy between boys’ and girls’ toys and the subliminal messaging that exists throughout advertising. The juxtaposition was displayed across a whole wall: swords and guns for boys, EZ Bake Ovens and Barbie dolls for girls. The advertisement analysis showed that traditional gender stereotypes are often reinforced through toys; violence-inspired and masculine activities for boys, care-giving and cooking practice for girls. 

Other projects incorporated an aspect of creation. Between “Reinventing the Tonka Truck” and the “Skip It” iPhone App, some students designed generational upgrades for toys that have lost their former glory. One group of students built a Lego-inspired product called “Constructems,” complete with a working prototype, advertisements, and a commercial.

The comprehensive research into the dark side of the classic American toy served to not only facilitate a trip down memory lane, but to redefine the meaning of the word “play.”

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