War and a little peace for Christmas

Patricia Hluchy November 28 1983

War and a little peace for Christmas

Patricia Hluchy November 28 1983

War and a little peace for Christmas


Patricia Hluchy

On a busy Saturday in a downtown toyland, a group of cooing girls fondled chubby “Cabbage Patch” dolls, the lavishly successful $25 cloth toys that come complete with adoption papers. Across the aisle a crowd of noisy boys waged war with an equally popular but more sombre doll, GI Joe. This Christmas the gulf between boys’ and girls’ tastes seems to be widening as boys’ toys take a new militaristic look in the $800-million-a-year Canadian toy industry. In the front lines is Hasbro’s GI Joe, which re-entered the toy market last year after its manufacturer withdrew it in the mid-1970s because of low sales. In 1983, which is expected to be a bumper year for toy sales, GI Joe and the fanciful Masters of the Universe series from Mattel—which includes the brawny space-age barbarian He-Man —are making inroads under the Christmas tree. Those warrior toys, coupled with videogames carrying violent overtones and a renewed demand for toy guns, trouble many child specialists. Said Wilfred Innerd, dean of the faculty of education at Ontario’s University of Windsor and an expert on toys: “I think that they can encourage aggressive and violent behavior and

lead to the glamorization of hostile activity.”

It was not always that way. Children’s toys were subject to pacifist influences during and after the Vietnam War. Indeed, by the late 1970s most of the wars in toyland occurred in outer space, using Star Wars dolls or videogames. Some retailers were hesitant about bringing war back to Earth when

GI Joe, who first appeared as an IIV2inch doll in 1964 and cost $5 (U.S.), appeared again last year as a $4, 3% -inch toy complete with military hardware. Many buyers were convinced that rearmament in the toy industry would not spread north from the United States. Said Kenneth Harper, national toy buyer in Toronto for the T. Eaton Co., Ltd.: “We just did not think Canadians would respond to the military thing. But obviously we were wrong.”

The new militáry vogue has meant phenomenal success for GI Joe as well as for the Masters of the Universe. Harper said that He-Man and Ram Man are the top sellers for boys at Eaton’s. Other stores across the country say that they are also enjoying overwhelming sales for fighting dolls. Said George Haywood, toy merchandise manager in Vancouver for the 23-store Woodward’s chain: “The market is pretty well soldout right now.” George Schwieger, national sales and marketing manager in Montreal for Hasbro (Canada) Ltd., added that Canadian sales of GI Joe during the first half of 1983 exceeded the 1982 total. Schwieger would not give any actual dollar figures, but Anthony Parkinson, a toy consultant in New York City, predicted that North American sales this year will exceed $80 mil-

lion, compared to last year’s $45 million.

At the same time, GI Joe is the star of a Marvel comic book as well as a fivepart animated TV mini-series being aired throughout Canada this fall. To saturate the market further, Hasbro franchised the GI Joe name to manufacturers of everything from underwear to shoelaces. Sandie Hatch, president of Sandie Hatch and Associates, Inc. in Toronto, which leases copyrights and trademarks, said that the GI Joe name is unquestionably the most sought-after licence she has ever handled.

The renewed popularity of toy guns is another development in the military toy resurgence. Harper said that Eaton’s has noticed a definite increase in demand. And Peter Coughlin, national sales manager for Kidde Recreation Products in Cambridge, Ont., said that his company recently began distributing toy M-16 rifles and Uzi submachineguns because “military has been very popular.” But so far the toy gun revival in Canada has been nothing like that occurring in the United States. According to the 235-member Toy Manufacturers of America, retail sales of toy guns almost doubled between 1978 and 1982, shooting to $72 million from $36.5 million.

But manufacturers and retailers are reluctant to call GI Joe or Masters of the Universe fighting or military toys. They prefer to lump them into the category of boys’ “action” or “fantasy” items. But, in the case of GI Joe, there is no question that war and destruction are central to the fantasy. The line includes realisticlooking, miniature twin-barrel guns, a $20 combat jet carrying missiles, a rocket-bearing helicopter and three tanks: one of them, motorized, sells for $25. The GI Joe figures include a “strike force” or “rapid deployment team,” and many of the figures have their own weapons. There is even a female named Scarlett carrying a crossbow, but Schwieger said that she is selling poorly because the toys have little or no appeal for girls. Each figure comes with a file card that describes the character. A mercenary figure named Major Bludd is described as a part-time poet who penned the lines: “When you’re feeling low and woozy/Slap a fresh clip in your Uzi!/Assume the proper firing stance/And make the suckers jump and dance.”

Some critics of the products complain that other information on the toys’ packaging evokes the conflict between the West and the Soviet Bloc. Children are urged to help GI Joe “protect democracy” from the mythical enemy called “Cobra” who are “hatred and evil personified” and aim to “conquer the world for their own evil purposes.” Parkinson, who denies that GI Joe’s return to active

duty had anything to do with escalating international tensions, dismisses suggestions that Cobra was intended to suggest Communists or any other group. Said Parkinson: “We have chosen not to make the enemy black or white or green. He may be Russian; he may be the boy next door.”

At the same time, Hasbro officials said they are convinced that children can distinguish between real war and playing with GI Joe. “It is an adventure situation,” said Schwieger, who likens the GI Joe conflict to that in James Bond movies. “I do not think plastic toys or toys based on a military situation turn a child into a militaristic person,” he declared. “The antiwar generation of the Vietnam era grew up with military toys.” But at least some children connect the toys to real-life situations. Tristram Seymour, a 14-year-old from Toronto and a recent recruit to the Royal

Canadian Army Cadets, for one, said that he collects GI Joe figures because they are “realistic.” He says his friend uses them for battles in which the enemy is the Soviet Union and “everyone dies.”

Indeed, many child specialists are concerned about the appealing realism of GI Joe. Said Susan Penfold, acting director of psychiatry at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver: “I think that to a certain extent they do prime kids for aggressive behavior and military solutions.” Penfold added: “You could say we are priming kids to be cannon fodder for the next war.” Jennifer Hardacre, associate coordinator of early childhood education at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Child Study, said that GI Joe actually seems to have encouraged more playful

shooting and killing among the three-tofive-year-old boys and girls she works with. She added, “They are actually saying, ‘GI Joe, GI Joe’ as they are doing this.”

But other child specialists and parents say that there is no great cause for alarm. “Toys like these have been around a long time,” said Toronto accountant David De Souza, 49, while examining the GI Joe combat jet in Eaton’s with his eight-year-old son, Blaine. He added: “It is not the children who cause war. It is Trudeau and Reagan.” Steen Esbensen, a professor of early childhood education at the Université du Québec in Hull, said that he allows his seven-year-old son, Johan, to play with GI Joe because he believes that parents can counteract the messages in war toys, which children need to process and understand the world around them. Said Esbensen: “The toys

in and of themselves do not a war make.”

Despite the arms race in toyland, there are less aggressive trends. Retailers have already sold most of the

200.000 Cabbage Patch dolls shipped out in mid-November. Another top seller is the “Care Bears” series, a cuddly collection of $15 to $20 toys with such names as “Tender-Heart,” “Cheer” and “Friend.” Their manufacturer, Kenner Products Canada, expects to sell at least

200.000 by Christmas. Julie Creighton, vice-chairman of the Toy Testing Council of Canada, believes that such toys as the bears and Cabbage Patch dolls show that children themselves prefer toys that reflect nonviolent activity. Currently, it seems that the forces of peace and benevolence this Christmas have not totally surrendered.