Barthes’ “Toys” Applied to Modern American Advertising

By: Annie Moloney

In his essay “Toys,” Roland Barthes describes how French toys are “essentially a microcosm of the adult world.” He says “they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man […]” In the essay he goes on to explain the way French toys almost exclusively reflect adult society and do not offer children the opportunity to invent the world in which they play, only to use a world already created for them. He attributes this idea to “the fact that the adult Frenchman sees the child as another self.” Because toy making is left to the adult members of society, Barthes is making the point that they are inherently infused with adult issues.

In many respects, this idea applies to the modern toy market we see in American society today. Many of the toys marketed for American children are based on the concepts of a smaller, more simplified adult world. They are geared toward the child pretending to me “like mommy” or “like daddy” while completing tasks that adults typically don’t do for enjoyment, or view with a considerable measure of responsibility. One such example is a line of baby dolls sold by Fisher Price called “Little Mommy.” In this advertisement for a particular doll known as “the Little Mommy Very Real Baby” a girl is shown caring for the dolls basic needs. The type of play the toy suggests is to simulate the world of a real mother, caring for a child’s wounds, feeding the baby, and putting her to sleep. The name alone is an obvious indication of what is being pushed here. It is the concept that the child’s idea of play should be pretending to have adult responsibilities, and the type of toy the market provides is celebrated as being “very real.” Watching the advertisement through this lens is almost surreal. The attempt to force the adult role of motherhood on a young girl in such an overt manner has the capability to be extremely off-putting if one takes a moment to ponder what is strange concept it is. However, it is a common practice, and most consumers are so inundated with products like this, that there seems nothing odd about it. What other reason would an adult think to create such a toy for a little girl if not for Barthes suggestion that it is in an effort to “condition her for the future roll as mother.”

The point about the meaning behind French toys that Barthes is getting at in his essay is very true of the American toy industry. The fact that the toys are created by adults reduces the child to the user of whatever is provided for them, and often what is provided is geared toward adult interest, rather than the child’s. The Little Mommy doll is just one example.

In addition to toys that simulate adult life, the American toy market is also replete with toys that are geared toward some type of fantasy world. While this might not be as obvious an attempt at recreating the adult world, it subtly reflects what Barthes suggests about adults seeing children as “another self.” The child is not responsible for creating the toy, the adult is, and what might seem appealing to an adult is the type of game that allows one to escape reality. These type of toys often come from movie franchise or books such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, that are actually geared toward an older audience, but have merchandise that is targeted at younger children.

Barthes’ assertion that, “French toys are usually based on imitation” and that, “they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators” is something that can be traced to the American toy market as well. The type of toys found on the shelves of Toys R Us and Walmart are the type geared toward creating consumers not creators. In today’s capitalist market, most messages from the media and advertising world prompt this sort of consumer behavior. From a young age, children are taught what type of toys they are supposed to play with, and those toys are supposed to prepare them to grow up and conform to certain societal standards. Most of the toys available today encourage conformity into adulthood, rather than embracing the creativity of childhood.


Scholar Lisa Brooks at UMF

Lisa Brooks
Lisa Brooks

Wednesday, April 16 

11:45 a.m.,Thomas Auditorium

Lisa Brooks, associate professor of English and American studies at Amherst College and former UMF Libra scholar, presented a lecture entitled, “Finding Namaskonti: Native American History in Farmington Falls.” 

It attracted a wide range of people, including those from the community. Perhaps the local emphasis is what attracted students, staff, and community members alike.

Brooks’ historical discussion on the oral tradition and the  “last Indian” was interesting. In addition, her inclusion of local artifacts, such as Hannah Susup’s Basket, located in the Farmington Library, Farmington, ME, made the lecture more personal. 

Lisa Brooks, thank you so much for coming back up to UMF!  The community is wholly more enlightened since your lecture.

Encounters: UMF Libra Scholar Annette Kolodny

April 10, 2014

Q&A with English (and other Humanities) majors:

In an intimate setting, Annette Kolodny had a discussion with students and faculty about the opportunities available to English majors. Kolodny believes that lacking complexity is what holds people back. English majors, on the other hand, are capable of the higher order thinking necessary to succeed. She beautifully described the English major as an opening of new doors in communications, and within each is a different reality that facilitates higher thinking. She said that having an aptitude for empathy and analysis renders the English major versatile. 

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Libra Scholar Annette Kolodny

“Papal Bulls, Wishful Wonder, and the Many Fictions of the Doctrine of Discovery”:

Later the same day, students and faculty reconvened for Kolodny’s lecture “Papal Bulls, Wishful Wonder, and the Many Fictions of the Doctrine of Discovery.” 

“This lecture examines the language of the original papal bulls that set out the legal parameters for what became known as the ‘doctrine of discovery.’ I argue that the bulls effectively constructed the language and tropes by which early explorers claimed to have ‘discovered’ lands previously unknown (and unclaimed by) any Christian. In keeping with the linguistic constructions demanded by the language of the bulls, early explorers claimed firstness by asserting that they had been greeted with wonder and awe by the Native peoples. But in fact, a number of Eastern Algonquian stories of first contact with Europeans wholly undercut these descriptions of “wonder” and thoroughly undermine European assertions of first contact and so-called discovery. My remarks will concentrate on texts from the Penobscot Nation in Maine, including Joseph Nicolar’s Life and Traditions of the Red Man and a story that had previously remained only in oral tradition but was told to me by former Penobscot Nation chief James Sappier.” 

This riveting lecture covered a time span from A.D. 1000, Leif Eiriksson’s exploration of Vinland, to 1534, when European fisheries established from southeastern Labrador to Nova Scotia and Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

Afterwards, students and faculty joined the conversation. Kolodny, an articulate and entertaining speaker, graciously answered each and every question. She ended her presentation by bringing her visitation full-circle; she said, “This is where an English degree can take you.”

As always we want to take the time to say how much we appreciate our guests: Annette Kolodny, thank you so much for your eye-opening presentations!

Miss the event? Download a copy of the handout below:

 Page 1: Kolodny Handout pg1

Page 2: Kolodny Handout pg2

Page 3: Kolodny Handout pg3