In Toys, Roland Barthes selects the most commonplace of objects and explains the serious implications of the toys children play with. His analytical skill is one of the best illustrations of social criticism.
Barthes immediately, in the opening sentence, announces his disapproval of French toys. He complains that the French people assume that the child is another ‘self’ who has to be provided with miniature versions of everyday objects.
Using a cluster of related metaphors, Barthes conveys his dislike of modern toys. He thinks that contemporary French toys are ‘a microcosm of the adult world’ and ‘reduced copies’ of human objects.
Barthes states his preference for toys that do not deprive the child of the opportunity to be creative. He thinks that even a simple set of blocks will encourage the child to create new shapes and structures. According to Barthes the problem is that,
French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constructed by the myths or techniques of modern adult life.
This sentence summarizes Barthes’s intellectual position. What he means is that toys are not as innocent as we might think they are; they are the products of the dominant belief systems in society. Toys have meanings and an investigation into their meaning will reveal how society and adults are providing children with objects that turn them into unquestioning and uncritical adults. Children are naturally creative and free of prejudices but modern French toys provide the child with readymade images of the world.
For instance, as Barthes points out, toy cars and petrol stations make the child believe that it is normal and natural to own cars; thus, blinding the child to the massive amounts of fuel consumption which individual ownership of cars entail, and fail to encourage the child to explore other, alternative modes of transport. Toy Martians reduce the mystery and complexity of science to unsubstantiated fears of aliens. Children who play with toy post- offices will not appreciate that the modern-day postal system has come into existence after centuries of evolution and take for granted the existence of such institutions in their lives. A child who is provided with soldiers or tanks to play with cannot realize that war is destructive and unnatural. French toys encourage the child to accept without any curiosity or pleasure the world she/ he is growing up in, accepting its faulty beliefs without question.
Barthes develops his argument further in this paragraph. He says that a child, who plays with toy soldiers or Vespa scooters, will gradually start believing that these objects have always existed, created by nature. Socially constructed meanings and institutions are passed off as natural. A toy soldier is going to send a subtle message to the child: that there is nothing wrong in countries going to war and people killing each other. The destructive and inhuman aspects of war are glossed over.
It is not so much the imitation of real-life objects that Barthes objects to but the absurd limits to which toy manufacturers go to, to imitate real life; sometimes even incorporating biological functions in the toys. He illustrates with the example of baby dolls which have an esophagus and urinate. Barthes point out that these dolls train the little girl to become an efficient mother. Little girls are provided with pre-determined roles to follow in life.
Most probably, girls will get kitchen sets, make-up kits or dolls as gifts. Not only do such toys lack in imagination, they are meant to condition children into viewing women in stereotyped roles. Barthes’s perspective here is feminist; he is critical of the role played by toys in moulding the gender attitudes of children.
Barthes’s approach as a social critic is fresh. The main point that he makes in this paragraph is that French toys do not nurture the creative spirit of children. From an early age, they become passive users. Notice how Barthes uses a series of oppositional words in the second half of this paragraph. They help to reinforce his argument that French toys are “based on imitation” and highlight the contrast between what French toys actually are and what they should ideally do:
owner – creator
user – demiurge
ready-made – invent, discover
property – life
Inert – move by themselves
It is necessary to pay attention to the language as it is instrumental in helping the author build up his argument. For instance, Barthes uses a frightening simile to compare French toys with the real world. They are ‘like a Jivaro head’; a dead, shrunken human head. The Jivaro tribes of South America would preserve their enemies’ heads till they were reduced to the size of a baseball.
In this paragraph Barthes shifts his focus from the form of the toys to the materials used to make them. Barthes expresses his dissatisfaction with plastic and metal as raw materials to manufacture toys. He again employs the strategy of placing oppositional pairs of words to emphasize the differences between these materials. Mechanical, mass-produced toys are compared to those handcrafted by artisans. He recalls wooden farmhouses that were made by craftspeople of the Vosges region.
- ’product of nature’
- ’natural warmth’ in its touch firm and soft
- muffled and sharp sound created by craftspeople
- lasts longer, wears out
- ’product of chemistry’ ’chemical coldness’ of its touch sharp angles
- vibrates, grates
- mechanical, mass-produced dies quickly, shatters
Plastic or metal are not appealing materials. They produce irritating sounds and do not establish a long-lasting relationship with the child. Wood is a material that is warm, soft, humane, and pleasing. The overriding tone of this section of the essay is sensuous; Barthes dwells on the sensations produced when one touches wood: ‘natural warmth’, ‘firmness’, and ‘softness’, and ‘the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.’ Wood keeps the child in close contact with the tree and nature. To express his disgust with mechanical toys, Barthes uses a rather unflattering image. When they break they ‘disappear behind the hernia of broken spring’. He uses a number of adjectives that we do not normally associate with inanimate objects; plastic is ‘graceless’ and wood is a ‘familiar and poetic’ substance. Can you make a list of other such words used in the essay?
In the end Barthes gets nostalgic about wooden toys made by craftspeople, before mass- produced, factory made toys made of plastic or metal took over. He describes the farmhouses, with intricate woodwork, handcrafted by the artisans of the Vosges region of France. Such toys are a pleasure to play with, unlike mechanical toys which the child can use but not feel any joy in their touch or even in their possession, as they break easily.
In his essay ‘Toys’, Barthes has criticized modern French toys for many reasons. The most important point that he makes is that these toys are copies of objects in the adult world. They do not encourage the child to be creative but mould him into a passive, unquestioning user. In the last paragraph Barthes dwells on the superiority of wood as a material to make toys, rather than plastic or metal. He also expresses his disapproval of mechanical, mass-produced toys.
Remember that more than the critique of French toys that is the subject of this essay; it is Barthes’s method of inquiry into his subject matter that is important. For Barthes, toys are social signs, full of meanings that are not obvious and as a social critic he scrutinizes them closely to decipher their role in perpetuating dominant ideologies. He gives an excellent example of dolls that perform biological functions. They condition the little girl to become a mother, instead of encouraging her to explore a career.
Modern toys do not allow children to be creative and condition them to grow up into unquestioning adults who accept social institutions, relationships, and their own position in it without thinking of the implications. The observations that Barthes makes about French toys are very much true of most toys even today.