Saturday, 20 January 2007

Stealth and Sensibility.

Today I spent and hour and a half in Toys R Us, making discrete observations and taking surreptitious pictures of product on the shelves with my camera phone. Here's a little about my experience, and impressions. My intent at this time was to remain open to the experience and to try to extract an admittedly casual account of what is being sold to Tween girls, and perhaps what they are desiring. In particular, I wanted to get an impression of the design and aesthetic conventions of products sold to pre-teen girls.


I have never entered a Toys R Us store before, so I was amazed firstly at the scale and the no-nonsense approach to retailing in the store - much like an Office Works or smaller Bunnings Warehouse, with large crates of discounted merchandise positioned in the entrance to the store.

It is easy at first glance to grasp the obviously well-calculated logic behind the store layout. Baby supplies, nursery furniture and educational materials are easily visible from the entrance, with the "fun" items - the toys -well concealed towards the back of the store, in the same way that milk, bread and other essential items are always kept at the furthest reaches of a supermarket, drawing the customer past aisles of extraneous and tempting items as they hone in on the vital item. At Toys R Us, however, there is an exchange of the essential for fun - the company anticipates that the child is going to lead the parent through the entire store to reach the toys at the back, which may lead the parent to make impulse purchases of "essentials" along the way, as well as to give the child plenty of opportunity to see, and in turn desire, a lot of additional items. Conspicuously, the store layout is built around the premise that children have significant power in this context to influence the purchases of their parents.

From the entrance, I turned right and began looking for the girl's toys. I walked through sections of board games, a computer game division (a store within the store), and boys toys, which present strongly from the shelf in (almost without exception) black, red and metallic packaging. It's interesting how well "trained" we all are, by these environments, I thought to myself - I knew immediately, without much investigating, that I'm looking at the toys intended for boys. As a girl I was highly trained while out shopping with my parents to seek out the "wall of pink" that Ellen Seiter refers to in "Sold Separately". The "wall of pink" is, of course, Barbie and all her accessories. Girls know immediately that they are on the wrong turf when they stumble into the meta-mechanical, industrial-looking boy's section of a toy store.

I continued through the store, past stuffed toys, to a section of plastic computers and electronic learning toys for toddlers, oddly paired with craft toys and books intended for the pre-teen girl. Every single craft item on display is intended for purchase by (or for) girls. This is indicated by the nature of the craft, the design of the packaging, and the depiction of girls at play on the front of most of the packages.The craft toys included: Sidewalk chalk for creating artwork and playing hopscotch, fabric paint for making apparel, several versions of "scoubidoo" a plaiting craft for making of key chains and friendship bands for the wrists, and kits to make stained glass windows, a painted tea set, a woven purse, a woven belt, a jewellery box, stuffed toys, and curiously, a woodwork kit which snaps together to construct a hot-pink, convertible jeep toy with a blonde haired, blue-eyed, bikini-clad surfer girl driver.

A couple of craft items caught my interest, particularly a comparatively large "Style Centre" craft kit for making cosmetics, stationery, and jewellery, and the absolutely huge range of bead kits on offer. Over 1/3 of the total space designated for craft items seemed devoted to bead kits. The boxes for these items are predominantly soft pink, or hot pink in colour. Motifs like stars, hearts, and butterflies abound. Many utilise curly, hyper-feminised typefaces which in some cases resemble the handwriting of a teen aged girl, and depict pairs of girls on the front of the package.

In the Tween years, girls begin to test their independence, and define themselves by beginning to distance themselves from their parents, and forming close bonds with peers. It's not surprising to see that so many of these craft kits are designed for girls to either make with a friend, or to make "friendship bands", lip gloss, or charms, which may be gifted or exchanged with other girls.

From crafts I headed to the section where Bratz dolls were merchandised. Bratz are advertised heavily in Tween publications like Total Girl, so I was interested to see what they're about. My first impression was awe at how much space in the store was devoted to them - two full, long, faces of an aisle, floor to ceiling crammed with dolls and accessories. I was also surprised to note that the girly, fluffy pink look of the craft section was really nowhere in sight - Bratz dolls are packaged in mature-looking deep purples, silver, and black. It's very distinctive, and en masse, looks unlike anything else in the store. I'm amazed really that they managed to bust out of the pink handcuffs (OK, that's a good expression for the inability to free oneself from pink when designing for girls).

The Bratz Girls - the Girls with a Passion for Fashion, apparently.

Also, Bratz dolls, in spite of looking like sex workers or exotic dancers in heavy makeup, strangely cartoonish facial features and a wardrobe more commonly seen on booty girls in hip hop videos, I have to say... Bratz are really freaking cool. I would have wanted these toys so badly when I was a kid. Basically, Barbie looks like a librarian compared to Bratz dolls, and Bratz now have all the stuff that Barbie used to have, but cooler. And I mean all of it - the remote-control convertible Mustang-like muscle car, the beauty salon and spa with real makeup, the fashion design studio, the hair extensions, the rock stadium set pieces and even (on the Bratz Diamondz dolls) real diamonds.

It's an interesting feeling to be repelled and drawn to something like Bratz dolls. It's all too much. I spent a long time in the aisle being alternately alarmed and thrilled. The dolls are themed into sorry caricatures like Rodeo Bratz, Kid Sisters, Pretty and Punk (oh, how I wept inside at that one!), Funky Fashion, Sleepover, Feelin' Pretty, Genie Magic, and Sweetheart. Two these which did have me doing a double take were the Class Bratz (wearing the most alarmingly provocative tartan miniskirt and a full face of drag queen-like make-up. What school was that now?) and Spring Break Bratz (an American COLLEGE rite of passage which usually involves travel to exotic beach locales for the excess consumption of alcohol and sexual abandon. Not at all kids stuff - and that is the prevailing general perception of Spring Break, not an aside.)

I could also see that having a child who is into Bratz dolls could quickly become a farewell to any cent of spare income you might ever have had. Priced at $49.99 for the basic doll, some of the more alluring merchandise such as the cars, and make-up bust were priced at $79.99. It's a range which begs to be collected, and like every aspect of Tween marketing, it seems to say "Buy the house, buy the car, buy the diamonds, buy... it doesn't matter... just keep buying...quickly, quickly... don't stop!"

To say Bratz is obviously a juggernaut is putting it modestly.

I picked up a "talking" Bratz doll, and spent an amusing few minutes pushing the button in its stand to have the doll say, in the most ohmygod of Valley Girl Angelino accents, "Remember you're the one who counts - Do what you feel!", "Have you ever had a bad hair day?", ""Don't be afraid to ask for what you want!", "It can be hard, but studying and working can be totally worth it!", and "Hey Girl! My name is Yasmine, but you can call me 'Pretty Princess' - all my friends do".


That this is supposed to be empowering is amusing at best, and ties in nicely with a text I'm currently reading "Female Chauvinist Pigs" by Ariel Levy, and one I can't seem to get my hands on called "Princess Bitchface Syndrome" by Michael Carr-Gregg, concerning issues of entitlement in pre-teen Gen Y-ers.

After gorging myself on Bratz inanity, I wandered off to look for Barbie. Where is Barbie? I walked to the back of the store, peering down each aisle, then back again. Yo, Barbie! Where are you, homegirl? I had to find a sales person. "Can you please show me where the Barbie dolls are?". When she took me to grim and scantly stocked 1/3 of one side of an aisle, I was perplexed. No "wall of pink"? Curious.

Despite being priced at $19.99 which is the price I remember them being when I was a kid (how does that work?) Barbie it seems, is not the force she used to be, and I would never have known it had I not come looking for her. Inside the familiar hot pink boxes, the dolls look rigid and archaic, and there's even a Barbie "Fashion Fever" line, which is a fairly blatant attempt to wriggle in on some of the economic fabulosity of Bratz. It was actually kind of sad. The inner kid said to me "But Bratz have all those cool accessories in the box, and there's that lip gloss manufacturing laundromat! Barbie, is like, totally lame!". Barbie is yesterday's hero, and Bratz is so "street" and now.

Barbie, and her freinds. Far too nicey nice for today's gal.

A man with his young daughter, who I learned was five years of age, wandered into the aisle. Hoping to ply some parental feedback out of him, I said "Doesn't look like Barbie is the thing girls want anymore...", and he said, "Ugh, no. My daughter loves these..." and he took me to another aisle to show me the range of Disney Fairies figurines. "They're all different, and have different skills each... or so she tells me. All I know is I spend a lot of money on them!"


I need to reflect on this further, but I gained some insight, and I'm certainly happy to see that from a design perspective it may be possible that little girls only like pink because it's all that's been on offer to them, and they begin to identify positive attributes of femininity from it. I can see there's room for alternatives, and that mountains can be moved. I mean Barbie as an also-ran? I would never have believed it.
Barbie now seems too innocent somehow now, which would explain the shift to young girls wanting Barbie, and older, Tween girls wanting Bratz. I think it very likely that Tween girls will eventually resist pink in products designed for them, because they will come to associate it with a childhood, a stage they're trying so desperately to put behind them. Bratz, in their warped way, seem to tap into the kick-arse proto-Feminism that pre-teen girls think they're engaging in. I didn't see a Bratz version of the Ken doll, so one presumes that the Bratz girls got all the stuff - the cars, the wild wardrobes and the Diamondz through their own chutzpah and scrappy determination. Friendship and sisterhood seems to be favoured in the Bratz world over the demure dating of Ken in Barbie's world. I'm sure Barbie had friends, I just don't really remember any of them.
I don't know if what I saw was an improvement, a shift... or what. The main thing is that there is definitely scope to wiggle into the hearts of Tween girls, even when it seems like they've got their time and attention all taken up with another plastic paramour. Should my work opperate inside the known aesthetic realm of Tween girls, or should I base it entirely on my own research, and see just what the kids care co-opt? I haven't decided yet, but these are useful steps.


michael.hill said...

Well that was an entertaining report-you write quite well in this mode-and I am pleased that you decided to make a site visit and inspection of the tween retail therapy outlet and merchandise. I am also pleased that you came face to face with the Bratz dolls at last. The "Bratz" thing is huge at present-and one thing I thought you could consider is a comparative study of the two-Bratz and Barbie. This might be a quick start way of getting inside the two.

Kell said...

I wish I'd seen the Bratz Mystery Boyfriend, because one thing I did notice in the Bratz world was a lack of boys - no Ken.

In this comparitive study, you would suggest an approach purely from an aesthetic and design standpoint?