Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

Category Archives: Ludic Geographies

More tasty miniature worlds

Another random stumble following on from Tastemade’s Tiny Kitchen series. This time it’s the work of Matteo Stucchi, a pastry chef from Monza, Italy, who builds playful tasty-looking worlds using desserts and little figurines. Tiramisu becomes a construction site, cake pops turn into a Ferris wheel…

 

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The Dystopia of Thomas the Tank Engine continued

Readers may remember an earlier post referring to Oli Mould’s dystopian reading of Thomas the Tank Engine. It seems Oli is not alone. A recent article in the New Yorker discusses ‘the repressive, authoritarian soul’ of the children’s TV series. In her article, Jia Tolentino, describes a particular episode, The Sad Story of Henry, in which the green steam engine is punished for not wanting to come out of his tunnel in the rain. The punishment? Henry’s rails are taken away and a brick prison is built around him.

 

The punishment for disrupting the day’s workflow is ordered by the Fat Controller, a character likened to Monopoly‘s Rich Uncle Pennybags (aka Mr Moneybags).

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Left: The Fat Controller; Right: Rich Uncle Pennybags

Central to Tolentino’s argument is the show’s persistent theme of Thomas and friends constantly competing for big jobs, more work, and the Fat Controller’s approval.

I generally take issue with a narrowly framed ideological approach to children’s culture, treating toys and popular cultural products as texts and reading them for the particular ideological messages they transmit. However, such readings are interesting, especially at a time when there are growing calls to take Britain’s railways back into public ownership. We do have to remember the potential gap in ideology and reception though, since authors, producers and critics of these cultural products are almost never members of the presumed audiences. In his book, Toys as Culture, Brian Sutton-Smith, rebukes this method of analysis – also referred to as a ‘production of consumption’ approach – as a form of prejudice. By assuming the effects of popular cultural products in advance of empirical study of children engaging with them in an embodied manner, we are denying children’s social agency. Whilst each popular cultural product has its own history and set of cultural reference points that influence its meaning, (for example, Tolentino discusses the character of Thomas’ author the Reverend Wilbert Awry and the themes evident across his different works), they do not determine it.

 

 

 

 

 

Inhabiting the miniature: Tiny Kitchens

I randomly stumbled across Tastemade’s Tiny Kitchen series today, which is a weird coincidence since I’ve been writing my paper on Inhabiting the Miniature for next week’s Royal Geographical Society with IBG Annual International Conference.

In this series, chefs cook tiny meals using a working dolls house kitchen powered by a tealight. The series includes everything from tiny doughnuts to tiny chicken pot pie.

 

 

The tiny food videos were inspired by a series of viral Japanese Youtube videos by Miniature Space, one of Tastemade’s partners.

A Germany company made the working doll’s house kitchen for Tastemade, as well as the tiny utensils and cookware used to make the edible dishes.

There are currently 11 seasons of videos to literally whet your appetite.

Gender, Consumption and Toys: does it matter?

The following is a blog post by undergraduate students from UoP’s Geographies of Children and Young People module.

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“Girls wear pink, boys wear blue”

Source: Martin Schaefer (reproduced with permission)

Children’s gender socialisation is being altered through today’s consumerism and consumer culture. Parents are just as conscious with the toys their children play with, as the clothes they wear when it comes to their gender roles. Various products and companies aimed at children are showing gendered bias. Products are typically either over feminine, labelled “pink, glittery and frilly” or over masculine by being “powerful and macho”. Being a female does not necessarily mean to aspire to be a princess, this millennial society appears to accept that girls can grow up to do what they wish. So why are toy companies’ products still enforcing old fashioned gender stereotypes? The worry is that if these gender stereotypes are applied at a young age it is not something the young child will know, it is something they learn as a result of their upbringing. This is where problems can arise in the future, where young males and females reject the generalised norm, an idea that is explored throughout this blog post.

‘Girly Girl’

The ‘girly’ culture is defined in the ‘gender appropriate’ items girls are buying. Shops like Claire’s Accessories or Girls Heaven “epitomize the commercial appropriation of childhood”  and are targeted towards young girls. This is creating an idealisation of femininity, installing the idea that to be a girl means to want to be a princess and to aspire to be pretty. Girls who do not feel that they fit into this ideal are therefore left out and unaccommodated. However not all children assume this norm, with some clearly breaking this stereotype. Children are humans in their own right and have their own agency to form individual opinions as to what appeals to them. Moorhead writes about this argument, discussing her own experiences with her daughter being a “tomboy”, She comments that not all girls are

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 13.32.21sugar and spice and all things nice…but some little girls are made of different stuff

reiterating that some children simply do not  relate to their gender stereotype.

Academics have studied gender stereotypes among infants, concluding that as the primary purchaser of toys tends to be a female, this influences the type of product purchased for a child. It was found that pink and yellow tones were used to decorate young girls’ rooms, whereas colours such as blue and white were predominantly used in boys’ rooms. This shows that even from a young age before a time where it is perceived for a child to have any social agency, they are being assigned a gender regardless of their own opinions.

Stereotypes in Consumption

The video below represents an opinion from Daisy Edmonds, an 8-year-old girl who was filmed by her mother talking about some stereotypical clothes seen in the chain supermarket Tesco. This shows that young girls are becoming aware of this gender appropriation seen in consumer goods. It shows that the typical stereotyping seen in products, like clothes shown in the video, are being challenged not only by academics but the children concerned themselves.

 

Some try to argue that the reason for having gendered toys is because it is seen as natural or in some way innate, however this assumption is a fairly new ideal created purely by marketing departments. In a 1927 Time article, the writer was informing parents on how boys should wear pink and girls should wear blue. It is thought that this was encouraged so parents would have to buy a whole new wardrobe that was colour appropriate. This furthers the idea that consumerism is a key influencer in the gender stereotypes that have been created. The whole social construct that surrounds gender and consumerism is largely supported by the colours of the products, which is why companies deem it so important to brand certain products in a certain way depending on the gender of their target audience.

 

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“Blue for a boy, pink for a girl”

Source: Own. Taken at Fratton Tesco store, December 2016

As the awareness grows towards gender stereotypes, so is the desire for more gender neutral toys, or toys which represent both females and males in equal terms. The toy manufacturers ‘LEGO’ have generated criticism in recent years for stereotyping how girls should play. The launch of ‘Lego friends’, aimed at young girls, featured five characters who all partook in a leisure led lifestyle such as a salon environment, a swimming pool, and a convertible car. The lack of an educational element for these characters is what sparked criticism towards this range.

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 13.32.21All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and had no jobs,” while the boy figures “went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs,” adding they “even swam with sharks

Extract from letter from seven year old Charlotte Benjamin in January 2014

Since its release, further products have been launched with the aim of counteracting the backlash from the ‘Friends’ range. The ‘Research Institute’ features three female scientists in their laboratories, aimed to promote the message that girls can aspire to be whatever they wish to be.

 

Public criticism of gender stereotypes has seen the likes of GoldieBlox and Wendy Tsao emerge, to expose children to diverse role models. Debbie Sterling of ‘GoldieBlox’ reinforces the stereotype that

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 13.32.21the most iconic action heroes are almost always men.

 

In a refreshing new ad campaign, the main protagonist is a female superhero. The aim is to influence today’s young population with toys that inspire people to divert from the generalist ideal that boys play the superheroes and girls are the ‘damsels in distress’.

 

Artist, Wendy Tsao supports this shift in toy stereotypes, with the transformation of the over-marketed Bratz doll into iconic women such as Malala Yousafzai and Jane Goodall. Wendy Tsao hopes that young girls will aspire to these women instead of the products of Disney and Hollywood.

Rapid progress has been made in recent years about attitudes towards gender, especially with regards to consumer culture. In reality, there is a great need for further discussion into whether it really does matter if toys are gender stereotyped or not; surely it should be down to each individual child and their own social agency as to what they play with, where they play, and who they play with.

 

Bridget O’Brien, Verity Smith, Lara Griffin, Michael Sonner & Emily Seth.

 

UK National Play Survey

What do you think about playing today and how have play opportunities changed for children, families and communities through time?

The UK’s National Play Survey wants to hear what you think!

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Playday, the national day to celebrate play, is 30 years old this year.  The national organisations that promote play in the UK want to find out how play opportunities have changed over these years and need your help.

Could you spare some time to complete an online survey? The survey closes on 21st July 2017.

Click here to complete the survey.

HOT OFF THE PRESS! Ludic Geographies

Hot on the heels of the first academic publication arising from our ESRC funded Ludic Geopolitics project is a chapter on ‘Ludic Geographies’ in the Evans and Horton edited collection Play and Recreation, Health and Wellbeing. This collection is volume 9 of the Living Reference Work Geographies of Children and Young People edited by Tracey Skelton.

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To whet your appetite:

Abstract

In many ways, twenty-first century (western) childhood may be characterized by a cacophony of moral panics. Spatiality is pertinent, if not central, to these moral panics, not least those concerning contemporary children’s play. Yet, despite this, the presence of spatiality within play research beyond the geographical discipline is, at best, marginal. This chapter examines how geographical work is well placed to challenge problematic characteristics of agenda-setting discourses about children’s play. This is not restricted to the marginal presence of spatiality but extends to the nostalgic reification of “innocent” play, the valorization of a developmental approach, and a limited apprehension of embodiment and materiality. The chapter begins with an overview of geographical work that has favored the outdoor spaces of the playground, street, and neighborhood and emphasizes how children’s independent spatial mobility has changed over time. It then introduces more recent and emerging trends, namely, attempts to (1) position children’s play within a broader context and stress its contribution to the reproduction and shaping of “adult” society and (2) recognize vitality as the intrinsic purpose and value of play and the role of materiality, embodiment, and affectivity to this. While it is shown there is much to celebrate in relation to geographical research on play, it is argued that geographers could and should do more to better understand play from the player’s perspective and challenge the prevailing direction of play research beyond the discipline.

Keywords

British Armed Forces – Cold War – Developmentalism – Embodiment, Industrial capitalism – Industrial Revolution – Learning process – Materiality Public space – Social agency – Social transformation – Socialization Toxic childhood syndrome – UK Ministry of Defence (MOD)

(Woodyer et al 2016 pp.1-2)

The chapter includes a discussion of war play and how it does not merely reflect the socio-political life of its period, but rather actively helps to shape and reproduce geopolitical climates and cultures. We use Fraser MacDonald’s (2008) work on toy rockets to show how this was the case in the Cold War era. We then draw upon our Ludic Geopolitics research with Action Man enthusiasts to discuss this in relation to the Falklands War, before using our research material on the more contemporary HM Armed Forces action figure range to show how this continues in relation to the War on Terror.

Our discussion of war play is set alongside a wider examination of how we need to attend to the material dimensions of play to more fully understand play’s positioning within wider sociocultural, economic, and political frames. Here we draw on my previous doctoral research with children and toys (also funded by the ESRC) to demonstrate the embodied and vitalist nature of play. Specifically, we use a case study of magical role-play to illustrate how imaginative play is a bodily, sensory practice.

The chapter ends by reiterating how and why ludic geographies have a great deal to offer the wider geographical discipline and the broader field of play research. Namely, ludic geographies:

  • challenge the problematic characteristics of agenda-setting discourses of play relating to spatiality, developmentalism, nostalgic reifications, and materiality and embodiment;
  • stress children’s important role in the reproduction and shaping of wider society;
  • emphasize the importance of the more-than-rational to the human condition.

“There is much to celebrate in relation to geographical research on play, but geographers could and should build on emerging areas of interest to do more to better understand play from the player’s perspective, appreciate that play is not the discrete activity of children, and challenge the prevailing direction of play research beyond the discipline.”

(Woodyer et al 2016, p.15)

Published by Springer, the wider Living Reference Work comprises twelve volumes that ‘pull together the best international reflective and innovative scholarship focusing on younger people’. The aim of living reference works is to use‘an industry-first publishing model to deliver living editions of Springer’s trusted reference works well in advance of print or ‘static’ online reference editions’. (Quotes taken from the Springer website.)

More information about this series can be found here.

Thanks to Bethan Evans and John Horton for inviting us to be part of this interesting collection and for their work alongside editor-in-chief, Tracey Skelton, in putting it together.

 

Political agency of toys II

Back in October I blogged about the political agency of toys in relation to Greek artist, Nikos Papadopoulos’ use of Playmobil figures in his political art. We might add to that example with the Lego based work of Ai Weiwei. It seems the use of toys is a powerful medium for communicating your political message, particularly when toy companies attempt to ban use of their products for such ends. The press seem to love these stories, with Ai WeiWei featuring in multiple articles within individual outlets and receiving a lot of coverage and support via social media.

Lego has a longstanding policy of not endorsing “the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda”. The Danish firm is founded on a peculiarly utopian ethic about the nature of play and creativity. This includes refusal to make military themed ranges. This ethos reflects its founding in the small Danish town of Billund in the 1950s.

Despite the firm’s desire for political neutrality it seems it cannot avoid politics. Lego found itself in the news after refusing to fulfil a bulk order of bricks for the Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei. The artist was quick to claim this was “an act of censorship and discrimination”. In an Instagram post, he connected Lego’s action to the recent announcement of plans to open a new Legoland in Shanghai.

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Image: aiww/Instagram

In response, Lego stressed that the Legoland parks were sold to British firm, Merlin Entertainments, 10 years ago. The Danish firm is, however, said to be expanding its presence in China as growth in the US, which has traditionally been its biggest market, has slowed. The company is reported to have invested a “three-digit million euro figure” in a new manufacturing facility in Jiaxing. This is to help keep up with regional demand after the company reported that Asia provided the highest regional growth rate back in September.

After the story of the ban hit the news Ai Weiwei was apparently ‘swamped’ by offers of second hand Lego.

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The artist even set up a Lego collection point in Beijing, a parked red car.

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Photograph: aiww/Instagram

Others have questioned Ai Weiwei’s criticism of Lego.

“The values Lego pushes are creativity, education and the freedom of play. It is not a global conspiracy, just a great toy…

Surely Ai Weiwei can see the difference between the best toy on the planet and a force for oppression.”

Of course, Lego cannot determine how its products are used. After all, while the company includes construction manuals in its kits, it is founded on an ethos of prompting creativity. Ai Weiwei, like other activists (including those mentioned previously on this blog: Legofesto; Ian Cook et al) is free to buy Lego kits from retailers rather than relying on a bulk order form Lego directly.

This story speaks again of the political agency of toys, objects that carry a peculiar power through: their intimate connection to the innocence of childhood and the vulnerability of the child’s body; the sensorial effect of miniaturisation; and their provocation of, and enrolment in playful practices that can both reproduce and subvert socio-cultural ideas and practices.

007 is back! Reflections on the representational and non-representational in geopolitics

After much anticipation, SPECTRE is finally here. The release of the film has proved timely for our Ludic Geopolitics research. Its themes chime with some of our current writing around popular cultural representations of individuals with elite combat training and their pivotal role in legitimising particular geopolitical logics. More specifically, our writing engages with the continuing, perhaps even greater importance of these individuals despite the increasing use of unmanned drones in Western battle spaces. SPECTRE makes clear reference to this notion in the battle between M’s human-focused 007 programme and C’s technology-focused Nine Eyes programme. *SPOILER ALERT* While C works to get the 007 programme closed down, we see Bond (and hence the programme) ultimately triumph. This is underscored by Bond choosing not to kill his enemy, Blofeld, echoing the earlier comments of M about the unique characteristics of the 007 programme; his agents not only have a licence to kill, but also a licence not to kill, and therefore a humanity and morality not as readily present in warfare involving technologically-led forms of warfare.

Importantly, a key feature of our research is cultivating a more-than-textual approach to the study of geopolitics. We place great emphasis on the embodied practices of play, which not only challenges the discursive bias of geopolitical studies, but also attends to the politics of reception of popular geopolitical texts alongside the politics of representation. This said, we recognise how children actively draw upon popular culture – TV, films, books, video games – as they develop particular narratives and themes in and through their play. To date, the play we’ve been part of has made reference to, among others, The Hunger Games, Doctor Who, Black Hawk Down, Call of Duty, Marvel Avengers and Night at the Museum. Our aim, therefore, is not to treat the representational and the non-representational as discrete , but rather to establish the need to attend to the latter alongside the former, in a manner that has been lacking to date. As I have written elsewhere, ‘in terms of consuming toys, one cannot fully understand their use without reference to the intertextual, semiotic culture within which they are produced and situated’ (Woodyer 2008, 358).

Readers might be interested in other writing by members of the Ludic Geopolitics team that engages with film more explicitly.

Phil’s work on The Hunger Games:

Kirby, Philip. “The Girl on Fire: The Hunger Games, Feminist Geopolitics and the Contemporary Female Action Hero.” Geopolitics 20.2 (2015): 460-478.

Sean’s work on film:

Carter, Sean, and Klaus Dodds. “Hollywood and the war on terror’: genre-geopolitics and Jacksonianism’ in The Kingdom.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29 (2011): 98-113.

Carter, Sean, and Derek P. McCormack. “Film, geopolitics and the affective logics of intervention.” Political Geography 25.2 (2006): 228-245.

Klaus’ work on James Bond:

Dodds, Klaus. “Shaking and Stirring James Bond: Age, Gender, and Resilience in Skyfall (2012).” Journal of Popular Film and Television 42.3 (2014): 116-130.

Dodds, Klaus. “Popular geopolitics and audience dispositions: James Bond and the internet movie database (IMDb).” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31.2 (2006): 116-130.

Dodds, Klaus. “Screening geopolitics: James Bond and the early Cold War films (1962–1967).” Geopolitics 10.2 (2005): 266-289.

Dodds, Klaus. “Licensed to stereotype: geopolitics, James Bond and the spectre of Balkanism.” Geopolitics 8.2 (2003): 125-156.

Read more about Klaus’ recent work on Bond here.

Political agency of toys

Earlier this month the project team blogged about the political agency of children in relation to images of their dead and suffering bodies. This was prompted by the use of the photo of Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi’s, drowned body washed ashore on a Turkish beach in the press and social media.

This week, the Guardian ran a story on the political use of toys through the work of Greek artist, Nikos Papadopoulos. His work includes the recreation of this tragic scene using Playmobil figures, a toy designed for children of Aylan Kurdi’s age. Papadopoulos is quoted as saying:

“With this photo I wanted to remind people that there are no illegal immigrants – only immigrants.”

In another beach scene image, (based on a real photo Papadopoulos saw in the news) Playmobil figures recreate tourists on the island of Kos as refugees arrive by boat. The original photo depicted a woman lying on a sunbed turning away from a mother and child emerging from the sea to avoid refugees ruining her vacation. In Papadopoulos’ version a sunbathing woman in a polka-dot bikini raises her sunglasses to get a closer look at a mother in a red burqa carrying a child to the shore.

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‘It’s a message to those who care only about themselves and don’t give a damn about people who suffer from war.’ Guardian, Tuesday 20 October 2015 

This story speaks to the political agency of toys, objects that carry a peculiar power through: their intimate connection to the innocence of childhood and the vulnerability of the child’s body; the sensorial effect of miniaturisation; and their provocation of, and enrolment in playful practices that can both reproduce and subvert socio-cultural ideas and practices.

Readers may recall earlier posts on this blog detailing my involvement in the Lego-based work of Ian Cook and his followthethings team. This work uses Lego to recreate scenes depicting the often hidden, problematic nature of commodity chains. Recently, Ian’s research has drawn upon the political work of artist, Legofesto. Check out an interview with Legofesto here.

Papadopoulos’ work has achieved additional political significance through moves by the German makers of Playmobil to shut down the fansite displaying his work. Papadopoulos explains this is “on the grounds of trademark infringement and the ‘political’ use of their products”.

Following negotiations with the toy company, the fansite and blog now host a disclaimer that Papadopoulos pictures are ‘not owned, operated, sponsored or authorised by Playmobil’.

Papadopoulos remains defiant: “I should have the right to use a toy that I’ve bought in any way I like without censorship.” “Otherwise it’s like the pen’s inventor forbidding you to write.”

Join the conversation:

Playmobil forbidding artists from using their toys is like Uniball forbidding artists from writing with their pens. Discuss.

(Question originally posted by @followthethings)

Ludic Geopolitics goes continental

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 08.45.45This summer the Ludic Geopolitics project went continental. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to share our now rather vast collection of HM Armed Forces action figures and accessories with German children aged seven and nine years old. This was a chance to extend the domestic ethnography strand of our project, which involves: (1) creative tasks to explore children’s wide ranging toy collections; (2) playing with military themed toys along with the children; and (3) children filming their play. The latter is both a means for the children to become proxy observers of their own embodied practice and highlight key features of their playful practice that may not be immediately obvious to me as an adult researcher. Read more about the approach used in our domestic ethnography research in:

Woodyer, T. (2008) The body as research tool: embodied practice and children’s geographies, Children’s Geographies 6(4): 349-362.

To date, I’ve been playing with children based in Hampshire, UK. Marking out enemies as German, even when action is set in desert environments more reminiscent of contemporary sites of conflict involving British Armed Forces, is a common feature of this play (albeit when it follows an explicitly military theme, this isn’t always the case). Given this trend I was really interested to see how the German children engaged with the toys modelled on British Armed Forces.  The sample size was too small to draw any firm conclusions, but it was really interesting to see how the children initially engaged with the toys in the embodied manner I’ve become familiar with, but also developed superhero themes to follow. The hot summer weather and large garden space available to us allowed the action figures to scale and jump from trees (aided with a parachute) and to undertake daring water-based rescues in the paddling pool. I’m looking forward to exploring ways to extend cross-comparisons of the playful practices of children from different national backgrounds. Find out more about the Ludic Geopolitics project here.