They made him wear kimonos in Japan – which can’t be easy for a guy used to wearing little red shorts – and now they want him to become “relevant to a new generation of kids.” The person whose relevance is being questioned is Mickey Mouse. He’s a cartoon, and, according to the Disney chief Robert A. Eger, kids today really do think he’s a cartoon. Not only in the sense of an illustrated character but more as a somewhat ridiculous, uncool little thing. Just what is going to happen to Mickey Mouse in an effort to modernise him is something Disney isn’t disclosing just yet but we do know the new look for Strawberry Shortcake. Gone are the bloomers and Custard the cat. Ms. Shortcake and her friends have lost all the baby fat which made them cute and cuddly. Instead they pose like the scary contestants from Little Miss Sunshine and chat on their cellphones. When it comes to the creators of Strawberry Shortcake, however, their serious boo-boo are the new age Care Bears (who, incidentally, are also ridiculously slimmer). The gender neutral, tubby bears are now distinctly male and female, the pudgy stars are gone and dammit all, they’ve killed Tenderheart Bear!
Cartoons are supposed to be cool, it seems. This is why, in 1993, Mattel launched the rather fabulous Earring Magic Ken, who wore an earring and a purple Gaultier vest. He was supposed to be hip; like, totally with it and make the hearts of little Barbie-loving girls go a-flutter. He also may have ended up being more popular than Kylie Minogue among gay men who (mistakenly) thought Mattel was thinking out of the closet, er… box. Ten years later, Warner Bros. came out with the generation next Looney Toons gang, renamed Loonatics. They all wore shiny, black body suits (a la Catwoman) and had new names. Bugs Bunny became Ace Bunny and got ears that looked more dangerous than a stag’s antlers. I’m guessing he didn’t get carrots. Warner Bros. actually believed that all those who loved Daffy Duck would prefer him as the mean-eyed Danger Duck. Fortunately, before this evil could get ahead of itself, 11 year-old Thomas Adam started up an internet petition demanding the designs be changed. His voice was heard, I believe, and the Loonatics were “softened”.
It’s been centuries since I was at an age where I would qualify for the target group for any toy companies but since the Alzheimer’s hasn’t kicked in yet, I do remember what I coveted as a kid. If Wikipedia’s list of popular toys from the 1980s is to be believed, I remember quite vividly. The Rubik’s cube was right up there and yep, I was the Pacman champion. I didn’t play Pacgirl because she had a pink bow and which self-respecting geek wanted to be associated with anything pink? My Little Pony was stupid (their powers came out of their bums like farts, for crissakes) but I loved the Care Bears and watched the show secretly and religiously, even as my mother droned on in the background that cartoons would make my brain wither. Barbies were mandatory but cooler than Barbie dolls were the worlds you could build for the dolls. I had a Barbie swimming pool that took me 2 days to build and I didn’t let anyone touch it. Cabbage Patch Kids, with their incredibly ugly faces, exerted their inexplicable hold over many of us girls. Glo Worms hung from my window and right below them sat My Pet Monster. My father glowed with pride at the thought of his Bengali genes kicking into action when I said that I was becoming increasingly fond of Donatello, Rafael and Leonardo but Michaelangelo was my favourite. That I was talking about mutant turtles rather than painters was a grief that was only topped by me buying an A-ha CD a few years later. My pride and joy, however, were my unbranded teddy bears who came from all over Asia, including a rainbow-coloured set of koala bears from South Korea.
We didn’t take to toys or cartoon characters because they were necessarily “cool”. They were often clever and inventive but mostly, they gave us a sense of comfort. Whether it was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the Care Bears or even Barbie, they made us feel happy and secure that the world was not going to end in a bang or a whimper. None of these toys were aspirational. We didn’t think we were going to beam out save-the-world vibes from our tummies and none of us would have been caught dead wearing Strawberry Shortcake’s bloomers but you could cuddle into bed with these toys (or have them guard your window sill, in case of the turtles) and dream happy dreams. I wonder whether that sort of thing needs updating. Intellectualizing toys seems unnecessary to me on most occasions (no, I don’t think Winnie the Pooh has sexuality issues because he wears only a T-shirt) but when faced with these evolved toys, I can’t help wondering whether toy companies aren’t channelling the values riddling adult society – an obsession with size, political correctness, shiny preppiness etc etc – into toys instead of remembering what we all wanted as kids: fun during the day and no nightmares when the lights went out.