Representing Social Actors with Toys
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter adapts the framework for representing social actors (chapter 2) to the domain of children's toys. Focusing specifically on the Playmobil range of toys, the chapter investigates how children can, and do, use dolls and figurines as a semiotic resource for representing social actors in play. It analyzes Playmobil toys for very young children as a semantic framework with its own inclusions and exclusions, its own ways of structuring the roles, identities and meanings of the social actors included, and of linking categories such as age, gender, class, ethnicity and profession or trade to specific representational features and attributes. The chapter ends with an account of the way children use Playmobil as a resource for rehearsing their understandings of the social world around them.
In this chapter, I investigate children's toys as a semiotic resource for representing social roles and identities in play, focusing specifically on the Playmobil range of toys and drawing on the social actor theory I introduced in chapter 2.
In chapter 2, I introduced a framework for analyzing the linguistic resources of English for constructing representations of the roles and identities of social actors, and in chapter 8, I presented a similar framework for the visual representation of social actors. Here, I continue this line of inquiry by looking at toys (more specifically, dolls and figurines) as a semiotic resource for representing social roles and identities in play. Playmobil offers children many different social types, together with accessories that associate them with particular activities. How does it structure the social world for them? Which roles and identities are included? Which excluded? As we will see, toys, too, can be seen as discourse. Playmobil offers quite specific perspectives on race and gender, for instance.
I will begin with an overview of the kinds of roles, identities, and meanings that dolls and figurines can convey, based, for the most part, on the three main categories of dolls included in the Toys as Communication research program: display dolls such as Barbies, Sindies, and action men (see Caldas‐Coulthard and Van Leeuwen, 2002), teddy bears (see Caldas‐Coulthard and Van Leeuwen, 2003), and Playmobil figures. The toys used as examples were collected in 1998 and 1999. The second part of the chapter deals more specifically with preschool Playmobil, analyzing the full range of 20 boxes with their 40 characters and 102 accessories.
1. collecting, documenting, and systematically cataloging semiotic resources (including their history)
2. investigating how these resources are used in specific historical, cultural, and institutional contexts and how people talk about them in these contexts: plan them, teach them, justify them, critique them, etc.
3. contributing to the discovery and development of new semiotic resources and new ways of using existing semiotic resources
This chapter focuses for the most part on the structure of Playmobil as a semiotic resource, on what is and what is not included in Playmobil, and on the way Playmobil characters and accessories are designed and marketed to communicate a particular perspective on the social world. In addition, toys are designed for play, and playing can be seen as a (very visible) way of “reading” that message according to the needs and interests of the situation and of the individual child. For this reason, we also video recorded children at play with Playmobil in two settings, preschool and home. The final section of the chapter will include some of this material to demonstrate that Playmobil is not always “read” as it was designed to be read, that what children actually do with Playmobil is by no means fully determined by its design, but also by contextual rules and by the specific needs and interests of specific, individual children within that context. This will bring out two important dimensions of social semiotics. First, the rules that connect signifiers and signifieds and the rules that connect signs together into utterances are social rules, rules made by people to regulate semiotic production and interpretation according to contextually specific needs and interests. Second, semiotic production and interpretation are multimodal. Although Playmobil is a distinct “system,” in children's play it is often freely mixed with other toys and other toy systems (and with speech and gesture)—unless there are specific contextual rules prohibiting this, as in the preschool where we filmed, where small groups of children, seated around an “activity table,” were only given one kind of Playmobil (only the pirates, or only the firemen, for instance). Yet, for all of this multimodality and contingency, children will also become aware of the specific potentials and constraints of Playmobil and, indeed, of any other semiotic system. As they are playing, they will gradually learn what can and cannot easily be done and “said” with Playmobil, the way it bends itself easily to some meanings and resists others, the difference between what children want to say and what Playmobil (or the adults who may regulate its use) wants children to say.
2. Roles, Identities, Meanings
This section will provide an overview of the way their design can define dolls in terms of their roles, their identities, and the meanings they may, as symbolic representations, convey over and above these roles and identities.
(p.151) (1) Roles
Dolls may or may not be designed kinetically, that is, they may or may not have parts that move or can be made to move by the child (Van Leeuwen and Caldas‐Coulthard, 2004). Such kinetically designed dolls may either be “interactive” or “active.” By “interactive,” I mean here that the dolls are designed to have things done to them by the child. They are not in the first place designed for interacting with other dolls in representational play; they are designed to interact with the child directly, whether in role play or otherwise. Teddy bears, for instance, have a soft fur to encourage the child to cuddle and stroke them. Other dolls, too, may have specific interactive design features: clothes that can be taken off, hair that can be combed, a mouth that takes a baby's bottle. Rag dolls, too, are interactive in this way; their flexibility makes it possible to do all kinds of things to them or with them. Tamagotchi dolls are another example.
In other cases, the doll is kinetically designed for representational play, designed to allow the child to make the doll do specific things or assume specific poses. I will say that a doll is kinetically designed as an “actor” if its design allows the child to make that doll perform one or more autonomous actions, e.g., an action man that can throw a hand grenade, a wind‐up doll that can play the drums, a baby doll that can cry, a Sindy that can swim in the bath. Such actions may be hand‐driven as, e.g., in the case of glove puppets, or powered in some way, as in the case of the hand‐grenade‐throwing action man and the swimming Sindy, which have elastic bands in their joints that can be “wound up” by rotating their arms and/or legs. I will say that a doll is kinetically designed as a “model” if its design allows the child to make it assume a range of poses, through articulated or flexible limbs, as in the case of display dolls such as Barbies. Clearly, a doll can have both active and interactive features. Many teddy bears (but not all) have fairly rigid but articulated limbs (like baby dolls) and are also made of soft, cuddly material (unlike most baby dolls). The terms we introduce here index elements of design that can combine in various ways, rather than unique classifications. It should also be remembered that children can (and do) make dolls move in certain ways even when they have not been designed to do so. They can make totally rigid dolls walk, fly, swim, and so on. Yet, even when their play does not follow the scenario that has been built into the doll, children will register that what they are doing is not what the doll was made for, and in the process they will, in a very tactile way, come to understand the differences between different roles, the differences, for instance, between what Halliday (1985) calls the “initiator” in a causative construction (the “puppeteer” who makes others, in this case, dolls, do things) and the “actor” who does things him- or herself, or the differences between actions that affect the material world and encounter its resistances (swimming, throwing hand grenades, etc.) and “behaviors” that do not (e.g., Barbie's coy or action man's threatening poses).
Dolls only have a specific, individual identity when they are, intentionally, given unique facial features, and this is normally only the case with handmade dolls, e.g., (p.152) many nineteenth‐century porcelain and wax dolls, expensive “art” dolls, and homemade dolls. Most dolls are “generic,” whether as a result of the standard “patterns” used to make handmade dolls or as a result of mass production. Most dolls are also nameless—generic characters, standard types, identifiable only in terms of their function or class, designed to represent categories such as “baby,” “black person,” “fireman,” etc., as in the case of Playmobil. Children may of course give names to “nameless” dolls; the point here is, however, that a specific or named identity is not part of either the doll's design or its marketing. If dolls do come with names, they have the names of standard characters or types (Punch and Judy, Barbie and Ken) or of individual fictional characters (e.g., Paddington Bear) which have become types through mass production and distribution (so that it has become possible to speak of “a” Paddington Bear). There are also “families” of dolls, for instance, in the case of teddy bears you can have, in order of genericity, “bear,” “teddy bear,” “Pooh Bear.” Special collectors' Barbies include many characters which are neither Barbie nor Ken, but still have the typical “Barbie” size and build, for instance, “Professor Higgins.” This is not the same thing as “collectivization” (see below), as they are not necessarily designed to be played with together or sold as sets. The iconography of dolls as a medium of representing the world is clearly every bit as complex as the iconography of Renaissance art (e.g., Hermeren, 1969: ch. 2).
There are two other key identity features. The first relates to an issue I have already mentioned: individuality versus collectivity. A doll can be designed and marketed as a stand‐alone, an individual, or as a “collectivity,” a set, intended to be played with as such, e.g., a Playmobil family or a set of tin soldiers. Here, the identity of the doll derives from its membership in a group and is signified by shared physical and/or cultural attributes. A set may also be dyadic, including just two dolls, e.g., a couple such as Barbie and Ken. This is again realized by shared and complementary physical and/or cultural attributes, by making matching or complementary outfits available (e.g., matching beach outfits for Ken and Barbie), and by marketing them as a dyad. It signifies that their identity is to be taken as at least in part deriving from their membership in the dyad.
If we compare these elements of identity with their counterparts in language, an important difference emerges. In language, naming is not uniquely associated with the generic. It provides resources for designating things as either specific or generic and as either individual or collective. In the case of toys—at least as they are designed and marketed—the distinction between the unique individual and the mass‐produced specimen is blurred, and the child must create the doll's individuality him- or herself. As a result, the question of individual identity plays a significant role in many children's stories featuring dolls and teddy bears. In a typical plot, the mass‐produced toy acquires a unique identity either through wear and tear or as the result of a mistake during production. In My Old Teddy (Mansell, 1991), for instance, the protagonist's teddy first loses a leg, which is then repaired by her mother. Next, her brother rips off an arm, and again it is repaired. Next, an ear comes off as a result of rough play, and again it is repaired. But when finally the head comes off, the mother declares that teddy “has had enough” and gives her daughter a new teddy. But, says the daughter, “I love poor old Teddy best”; it is, of course, precisely his unique appearance, by now covered in stitches, patches, and bandages, that makes (p.153) “old Teddy” so unique, individual, and lovable. “Ruby” (Glen, 1997) begins with a scene in a factory where “Mrs. Harris had been day‐dreaming when she made Ruby.” As a result, Ruby accidentally acquires a spotted belly and a nose which is sewn on in a crooked way. After various misadventures, Ruby ends up in a secondhand store, where she is picked out by Susie for her individuality (ibid.: 31): “That's the one,” said the little girl. “Yes, Susie,” said Grandfather, “that one looks very special.”
Finally, I will say that the identity of a doll is “physical” if it is signified by means of physical attributes such as, typically, build, facial features, skin color, and color and type of hair or, more generally, features that cannot be changed, for in the world of dolls, items of dress can become fixed, quasi‐physical attributes. I will say that the identity of a doll is “cultural” if it is signified by means of cultural attributes (typically, dress, hairdo, etc.) or, more generally, by attributes which can be changed. In the world of dolls, what is “physical” and immutable, and what is “cultural” and transformable, can be articulated in complex ways. The gender of a baby doll, for instance, may be signified as “physical” if the doll has genitals (as some do) or as “cultural” if the doll can be dressed either as a girl or a boy, but has no physical gender features.
So far, I have discussed dolls that are designed to represent “realistic” social roles and identities. Other dolls represent exaggerated characters or introduce an element of fantasy. The traits which make them unrealistic then provide clues to their symbolic meaning.
Sometimes, a doll fuses two distinct identities. The typical teddy bear, for instance, fuses an animal (because of the fur and the snout, and sometimes the short tail) and a very young child (because of the proportions of the body). This kind of fusion corresponds to Freud's category of “condensation” and, in good Freudian fashion, conveys a culturally “repressed” message about the nature of the child, based on the ambivalent feelings we may have about children as being, on the one hand, already human and, on the other hand, still “wild” and in need of being “tamed,” “civilized”; on the one hand, “innocent” and, on the other hand, “dangerous” (in horror films, the “demonic” child is a recurring type). It may also be that the identity of a doll is set both in the real contemporary world and in either a temporally distant or mythical world; in the case of dolls, these two are not always easily separated, regardless of whether it concerns the idyllic world of Victorian childhood or some future world of superheroes, monsters, and aliens. This corresponds to Freud's category of “displacement.” The Barbie catalog includes several examples. In each case, a thoroughly contemporary body combines with “period” or “mythical” dress (e.g., the already mentioned “Professor Higgins” Barbie, or Barbie‐as‐Cinderella), and so further inflects the multiple‐layered “character” of Barbie.
Finally, certain features of a character may be represented as excessively small or large, whether for comic effect or for other, more “fetishistic” reasons (e.g., large breasts or muscles in characters from some computer games).
3. Preschool Playmobil
In this section, I will use the framework introduced above to discuss some of the key characteristics of preschool Playmobil, or 1.2.3 Playmobil, as it is called by the manufacturer.
Preschool Playmobil characters are primarily designed as miniature “models,” that is, they are designed to allow children to “pose” them by using their articulated limbs. The options are fairly limited. The characters can either stand or sit, and they can also look at things (by turning the head). This means they are capable only of “behavioral,” nontransactive action. They cannot hold objects as can Playmobil characters for older children. This is also evident from the pictures on the packaging and in the catalogs. Even if a preschool Playmobil character is shown, e.g., in the driver's seat of a car, it is not shown as actually driving the car, but as sitting in the car and looking at the viewer, as “posing” rather than as “doing” (figure 9.1). This is not the case with the packaging and the catalog pictures of Playmobil for older children.
This also means that preschool Playmobil characters are not “interactive” in the sense that they can be “dressed” or “undressed” (e.g., by removing a helmet). There are, of course, reasons of safety behind this. Small parts can be dangerous for very young children. Preschool Playmobil figures are also somewhat larger than Playmobil characters for older children. Yet, despite the rationale, the message will be conveyed that helmets, grey hair, farmers' caps, women's long hair, and so on are basic attributes, indelible, fixed characteristics of specific social types.
Preschool Playmobil characters may be individually or collectively identified. This depends on the way they are packaged as individuals or groups. Here are some of the groups: the “ethnic family”; the “family”; a mother, daughter, and baby (in a bathroom box; catalog no. 6614); and a grandfather, grandmother, and cat (figure 9.2).
Couples include male and female horse riders, the farmer and his wife, and the grandparents. Clearly, family identity plays an important role in preschool Playmobil. There are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, babies, grandfathers, grandmothers, and pets (taken separately, these can become men, women, boys, girls, babies, old men, old women). Yet some family members, here the “father” and the “grandparents,” are also separately marketed and therefore also have identities that are separate from the family (figure 9.3). In other words, family identity is relational, deriving from your relations with others, and also some members, most notably the father (figure 9.1) and the grandparents, also have identities that are separate from that.
(3) Social Types
Preschool Playmobil characters are also nameless and generic, social types, even in their identities as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and so on, and they represent the social world with a certain conceptual realism (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2006). There are, in preschool Playmobil, no characters drawn from fiction, no anthropomorphic animals or aliens, and the cars and houses are resolutely contemporary, without any fantasy, anachronistic, or futuristic features. Playmobil for older children, however, does have fantasy characters, historical characters, aliens, and so on, and increasingly so. It is as if a solid foundation of close‐to‐home reality must be laid before the world of pirates, fairy‐tale princesses, wizards, witches, and Wild West characters can be entered. Yet the everyday world of preschool Playmobil is conceptual. It does not realistically reproduce what is out there in the world, as in the case, for instance, of Matchbox miniature cars. There is, in this world, only one kind of car, the basic car (figure 9.1), a car which has the minimum features any car must have to be able to be recognized as a car, no more and no less.
What makes people into types in this world? Essentially four things: professional and leisure activities, gender, race, and age. All of these elements of identity are signified by specific simple identity‐marking attributes (the road worker's truck and danger sign, the police officer's traffic light and car, and so on)—and, in the world of preschool Playmobil, no difference exists, as yet, between “leisure activities,” such as horse riding, and professions. Another category runs across all of this: the category of social class. There are three social classes, each with a distinct, recognizable key attribute. Professions with high‐ranking status are signified by uniforms with caps that bear the insignias of their rank, e.g., captains or police officers (figure 9.4).
High‐risk professions or roles have helmets and uniforms, e.g., horse riders, firemen; and lower‐ranking occupations wear overalls and caps without insignias, e.g., tow truck drivers or road workers (figure 9.5).
Some intermediate forms exist, for instance, the ambulance driver, who has no cap but also does not wear overalls. In other words, the key distinctions here are those of rank (caps with or without visors and with or without insignias) and status (with or without overalls). The identity of the road worker, therefore, is determined both by the activity in which he engages, as signified by his truck and danger sign, and by his class, as signified by his dress.
Gender is signified by a small vocabulary of variations in hairstyle. Adult women either have long hair which bobs out on the side or wear their hair in a bun. Older women and black women wear their hair in a bun; younger, white women do not. As a result, older women and black women lack a feature of “female attractiveness.” Color and style of dress do not strongly differentiate between male and female, but there is a sharp distinction between male and female activities. The baby, finally, can only sit and has a “male” hairstyle.
Race is signified by the color of skin and hair: brown skin, black hair. It can be noted that in the group marketed as “the family” (figure 9.3), the different family members (mother, father, son, daughter) have different hair colors, whereas all members of the “ethnic family” (figure 9.6) have the same hair color. The individuality of
Old age (figure 9.2) is signified both by “physical” attributes (grey hair) and “cultural” attributes (brown and grey clothes with painted‐on motifs and textures, e.g., a wool cardigan for the grandfather).
Playmobil characters are packaged with accessories that suggest preferred activities. Through these accessories, they are defined, not just by their “physical” and “cultural” attributes, but also by their activities. There is only one exception to this. In the “ethnic family,” neither the family nor its individual members are accompanied by any accessories, such as a house, furniture, a car, tools, etc.
The accessories of the grandparents (or old people generally) speak for themselves (rocking chair, lounge suite, cozy stove, chess table, large cupboard, clock, table, light) as do the accessories of the white family, as ordered by the layout of their house: kitchen with dining table, stove, dishwasher, cupboard; bedroom with bed, cot, sideboard, baby's dressing table; exterior with car, boat on trailer, trees; bathroom(female family members only) with bath, mirror, shower, toilet, washbasin.
Apart from being almost exclusively male, professional activities are dominated by mobility: the father (available as part of the family box but also, and as the only member of his family, separately, with car): car, suitcase with airplane label; the policeman: car, traffic light; the ambulance man: ambulance; the fireman: fire truck, danger sign; the pilot: plane, wind vane; the tow truck operator: tow truck, danger sign; the road worker: truck, danger sign; the captain: boat, fish, buoy; the farmer: tractor and trailer, cow, pig, bag of wheat; the horse rider: horses, hurdles, bushes.
The only characters whose accessories do not involve mobility are the old man (rocking chair), the shepherd (pen with sheep, dog, some trees), and the farmer and his wife as a couple (pigs, cows, feeding trough, dog, bag of wheat). Separately, however, the farmer has a tractor and trailer. Mobility is therefore signified as exclusively male, with the single exception of the female horse rider.
I hope this brief analysis of preschool Playmobil (as it was in 1999) has demonstrated that the way in which this toy system is designed and marketed provides a model of society structured by organizing principles, such as work and leisure, age, gender, ethnicity, and class, and by the difference between the private and the public world, and all of these social categories have been marked with clear, visible (p.159) attributes. I will now conclude with some observations of the way this societal model is used in play.
4. Playing with Playmobil
As part of this study of Playmobil, video recordings were made of two- to four‐year‐old children playing with Playmobil in a preschool in Birmingham, England. During the filming, the researcher sat on the floor with the children, letting the play episodes develop, but occasionally intervening to ask the children to identify specific characters. This did not appear to disturb the children nor interrupt the flow of the play, and yielded additional data, as can be seen in example 9.1.
The preschool imposed specific rules on the children's play. All children were seated, in groups of six, around “activity tables.” One of these activity tables was devoted to Playmobil, but only of one kind, in this case firemen (this set is in fact a set for older children, rather than part of the preschool Playmobil range). The interaction was at times quite chaotic, with several conversations and actions happening at the same time, and the children often snatched characters or accessories from each other, without being overly disturbed by this. As we start, the researcher places the firemen set on the table. It includes ladders and other firefighting implements, such as a mattress (for people trapped in a building to jump on) and a spade (to throw sand on the fire). In 9.1,1 focus on Page (two and a half years old), without indicating all of the simultaneous actions and utterances of the other children.
9.1 Page grabs a fireman in each hand.
researcher: Who's that?
page: He's a fireman!
She drops one of the firemen and tries to fit a hat on the other one, but fails to do so. After a while she gives up and picks up a ladder.
page: Ladder! Ladder!
She puts the ladder down and grabs the mattress, then looks around, as if searching for something quite specific among the toys on the table. The boy next to her, who has been trying to make a fireman climb a ladder, puts his ladder on Page's mattress. When he is momentarily distracted, she grabs the mattress for herself again and lays the fireman on it, using the mattress as a bed.
researcher: Who is that?
page: It's a baby.
The researcher points at the two firemen Page is holding in her right hand.
researcher: And that one, who is that one?
page: This is Mama, look.
researcher: And who is that one?
page: It's Daddy.(p.160)
Page looks at the toys again, grabs the spade, and starts using it as a spoon to feed the “fireman‐baby” on the mattress.
Already, Page can recognize a fireman. Maybe she has been read books about firemen. Firemen are after all recurrent figures in books for very young children. But he is able to perceive other affordances as well, for instance, the size of the fireman, who is very small, especially in comparison to the mattress. He could also be a baby. So she uses the fireman, the mattress, and the spade not to enact a heroic rescue, but interactively, to act out a mother‐and‐baby scenario in which she plays the role of the mother.
Kieran (four years old) was given a much wider range of Playmobil toys at home. It included some preschool Playmobil characters and accessories as well as ones from sets for older children. He was filmed by his father. The researcher was sitting on the floor next to him. We had included the “ethnic family” because Kieran is black, but he did not use any of the members of the “ethnic family.” As the episode starts, Kieran is trying to open a plastic bag:
Clearly, Kieran wanted to create a character who does not feature in the ordered world of Playmobil. He associated the bike not with a neatly helmeted, nondescript rider, (p.161) but with a ‘Hell’s Angel'-style biker. The straggly beard and unkempt appearance of the wizard were close enough for him. But this was something you cannot “say” in the language of Playmobil, an “ungrammatical” statement. The wizard was not designed to fit onto the motorbike. The researcher could not help him and in fact suggested the “proper” solution, but Kieran had already lost interest, giving up on the idea of a wild biker and, tellingly, turning to a little baby instead.
9.2 researcher: I'll open it for you. … There you go.
She hands the contents of the bag to Kieran—a bike and a bike rider. Kieran takes it and smiles.
kieran: Who is riding on the bike now? Who is riding on the bike?
researcher: This is the biker.
Kieran tries to put the biker onto the bike for a brief moment, but then throws him back on the pile of Playmobil toys and surveys the toys, his hands folded in front of his face, almost as if praying. After a while, he picks up another Playmobil character. It is a wizard with a long pointed beard.
kieran: This is the biker.
He tries to put the wizard on the bike, but as he has not been designed to sit on a bike, he does not fit. Kieran keeps trying, increasingly frustrated, and then hands the bike and the biker to the researcher.
kieran: Can you help me?
The researcher tries for a moment.
researcher: Perhaps it's not the biker.
She puts the wizard down, picks up the actual biker, puts him on, and hands biker and bike to Kieran. Kieran looks at it for a while, then puts it down, and picks upanother Playmobil figure. He is not smiling any more, and he has lost interest in the bike and the biker.
kieran: This is a little baby.
It would be easy to argue, on the basis of the first example, for the infinite malleability of Playmobil as a resource. Playmobil did not force Page into narrowly defined roles and interactions. It turned out to be usable not just as a resource for representational play; it could also be used interactively. It would also be easy to overstate the other case, the constraints imposed by the system, the way it does not allow “deviant” meanings. Semiotic systems are always a mixture of affordance and constraint, even already in childhood. Yet some are more flexible than others. Construction toys such as Lego in its original form offered few constraints and allowed children to build a wide range of things. Today's young children, sitting at the computer, too often must learn to follow the sometimes quite inflexible trajectories that designers have programmed for them and, despite all of the talk of choice, may live in a much more structured world than their parents did when they were children. (p.162)