postcard #5. Toys

The Prison-Toy-Industry
April 2014


Roland Barthes offered the following critique of the toy industry back in the late 1950s:

‘Invented forms are very rare: a few sets of blocks, which appeal to the spirit of do-it-yourself, are the only ones which offer dynamic forms. As for the others, French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine (miniature instrument-cases, operating theaters for dolls), School, Hair-Styling (driers for permanent-waving), the Air Force (Parachutists), Transport (trains, Citroens, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian toys).

The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all, by constituting for him, even before he can think about it, the alibi of a Nature which has at all times created soldiers, postmen and Vespas. Toys here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness, Martians, etc. It is not so much, in fact, the imitation which is the sign of an abdication, as its literalness: French toys are like a Jivaro head, in which one recognizes, shrunken to the size of an apple, the wrinkles and hair of an adult. There exist, for instance, dolls which urinate; they have an oesophagus, one gives them a bottle, they wet their nappies; soon, no doubt, milk will turn to water in their stomachs. This is meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as mother. However, faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy.’

Taken from Mythologies by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, New York, 1984.

Sigh, even the simple building blocks Barthes associated with creativity have been co-opted to mindless imitation of adult consumerism. Yet, the video-game-imitating-lego-imitating-art-escaping-life of Harry Potter and Batman Lego games for wii and playstation might, one could feasibly argue, endow children with a more acute awareness of the complex layers of representation structuring their late capitalist, post-human world, including rather than alienating them in the process.

In any case, far more disturbing than the ubiquity of Lego per se is the surprising number of toys taking some form of incarceration or another as their theme. Lego and Playmobil seem to be the biggest culprits (sic) here as a few examples demonstrate:

LEGO Juniors Police – The Big Escape

The set includes:

  • 3 minifigures with assorted accessories: 2 policemen and a crook; Features a police station, prison, police car and police motorbike
  • Police station features an opening jail door, raising barrier, ramp, surveillance camera, telephone and a ladder; Also includes police dog with a bone
  • Accessories include 2 money bills, trashcan, key, walkie talkie, crowbar and a pair of handcuffs

The blurb on amazon reads as follows:

There’s been a breakout down at the town prison. One of the crooks has been able to escape and now he’s on the run! Give chase with the motorbike and police car then return him to the police station and back behind bars where he belongs! The fantastic Police – The Big Escape set is a great way to introduce your young builder to LEGO brick building. It makes a great gift set, too.


Lego City Police Station – note the focus on escaping criminals once more


Lego Prisoner Transporter – Incarceration on the move


Lego Mobile Police Unity with holding cell at the back

Not to be outdone by Lego, Playmobil have their own series of cell-related sets:

with both manufacturers integrating incarceration into their historical and fantasy themed sets:

Lego Kingdom Prisoner Tower Rescue
Sheriff’s Lock Up

and my personal favourite:

Playmobil’s Soldier’s Fort with Dungeon

If, as Barthes lamented, a plastic doll that can piss and shit is intended to ensure a small girl’s unquestioning complicity with motherhood and established gender roles, what of these toys which celebrate the carceral space? Are we to conclude that we are forced to choose from an early age whether to lock up or be locked up?


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