The Toys That Made Us – A Netflix Series
Did you grow up in the 60s, 70s, or 80s and have a deep affection for how interactive, creative, and brilliant the toys of those decades were? Did you roleplay with reckless abandon, inspired by the dolls and action figures in your hands, inhabiting the playsets and driving the vehicles that transported you to another world? It was a great time for toys: before hand-held technologies turned us into hypnotized sloths, a world of play where toys were the genesis for creative storytelling. If you feel this passion for the playthings of your childhood (I know I certainly do), then have I got a great series for you: The Toys That Made Us which recently premiered on Netflix.
The Toys That Made Us is a four-part documentary series that explores the ins-and-outs, history, drama, and humor behind the creation, growth, and rebirth of four of the most successful toy lines of all time. Star Wars, Barbie, Masters of the Universe, and G.I. Joe each have a compelling and fascinating history, and this program interviews many of these toys’ creators. From administrative types who took enormous risks to make each line come to fruition, to the creative artists who walk us from concept to toy store, each product has a surprisingly fascinating and harrowing story behind its success.
Episode One takes us on a hyperspace journey into the world of George Lucas’s Star Wars. We learn of all the toy manufacturers who turned the opportunity to create the Star Wars toy line, only for it to be snatched up by a little Cincinnati-based toy company named Kenner. Episode two explores the twisted and bizarre evolution of the Barbie toy line, from arguments about nipples on Barbie’s breasts, to how should the Ken doll’s crotch differ from the leading lady’s, we learn of the not-so-lofty origins of the world’s best-selling doll and how it positively and negatively shaped the minds of young women. Master of the Universe is perhaps the most fascinating of the four installments, with a horrifying backstory to the creation of the Skelatoraction figure, to a toy company creating an entire toy line based solely on marketing research drawn from studying the psychologies of boys and how they feel empowered to express their feelings. Finally, we enter the world of G.I. Joe, the real American hero, which introduced the concept of the “action figure” to masculinize the word “doll” so boys would be more willing to play with the toy.
Not only is this new series a story of our favorite playthings, The Toys That Made Us is a riveting study of how societal “norms” and gender stereotypes have always been the leading decision-makers in how products are developed and marketed. It is a voyage through time, a stop at each decade, looking at male and female roles, assessing how the evolved by the way the toy industry responded to them. What makes the series work, however, is that it never loses its sense of wonder. It revels in the fact that toys are a serious business for adults, simultaneously full of nostalgia and our never-ending need for play. Here’s hoping that this series produces additional installments such as Cabbage Patch Dolls, Strawberry Shortcake, Monopoly, Mr. Potato Head, Atari Video Game Systems, and Transformers. They are on to something here.
Give The Toys That Made Us a try. I think you will find yourself smiling at a world from your not-so-distant past and wishing you could go there again.