Medhavi Gupta, Indian Institute of Governance and Leadership
While the past year has been nothing short of an infernal ride, I made a new friend during quarantine who, in such a short while, has acquired a rather large space in my heart. Although I legally became an adult during the lockdown, my friend is a little less than three years old. Yes, my new friend is a toddler.
As the quarantine began, unable to step out of the house, I went on top of it to find some solace. On the terrace of the house next to the one beside mine, I started waving and talking to this little girl every day. Soon I became friends with her family and we coordinated our timings to be able to sing nursery rhymes together and look at the birds flying around us every day. While I was struggling to accept the reality of the lockdown and (barely) dealing with its repercussions, rushing to the terrace to talk to my little friend became the highlight of my day.
As more than half of the year passed and I got admitted to a college. I decided to buy some toys for my friend to celebrate. I wanted the best toys for my little friend given that she is very intelligent despite her age. Having read extensively about IQ and gifted children, I wanted to buy her toys that would engage her for long periods and that she would enjoy playing with while at the same time learning from them.
So, on my mother’s advice, we set out to a very famous market dedicated entirely to toys. My mental list consisted of three main things – vibrant puzzles, blocks and soft toys. But, upon reaching the market my dreams were a little shattered. Most of the shops had a lot of bicycles and cars for kids to ride. Other than that, there were bottles and bags with famous cartoon characters on them. While I thought to myself that the COVID 19 pandemic may have disrupted the supply chain, surely some shops would have the kinds of toys I was looking for. But alas, the situation was not what I had imagined. After rummaging through all the shops (rather patiently, which is not really my temperament), I realized that most of the shops had remote-controlled toys, some educational toys (the kind you’d see in a playschool) and soft toys (mostly dolls). This trip wasn’t quite as nostalgic as I had imagined it would be (seriously though, the toys we grew up playing with may not have been as techno-savvy but they were good).
After reluctantly buying a few toys I started thinking about the whole debacle on my way home. I wondered why most of the dolls were faired skinned and conforming to Eurocentric beauty ideals. Some even had auburn hair and blue eyes. In a country, where our obsession with fair skin is problematic (to say the least) and a large part of the cosmetics industry caters towards skin lightening treatments, the last thing we need is to drill the “fair is beautiful” mentality into our kids’ minds even through their toys (because guess what, popular culture is already doing that). These days there is a lot of talk about the much-needed representation of people from different sections of society including people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community and plus-sized people. But somehow this conversation has remained limited to movies, fashion shows and covers of beauty magazines. I find it ironic that in a racially diverse country where most people would colloquially be referred to as “brown” or “wheatish”, I could not find a single “brown” doll in an entire toy market of a metropolitan city.
I don’t know why but watching the remote-controlled toys walk and talk on the shopkeepers’ command made me feel a bit uneasy. It made me wonder whether I would want a kid I cared about to play with toys that do not stimulate her imagination whatsoever? Toys that do not help her to be creative and explore things for herself as puzzles and blocks do? That, if I had grown up on such toys, would it have embedded in my psyche to walk and talk on other’s commands? Basically, could such toys somehow be propelling our kids to be more conformist, especially when we are living in a world where truth is subjective, our activities are increasingly coming under surveillance and social media is creating conditions that are antithetical to high self-esteem and good mental health? All this sounds like some dystopian conspiracy theory, but I guess I am just being paranoid.