Monday, August 13, 2012

The Valley of the Dolls

If the Toy Story movies have taught us anything, it's that a child's relationship with his or her toys is crucial to their development.  Andy's playtime consisted of fantastical adventures with heroes and peril. His neighbor Sid would destroy toys, hinting at a sadistic personality.  And then there was Sid's sister Hannah, a quiet girl who would use her mutilated toys to host pleasant tea parties.  These three styles of playing were very stereotypical representations of how toys relate to gender roles.  The boys were adventurous and/or destructive while the girl was peaceful.  Like many girls, her dolls were ideal representations of how she saw herself.  Hannah's dolls were physically damaged, yet they persevered.  It kept her grounded.

Barbie dolls, on the other hand, have received much criticism for perpetuating negative body images among girls.  Impossible to achieve figures and a devotion to clothes and shopping implied that those who played with them would grow up with a distorted set of values.  To counteract these claims, Barbie started receiving many high-powered career makeovers.  The message was supposed to be that girls could grow up to be very important members of society, rather than beauty-obsessed consumers.  Others interpreted the marketing decision as an excuse to sell more outfits.

This brings us to "Bootsie and Brad," the best thing to come out of "MuppeTelevision."  Instead of Muppets, these segments featured human actors playing the roles of Barbie-and-Ken-like dolls inside a little girl's dollhouse.

Small Muppet dogs are sold separately.

The little girl Amanda would remain in the background while her dolls played out scenes straight from her imagination.  Bootsie and Brad would talk and walk stiffly and spout strange, yet clever dialogue.  The would parody elements of Barbie's glamourous lifestyle while retaining that sense of naivety that comes with a child's imagination.

For example, in every episode Bootsie would sport a new outfit and occupation, while Brad remained in his basic outfit, implying that the little girl bought more outfits for the girl doll.  Brad would often feel bad when he'd realize that he'd never get to do as many cool things as Bootsie.  Despite managing to achieve an endless number of high-paying jobs, Bootsie would remain vacant and ditzy as she interacted with Brad, suggesting that the outfits can change, but the character doesn't.

It's tough sharing a house with a billionaire, astronaut president of the United States.

In one episode, Bootsie throws a tea-party for the other toys.  Brad finally gets a chance to try out his only other outfit, his party suit.  However, he still manages to feel inadequate next to Bootsie's other guests, a Sergeant Killer Death Machine action figure and a Talking Teddy who requests kisses whenever somebody pulls his string.

Talking Teddy is a homewrecker.

But the absolute best segment appears in the episode "Garbage" where Bootsie and Brad decide to pretend they are married.  There is so much wrong in their behavior which makes this segment so right. The two speak with hokey dialogue and act out situations that Amanda must have seen her parents do a number of times.  This then blends with the "independent female spirit" that Bootsie dolls are supposed to convey.  For example, when Brad gets "upset" at Bootsie for buying new outfits with his hard-earned money, Bootsie counters that she used her own money from her job as an oil sheikh.

And their discussion about the anatomical difference between boys and girls is just precious.

This whole bit reminds me of the Calvin and Hobbes strips that featured Calvin's neighbor Susie's forays into imagination.  They would be presented as soap opera comics with childish dialogue as Calvin would usually try to escape the situation.  Despite bringing an air of maturity to Calvin's playtime, Susie was not above making her own illogical leaps.  A child's mind can open infinite worlds of possibilities.

Each "Bootise and Brad" segment was a gem and perfectly captured the battle of reality and fantasy that occurs when a child sits down to play.  Amanda's dolls showed us how important society is to our development.  Children imitate what they consider to be "appropriate" behavior based on the adults in their life and the media they consume.  Barbie herself may not be the best role-model, but it's up to the child to decide what morals they learn from her behavior.  Bootsie and Brad may have been the focus of these sketches, but little Amanda was the star.  The toys were just the gateway to her mind.

Through their lifelessness, we saw life.

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