“Would you like a boy toy or a girl toy?”
Since I was a kid, this was the question McDonald’s employees would ask when you ordered a Happy Meal. It sounds innocent enough, but it wasn’t until I grew up and looked back on it that I realized how much that question really implied.
First of all, let’s be honest – the boy toys were always better. They were actual toys that required you to use your imagination and encouraged boys to play and create their own adventures. The girl toys, on the other hand, were either stationary Barbie dolls or beauty accessories like compact mirrors and brushes – since when is it fun to brush your hair for hours on end? From a young age, we’re telling little boys to go out and slay dragons and race fast cars. Little girls, however, better learn to sit in front of a mirror and look pretty for their man or wait patiently in a castle tower all day for a prince to save them.
“Whoa! Slow down!” you say. “I know lots of girls who enjoy putting on makeup and pretty dresses!” Of course you do. Did those girls grow up with any other choice? Weren’t they surrounded by pink blankets and frilly bows from day one? Being feminine isn’t a bad thing, and I’m not discouraging it, but we’re talking young girls who have their whole lives to deal with dating and guys and gossipy friends and unrealistic body images pushed by every bit of media they consume. Can’t they have a few years to dream about space travel first before they have to come back to Earth and start planning a family because that’s what is expected of them?
Starting last Friday, McDonald’s latest Happy Meal offerings are a choice between “Adventure Time” characters that stretch, shoot projectiles, or spring into action, or Paul Frank accessories like a journal, sticker dispenser, and mini tote bag with that stupid big-mouthed monkey on them. Your options, in other words, are saving the Land of Ooo from destruction or practicing to become an underpaid secretary serving an overpaid boss. Which scenario sounds more fun to you?
The most insulting part of this is the fact that “Adventure Time” is one of the most progressive children’s shows I’ve ever seen on television. Not only do they regularly teach that treating women like sex objects is wrong, they go out of their way to feature a large cast of strong female characters. Not one of those characters is featured in this Happy Meal line because they not only believe that boys won’t play with female characters (and are, in fact, discouraging it) but that girls can’t possibly enjoy “Adventure Time” because the main characters are a dog and a boy with a sword. There are dozens of characters they could have included in this set, but instead there are two Jakes, two Finns, the Ice King, and Beemo, a character that, if these close-minded executives ever bothered to watch the show, does not identify as male but as gender neutral. In fact, many episodes demonstrate that Beemo is undecided in that area, and that cute little sentient gaming system is never once lectured for it or forced to choose a specific role. They even have gender-swapped versions of all the main characters featured in some episodes, and judging by all the conventions I’ve been to, “Adventure Time” has just as strong a female following as it does a male one.
We can get into a heavy philosophical debate on gender, sexuality, politics, and feminism right now, but that’s not my point here – I simply think kids are growing up too fast, and all we’re doing is pushing them into roles that will define the rest of their lives. When I took my action figures and ran off into a magical land, I believed I could be whatever I wanted to be, and I grew up with that mentality. I’ve seen a lot more princess Barbies than I have powerful executive or president Barbies – do they know there are other choices? What kind of lives are we setting them up to live?
As it just so happens, I was shopping in Toys “R” Us over the weekend and I came upon a section of “Adventure Time” toys. Two little girls ran past me and eagerly grabbed plush toys of Cake, who is a magical cat and the gender-swapped version of Jake the Dog. They screamed, “Cake! Cake!” as they showed them to their mother, who told the girls they could buy them. McDonald’s just couldn’t believe such a scenario. They couldn’t imagine two little girls getting excited over a tough, sassy feline saving the day with her adoptive sister Fionna. They could never understand why the girls weren’t two aisles over gleefully picking out which baby doll they wanted to care for – the one that cries or the one that poops. Don’t they have the rest of their adult lives to handle that responsibility?
The next time you’re asked, “Would you like a boy toy or a girl toy?” I recommend responding, “The actual toy. The one that truly looks fun.” Maybe then they’ll get the message.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.