I've Heard The Mer-Man Singing


Were it not for the fragility of masculinity one of the biggest toy sensations of the eighties and Donald Trump becoming President might never have happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Once upon a time a a group of men worked at a company, Mattel, famous for a doll, Barbie, little girls loved. And it ate at those men a little more every day that the girls toys division was constantly more profitable than the boys toys division that they oversaw. Then one day market research with a focus group of five year-old boys gave them the secret key to the universe - the boys really, really did not like it when their moms or teachers told them what to do. And their play was dominated by pretending their toy was the biggest strongest boss king master chief around. It was the early eighties and the pulp revival spurred by Star Wars had put Conan the Barbarian back in the cultural waters. From this brew came “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” a series of toys about a powerful muscle man with a even more powerful sword who had allies with ridiculous names. He also had a dastardly foe with his own army of henchmen with even more ridiculous names. And he came with more accessories, sold separately of course, than you could shake a green tiger at. It was a licence to print money until the line imploded at the end of the decade. The episode of Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us on He-Man is a incredible secret documentary on toxic masculinity and should be screened in any class on how we got to the results of the 2016 election. 

Wanting to see ourselves as the hero of our own story, and seeing real life political figures as avatars of our favorite fictional heroes and villains is one of the most pernicious things about American life and politics. As too many people learned the hard way the folly of treating real life politics as fanfic there was a painful flashback to November 2016 in the series finale of Game of Thrones. Jaws dropped at the ultimate heel turn of Emilia Clarke’s exiled ruler who was called Khaleesi by the people she lead. A title wet eyed fans had dubbed Hillary with during the election, ignoring that no one on Game of Thrones was a hero but rather an object lesson in the corrupting influence of unchecked power And the bitter laughter at Game of Thrones ending with Clarke’s Khaleesi making a remarkably quick heel turn got a further twist of the knife in the kingdom going to a disinterested son of privilege. That we weren’t going to learn anything from the debacle of 2016 might be taken as a given by the more cynical. But the sheer amount of effort to go out of our way to live up to the Gore Vidal quote “We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing” can still take me by surprise. In particular as to the treatment Elizabeth Warren is getting from the chattering classes, from concerned clucking over “electability” to being called Professor Warren not as a positive description of her background as an educator but derisively as her plans and policies and her ability to explain them remind a few too many male pundits of the second grade teacher they never forgave for making them stop eating paste. And it seems bizarre a program from two years ago about a toy line that included a character named “Clawful” would be capable of providing better analysis about gender and power than most election postmortems major newspapers ran but this timeline is proving not only to be the darkest but also the most ridiculous. 

“The stories we tell matter” is usually meant as a piece of feel good puffery. But there’s a real warning in that statement too. One we ignore far too often. We teach boys that they are born to lead, to rule, to swing swords. And we teach girls they are meant to be ornamental, to demure. We leave boys with their only female figures of authority being their mothers or their teachers and thereby teach them that women in power will only take away what they want. We teach boys not to share, not their toys, not their power. One of the theories given for the He-Man line’s fall in sales was that when the female targeted She-Ra line debuted boys lost their taste for a world that had been theirs. It’s an excuse given in complete earnestness by a male executive when a bigger reason was likely the hard truth that kids age out of a hot toy line and the next group of kids want something completely new. But it would be wishful thinking to completely  dismiss it. There was even a version of that reaction in Netflix’s own She-Ra cartoon revival. In which male Gen X nerds who never liked the original howled that their childhood had been ruined by She-Ra’s redesign from a busty van painting to a covered up fighter appropriate for a kid’s cartoon. And male millennial nerds who had been trained to hate anything not directly targeted to them on sight joined in. It would easy to laugh this off as empty rage if it didn’t have devastating consequences from incel terrorists driving vans into crowds of women to a President patently unqualified for the position who beat a woman male reporters couldn’t stop wrinkling their faces in distaste at and describing as “over prepared” as a fatal flaw. It’s easy to chuckle at the jockeying for position and credit of the men interviewed in the “He-Man” episode, but it matters when one refers to the women who ran the girls toys division as “girls.” It matters that the reaction to learning that boys don’t like women telling them what to do was to reinforce that idea. We learn who we are and how to exist in this world through our play as children. Toys are never just toys. And the world we’re capable of imagining is the world we’ll go on to make. 

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