‘Fun gifts for boys’ and the geographies of ‘aww’, ‘umph’, ‘wow’ and ‘cool’

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

As manufacturers and retailers prepare to sell huge quantities of toys and gadgets in the run up to Christmas, at least one seven-year-old girl has protested this week at the marketing of such products according to gender.

Karen Cole tweeted a photo of her daughter, Maggie, next to a sign for Marvel Comics merchandise in a branch of Tesco that read ‘Fun gifts for boys’.

7-year-old Maggie not impressed with 'fun girts for boys' sign

Maggie, who is a big fan of Spider Man, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Doctor Who, spotted the sign and told her mother that Tesco was “being stupid” as “anybody can like superheroes”. The photo was retweeted more than ten thousand times, forcing an apology and the removal of the signs from all Tesco stores.

These superhero characters and toys are clearly important to lots of children like Maggie; it is this relationship, alongside the role played by popular culture characters and products in children’s lives, that John Horton seeks to examine in a recent edition of Geography Compass. The paper calls for “more direct, careful, sustained research on geographies of children, young people and popular culture.”

Horton outlines ‘classic’ works from cultural and media studies, which, he contends, have been “centrally concerned with meanings of popular culture designed for children and young people”. The likes of Barbie and GI Joe, Horton argues, have often been central to such discussions, with Barbie being widely critiqued as “a ‘condensed’ representation of normative ideals of ‘emphasised femininity’ and female body image”.

While Horton recognises the value and importance of this kind of work, he argues that “if one jumps to write about meanings of popular culture, it is all too easy to overlook how popular cultural texts, objects and phenomena matter in practice within people’s everyday geographies.”

Horton presents an analysis of ‘Toys ‘Я’ Us’ brochures old and new, but reflects that in attempting to write about their meanings and representations “I have suppressed (or at least distanced myself from) what I felt as I browsed the 1975 Toys ‘Я’ Us catalogue and other decades-old toy catalogues: feelings of ‘aww’, ‘umph’, ‘wow’, ‘cool’, ‘I remember that’, that are not easy to put into words.”

Geography, then, has an important role to play in addressing questions of both meaning and Mattering in this context. This involves examining the more-than-representational ways in which popular cultural texts, objects and phenomena are encountered and experienced by children in a diverse range of everyday spaces.

As Horton acknowledges, this raises important questions of how to conduct research attentive to both the political-representational concerns of the sort quite rightly raised by superhero-loving Maggie, and to the complex nonrepresentational materialities that constitute young people’s geographies – the ‘awws’, ‘wows’ and ‘cools’ evoked by the bodily practices of play, the meanings of which may not be sayable or may simply not exist.

 Girl, 7, gets Tesco to remove ‘stupid’ sign suggesting superheroes are ‘for boys’ The Independent, 25 November 2014

 John horton, 2014, For Geographies of Children, Young People and Popular CultureGeography Compass 726-738

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