There are a lot of cheap, shoddy, overly commercialized, sexist, violent, and just plain dumb products foisted on our children year after year. But only a select few embody the very worst of what our culture has to offer: the pathological consumerism, the obsession with multiple screens, the damaging gender roles, and worst of all, a concept of "play" that replaces anything resembling creativity with the passive absorption of marketing messages.
Every year the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood gives out a TOADY award (Toys Oppressive and Destructive to Young Children) for the worst toy of the year. Four from this year's list stand out as the embodiment of all of the above qualities. In addition, Fast Company has chosen one more of the most-hyped toys of the year for special (un) consideration.
The iPotty swept the TOADY awards, with 45% of the vote. Unveiled at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, iPotty is a potty seat with a stand for an iPad, the better to bribe and distract toddlers with videos and games while sitting on the potty. It is worth emphasizing that this is a real product that exists and has 94 reviews on Amazon, where it can be purchased for $31.99.
Here is a sample two-star review: "Unexpected Condition(ing) By Kristen Lowery on December 3, 2013: I really thought it worked great until I handed little Pavlov the iPad to keep him quiet in church. Yikes!"
The Real Tooth Fairies, which was the runner-up in the TOADY awards, is a transmedia brand that recontextualizes the folkloric Tooth Fairy as a set of Disneyesque princesses. These mean girls are as skinny as Barbie dolls, obsessed with fashion and makeup, and spend their time shaming a chubby character named Stepella with buck teeth and (I'm not making this up) hairy legs. The $58.90 a month electronic upgrade membership includes makeovers and "parties" in "suites." Bizarrely this is all couched as somehow teaching math skills.
"Own the World's Top Brands" when you play this extremely simplified and shortened Monopoly game. Instead of landing on boring old Boardwalk you can buy a piece of McDonald's, Spotify, or Intel. "So Hasbro has already received a ton of cash from these companies to appear in the game and now asking us to pay for the privilege to play a game of advertisements? Come on." wrote one reviewer.
This iPhone and Android app, which asks children to trace letters with colorful blobs of virtual Play-Doh, is really no worse than any one of dozens of boring, basic, two-dimensional literacy apps. A recent review of the field found that 72% of all "educational" apps focus on preschoolers and cover skills like letters and sounds in ways that are little better than an electronic worksheet.
No, what makes the Play-Doh Create ABCs app offensive is the idea that it would substitute for the open-ended, multi-sensory, child-centered experience of playing with actual Play-Doh. "Remove the unseemly mess from Play-Doh ... and all the icky creativity that comes along with it," as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood says.
Now, consider this fifth nomination for the worst toys of the year: Goldieblox.
Yes, the same Goldieblox that first was lauded as a way of getting young girls into engineering, and then got in trouble for using a Beastie Boys song without permission in one of their viral ad videos.
There are two emerging criticisms of Goldieblox. One is that, as a series of one-dimensional $30 toy kits, it just doesn't live up to the hype. The second is that it perpetuates girly stereotypes in the name of debunking them. As reviewers on Amazon, many of whom note that they supported the toy's Kickstarter, put it:
- "Cheaply made, very poor and stereotypical 'girl' design, extremely limited in what it can do, and it does not encourage my daughter at all to think outside the box. It is strip of Velcro, board, pegs and some figurines."
- "Quite Possibly the Worst Toy in our House"
- "The actual toy is very limited in how to play."
It's not that Goldieblox is the worst toy ever invented. It's just a huge missed opportunity. And the hype around it has distracted attention from all the amazing, bizarre, futuristic, open-ended, non-gender-specific toys and games out there, both classic and new. Childhood is short; let's make this holiday season one to last.