I stared. It was raw rage I saw. When angry faces weren't glaring back at me, they were sneering, superior or plain smug. This was a day I just spent assessing book projects themed around Lego. Presented by graduating students of a city art college, some of them focused on the changing facial emotions of over 4 billion mini figures, made famous by the Danish toy company.
I was struck by something more staggering than the huge number of these tiny figurines enthralling generations of children (and adults — AFOL is the official name for Adult Fans of Lego and there are global thousands of them). It's the unsettling fact that the two-inch-tall figures inhabiting Pleasantville wear uniformly unfriendly expressions today.
We built busy scenes of life with colourful plastic bricks involving these yellow-headed little people with two dots for eyes and a rainbow smile. But Legoland is turned upside down. Happy is history, mean is the mantra now. It's hardly about mini figures alone. Across the toy kingdom they're glad to be sad. And these are not virtual games that make zombies out of kids.
They are physical toys some of us think they're better off imaginatively playing with instead of being glued to a blinking screen. Welcome to the not so brave new world of anger play. Where might is right, misery is matter-of-fact, violence is victory. Grumpy to gross, rude to crude, baddies rock as characters fighting and killing with an array of ammo kids calmly handle with hands so small, they shake as they lob weapons of horror and terror at monsters.
Play imitating life or life imitating play — contemporary toy design is a highly complex space. Broody imaginary worlds have scared heroes and unchallenged villains. The theory of Socionomics says cultural fashions mirror social sentiments that come and go in waves. C'est la vie, signs of the times. Mad mayhem marks our age. Why then would kids be spared any angst?
Check out the phenomenal popularity of Angry Birds. A review explains: 'The anger of the Angry Birds (as well as the triple violence — animals killing animal baby killers by suicide) may be a reflection of a darker social mood, a wave of resentment and violent rebellion against the "pillars of stability" of yesteryear.'
The mood's black all right. Strangely, even peacetime is for smirking and scowling. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the loved locomotives from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories conceived by Rev. W. Awdry also seem to have the blues. Arched brows and downturned mouths replace the shining visages they sported when Ringo Starr voiced animated episodes of this railway series.
Their creator believed steam engines weren't too different from people - through their rhythmic sound, chugs and whistles they were capable of good communication. Each engine in the fleet is unique and has a clear, constructive role to play on the Island of Sodor. Much the way it could be in the real world.
Even those abominable Barbie dolls at least once smiled. Currently all they do is pout or throw foxy come-hither looks. Vapid, vain and vacuous, they are, regrettably, quite the reigning queens for growing girls. How much of such gloom and doom does transfer to damage the young?
When one mother asked her son if he noticed the angry faces on most of his toys, he simply said, "Not really. I notice your face more." He may be right. Real life role models still rule strongest. Finally it boils down towhether we are wearing the smiles we crib those toys are not.
Meher Marfatia is the author of 10 books for children and two for parents. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org