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Andy Sullivan: Against the Grain

This week is part one of my ‘80’a Top Ten finale.  The topic is toys of the decade-from Transformers to the Rubik’s Cube.  All the best toys came out of the ‘80’s.  They were way more than child’s play.  They were hot toys created during the Cold War.  The ‘80’s was when barriers began to break down and toys began to find their voice.  These toys captured the minds and hearts of a new generation.  Which toy conquered them all? Let’s find out.

Starting the countdown at #10 is Teddy Ruxpin.  Teddy was voiced by Phil Baron.  Teddy was like the good version of Chucky.  Teddy sold like hotcakes, moving 1.7 million dolls in just two years.  Teddy Ruxpin is the brainchild of a dreamer named Earl Kenneth Forsse, an American designer of robotic Disneyland attractions.  Ken had been developing the bear since the late ‘70’s.  It wasn’t until the decade’s advances in technology that his dream took fury form.  The technology was, by today’s standards, very simple.  You had a cassette player built into the back of the doll.  One track was a story told by Teddy. The other was a code track that would make Teddy’s mouth move and his eyes blink.  There had been no toy like it.

The babbling bear launches in time for Christmas 1985.  Teddy was an instant hit despite the hefty price of $70(that was viewed way more expensive back then).  Teddy might’ve been an expensive luxury, but parents didn’t care.  They were desperate to get their hands on it.  In the early ‘80’s, more parents than ever were working outside the home.  By 1980, 52% of families of families have both parents working full time.  Enter Teddy Ruxpin-friend and virtual nanny.  Every story Teddy told had a moral.  However, poor Teddy was soon to meet his maker.  Sales plummeted when knock-off copies and cheaper rival products flooded the market.  Its manufacturer, Worlds of Wonder, failed to come up with another hit.  In 1988, just three years after Teddy’s release, they go bust.

#9 revolves around dreams of a little girl with dreams of owning a pet.  She never forgot those dreams.  When she grew up, she realized that millions of other little girls might’ve had the same dream.  She was right.  Enter My Little Pony.  My Little Pony is one of the decade’s most popular toys.  Who knew its unbridled success would owe so much to President Ronald Regan’s de-regulation of tv?

My Little Pony was part of this ‘80’s movement.  Reagan unleashed toy companies to advertise directly to kids and also make cartons starring the same toys they want to sell.  Toy makers devise the best way to stand out in a crowded marketplace was to double-down on gender specific toys.  All Hasbro needed to do was to come up for the next big thing for girls.  Creator of My Little Pony Bonnie Zacherle says “the one thing in the world I always wanted was a horse.  My father always promised me that someday when he retired and got the dream house in the country, you’ll have your own horse.  I never got one, sad to say.  I knew there were some girls like me who would like horse and if I could make them into a small, soft little doll, it would be a good toy”.  Bonnie is adamant that her little horse should have a true to life appearance.  “I wanted natural colors.  I was a horsewoman.  I wanted Palomino, dappled gray.  Hasbro wanted there to be no mistake this was a girl’s toy.  Before Bonnie’s horse is ready for market, Hasbro demands a glamorous makeover.  This type of rigid gender stereotyping wouldn’t fly today.  In the ‘80’s, however, it was business as usual.

After the toys land in toy stores, a cartoon follows, introducing kids to new characters they could take home.  By the end of the decade, over 150 million My Little Pony’s are stabled in little girls’ bedrooms all over the world.  In 1982, six original ponies are released.  Now there are over 600 figures.  Even today, the miniature horses refuse to be put out to pasture.  There was a movie in 2021 called My Little Pony: A New Generation.  My Little Pony captured a generation of girls and some boys liked them as well.  

#8: It’s been said that art imitates life.  In the ‘80’s, art imitated larger-than-life.  Movie screens back then were filled with muscle men.  In 1976, toy company Mattel turned down the chance to make action figures for a new film destined for obscurity.  They’ve been licking their wounds ever since.  The movie? Star Wars.  ‘80’s toy collector and retailer Larry Wyatt says “Mattel needed a reaction really quick.  They needed a line of their own without purchasing the rights to a film franchise like Star Wars”.  Tearing boys away from Star Wars was no easy task.  If the start of the decade tought Mattel one thing, fantasy + muscles = millions.  To measure up to the decades new masculine ideal, Mattel is convinced their new toy has to be one boys can admire.  

Mark Taylor, He-Man creator: “I’d been developing heroic figures from the time I was a little boy and He-Man was openly proud of his body like Arnold Schwarzenegger.  These guys aren’t shy about it and I wanted this guy to be powerful.  The masters of The Universe toy line, with He-man leading the charge, is released in 1982.  To further boost sales, Mattel takes the lesson of Star Wars and applies it in reverse.  Star Wars was movie first, toy later.  Masters was toy first, cartoon later.  The He-Man animated series first airs in 1983.  Soon, boys across America have a new favorite macho role model that gives pre-pubescent lads something they yearn for: power.  With that power, there’s no better villain to fight than He-Man’s notorious nemesis, Skeletor.  Skeletor was everything He-Man wasn’t-depressing, sneaky and a liar.  The thing that drew kids to He-Man was that he started as Prince Adam, a normal guy.  Adam transformed into He-Man.  The lesson was that you could be a regular guy but, when needed, you can be a superhero.  At its peak, 9 million kids tuned into watch He-Man everyday and by 1986, the action figures rack up $400 million in sales.  Just like My Little Pony, He-Man’s legacy lives on: there was a He-Man movie in 2021.  Next week is part two of the final 80’s countdown!  Below are links to my podcast, Blendertainment.     


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