Toying with free speech

Monday, June 28, 1999

The Austin Powe...
The Austin Powers doll.

Washington Redskins fullback John Riggins raised a few eyebrows several years ago when he told Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at some Washington gala, “Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up.”

Those words may not be the most appropriate for a Supreme Court justice, but many Americans these days certainly need to “loosen up.” Nothing, it seems, is too inane or innocuous to provoke a spasm of public hysteria, paranoia or a little bit of both.

The latest example that comes to mind: Having heaped oceans of vitriol on the makers of video games, CDs, television shows and movies in recent weeks, some of the self-appointed guardians of our well-being are moving on to a new evil stalking our young. That would be toys.

What else are we to think as panicked parents and professional moralizers grab the media megaphone to proclaim a social Armageddon led by a phalanx of trash-talking Austin Powers dolls, sex-addled Tarzan dolls, and other Toys of Terror?

What is going on in the minds of people who get so worked up over such things?

Apparently the reasoning (if that’s what you want to call it) goes something like this: “Dolls are, after all, little people — OK, representations of little people. But the point is, we know how evil people are and how easy it is for evil people to make our children evil.”

In other words, certain toys speak to our children in a voice much more persuasive than that of their parents, their teachers, or their ministers. Therefore, toys that reek of sex or violence — and, God knows, there are a lot of them — must be silenced.

Consider some recent dispatches from across the nation.

Last week an East Point, Ga., woman complained to police that an Austin Powers doll was obscene. The police declined to get involved but the Toys “R” Us store where she and her 11-year-old son were offended removed the dolls from the shelves. What set the mother off was an excess of interest by her son in a sentence on the package for the “Ultra ‘Cool’ Action Figure” from the movie “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” The sentence, repeated by a voice chip in the doll, read: “Do I make you horny, baby, do I?” The manufacturer explained that the store apparently had received the wrong doll. The more kid-friendly version asks, “Would you fancy a shag?”

Also last week, several Tarzan toys were provoking overheated conversations on the Internet about the possible poses that the figures’ moveable arms and legs could be twisted into. That prompted heated denials from the maker — and a promise to secure the arms so that they couldn’t fall into compromising positions during shipment.

Then there was that little dust-up about the Spice Girls dolls, which some found too suggestive because of the proximity of hand-held microphones to their mouths.

And just one more: A Latino supermarket chain in Los Angeles recently removed gum-ball machines selling Homies figurines because they looked too much like gang members. The six collectible figurines, dressed in white T-shirts, baggy pants, bandanas and knit caps, might lead children to join gangs, said a member of the police department and citizens campaigning against the figurines.

This most recent spate of madness started off earlier this year, of course, when the National Liberty Journal, edited and published by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, warned parents that Tinky Winky the Teletubby was a gay role model. Said Falwell: “As a Christian I feel that role modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children.”

Is that what it’s all about? Protecting our children? Or is it more about protecting a certain view of the world and forcing others to share it?

The ones making such a fuss over these toys forget those GI Joes and Barbie dolls hidden away in their own closets. They forget that somehow they managed to reach adulthood without becoming a menace to society despite all those childhood hours spent with those sex- and violence-drenched toys.

Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody just loosened up a bit?

Has our national hysteria reached such a point that we declare war on toys that go bump in our psyches? Is it so great that we will exaggerate, lie, misconstrue, leap to conclusions, grasp at straws, strain at gnats — all to expiate our inner demons about our children’s playthings? Forget violent video games; with this game we can do violence to common sense itself. Forget horror flicks; we have scarier things to make us shriek and break out in goose bumps. Forget rap; we have our own songs of terror to sing.

Perhaps some toys today are a little more sophisticated with computer chips that allow them to utter the same lines over and over. Moveable limbs certainly allow them to speak symbolically. But can toys really talk? And if they could, should they be shut up?

Ridiculous, isn’t it? Do we really have so little faith in the standards that we set for our children that we believe playthings can subvert them?

Or is it that all this really isn’t about what people buy for themselves or let their own kids buy. It’s about preventing others from making those decisions for themselves. It isn’t the computer-chip voices or suggestive poses of toys but our reactions to toys that speaks volumes.

And the nature of some of those reactions these days is enough to make even a First Amendment advocate wonder whether freedom of speech should include the freedom to whine.

Paul McMasters can be reached at