Friday, March 28, 2008

oh really, emily bazelon?

Emily Bazelon, a Slate senior editor, is a journalist whose work I consistently admire. (She joins - off the top of my tired head - Elizabeth Hamilton, Lynne Tuohy, Lisa Chedekel, Dahlia Lithwick, George Packer, A. O. Scott, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Jason Horowitz and others in an ever-evolving but always prestigious lineup.) Bazelon has a law degree from Yale and writes clearly on complex legal issues, often exploring moral implications of policies, outlooks and research pertaining to women and child development. She's clever at using her sons as illustrative examples.

It's all great except a recent Slate piece called "The Genius of Webkinz." Bazelon makes an argument as to why parents, wary of allowing their kids' neurons to rot in an internet abyss, should laud Webkinz - it helps teach kids that what's inside, be it a soul or an online incarnation, is more important than the furry packaging. It's all tidy Western, Christian metaphysics. But that's not why I first wondered what possessed her to write the item - it was, rather, her start(l)ing premise critiquing childhood attachment to stuffed animals.

The intro uses The Velveteen Rabbit as the classic kid-loves-furry toy scenario. "[W]hen the old bunny in the story becomes 'a mass of scarlet fever germs' threatening the health of a sick and actually real little boy, the lesson is that his bunny should not be safely replaced by a nice, clean, new bunny. Oh, no. This would be an act of betrayal, because as every good child knows, you are supposed to love your stuffed animal no matter how worn and dirty, and reject any shiny cheap-date substitute," Bazelon writes. "[W]hen stuffed animals get lost or destroyed, they are damningly hard to replace. Kids don't buy that they're fungible, just like a green Lego."

The Velveteen Rabbit says that when a child loves a stuffed animal hard enough, it become Real. For a child, "real" reads as an inanimate object morphing into fur and bone. For the older set, it refers to the strength of the love children feel for their dolls and stuffed animals. The real aspect is not that kids actually think their stuffed animals are alive (though, a la Sara Crewe, they may imagine it so) but that they endow them with individuality. Childhood objects remain a tangible connection to our more innocent selves. I knew at age nine when I convinced my mom's friend to buy me a stuffed dog that he was a common model that came in multiple sizes. That stuffed animal has been everywhere with me for the past 14 years. He isn't fungible.

Bazelon's argument hinges on an anecdote about a friend's daughter dropping a Webkinz bunny out the window and the girl's older sister convincing her that the "real" bunny isn't gone because its soul is in the computer. They ordered a new plush version without further tumult. This reads more like another example of how screen-based entertainment is killing childhood imagination than praise for pixels. Webkinz killed a chance to use a family car ride to discuss life (and death) using a toy alive in the child's mind as catalyst.

I prefer a friend's account of her ten-year-old daughter's approach to the toys: "[She] and her friends still play with them just as they would conventional stuffed animals, the online part has lost its luster, but the toy part remains!"

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