For 30 years, children, primarily girls before their teen years, have played with plastic dolls called My Little Pony. The first My Little Pony hit the toy stores in 1983 as a single doll. Now manufacturer Hasbro sells dozens of models, each with its own name and distinct look; plus My Little Pony doll houses, board games, video games, movies, a TV series, live shows, apps, coloring books, stickers, ear buds, jewelry, calendars, party supplies, clothing, blankets, trading cards, sippy cups, toy cars and a series of female dolls called Equestria Girls. The movies and other narratives involving the little plastic equines take place in Dream Valley, an imaginary land of ghosts, witches and fairies. In these stories love and friendship conquer all and the good always win.
Every detail of every My Little Pony branded product is artfully designed to appeal to the traditional image of girls aged 4-11: the subject matter, the colors, the story lines in the narratives and every other element plays to the frilly and gentle conformist image of the traditional middle class American elementary school-aged girl. Like Disney princesses, My Little Pony gives girls outlets for expressing and exploring the sexist values of traditional society while enforcing those values. More importantly, My Little Pony (and Disney Princesses) train young girls how to be brand-loyal consumers—they can practice their good consumer skills by collecting the myriad of My Little Pony products on sale once hooked on the brand.
What a bizarre variation on the theme of adult infantilization is the growing number of adult men who collect My Little Pony products. These men are called Bronies and evidently there are enough of them to form fan clubs and to mob Brony conventions in Baltimore and California last year. The Baltimore convention was called BronyCon and attracted thousands of adult males dedicated to the conventionally sentimental plastic horse culture. A news report quoted one avid fan as saying “It’s fun and it’s sweet, and it’s a strong moral thing.”
Yes, My Little Pony presents a sweet moral universe, but it’s an uncomplicated one in which there are only good guys and bad guys and strict rules of conduct that leave no room for the ambiguity that haunts the adult world and propels adult entertainment. The morality is what we want little girls to believe before they grow up into young women. That adult men feel free to cross traditional gender boundaries and enjoy entertainment once thought of as only for females is a good thing. But unfortunately, we’re not talking about reading Doris Lessing or doing needlepoint. We’re talking about a series of branded products focused entirely on the mentality and emotional level of girls before puberty.
It’s another example of adults who haven’t grown up, what I have been calling the infantilization of American adults.
And here’s one more example of adult infantilization in the news: AFOLs, or adult followers of Legos. Inputting “AFOL” into my Google Search engine yields 1.6 million results; “Adult followers of Lego” (without quotation marks) yields 106 million! These references send us to articles about AFOLs, AFOL fan clubs and chat rooms and even documentaries about the AFOL phenomenon. AFOLs certainly must have contributed to the amazing first week success of the Lego movie.
Unlike My Little Pony, which I believe is a tool to indoctrinate young girls into being quiet and happy participants in the Great American Consumption machine, Lego is a great toy. It gives children the opportunity to build things and to follow printed directions, but also the opportunity to explore the processes of putting things together to create their own constructions. I have fond memories of my son loving Legos as a child; he was able to build the most sophisticated and expensive Lego sets so quickly that I figured out that this first use of the sets cost me about $60 an hour. Luckily, he also liked to build his own buildings, ships and cities using the tens of thousands of little Lego pieces we accumulated over the five or six years he played with Legos, so I feel we got good value out of the toys.
That was then and this is now—and in his case, now means conducting original research in the science of earth-quaking buildings en route to a PhD from Stanford. It’s obvious that his time with Legos helped him develop the intellectual skills he employs every day. I would, however, be concerned if he were still playing with Legos, went to Lego conventions or wanted to see the Lego movie.
Lego helped my son and many other boys and girls develop both intellectually and emotionally. It was the perfect toy for a pre-teen’s mentality and intellectual level. But it was and is a toy. It frightens me to think that so many adults without children of their own are still fascinated by Legos.
Like the Brony, the AFOL reflects the infantilization of American adults. By keeping their old entertainment habits, infantilized adults remain in the intellectual and emotional world of the child. It’s a trend that must warm the hearts of retailers, especially those of branded products. Whether it’s reading comic books, playing shoot-‘em-up video games, visiting Disney theme parks or playing with Legos or My Little Ponies, the infantilized adult is operating on the level of a child, and it’s far easier to manipulate a child into buying or doing something than to do so to an adult.