If you grew up in the 80’s or 90’s, odds are you spent a good chunk of your formative years eyeballs deep in Toy Culture. These years weren’t simply dominated by the toys that filled toy shelves and kids closets (arguably some of the most imaginative stuff we’ve ever seen), but the culture that sprang up around what we played with.
When Mattel mastered (or stumbled upon) the multi-media formula that made He-Man and The Masters of the Universe toy line such an enormous hit, every other toy line on the planet followed suit. And while He-Man was the first to combine a toy line (supported by a surprisingly detailed mythology) with a popular cartoon, a comic book and a merchandising line that included just about everything else under the sun, every other toy soon had a comic book, cartoon show and were selling bedsheets, bath towels and trading cards as well.
You couldn’t turn around during those years without seeing a dozen or more popular characters emblazoned everywhere. Toy shelves, the airwaves, comic book racks and even the cereal aisle were overflowing with our favourite characters. Toys were a genuine culture and we loved it (and it drove our parents nuts). And the early 80’s through to the mid 90’s was easily Toy Culture’s Golden Age, captivating and sculpting an entire generation.
Not surprisingly, that’s the era that Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us wallows in, offering an apologetically nostalgic romp through most of our childhoods. It also offers plenty of insight into the creations of some of the world’s most popular toy lines, often going as far back as the 1970’s (in Barbie’s case, all the way back to the 50’s) for cultural context. It talks to as many of the people involved with the original toys as possible with its tongue planted firmly in is cheek. In fact, access to the original toymakers was one of the criteria producer Brian Volk-Weiss used when choosing what toy lines he was going to focus his documentary on.
Netflix dropped the first four episodes of The Toys That Made Us premier season just before Christmas with little fanfare (the original promo-trailer was nowhere to be found to accompany this post). Each episode focuses on a different toy line with Star Wars kicking it off. Subsequent episodes look at Barbie, He-Man and The Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe. Not only does each episode reveal plenty about what went on behind the scenes (it spends surprisingly little attention on the toys themselves), it also offers up plenty of nuggets about the people and companies behind them.
You may not care about Barbie as a toy, but the story surrounding her is nothing short of fascinating. For instance, the show documents how Mattel co-founder and CEO Ruth Handler (who was already looking for a new product to appeal to the desperately under serviced girl demographic) discovered a doll based on a German sex comic during a trip to Europe. And so, Barbie was born, inspired by the Bild-Lilli sex doll.
But even after overcoming the doubts and prejudices of her male colleagues at both Mattel and America’s major retailers, Handler couldn’t convince women to buy a doll with breasts for their daughters.
Undeterred, Handler hired an Austrian psycho-analyst to come tup with a marketing strategy to win over America’s reluctant mothers (who knew Barbie had such European roots?). When they framed Barbie as an instructional aid to teach young girls how to land a husband (this was during the 50’s), the same mothers who sneered at Barbie decided virtually overnight that their daughters needed five, complete with additional wardrobe and accessories.
We learn that the decision to include comic books with He-Man figures (which became almost as popular as the toys themselves) was a spur of the moment decision made by a Mattel executive during a sales meeting to close a deal with a major retail chain. The cartoon that soon became synonymous with the toy line and inspired a million copycats was created the exact same way at a meeting with Toys R Us weeks later. Yes, the formula that shaped a billion dollar industry and influenced millions of kids the world over was an impulsive fluke.
We learn that Hasbro held off on releasing it’s revamped G.I. Joe line of action figures for a year so The Empire Strikes Back could complete its theatrical run. Hasbro was hoping Joe would compete with Kenner’s red hot Star Wars line but didn’t want it competing with Darth Vader and the gang while there was a Star Wars movie currently breaking the box office. During the year Hasbro sat on the Joes line, writer Larry Hama wrote up specific biographical profiles for each of the characters to help him write the comic book Marvel was launching in conjunction with the new line. Those profiles helped flesh out the the characters individuality, which was key to G.I. Joe’s eventual stratospheric success.
And all of that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Volk-Weiss and director Tom Stern talked to plenty of creators, writers and executives, perhaps offering the most candid look at the history of 80’s Toy Culture we’ve ever been afforded. The show’s interview with former Kenner lawyer Jim Kipling is the first time Kipling has ever spoken of the negotiations with Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox regarding the Star Wars toy line that earned two dollars for every one the movie trilogy grossed (George Lucas declined to be interviewed).
The real charm of this show is that, as mentioned earlier, it focuses very little on the toys themselves. Rather it examines the culture (Hasbro resurrected G.I. Joe to exploit America’s rising wave of patriotism following Ronald Reagan’s election) as well as the drama and maneuvering behind the scenes (Mattel’s response to Hasbro’s Jem doll could be an episode all on its own). And it doesn’t shy away from the boom or bust nature of the industry. With the exception of Barbie, most of these toys had definite shelf lives. Until they were relaunched, sometimes unsuccessfully.
The remaining four episodes of Season 1 will drop later this year, focusing on Star Trek, The Transfomers, Hello Kitty and Lego. And while Netflix is waiting to see how well the first season is received, Volk-Weiss says he has plenty of ideas should a second season be green lit. Considering that toy lines were as expansive as they were expensive in the 80’s, there will be no shortage of material for a second season.