Playing the Shadow World

How many times do I have to explain this to you?"

Casey is glaring at me from the bathtub. In his hand he holds a red action figure. He waves it at me.

Casey is my son. He's 5. We are trying to communicate across a huge cultural divide. In Casey's view, Santa must absolutely bring him a bigger version of the figure he holds in his hands. If he doesn't get it, he just might die.

"Don't you see? He can shoot flames! He has powers!"

And Casey wants those powers. Which will be his if only he acquires this figure.

I lean forward, trying to identify the figure. X-Man? MegaZord? BeetleBorg? I can't tell. There seems to be an entire universe of them now, a universe known only to children.

At bedtime, Casey puts the small figure on the pillow next to him and then goes to get another. The second is as unfamiliar to me as the first. Casey arranges the two of them on the pillow.

"They're warriors together," he says.

The world of children has always been a strange place to adults. But surely, it is now stranger and more ominous than before. As David Denby wrote recently in a New Yorker article titled, "Buried Alive," toys are not so much toys anymore. They're toy systems.

Toy systems, he wrote, "are available as a television show or a movie, or both, with links to computer games, video-arcade games, comic books, clothes and cereal boxes. Each part of the toy system sold another part, and so Max (Denby's son) was encased in fantasy props--stuff--virtually to the limits of his horizon."

The problem, he said, is not violence but rather the creation of "a shadow world in which our kids are breathing an awful lot of poison without knowing that there's clean air and sunshine elsewhere."

Los Angeles, of course, is the mother source of this shadow world. Just the other day, Steven Spielberg announced that he would be joining Sega, the video game company, in building a string of new, hyper-video arcades throughout the country. Doubtless they will feature the various characters that have appeared in Spielberg movies and television shows.

Power Rangers also flow from our fair city. So does Mega Man and Samurai Pizza Cats and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Animaniacs and Big Bad BeetleBorgs.

And that's the short list.

The other day I walked into the Macy's at Fashion Square in the valley only to notice that a trail of puppy dog paw prints had been printed on the sidewalk. They led into the store and down the central aisle.

Is there anyone on the planet who cannot guess the reason for these paw prints? Or, to put it another way, is there any retail enterprise on the planet that is not similarly infected with Dalmatian fever?

You simply cannot escape it. On our way back from buying a Christmas tree, Casey and I stopped at a MacDonald's. It was awash in Dalmatians. With his kid's antennae, Casey knew exactly what he was supposed to do.

He ordered his Happy Meal and fished out the Dalmatian toy system component of the day. It was--voila!--a dog! In case you haven't been exposed yet, MacDonald's has 101 different Dalmatian figures for happy eaters. Eat 101 happy meals and you just might get them all.

Casey has seen the movie so he explained his dog-of-the-day to me. His dog was a nice dog, Casey said. Some others are rowdy. He would like to get a rowdy one next.

As we sat, a MacDonald's person toured the room and eventually came to our table, giving Casey a cardboard hat fitted with Dalmatian ears. He wore it for the rest of the day.

It is ever the same on the kid front. One intense campaign leads to another. Last summer the happy meals were filled with components of the Batman system. That gave way to the Hunchback system, which gave way to the Dalmatian system.

Is that why the visage of Mickey Mouse seems more and more frightening these days? I believe so. The eternal smile on his face says, "I am making fools of you." And he is right.


Of course, here in Los Angeles you could argue that Mickey is us, and we are Mickey. The vast, worldwide enterprise of converting children into zombied consumerists is one that benefits many. In social situations, awkward moments can arise.

One afternoon this fall I was talking to a friend at a school picnic. She began describing some particularly galling episodes from the Power Rangers' cartoons when I noticed a man standing with his back to us. He was wearing a satin jacket with the words "Saban Entertainment" sewn across it.

Saban produces the Power Rangers. Was the man listening, intrigued by the vitriol? Or was he oblivious, watching his own child skip and hop with his friends? We never knew.

Anyway, now it's Christmas, and Casey wants his next action figure, the one I can't identify. He has seen it somewhere in cartoon form, or a friend has seen it, and he has replayed the cartoons in his mind and somehow this toy system has seeped into his skin. He believes it will make him feel powerful, and he must have it.

Maybe he will get it, maybe not. But the real issue is settled. The shadow world has lured him into wanting, even needing. It has done its work.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World