Now that my nephew is 2 ("...and a half!"), I've been planning out what to get him for birthday and Christmas presents, rather than not worry since he won't remember and will throw the stuff away before long. So I've been trying to keep my finger somewhat on the pulse of kids' culture. Well, more so than before, i.e. a few times a year vs. almost never.
Last year I gave my impression that there's a real lack of innovation in toys compared to when I was a child in the '80s. It's bad enough that the quality is degraded, so that most of it is just cheap crap from China, but I'm talking about the stages of production far before the thing rolls off some assembly line. There's just no thought put into the design process anymore. And it would be bad enough if the flow of good new ideas had stalled out, but it's worse still because they've wiped out many of the once common good ideas.
You see that especially in the "gross-out" category. I know there have been recent re-issues of the old Madballs toys and Garbage Pail Kids cards, but these must be for nostalgic adult collectors because I never see them anywhere toys are sold, including the second-hand places like the garage sales I pass by or the good will stores I visit now and then. And in kid-heavy public spaces I don't see them playing with these things. Similarly, you only see adults wearing shirts with a Decepticon logo, not kids.
Impressions aside, here's some harder evidence that the excitement factor in kids' culture has been plummeting since the early-mid '90s just as it has been in the teenage and adult culture. Many toy lines are made along with a cartoon to promote them, and the toy geeks at Wikipedia have put together a template of animated series based on toys. I'm sure this captures the big picture since its makers are obsessive.
No surprise that there's a ton in the '80s, and that most are unique series -- that was the golden age for toys and cartoons. A few of the '90s cartoons are actually from the pre-wussification period of 1990 and the first part of '91. And even the ones that came after the society's decline in wildness are mostly spin-offs or continuations of series begun in the '80s. There are even fewer entries from the 2000s, and even less variety among them. Of the 13 listed, nearly half consist of the 2 variations on G.I. Joe and the 4 on Transformers, both of which originated during the golden age. There are only four fundamentally new series from the past decade: A.T.O.M., Max Steel, Hot Wheels Battle Force 5, and Strawberry Shortcake.
This is not an effect of video games replacing TV cartoons since most people still watch a lot more TV than play video games, especially pre-pubescent kids. They may be spending some time here and there leveling up their dorky little Pokemon characters, but they're not yet in the adolescent (and sadly, adult) stage of being glued to their computer or home console for a quarter of a day playing Halo or World of Warcraft.
I also doubt that much of this change is explained by the size of the child population, either in absolute or fraction-of-the-whole terms. When the Baby Boom was in full swing, there were hardly any cool new toys and cartoons coming out. Sure, they had Davy Crockett hats and Rocky and Bullwinkle -- and all of that was much cooler than what's been for sale during the past 20 years -- but it was nothing compared to the explosion in kid culture during the '80s and very early '90s. There was also a mini boom that gave producers more kids to cater too during the late '90s and 2000s, yet with no effect on how exciting their products were.
Rather, it looks like rising-crime times -- and especially when the violence rate is near its peak -- cause people of all ages to want to indulge in exciting activities. For teenagers or adults, that's rock music, which died off in the '90s. For kids, it's action-packed cartoons and trailblazing action figures. (I've also written here before about the decline in their gross-out rhymes, playing truth-or-dare, or singing songs like "99 Bottles of Beer.") When life looks short and dangerous, why not live it up while you still can? When life looks long and safe, you might as well go to sleep and coast through it.
You may have already guessed it, but yes I am planning to do my best to protect my nephew from the overly protective culture of today. I'm going to get him some Garbage Pail Kids cards or a My Pet Monster stuffed animal when he hits elementary school, plus that freaky Dr. Seuss Halloween TV special. For now I'll ease him into it with a DVD set of Faerie Tale Theatre and some original Pound Puppies, Wuzzles, or those construction vehicle Transformers. And I'd better set aside an extra Nintendo, Super Nintendo, or Genesis so I can inoculate him against the nothing-to-do Grand Theft Auto games, Goldeneye clones, and soap opera role-playing games.
I realize that most of these efforts will have little effect, but it's better than contributing to the problem by getting him DVDs of Go Diego Go! Plus there's an off-chance that he'll dig a more rambunctious cartoon like Heathcliff or scarier looking toys like the Sectaurs. Hell, even the Teddy Ruxpin stories have more menace and evil in them than the so-called action shows of today.