Looking back on the kinds of presents we Gen X-ers used to get for Christmas, birthdays, or just as a special treat for no greater reason, I'm struck by how uncoupled they were from the mass media / entertainment ecosystem.
To reiterate, there was a massive change with the Millennial generation, or rather with their helicopter parents, who locked them inside all day long during their developmental years, rationalizing it as keeping them safe from bad influences (AKA their neighbors and their neighborhood). Since kids need some kind of external stimulation and interaction, the helicopter parents decided to saturate their kids with mass media and entertainment products, which replaced connections to the outside physical and social world.
As a result, all Millennial experiences have been mediated through these devices and informational products, right up through the present and their online-connected devices that deliver (para)social media and streaming entertainment content. They only remember physical items from their childhood if they were closely connected in their memory to a mass-media product -- a TV show, movie, video game, omnipresent ad campaign, etc. See this recent post.
That includes physical items like toys -- Millennials only connected with toy lines that were heavily co-branded with a big-hit TV show, movie, video game, etc. For example, the X-Men figures that tied in with the popular X-Men cartoon of the early '90s, Power Rangers, Tickle-Me Elmo, Sonic the Hedgehog merch in various forms, and so on and so forth. There was only one notable exception -- Furby (unless Millennial kids played with Beanie Babies, which I think were mostly for Boomer collectors). I consider the Tamagotchi as a stand-alone video game, rather than a physical toy.
Certainly the '80s had no shortage of toy lines that were tie-ins to popular cartoons and movies -- Star Wars, He-Man, Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, (the Real) Ghostbusters, and various others. Our memories of those toys are closely connected to our memories of the cartoons and movies.
However, those barely scratch the surface of toy-world and kid-life in the '80s, which was awash in all sorts of toy lines -- many of which were not derived from an existing, popular entertainment franchise.
In the appendix to this post, I've shown examples of quite a few that I remember off the top of my head, and stopped after awhile because there are simply too many to show pictures of: Starriors, Bone Age, Sectaurs, Supernaturals, Rock Lords, Crystar, Inhumanoids, Boglins, M.U.S.C.L.E., Madballs, and Computer Warriors. To list a few others that are not in the image appendix: Power Lords, Food Fighters, Barnyard Commandos, Mad Scientist (including "dissect an alien"), My Pet Monster... I really could go all day long!
Oh sure, the creators of the toys may have produced a limited-run cartoon that aired for two weeks, never went into re-runs or syndication, and was not seen or remembered by the kids because the cartoon was poorly made or boring or whatever. They may have even put a handful of commercials into rotation on TV. Maybe they made a 4-issue comic book series that no kid actually read (not the least because the comic book format was rapidly fading from importance for small kids during the '80s). And in several cases, there was no pre-existing or concurrent mass media tie-in at all -- just the toy line unto itself.
By and large, though, these toy lines were only known from actual visits by the kids to actual toy-stores and looking over the actual physical items for sale. All of the advertising and branding went into the package design. If the toy "did something," this was visually demonstrated in pictures on the packaging, perhaps with a caption to explain it. Since you hadn't seen such things on cartoons, movies, video games, or even commercials, you had to figure out from the packaging and the toy itself inside, whether it was worth buying or not.
That was the heyday for buying toys IRL, from the huge toy-store chains like Toys R Us and Children's Palace, to the smaller-scale chains like K-B Toys, to mid-market department stores like K-Mart and Woolworth's, all the way down to general closeout stores like Odd Lots (since rebranded as Big Lots).
If you wanted to know what was new in the toy market, you didn't bother watching hours of TV just to see a handful of toy commercials, nor did you watch hours of cartoons to see if their toys might be worth playing with. You simply had your parents drive you to Toys R Us, browse the selection, and compare the many many many wares on display. In other words, the purpose of a toy-store visit was not only to pick up an item that you already knew you wanted, but to learn about what all was available by browsing IRL (rather than learning this info through the mass media).
What difference did it make if you didn't recognize the toys on display from a cartoon, movie, commercial, etc.? Either it looked cool and fun, or it didn't. We judged them on their own toy-like merits, not their brand synergy with existing intellectual property franchises. Even without a hyped-up cartoon to relate it to, the toy had some special appeal that was apparent right there in the toy-store -- the translucent and geometric forms of the Crystar figures, Bone Age's dinosaur skeletons that could be reassembled into vehicles or buildings (borrowing from Lego blocks and Transformers), the horror hologram stickers on the Supernaturals, the gross-out feel of their skin and the try-it-in-the-package puppeteering of the Boglins, and so on and so forth.
No cartoons or commercials required! -- they could not hope to convey, palpably and immediately, what the items for sale in the store could so easily.
It wasn't even as though we balked at the toy lines that we didn't associate with a media property, but were more willing than Millennials to give such things a chance, to take a risk. We simply did not treat toys as derivative products from a primary media property like a cartoon. The toys themselves were primary and fundamental -- some of them happened to have counterparts in cartoon-world, and some of them happened not to, and we didn't think a second thought about those differences. Were they fun to play with, or not?
For the heavily mediatized experiences of Millennials, though, such toy lines were not really real. They were not the physical incarnation of characters from a favorite cartoon / movie / video game. So in a way, those toy-makers were just making shit up, lying and deceiving the kids. "That's not a real hero, he's not on TV or in a Nintendo game at all!" They would've felt like such toys were counterfeits, knockoffs, dimestore versions of the real deal (mass media merch).
This is not the difference between old-timey toys that were artisanally made and unbranded. The Gen-X toys were mass-produced by industrial factories, and were very heavily branded -- it's just that this branding often had nothing to do with mass media franchises, and the advertising was only the physical packaging, not a mass-mediated ad campaign. This is the only crucial difference -- do physical things belong to their own world, or do they only exist if they're extensions of a mass-media franchise?
And given how socially outgoing the '80s were, compared to the cocooning era of the '90s and after, kids didn't only have toy stores to find toys at. We checked out garage sales, second-hand stores, and the toy-boxes of our friends and same-age relatives. At that point, not even the packaging was there -- it was just you and the toy, and it resonated with you or it did not. I got quite a few of my favorite toys that way, and I never knew the name of the line they came from (let alone the specific individuals in my possession) until I investigated out of curiosity in adulthood. That could never appeal to the average Millennial, for whom these strange toys could not plug into an existing mediatized experience.
This also underscores the far more active imaginations that Gen X had (and still has), compared to Millennials. We didn't have to know the figure's name, what line they were from, what the intended narrative was around them, their character traits, relations to others, etc., as told in a cartoon, movie, or whatever. We would just make up the story-lines ourselves! It's not that hard.
Good guy and other good guy are friends, bad guy hurts one of the good guys, and the other good guy avenges him against the bad guy. Or one good guy betrays the other good guy, joins the bad guy, and now the remaining good guy has to take on two bad guys instead of one -- but he's so angry over the betrayal, it gives him a new motivation and determination to see it through.
Who could possibly care what their "real" names are, what their "real" roles are, and what the "real" plot-lines are? Who died and made some cartoon writer king? They're our toys, we'll make them do whatever we feel like. Lighten up, it's just action figures -- it's not committing sacrilege, as though we were making a Jesus toy betray the other disciple toys, instead of the Judas toy playing that role.
* * *
This example shows how different these toys as fundamental things-in-their-own-world are from "merch" of a mass media franchise. For merch, the form and function is basically the same as the version that is not branded with the relevant franchise -- either branded with some other franchise, or not at all. A t-shirt with a Sonic the Hedgehog picture on it is the same as a t-shirt with a Pokemon picture on it, or no picture at all. It's a t-shirt, and the branding is applied at the most superficial level, not changing the form or function of the item.
This was parodied in Spaceballs during the "moichendizing, moichendizing..." scene. It's not like "Spaceballs: the flamethrower" is different from the same flamethrower without the Spaceballs branding on it. But if you're a diehard member of the Spaceballs fandom, maybe you'll buy any old thing, as long as it has the Spaceballs branding on it.
The trend toward toys as an existing pop culture tie-in, and simply re-skinning the same underlying form, while also not changing its function, has reached its peak in the Funko pop phenomenon. The vinyl figures all look highly similar in their proportions (notably the big head), their material, and their function (to sit on a shelf as display items). Only the most superficial re-skinning work distinguishes the Harry Potter figure from the Shakira figure.
Not only are the figures highly interchangeable within the line, by this point the Funko pops are *the* sole popular toy line. "Should we make a toy for some media property?" has instead become "When do we make the Funko pop for that property?"
Back in the '80s, each toy line was different from the other -- He-Man figures were not built like Star Wars figures, whether in size, color, articulation, material, etc. "Toy" did not merely reduce to "He-Man or He-Man clone," one toy-form to rule them all, as today's toy-world reduces to Funko pops or clones.
But more than that, the various figures within a single toy line were all distinctive. Sure, they shared enough in common to be recognizable as belonging to the same line. But they had to be different enough to warrant buying all the figures -- if they were too similar, and only re-skinned, well, what does one add that the others do not? So just within the He-Man line, one was covered in a moss-like material, another had a stinky odor within the plastic it was made from, one had a heavy rubbery tail, while another had large translucent bee wings, one could spin his torso around indefinitely in a cyclone, while another was a reptile that could spit water from his mouth, and so on and so forth. No two were alike.
If the toy is a physical thing first and foremost, and interacts with other toys, in its own toy-world, then its particular physical form, material, actions, etc., all matter very much. It's why you buy that toy over another toy.
But if the toy is merely the physical incarnation of a character from a mass-media franchise, which has no physicality itself, then who cares what form it takes when incarnated? As long as it's a physical presence, whether to hold in your hand or display on your shelf, that's enough. It's just a space-taker-upper that reminds you of that character you saw in a cartoon, movie, video game, or whatever. It doesn't need to be made from a certain material, to have certain kinds of articulation, to perform certain special motions or actions, to come with its own accessories / weapons / etc., or to be paired with certain vehicles or playsets that recreate the specific environment of that cartoon, movie, or whatever.
In fact, it's not something you actually play with, by itself or interacting with other toys. It really is the purest form of the devolution of toys into merch, where the underlying forms are interchangeable and fungible and homogeneous, with only superficial branding applied to distinguish the different entries in the list. At Hot Topic, the wall o' Funko pops is no different from the wall o' band t-shirts -- all the same fundamental physical thing, just with different branding on the surface.
RIP toys, and physical stuff in general, victims of helicopter parenting and the exclusively mass-mediated experiences of the Millennial and Zoomer generations. I have a 13 year-old Gen Alpha nephew, and I don't see the tide turning with his generation either -- or rather, the generation that is parenting them (very late X-ers and early Millennials).
But like I always say, things move in cycles, however long the period may be. This isn't the first time that helicopter parenting has been the norm, cocooning the norm, and toys only as extensions of mass-media franchises.
Remember in A Christmas Story (set in the cocooning period of circa 1940, when helicopter parenting was also in vogue), the main toy in his life is a decoder ring? It's branded with, and relies on consuming, a popular mass-media franchise -- the radio program Little Orphan Annie. And what secret message does it send to its owners? Another form of mass-media content -- a commercial! "Remember to drink your Ovaltine". The other toy he's pining for -- a Red Ryder BB gun -- is also branded after a cowboy character from a popular Western-themed comic strip. That's a heavily mass-mediated experience of toys.
As Midcentury cocooning began going away during the '60s, and vanishing by the '80s, we didn't need to brand our most in-demand toy guns after popular media franchises. It spoke for itself, in pure toy-world terms -- "Lazer Tag".
* * *