The Toys That Made Us: Two Seasons of Our Childhood Come to Light

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Fellow nerds, if you have not yet seen The Toys That Made Us streaming on Netflix, you are losing fanatic points. This series gets into the deepest part of the shows, characters, and movies we love from a whole new perspective. We think the movies and TV shows we love control our lives, nope – it’s the toys. You can think back to each figure, each doll, each toy ship, and your heart jumps with joy. This show makes you realize…wow, I guess the toys own my childhood – hence The Toys That Made Us.

It’s All About The Toys

Season One delved deep into those big name nerd commodities – Star Wars, Barbie, He-Man, and G.I Joe. There are things you cannot believe about these markets and franchises. If you didn’t know before, now you will – that the main reason any TV show or movie franchise was made was to do one thing and one thing only – bring us a deep love, joy and inspiration for the future – Yea… No. It was to sell toys.

Some of the shows ingrained into our culture were actually just toys! To keep the kids wanting more, and the parents shelling out the money, they made TV shows, comics and more based on these toys. In this case, He-Man and G.I. Joe started as toy lines. Toy makers knew that in order to get kids attached to these characters, they needed backstories, they needed a whole world. So who do they call on? They bring on the comic writers, who apparently were not down with writing for toys. I guess in the comic world, you were nothing if you wrote for toy lines… damn. Tell that to Bob Budiansky who gave sleepless nights making Transformers – transform our lives.

“I’ve got the power!”: Taking Risks and Makin’ Stacks

Either way, these toy companies have been making millions since the 80s. I’m being a bit harsh saying they were only in it for the money, in reality it wasn’t even about the money. These toy makers and designers are literally kids who got big. They are giddy, excited, passionate, and innovative peoples who just want to bring their imaginations to life. When these people talk about toys, it’s like watching the holders of my childhood living it over and over and over again – it really brings a smile to your face. You also scream at the screen – “OMG, I had that!”

The designers and execs of these companies never knew what was going to be a hit and what wasn’t. They were always risking everything to give life to their creations. For example, George Lucas’s PR exec in charge of licensing Star Wars to toy companies, could not get any interest! Every toy company turned it down, big companies like Mattel and Hasbro! Finally a small midwest company called Kenner toys, located in the Kroger building, took it on. Serendipitously someone on staff at Kenner was a big George Lucas fan and they got the deal.

The Star Wars movies have made over 7 billion dollars in theaters throughout the years and the toys – twice that! After everyone passed, Kenner took a risk and made millions upon millions. But as I was saying – it’s not all about the money. In reality they didn’t know if Star Wars would make it or flop – and well, look at us now… I just saw a Star Wars franchised movie the other day – hell, I’d buy w/e toys they make of Childish Gambino as Lando!

Really, as someone who collects Pops and had been playing with these toys since I was a zygote, this show is a haven for the toy collector. You learn so many things you thought you knew, like Barbie is short for Barbara! Ok, maybe I am the only one who didn’t realize that – but Barbie is based on a Switzerland call girl cartoon strip and doll…Oh ok.

It is really inspiring to see the story of this women led company making billions off Barbie. It is astounding the evolution and invention these toys bring, for instance G.I Joe LITERALLY invented the term “action figure.” When trying to pitch the idea to execs, they kept saying boys don’t want to play with dolls, so one toymaker said “ this isn’t a doll.. It’s a…an – action figure.” Yes, the show also shows you the foundation of imposed gender roles and conformity… girl toys, boy toys, dolls and removing Barbie’s nipples etc. I mean male execs didn’t even want Barbie to have boobs with nipples. Mattel was breaking down boundaries by having a doll that really looked like a woman and gave girls a tangible play thing to dream about their futures….

The Final Frontier of Playthings

That said, Season 2 gets into more of the genres we remember like Star Trek, Transformers, Lego and Hello Kitty.

If there is one thing season one taught me, it was that you could repaint and slap on a new sticker to any toy to make it a new genre, something called “kitbashing.” They use the same form models for some truck drivers from Fisher-Price to make stormtroopers. There is no toy that did this more than Star Trek, which is hilarious to me because Star Trek fans are the most particular fans (my mother included.) But they still wanted to sell the Star Trek franchise making anything they could. Like a random helmet – which they never wear in the show, and parachuting Spock…

They made all kinds of toys that had nothing to do with Star Trek – I think they were really expecting the franchise to take off and be the best selling toys in America (but… Star Wars toys years later def take the cake.) The toys that made us really gives you the behind the scenes of these shows you don’t always see (unless you are a Trekkie and already know everything.) For instance, Lucille Ball was the only one willing to actually produce the Star Trek show… waaaaaahhh?? Dope.

Sadly no one really was interested in Star Trek until it went into syndication, w/e it is timeless now! Seeing the toys that were put out makes you truly appreciate the diverse nature of Star Trek characters and storylines throughout the years. I love Star Trek, I cannot claim Trekkie status, but I’m definitely interested in watching the full original series all over again.

Behind the Molds

The Toys That Made Us reminds us that our childhood really is within these designers’ hands. Who could talk about toys from our past without bringing in Transformers – now this was a franchise made only to sell toys. The first step was – hey look these toys transform into, trucks, tape cassettes, and a gun… make a backstory – then bam! We’ve got Bumble Bee saving Shia LaBeouf with Michael Bay explosions. When you find out that these toys were licensed from Japan, you’re like oh ok that makes sense. But learning about the true intended nature of each character from the developers and manufacturers themselves is something to behold. I’m not gonna get into it – just watch it.

When you remember the crazes and the many playthings, you get so excited. I learned that Hello Kitty started with a modest coin purse. Japanese toy company, Sanrio researched that white kitties were popular, so they made this character. Oh my goodness – the Hello Kitty explosion is out of this world. It literally invented a characteristic called “Kawaii,” in crude terms – tiny cute stuff. This is the episode I screamed, “ I have that!” I wasn’t a Hello Kitty fanatic, I’m more of a Keroppi gal, but anyone who shopped at Claire’s in their youth, could not resist these “Kawaii” staples.

Only The Best Is Good Enough

The show also gets into the Lego empire. I played with Legos as a small child too…Well – yesterday. I mean any video game that has Lego in front of it, I own it and play it. Any movie with Lego in front of it, I’ve seen it – even the random Netflix originals…minus Lego Ninjago – it’s just not made for me. I digress, the point is you find out, unbeknownst to me and maybe the rest of the nerd loving world, Lego almost went out of business in like 2003. That was not that long ago…

It’s a company founded in and now thriving from Denmark in a town called Billund. Apparently Lego runs their lives, really – I think the heart of the town is made of Legos… It is definitely their pride and joy. A company that means “play well” and is based on growing kids’ creativity, has to make everyone happy. This episode takes you on a Legoland ride of ups and downs you never realized was happening as you were building strange structures with your bucket of Legos.

Thank The Toy Gods

The legacy of these toys is about taking huge risks, having unmatched imagination and skill, the ups and downs, getting the perfect timing, and maintaining a childlike creativity for life. The great thing about the Toys That Made Us is, it takes you from the humble beginnings/creations to the toys and worlds we literally interact with presently. I constantly am thinking, oh man kids these days are just not playing with toys. All Toys R Us closing down and the rise of technology and social media, kids don’t know what they are missing! But then I see Lego has an entire robotics championship with kids creating automated Lego robots and winning prizes. These toys with staying power have not only raised us, but continue to inspire comic book writers, creators, engineers, movie makers, and designers. Thank the toy Gods.

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  • Aisha Jordan bio: Actor, Writer, Arts Administrator. I am a movie nerd. Born and raised, action and adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, cartoon enthusiast, and aficionado. Raised by a Trekkie mom in a world of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings. Foundation in social justice theater and playing in the nerd and entertainment world.

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