Monday, November 21, 2011

review: Buy Baby Buy

Our house is slowly being taken over by Stuff. Baby stuff. And, as she gets older, the more stuff we seem to accumulate. It doesn’t help that I have a bit of a hoarding tendency anyway, can’t resist the many second-hand baby sales in our suburb (‘it’s for a good cause!’) and find one way to alleviate boredom is to have a look around the shops. I’m in two minds as to whether to get rid of the clothes and toys she has outgrown, as I am in two minds as to whether there will be a Babe: the Sequel. If there is, it would be a shame to get rid of these things. Just in case.

But babies don’t really need much: you can wash them in the kitchen sink or existing bath, carry them in a sling, and even tuck them up in a drawer (open, of course) as an alternative to baby baths, buggies and bassinets. You can entertain them with empty tissue boxes, stones in empty plastic bottles and found objects from around the house. And yet there is now a huge market aimed at babies: not just for ‘essentials’ like cots, buggies, clothes and the like, but also for toys, books, games, DVDs, you name it. The marketing of such things is aimed at parents, and aims to harness their desire to do - or, in this case, buy - the very best for their child.

This dramatic increase in consumption is the subject of American journalist Susan Gregory Thomas’s book Buy Baby Buy: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds (2009). How’s that for sub-title?! It sounds like it will sternly ‘tell us the truth’ about consumer culture and exhort us that ‘we must do better.’ This moralising tone is something I have noticed with other books by journalists (such as Natasha Walter and Robert Fisk): due to their ‘investigative’ work, the journalist ‘uncovers’ something that is not all it first appears to be, and ‘exposes’ the giant conspiracies behind everything. I’m not against this in principle - this is the role of the fourth estate, after all - but where it works in headlines in a paper, it can seem simplistic in a book-length study, bypassing the structural in favour of the anecdotal. Which is not to say that there isn’t some very interesting material in this book.

I was particularly interested in the way that virtually everything that is marketed at babies and young toddlers, whose parents will be making choices on their behalf, is now presented as being educational. So a simple stuffed toy, which in days of yore would just be for a baby to snuggle with, is now festooned with ABCs and numbers and different textures and so on. Interesting, but I don’t really see that there’s too much wrong with that kind of thing (other, perhaps, than it’s being used to hike the price-tag.) I was even amused the other day to see a brand of baby food being marketed as ‘educational’: not only will my baby enjoy the goodness of gooey alphabetti pasta, she will also learn about texture and her ABCs at the same time. Talk about multi-tasking.

What Thomas described that was more insidious, however, was the marketing of educational DVDs - such as the Baby Einstein range - to babies and toddlers under the age of three. Thomas cites medical research to show that this material, far from being educational, can actually impair a child’s cognitive development. Even more disturbing, in the US context, was that such material, branded with anything from Sesame Street to Clifford the Red Dog, was being used in daycare centres, provided free of charge by the companies that make them. Centres were using these free materials to keep children entertained and to ease staff shortages and augment dwindling budgets. Another triumph of free market capitalism. I was heartened to note that the various daycare centres in New Zealand that I have visited in the past few months in my attempts to sort out childcare before I return to work, did not appear to even have a TV, let alone a DVD library.

These sections were where the book was strongest. I was less convinced by the section on brand recognition, in which Thomas traces how toddlers can recognise characters - which adorn everything from nappies to number charts - from the age of two. Presumably this recognition means that a toddler’s ‘pester power’ kicks in earlier than it previously did. As the plastic prime minister might say, I’m ‘relaxed’ about Spot books and Winnie the Pooh nappies, and I’m under no compulsion to buy anything else that has their image plastered all over it. Although characters are becoming more pervasive, character-free alternatives exist. What Thomas does not recognise is that whether or not to consume a branded product or a non-branded one is a somewhat false choice. In a a capitalist mode of production, the only choice is that we consume, not what we consume.

Thomas’ book and my own tendency to sometimes alleviate boredom with buying stuff put me in mind of sociologist Maria Mies’ theory of ‘housewifization’ from her 1986 book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale. In it, she theorises that capitalism usurps the labour of women and de-values it as ‘subsistence’ work that has no cost-value and hence no economic benefit. She goes on to argue that that ‘first world’ women - the ‘house-wives’ - and ‘third world’ women - who are, on the contrary, being exploited as docile, low-paid and powerless factory workers to produce consumer goods - are integrally linked by the international division of labour. One produces, the other consumes. And consumes.

On an individual level, it’s hard to see a way out of this relationship. But focussing solely on structural relationships at the expense of agency seems to lead only to paralysis. So, after all, is it then about making responsible choices: toys made locally, or through fair-trade initiatives, or through companies that have social engagement programmes? Using sustainable materials? Buying second-hand goods? If our role is to consume, then making informed choices about how we consume may mean better outcomes for those on the sharp end of the international division of labour.

Maybe you can have Stuff and play with it too.