5 Questions With > Jonathan Gray

Earlier this year I did an interview with Professor Henry Jenkins, a professor of communication and media studies who also had a lot to say about toys and their relationship to transmedia. In that interview he mentioned Jonathan Gray, another media studies professor who is even more interested in toys and the points at which they connect with media. Therefore I considered it my sworn duty to bug the very busy Professor Gray for an interview, which he gracefully agreed to. Enjoy! –PG

Real Name: Jonathan Gray
Specialty: Educator
Base of Operations: The Extratextuals
History: Jonathan Gray is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. A Canadian-Brit, he grew up around the world, with Star Wars toys as the constant thing in common between all others and myself. He then fell in love with media studies and wrote a dissertation on parody, intertextuality, and The Simpsons, which later became his first book, Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality. His second single-authored book is Television Entertainment, and his third is the newly released Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Paratexts, though he’s also edited several books — Fandom: Communities and Identities in a Mediated World; Battleground: The Media; and Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era. He’s an avid media consumer, and as avid a media analyst.

1.) First off, street cred time: what were the toys you enjoyed playing with while growing up, and why?

There were a lot, but the answer must begin and end with Star Wars. My father got these plans from a friend for a massive space station, about 4 foot by 8 foot, standing off the ground, and it took him several months to build. The plan was for it to be our Christmas present, and then two weeks before Christmas, we weren’t allowed to see it, until Christmas Day itself, when we came downstairs and there it was in all its awesome glory, covered in Star Wars toys. It seemed wrong for any other toy to hold as key a place in my heart thereafter, and I still remember the sad moment when as a pre-teen I realized I was meant to stop playing with them. I just loved the Star Wars world, and it helped that everyone my age knew it world-wide, especially since I grew up moving. My father (who, as you can see, was my dealer too) also took frequent trips to Hong Kong, where they were made, and would come back with SW toys before they’d been released elsewhere, so they allowed me special status when I was otherwise doomed to be the awkward, odd foreign kid.

That said, I also had a fair serving of Playmobil when I was really young, then Transformers and GI Joe, but also Marvel and DC action figures, especially when I was a comic book fan. Mask toys were the best thing ever for a few months of my life. And Lego. Lots more that if you put in front of me I’d remember lovingly, but I’m blanking right now.

2.) Due in part to a relaxing of FCC regulations, the 1980s became notable–some might say notorious–for its large number of toy-based or toy-related cartoons such as G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony and others. Many childhood fans of those days became lifelong devotees of their chosen franchise(s). Do you think there was anything unique about these properties, their fans and/or their era, or has the process continued more or less the same way through the Power Rangers and Pokemon in the 1990s to Ben 10 and Bakugan today?

Well, I don’t have kids, and though I’ve noted that one of the awesome things about having them will be that I’ll have carte blanche to spend as much time as I want in toy stores once more, I don’t know too many of the more contemporary toys all that well, which makes it hard to compare. There was something of a wave of energy that accompanied that era of toys, however, especially since parents weren’t really ready for it, and thus they either hated them, and thereby rendered the toys cool by virtue of being prohibited, or they were equally excited by the idea, thereby rendering the toys all the easier to get. I don’t know if that energy exists today, at least not to the same degree, especially since we’ve now seen what great toy lines can look like, and so our expectations are so much higher. At the same time, you’d hope that producers and creators of franchises would now have more guidelines and more of a sense of what works and what doesn’t. So in theory they could make the toys all the more meaningful, interesting, and involved in the storyworld. I say “in theory” and “you’d hope,” though, since perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t: I simply don’t know today’s toys well enough to comment.

3.) What is an “endlessly deferred narrative” and how does it relate to the significance of toys based on licensed properties?

There are narratives that end, and there are those with thousands of open lines that mean there will never be closure, or even if one sub-plot is concluded, there will always be others that aren’t concluded. That’s an endlessly deferred narrative (at least as far as I understand Matt Hills’ coining of the phrase in his book Fan Cultures). Why that’s important to licensed toys is because such narratives require multiple storytellers, and they deputize the person playing with the toys with the right to fill in the narrative. On one hand, of course, you can make any story open-ended if you want, but when you’re explicitly invited to do so (by, for instance, there being a multi-year gap between the action of Star Wars movies, with a story that needs filling in, or by the recent conclusion of Lost, with unanswered details), and when you’re presented with a huge world in which clearly much more than that of the story you’re currently watching or reading is happening (as with Middle Earth or Hogwarts, for example), each and every watcher/reader can become a co-author. That authorship could take place in the mind, or take the form of writing fan fiction, making fan films, creating an in-world website, playing RPGs, or so forth, but toys are a particularly intriguing way of inviting especially younger watchers/readers to take some control of the world.

Indeed, it’s ironic that licensed toys are so frequently lambasted for being manipulative and for holding some hypnotic control over kids, turning them into mindless automatons, since sometimes they might be allowing those kids to wedge their own interests, beliefs, stories, and concerns into a story that otherwise gave them little room. They might, in other words, be very respectful of the toy-owners, treating them as active, not passive consumers. Of course, they can also be manipulative — I don’t mean to suggest they’re not, but the picture is more complex than it’s often painted.

4.) In Show Sold Separately, you talk a lot about how young fans created their own unique stories “between the scenes” of the original Star Wars trilogy using toys. One thing that occurs to me in regards to that is the massive amount of licensed, “canonized” tie-in fiction that has grown up around Star Wars. Do you see any fundamental difference between the process of writers creating this “official” narrative and fans creating their own stories with the toys (or writing fan fiction, for that matter)? I.e., are authors writing licensed tie-in fiction essentially doing the same thing as children playing with toys, or do the constraints imposed by the copyright owner change the process in some fundamental way?

There are several ways to answer this question. Straight out, I’d love to say that they are doing exactly the same thing — they’re taking elements of the story and playing with them to increase the size and depth of the storyworld. Even that terminology of “official” play is interesting when we talk of toys, since that’s the point of many toys — to be played with. To say that a kid’s play with a toy isn’t official would be to suggest they’re using the toy in an inappropriate manner, when playing with it is entirely what was intended. But of course, in practicality, there are differences between fan- and creator-made creations, due to the two c’s of copyright and canon.

Taking the first, though franchises encourage play, as one can see by many media multinationals’ overzealous attempts to curb fan fiction or other forms of fan creativity, they’re entirely only willing to entertain certain forms of creativity. To my mind, it’s hypocritical to give kids a whole slate of toys and tell them to create stories with them, and then later on down the line tell them that they can’t tell those stories any longer. Toys prove that we don’t just want to read and consume others’ stories; we want to get involved. Sure, at times we may just be reliving moments from the TV show or film (flying down the Death Star trenches to blow it up), but we’re also jumping into the story and playing around with it. I wish the toy division of franchises would sit down with the legal division and explain how narratives work.

But there’s also the issue of canon that distinguishes what you do with a toy and what an officially-licensed novelist does when s/he writes a story set in the world. Often, the creator’s version holds extra value and is taken more seriously, in part because we still like storytellers, in part because of problems of share-ability — if my Boba Fett is a tortured hero, yours is a bloodthirsty hero, another’s is killing to work off a debt, and so forth, how do we agree on the basic tenets of a story? Hence the need for canon, and hence the relegation of fan creativity to a secondary level.

5.) This is a question I asked Professor Jenkins as well, but I’d like to hear your take on it. Stephen Kline has suggested that, rather than inspiring the imagination of children who played with the toys, the cartoons based on the popular toylines of the 1980s (Transformers, He-Man, etc.), may have instead limited or circumscribed it with pre-defined characters, conflicts and stories. What do you think of this idea? Do you think there’s a significant difference in the experiences of children who played with nameless G.I. Joes in the 1960s versus those who played with the cartoon-based “Real American Hero” toys of the 1980s?

Well, the idea that licensed toys kill creativity is both right and wrong. Right in that storytellers and creators get a lot of power to give us strong suggestions. In my above answer, I noted this in the context of discussing canon. So if you create a toyline that’s full of guys with guns, you make stories about peace and rational discussion somewhat harder. If all those guys have huge muscles, and are posed as heroes, you create pretty strong suggestions about masculinity. To ignore the power that creators have to set the rules is foolish. And “setting rules” could be seen as, and often is, a form of limiting or circumscribing creativity.

But, and it’s a very big but, the idea’s also wrong in not realizing how creativity works. Creativity doesn’t simply work in the absence of rules; it often works in and around them. Think of writing contests that demand that you use, for example, a spatula, a frog, and an alarm clock in the course of the narrative; not only can good writers do great things within such “circumscription,” but they might even be inspired by them. Or think of the sonnet — a painfully structured form, and yet one with which writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Shelley did wonderful things. Almost all creativity happens within constraints, whether political, structural, linguistic, or whatever. I’m not saying we should celebrate all of those constraints, and I’d certainly like to see a robust criticism that challenges the more egregious ones. But there’s a big gap between noting, for instance, that a toy has a cringe-worthy construction of gender, and deciding that those playing with it therefore have had their minds narrowed. Perhaps the problems in the toy present themselves as a challenge to be overcome? Perhaps the toys allow a space wherein the problems of the licensing agent (the TV show or film) can be tackled? Indeed, I’d think it more likely that a kid would come up with a gender-bending tale with his or her GI Joes or Barbies than with a block of wood, since the former set some parameters with or against which the child can work.

I don’t want to seem like I’m saying that any message within a toy is fine. It’s not. Some anger me and worry me. But I refuse to believe that the meaning of a child is dictated by the meaning of the toys. To circle back to where we began this interview, if that was the case, I should be a HUGE fan of death, destruction, and all-out war, since most of the toys with which I played are war-related. I should also believe in silly ideas of “real men” who shoot, fight, use karate chops, and swivel kick their way out of problems. But I don’t. Nor am I alone. Which tells me that we need to look at use more carefully, and that we can’t assume we know the politics of the child just because we think we know the politics of the toy.

A final note on this question is to point out that kids rarely have toys from merely one line, and those toys often co-mingle. So even when one line sets strong rules, they might be violated when the two or more lines come together. Barbie and Boba Fett might do some home decoration, for instance, or Cobra Commander might groom Little Pony obsessively, and so on. How the worlds collide may be the interesting part of the story.

Comments now closed (9)

  • Toys are like tools, merely a method of expression for a child's creativity. I like how he touched upon "violating" the rules by mixing various toys/lines with each other. That was one of the best parts of play!

    Great interview though, I eat this stuff up!

  • for real, i don't see how we aren't getting more poe-sts on this… this interviews are fun, if a tad short (though i understand why).

    though again, i'm furious at my guidance counselor… i could have had a degree that lets me play w/ toys, then charge people 38 dollars per credit hour to discuss how i played and what that play achieved, in a psychosocial sense… yeah, that should have been my path.

  • Great stuff! Gotta check out some of this guys work.

    Gotta love these egghead academics who smart enough to get paid for elevating the discussion about watching and writing about the Simpsons or cogitating about the cultural impact of GI Joe.

    I've been pimping Jenkins over at Fan Ex since you introduced me to him here. It'll be interesting to see what else Prof. Gray has to say about this stuff…

  • Professor Gray is spot-on to note that the rigid gender expectations created by toys might inspire creative solutions on the part of the children crafting the playtime narrative.

    …but I still won't let my daughter anywhere near those Bratz dolls.

  • I agree with Dayraven – I really should have been guided better into the "there ARE jobs where you sit around and watch TV all day to disect it's social-meaning" catagory of career choices before now – who do I sue?

    More like this Poe.

  • Wonderful interview! Poe meets the most interesting people on these pages!!

    And I still think it's sweet the way you guys all find each other!

  • Hmmm, perhaps Super Powers and MOTU are the reason why I punch people in the face when they ask questions or present me with problems? Very interesting article, Poe!

    And by the way, am I the only one who could totally see Cobra Commander obsessively brushing his pony?