Valentini Sampethai, Goldsmiths University
One day in the summer I turned eighteen, I was sitting on the deck of a boat with my friend Danae listening to the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”. At some point, she turned and said to me, “Isn’t it sad, we’re not teenagers anymore?”.
We both agreed that none had felt any significant difference, nor had assumed any particular air of seriousness after our symbolic entry into adulthood. Already childhood had become idealized, a focus of nostalgia, although probably none of us had had a trouble-free childhood without its dark moments of fear, pain, and anxious questions. Still, childhood has been the largest chunk of our lives so far, and for a lot of us, the foundation for who we are today. This period of time is simultaneously irretrievable and yet very near; there exist moments when one can glimpse the children we used to be, when things like Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story, or our all-time favourite toys make their way into our life.
These transformations, the momentary back-and-forths, and the ways childhood experience is integrated in a body alongside the emerging adult identity constitute my focus here. This, then, is a study of people I grew up in constant contact with, and of parts of our childhood’s material culture that transcended their status as mere objects: for whatever reason, we separated them as special, and for a while they were an extension of our bodies, constantly attached to us. Like Andy in Toy Story 3, most of us are now away from home, scattered in different places, leaving our toys behind or taking them along. Our choices about what to do with them poignantly reflect our sense of identity and continuity between the past, the present, and the future. The toys, smelly, worn out and overused, serve as visual reminders encapsulating our process of becoming.
My study, based on my undergraduate dissertation, brings together explorations of the body, selfhood, and material culture; through these the themes of memory, attachment, continuity and becoming are examined in terms of the process of growing up. My study of the continuing attachment to childhood toys in adulthood and their incorporation in the present endeavors to show how these categories are all inter-related, placing the individual body at the center of a network of relationships and stories that produce a self and a subjectivity.
Drawing from Van Wolputte I take selfhood to imply “a body-self that […] extends in space and time, in material culture, in animals, and in the bodies of others” (2004: 252). Thus, the body is treated as a place where stories, images, and memories reside (Belting 2011). As years of everyday conversations and shared experience with the girls –I played with their toys and they played with mine when we were small- made it difficult to relegate life to the level of academic discourse, I found Csordas’ viewpoint on embodiment particularly useful:
“Embodiment […]is situated on the level of lived experience and not on that of discourse; embodiment is about “understanding” or “making sense” in a prereflexive or even presymbolic, but not precultural, way (Csordas 1990, p.10).” (Van Wolputte 2004: 258).
Hence, I will be focusing on ordinary experience and preoccupations of everyday life; situations that may be paradoxical, funny, moving, ridiculous, familiar, or uncertain, general in that many of us experience them but particular in that we do so in diverse ways.
Attachment to Soft Toys and the Creation of Bodies Invested with Life
“Like most little boys, he has had toy animals to play with, but though he loves them all, his best friend has been his Teddy Bear, called Winnie-the-Pooh, or Pooh, for short. The funny thing is that Pooh doesn’t like being called a Teddy Bear now […]. You see, what they both feel, and what I feel too, is that Pooh is really alive and does things, but a Teddy Bear is just a toy which sits about and does nothing”
A.A. Milne, The Christopher Robin Story Book (1966: v-vi)
It is probably impossible to count the instances in our childhoods in which we were exposed to some sort of story where magical objects, animals and toys talk. An obvious one of the 1990’s was Toy Story, and then there were old fairy tales, Disney films like Beauty and the Beast, where objects are companions that interact with the heroes and even are their best friends. It is not hard to imagine, then, how this belief in magic and animistic thought was something we were open to as children, taking care of our favourite toys as if they were real, saying good night to them and worrying about how they would feel if we neglected them. Since children are allowed to believe in magic, we were able to be more explicit about the importance of objects in everyday life, an apt example to Miller’s claim that “…material culture matters because objects create subjects much more than the other way around. It is the order of relationship to objects and between objects that creates people through socialization whom we then take to exemplify social categories” (2008: 287). Toys were magical because they represented a world of new possibilities, where we could create a person from our imagination, a friend that we could carry everywhere with us and on whom our shared experiences would become inscribed in the wear and tear of overuse. As Winnicott suggests,
“the thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is found to be reliable” (2005: 64).
Such objects, due to their constant attachment to children’s bodies and the love we infuse them with, come to acquire a substance and become consanguineous to us; we remain attached to them and our parents cannot decide to throw them away because they are a part of us. They become synonymous to us and to home; my granddad, when my brother and I left home for university, placed the teddy-bears we each had in their house on his library with our names written on them, the toys serving as a presence and a reminder of an absence simultaneously.
However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,
Me in my grandparents’ house, playing with the toys we kept there. (Photo taken by someone in my family)
Our toys now, labeled with our names and placed in my granddad’s library. (Photo taken by me).
However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,
“the object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated. […] It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating […]. Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own” (2005: 7).
Hence, that toys are important to most children is not a statement that needs further discussion; however, sometimes they are so loved and so firmly situated in a network of relationships and narratives of shared experience, that they survive adolescence and remain important in adulthood.
From the V&A Museum of Childhood. The caption reads: “Little Tommy Tittlemouse. This teddy bear was very well loved by his owner. After he gave him to the Museum, he sent birthday cards to Tommy every year until he died. Tommy’s birthday is 24 November.” (Photo taken by me).
Introducing the girls and the toys
Eva and Georgia are twins who have been my best friends since we were babies, and to them, toys are family.
Mema and Memos, matching dog and cat backpacks, were given to them as a present when they were five. Three years later the toys got married and had children. Mema took her name from the word “Beba” (meaning “baby girl”), a term of endearment for Eva when she was small. Naming Memos with the male equivalent of Mema was Eva’s idea, a result of their being a pair, one for each twin. Since Memos was given to Georgia and Mema to Eva, each is the respective mother of her toy, but they are very attached to both.
Rebecca, their other favourite toy, is a soft doll that my mum, who is Georgia’s godmother and an old friend to the girls’ parents, bought for Georgia when she was small. She is also part of the family as she is Georgia’s daughter, and the story is that she is now grown up and studying to become a doctor. Notably, Rebecca has her own teddy bear.
Memos, Mema and Rebecca. (Photo taken by me).
When I asked the girls –rhetorically- if they would ever give these toys away, Eva almost shouted “Never!” and they both outright rejected the idea. I asked if they are saving them for their children, to which Eva replied, seriously but with a hint of a smile showing she knew the situation was slightly comical, that she would not do that either because she would not entrust them to anyone, what if they ruin or lose them?
Fair enough, the girls are very careful in their handling of their toys nowadays; although in the past they slept with them now they put them aside because they are so tattered they might damage them. Mema, by far the most used and loved of all, has a ripped ear and a broken zip with a great story behind it. When, one day they were in kindergarten, the zip broke, they were so distraught in their crying that all the other children there started to cry with them. This aptly shows how clear Eva and Georgia make that these are not mere toys, but so important and loved that they should be treated as live beings. Even when they were small, that distinction was apparent: they never played with them as they – or we- played with Barbie dolls, but rather they were constantly there, like a part of the family that they would not lower to that level of playing like they did with other, generic toys. As they commented, now they actually play with them more than when they were children, but this form of play consists of creating and maintaining a network of relationships and family ties, getting everyone present to play along with them. This is seen in how family links transcend the limits of Eva and Georgia’s family, making me Mema’s godmother, a guy we know from a summer holiday Rebecca’s no-good boyfriend, and Mema’s dad a constant mystery but rumored to be Eva’s first (and ex) long-term boyfriend.
When, still with the idea of childhood nostalgia in the back of my head, I asked them the abstract, and supposed-to-lead-to-analysis question of what the toys mean to them, Eva just looked at me for a while and simply said: “We just love them very much, they are like our children”. That was the final point clarifying that these toys are not symbols or nostalgic memorabilia for an innocent and idealized past self, neither are they representative of an idea; it is the toys themselves they loved, and love, and will love as they were and will be growing up and experiencing relationships, break-ups, university, in parallel with Memos, Mema, and Rebecca.
For the past two years, the twins have been separated for more than a few days for the first time, Eva studying in North-Eastern Greece and Georgia at home in Athens. Initially Eva had taken Mema with her, but in the end they brought all of the toys to their family home in Athens so that they can be together as a family and because Memos was sad without Mema. One could expect that in separating the twins, the toys belonging to each would be separated too, but ultimately, the story about the relationships between them was too strong, and perhaps the girls did not want to increase their separation by expanding it to the toys. Anyway, Eva comes to Athens often, and Georgia and their older sister Anna visited her in the North some weeks ago and of course brought Mema along.
Mema when she was ill: a photograph that Georgia and the girls’ older sister Anna sent to Eva while she was at university. (Photo taken by Anna).
What is notable is that their relationship to their toys has not changed. They remain equally important and played with, way past their conventional place in time; however, it is not that the girls perpetuate their sense of childhood selves through their holding on to their favourite toys, rather that the toys have become so essential that they are a stable point of continuity across time. Furthermore, as this is primarily a form of play that Eva, Georgia, and-to a lesser extent-Anna engage in, it is a practice of their own that enhances the strong bond of sisterhood between them.
Consequently, the girls and the toys develop alongside each other, a link constantly sustained in the narratives weaved by the girls in parallel to their own social relations and life events; the toys, when considered as live beings, are dynamic and familiar like friends that you have shared a lifetime with; as material culture they are objects of utmost value, bearing the visual marks of stories, adventures and mishaps that are safe from obsolescence because they are encapsulated in something tangible, soft, and smelling of home.
That should make it understandable why they are still so important and why the girls are indifferent that this is not what is expected of ‘mature adults’; if growing up involves learning how to love and care for someone else and if, as Miller says, “possessions often remain profound and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people” (2008: 1), then the girls, who love their toys even if they are old now, may have something to tell about building profound social relationships and also, about the fluidity of age categories, which can be shaken up by different performances, much like what Judith Butler (1990) suggests may happen with gender.
Conclusion: Playing, Cultural Experience and the Collective Imaginary
Play, an embodied state that is “always a creative experience, and […] a basic form of living” (Winnicott 2005: 67), does not necessarily involve toys or objects made for children; it may be found in any sort of “creative relation to the world” (Milner 1952 cited in Winnicott 2005: 52), practiced by adults and children alike. As a form of living and a state that, in its freedom and creativity, is thoroughly fulfilling, it is very important in the production of a self with passions and interests of one’s own pursued in play, positioned at the center of a network of relationships with objects and people. If “the body and experiences of embodiment are produced in the doings of people by social and cultural rituals that are personal and communal” (Waskul and Vannini 2006: 7), and there is a “collective imaginary” (Belting 2011: 56) of intersubjectivity connecting the girls and their toys with a shared stock of memories or images, the toys, as receptacles of all these memories still being created, are very important in defining the bond of the girls and everyone included in the network of relationships.
If “the place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object) […], the same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in playing” (Winnicott 2005: 135). Thus, the girls’ toys may have been one of the first elements used in building a network of relationships involving family and their friends, loved ones, even acquaintances who made an impression; in sustaining their role in adulthood, they become yet another thing that bolsters the bonds between them and what is important in their lives.
Finally, I wish to emphasize how the twins’ attachment to their childhood toys is not a case of nostalgia and passive clinging to the past. Rather, it is a dynamic process of creating relations and narratives that weave inextricable links between the past and the present, thus allowing for a growth that holds on to what they do not want to forget or let go of. The girls have managed to incorporate something of ‘the past’ into the present by keeping it alive and loving it, thus creating a complex “aesthetic” (Miller 2009:296); and this ability to maintain a close link with the past while living in the present is an enviable art.
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