The other day, my three-year-old son’s beloved stuffed sheep went from being a sheep to a baby – Baby Moana, to be specific. We’d seen the movie as a family over the holidays and a few months earlier, my sister had her first kid, whose newborn deliciousness my son cannot get enough of.
The combined forces of real-life new baby and adorable Disney cartoon baby proved too powerful not to rewrite the fate of the small matted farm animal with whom we share a home.
Meanwhile, my toddler has continued to amass branded content (“Moana” and the like) in the form of library books, sticker books, lunch bags, puzzles, t-shirts, socks, gifted to him by every member of his family except, of course, me, killer of fun and age-old despiser of brands. Seeing a familiar face – Mickey or Thomas or Daniel or, my own favorite, Moana – in any iteration makes my son giddy. It’s like seeing a friend.
That’s what freaks me out.
It’s not like I was raised without television, without Barbie dolls, without the consumer trappings of most other 80s children I know. But, for reasons I can’t trace, I insisted on carrying a plain paper lunch bag. I tore the hair and heads off of my Barbie Dolls to make them different from all the other Barbie dolls.
I did not yearn for a stuffed animal that came with a name and an identity because that meant I couldn’t give it one. The bear I’ve had forever was brown and plainly featured, not particularly soft, and sturdy enough to have retained, to this day, his ability to sit in place on top of a dresser (though without his eyes or nose).
So when Baby Moana emerged like a piece of art from an unassuming pile of parts, I felt hopeful. We didn’t have to buy something to create something. If everything around us falls apart – the way it feels these days like it might – if, among other things, all the stores completely run out of Zootopia stickers, he can still invent and exist in a world that is meaningful.
That is what kids do, isn’t it? Before they comprehend the incomprehensible cruelties of the grown-up world, they learn to construct made-up ones that adhere only to their own needs, dreams, ideas, to the whims of their innocent, joy-seeking brains. My son wanted the thing he carried around the house with him all the time to be a baby, not an animal. So, wisely, he made it a baby.
This, I get. The actual branded stuff, I don’t.
My husband, though, is not like me. He loved his “Police Academy” lunchbox and his “Roger Rabbit” sheets and his “Roger Rabbit” rabbit. He still finds these kinds of things charming. And since I find him charming, I asked him why.
He said if he loved a movie, like, say, “Roger Rabbit”, that seeing an image from it felt comforting, like the whole experience of the movie would stay with him forever. The stuff constantly triggers that emotional response, making him happy over and over again. It was a jumping off point, that stuff, to recreate scenes or moments that he thought were funny or cool. And when someone else had a rabbit like his? Double the joy, he said.
The benefits of imaginative play are well documented, but I’m starting to see that the terms of play are flexible. My husband, like me, is a writer and an actor and a generally creative dude. We both grew up in happy homes, but, for whatever reason, I’ve been preparing for dystopia since forever, and he hasn’t. I even feel a little wistful that all these characters don’t ignite the same kind of joy in me that they do for the two males in my house.
Who will our son end up like? Who knows, and who has any time left to wonder, what with all these charming fox and bunny stickers literally covering EVERY INCH OF MY FURNITURE.