Even if you haven’t seen the AMC show Breaking Bad, you’re probably familiar with the character Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a high-school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking crystal meth after he’s diagnosed with lung cancer. Toys R Us recently sparked outrage among some parents when their website began selling figures of White and his sidekick Jesse Pinkman, complete with guns, bags of cash, and a tray of blue crystal meth. (Sadly, it appeared that you could not strip White down to his tighty-whities, an iconic image from the now classic series.)
Florida mom Susan Schrivjer started a petition on Change.org calling for Toys R Us to pull the items because they represent a “dangerous deviation from [the store’s] family friendly values.” She said that, “While the show may be compelling for adults, its violent content and celebration of the drug trade make this collection unsuitable to be sold alongside Barbie dolls and Disney characters.”
The company argued that the figures would be sold in the “adult action figure area of our stores,” and that the toys are clearly marked for ages 15 and older. But as the story spread, they finally decided to remove the toys from their stock. Bryan Cranston got more than 30,000 retweets when he went on Twitter and responded to the controversy with, “I’m so mad, I’m burning my Florida Mom action figure in protest.”
I don’t usually find myself feeling sympathetic toward a company, but in this case I agree with Toys R Us. We applaud children’s movies that slip in jokes and references geared toward adults, so what’s the big deal with a toy store carrying products aimed more for the parents accompanying their kids than at the kids themselves?
Because, have no doubt, that’s who the Breaking Bad toys are for: fans of the show, toy collectors, and adults who want their own ironic figures with which to play. I certainly wouldn’t purchase one for my son. But then again, I wouldn’t buy any little girl a Barbie doll either, whose unrealistically sized figures, light skin tones, and “fashionista” branding impart restrictive, demeaning stereotypes about femininity which girls all-too-often absorb without question. Apparently, according to the petition, these representations are “family friendly.”
Moreover, the petition doesn’t address the fact that Toys R Us sells superhero or Star Wars figures, many of which come with guns and fake money, and are meant for violent imaginative play. They also sell robots based on the Transformers movies, the most recent of which (Transformers: Age of Extinction) received a PG-13 rating for its depictions of violence, and toys based on first-person shooter games like Halo. Personally, I would be much more concerned about my son coming across the line of figures based on the R-rated Aliens franchise, all of which are creepy and scary, and some of which burst apart into a pile of gross guts.
Ah, but these are all make believe, right? Whereas Breaking Bad figures puts parents in the uncomfortable position of explaining to their children why drug dealers are being glorified in plastic (I’m paraphrasing from the petition here).
Having a toy spark a discussion about the perils of drug use and the immorality of the drug trade — both themes of the show — sounds like a teachable moment to me. Is it likely that my son would actually want to buy such a doll himself? Of course not, because he hasn’t seen the show and so has no connection to the figures. I would easily redirect him toward toys that he’d find more interesting. No worries on my part.
What does worry me is that parents find violence and depictions of evil doers okay, as long as they don’t resemble the violence we actually see in real life. The two are part of the same spectrum, and it seems hypocritical to protest a store for carrying toys based on real-life bad guys without also asking them to stop stocking the pretend bad guys. Just like we keep our kids from streaming certain shows on demand, so too can we keep them from buying the toys that we don’t want them to have.
This isn’t the store’s responsibility, it’s ours.
Images courtesy of Toys R Us and The Associated Press via ABC News