Gender Roles Included: The Unreal Estate of 1980s Playsets

By J.E. Anckorn / April 9, 2018

In the 1980s, the action figure ruled the toy store shelves. Some kids were loyal to one franchise (I was a strictly My Little Pony girl, myself). Some children’s affections and parental pursestrings could stretch to several different brands, but whatever flavor of molded plastic you were hooked on, the pinnacle of aspirational toys was always the playset. These big-box behemoths offered a fantasy local where our toys could hang out with rad pals over ice cream sodas, or pump live ammunition into the screaming faces of the enemies of freedom. Maybe we had a friend who was wealthy enough to own one of these towering plastic castles. Maybe we owned one (or more!) of our own, stickers applied haphazardly, accessories long since lost down the sofa cushions or inside the dog—but a marker of status nevertheless. I have chosen to categorize these miniature plastic temples to societally imposed sex stereotypes and unrestrained consumerism “Unreal Estate,” because I’m cute like that.

“For the Girls”

It is a truth generally acknowledged that women’s unpaid domestic and reproductive labor is essential to the function of capitalism. In the 1980s, the domestic sphere was lavishly represented in pink plastic, usually with the word “dream” in the title. And what dreams we sold to our daughters! A fantasy realm where even horses were image-conscious enough to require mirrors, and the blondest, thinnest, whitest women of all might be rewarded with their very own pink elevator (glass ceiling not included). Let us begin on our enchanted journey into the world of toytown un-realty with this dream in mind as we explore:

barbie dream house vertical 1983Property: Barbie Townhouse
Building Type: Townhouse
Constructed: 1983
Constructed by: Mattel
Franchise: Barbie

The world’s most famous doll could hardly be satisfied with a single home, and so the world’s most famous toy house, the Barbie Dreamhouse, went through many redesigns throughout Barbie’s lobster-clawed grip on the minds of the world’s female youth. This 1983 Townhouse variation of Barbie’s dream home is a des-res containing all mod-cons, including the aforementioned pink elevator capable of whisking Barbie up three flights (presumably a helpful feature for those with fashionably stunted feet.) It contains a grand total of six rooms for Barbie to crawl through—as she begs for humane euthanization—and uses flat photographs instead of furniture, a dazzling array of which was available separately. The choice of building moved Barbie beyond the small-town suburbia of cottages and dorm rooms, and into the urban jungle that would soon become the backdrop for the excesses of the decade.

Although not as determinedly pink as later iterations of the Dreamhouse, the ubiquitous color is beginning to creep in. Earlier versions of the townhouse featured a yellow elevator, which, though cheery, prevented embittered feminist bloggers from making tenuous birth canal comparisons. The style of the interior decor is typical of the mercilessly flounced and ruffled gap between the bohemian late-1970s and 1980s minimalism. David Lynch fights Laura Ashley, and there are no winners.

Amenities: kitchen, living room, dining room, powder room, and random rocking chair room in which to rock and weep as though Betty Friedan never happened.

Property: Dream Castle
Building Type: Historic Property
Constructed: 1983
Constructed by: Hasbro
Franchise: My Little Pony

For the discerning home buyer, there’s nothing like a property with a sense of history, and to truly understand the Dream Castle we must contextualize it within the wider tableau of My Little Pony lore. No. This is not a sex thing. We’re talking about My Little Pony lore, before it was elevated beyond the unworthy minds of young girls by adult men in unicorn onesies. In original My Little Pony lore, Megan, a 12-year-old farm girl from earth, travels via magic rainbow to the marvelous world of Ponyland, where horses display human levels of intelligence but still enjoy jumping over small fences and wearing saddles, despite the fact there’s no one there to ride them. Huh. Perhaps this is a sex thing…

The enchanted equines appear to have formed a pre-industrial, non-agrarian, feudalist society ruled by Majesty, the most magical of all unicorns, who makes her home in Dream Castle. It’s basically an updated Gulliver’s Travels—or perhaps more relevant to the youth of the 1980s–a quadrupedal Planet of the Apes.

The Majesty action figure (along with dragon companion, Spike) was only available with the Dream Castle playset, so if a friend owned a Majesty, you knew their parents were making bank. Dream Castle comes with wearable accessories for Majesty and a set of plastic furniture including a throne, a basket, goblets, a treasure chest, and a mirror (possibly enchanted). Although possessed of two turrets and the crenelated walls typical of Norman castles, the building seems otherwise poorly defended, lacking a drawbridge, portcullis, or murder holes through which boiling oil might be poured onto invading Grundle armies. There were many pony dwellings on the market during the 1980s, each cannily marketed with an exclusive pony inhabitant, but Dream Castle remains the most impressive in terms of size and exclusivity.

One does wonder how a Queen with no opposable thumbs uses a goblet or hairbrush, but the castle is nevertheless a legitimate marvel of the golden age of playsets. I’m also unsure about the wisdom of the throne—according to learned sources, horses basically explode if they’re not standing up.

You maniacs! You blew it up!
Damn you! God damn you all to hell!

Estate agent’s remarks: Seller has disclosed possible Smooze damage to structure.

Property: Musical Glo Land
Building Type: Commercial recreation property.
Constructed: 1985
Constructed by: Hasbro Preschool/Hasbro Bradley
Franchise: Glo Friends

Have you ever dreamed of owning a nightclub? Imagine the admiring looks of your friends as you exchange mutually respectful banter with a salt-of-the-earth bouncer type; the pool of untouchable chic that surrounds you as you lean against the bar in your turquoise power suit. The bartender is alerted by the smallest tilt of your immaculately coiffed head to set in motion the alchemical prestidigitation necessary to provide his lord and master with the perfect Dirty Banana. Now, have you ever dreamed of owning a nightclub… with an insect infestation? In the 1980s, you would have, my friend. Bioluminescent insect larvae the Glo Worms were one of the decade’s stranger toy franchises, but the little buggers were popular enough to hatch their own toy line, animated cartoon (a 15-minute slot to bulk out stablemate My Little Pony to a half-hour show) and this playset—a musical treehouse.

Glo Land features a magical glowing pond where the insects can be “charged” with their titular glo/w, which admittedly beats the traditional method of holding them against a lightbulb until they’re pulsing like an adorable insectoid Chernobyl, or until your Dad yells at you, whichever comes sooner. There’s also a musical swing set, a seesaw, picnic table, leaf chair, and an exclusive action figure: a Bedbug. Delightful! Opportunity missed to include a bag of glittery diatomaceous earth and the haunted screams of property owners, in this author’s opinion.

The swing and seesaw put a little action back in action figure, but the flagship property of the franchise is still cautiously domestic in scope. What might the hangout spot of a population of sentient household pests look like were it marketed to boys? Would picnic tables feature heavily? Would the pestiferous beetle larva’s chief accessory still be a soft fabric sleeping bag, or could we expect to find a plastic missile launcher as hazardous to glo-enemies as it is to the esophaguses of younger siblings? It really makes you think.

Another Dirty Banana, Kip.

“For the Boys”

Robert Southey posed the eternal question “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” back in the nineteenth century. By the late twentieth century the unenlightened answer of “slugs and snails and puppy dog tails” was outmoded, and everyone knew that boys were actually made of “slugs and snails and being discouraged from expressing any emotion other than anger as manifested through tiny plastic munitions.” In case the disgruntled reader is already composing an email decrying my cherry-picking of adorable wee tactical defense systems to contrast with the sugar and spice dream domiciles marketed to girls, I tried. I really did. But just as there aren’t many My Little Pony Dream nuclear launch facilities, so too is there a dearth of G.I. Joe thatched cottages, complete with functional bird baths. I did find a castle, though. I wonder if it will come with a mirror? Let’s find out:

Property: Castle Grayskull
Building Type: Historic Property
Constructed: 1981
Constructed by: Mattel
Franchise: Masters of the Universe

They both have a throne. There, any similarity to Majesty’s equine fortress ends. He-Man will have to tend his luxurious He-locks without the benefit of reflective surfaces. Quibblers will point out that Castle Grayskull also comes with a convoluted mythical background, but He-Man doesn’t even get a set of plastic stemware to quaff his man-mead out of. Who has time when you’re busy smiting skeletal enemies with your period-appropriate roof-mounted laser gun? Like the Barbie Dream House, Castle Grayskull features a functioning elevator (presumably off He-limits on leg day), but it’s a rugged slime green instead of pink, and conveys the mighty warrior not to a be-ruffled primping station, but to an armory with a bristling weapons rack. Stickers include a monster-filled dungeon and various flags and emblems heavily featuring swords.

If one wonders about He-Man’s obsession with penetrative phallic symbols, one doesn’t dare wonder it out loud. It’s clear that this castle means business; the heads of enemies of Eternia will be displayed on a spike in the testosterone boudoir before you can say “sublimated homoeroticism.” While Majesty’s Castle is a place to live, Castle Grayskull is strictly a place for action. He-Action. In very small shorts and a leather chest harness.

There is little sign that the castle is used as dwelling. He-Man must keep his protein shakes about his He-Person. Nowadays, no man-cave is complete without a mini fridge, but in the 1980s, it was just wasted space where another catapult could go.

Property: Terror Drome
Building Type: Military Facility
Constructed: 1986
Constructed by: Hasbro
Franchise: G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero rivaled fellow Hasbro property Barbie for sheer number of playsets, but, again, I had difficulty finding any residential properties. No greatest American anything ever depended on the home front for its existence after all! Instead, I’ve chosen the most iconic; another Christmas morning behemoth with which the lucky 1980s child might delight his friends and annoy his father when the innards of the hoover became irredeemably clogged with stray tactical missiles. Included with the Terror Drome was the Firebat fighter jet and the Firebat’s pilot, A.V.A.C. (Air Viper Advanced Class, and apparently not Always Veggies After Combat. Don’t blame me when you get rickets, lads.)

The Terror Drome is interesting because it’s actually the lair of the franchise’s baddies. I can’t think of any girl’s playsets that were based on the stronghold of the villains, although there was the occasional figure available. The battles between the various factions in boy’s toy land was, I suppose, the point, although the weekly cartoons of girl’s franchises also depicted (less explodey) battles between opposing forces. The Terror Drome came equipped with several gun turrets, a fueling station, a jail cell, and a room with a wicker rocking chair (R.W.W.R.C.). It’s possible I’m lying about one of these. Can you tell which?

Property: Ewok Village
Building Type: Multi-family residential
Constructed: 1983
Constructed by: Kenner
Franchise: Star Wars

I’ve saved the most domestic property for last, and, although I’m confident that Star Wars toys were marketed mostly towards boys, the Ewoks always were considered a little suspect. A little girly. Were they an interesting new tribe of alien lifeform, or a cynical attempt to market toys and cartoons to a younger audience? Critics have never been able to agree. I should admit now that I’m firmly pro-Ewok (although I’m also a woman and can’t be trusted not to start putting doilies under all the Star Destroyers). Not only did the Ewoks worship C-3PO as the golden god that he is, they also spawned two of the best Star Wars movies, Caravan of Courage and Battle for Endor. (Yes, I’m serious. No, I don’t care if you have a bad feeling about this. The Ewok movies were enchanting as balls. Not only were they fun action romps, they had some genuinely dark moments. Child hero of the first movie, Mace, dies at the start of Battle for Endor. Can you imagine if Han actually died at the end of Empire Strikes Back, instead of just being turned into interior decor until he could be awakened by true love’s kiss?)

The ubiquitous elevator is included in the Ewok village playset, and the arboreal fortress also comes equipped with basic living quarters—or at least small rooms without visible guns in them. Sure, the little fireplace is used to toast captives rather than tea cakes, but there’s still a tenuous indication that the Ewoks have some sort of social life beyond putting Scout Trooper’s decapitated heads on spikes. Just to balance things out, the playset also features net and boulder traps, and, of course, a weapons rack. C-3PO’s throne is included, but there’s nary a goblet or seesaw to be seensaw.

In Conclusion

We know that male and female children are treated differently from birth. It isn’t a surprise to see rigid sex stereotypes attached to these playsets, but it is interesting to note how different toys from different companies conform to the strict parameters of which toys (and play styles) are appropriate for boys and which for girls. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with domesticity and emotional play, and although I’d argue that the glorification of war and violence isn’t the best psychological diet for children, it’s also a facet of human nature, and girls as well as boys should be told they can have adventures that don’t center around them being decorative objects. It’s when we limit children’s interests and development to a set of pre-approved stereotypes that damage occurs, on an individual and societal level. The boy’s toys all encourage play styles centering around action and conflict, the girl’s around harmony and domesticity. It’s even more glaring in the advertising (compare this action-packed “live the adventure!” Terror Drome commercial with the “a beautiful place to comb their pretty hair” spot for Dream Castle.)

My first job out of art school was working as a toy designer, and in the industry no one cares whether the “boys only like fighting” chicken came before the “boys are relentlessly told only to like fighting” egg, so long as units are shifted. Capitalism reinforces gender roles, and gender roles are necessary to turn boys and girls into dependable units of production.

So: these playsets are overwhelmingly well-designed, aren’t they? And, although expensive, the child of the 1980s really got their money’s worth, with all the included fiddly accessories and exclusive action figures. All that I’m asking is that the tiny adorable chalices not be poisoned. And the thrones not kill anyone. Except maybe He-Man. That guy’s a real ballbag.

je anckorn avatarJ.E. Anckorn is an author and illustrator from the UK (via New Zealand). They now live in Boston and make podcasts. No one has yet figured out a way to stop them.


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