Global toys in a local world

Branded kids' products on display in an Iranian store

Recently, I had occasion to visit a toy store in Isfahan to buy a present for my seven-year-old cousin, who had invited me to his birthday party. Grand, impressive and splendid, the store in question offered a variety of products, from children stationeries and toys of different shapes and colours to XBOX games.

My original intention was to buy something of the Dara & Sara brand, an Iranian line of dolls, books and audio materials. Yet, to my surprise, the store had almost no trace of local toys such as these. I left the shop in disappointment hoping to find something more ‘culturally relevant’ in another shop but I failed again. Eventually, I gave up and bought a Ben 10 watch and a Ben 10 backpack as gifts.

The majority of the products in these toy stores had English messages or expressions and were clearly coded as “global” rather than “Iranian.” The prestige, the price and the quality of imported toys have consigned local products to a marginal role such that I, the customer, was just a passive and helpless recipient and left without any choice. Unsurprisingly then, it turned out that I was not the only one without a choice: at the birthday party, I was disappointed to find out that almost all the guests had brought more or less similar presents.

However, there is a further twist to this story: A few days after the birthday party, I met my little cousin again at yet another family gathering. He was wearing one of his birthday presents, a Spiderman t-shirt, which was emblazoned with the slogan “The Amazing Spiderman.”

As members of my extending family were spending time together, the TV was on in the background. The channel was set to one of the Iranian national TV channels and the program that was running was an episode in a crime series featuring the Iranian police, which in Persian is called naja. In one of the scenes a group of naja commandos raided a building and arrested the bad guys.

The word naja was printed in bold letters on the back of their uniforms and my little cousin obviously made a connection between the uniform of these TV heroes and his own T-shirt: he shouted in amazement: “The amazing naja!”

When I had started my quest for a toy that was culturally relevant, I had been disappointed. However, my cousin’s reaction demonstrates that global, cultural symbols are always appropriated locally – often in unexpected ways. The episode throws into question the long-established assumption that linguistic and cultural hegemonies always work in a top-down manner and paves the way for a totally different interpretation: the spread of English and its related cultural products operate in complex and at times contradictory ways. Ultimately, Spiderman t-shirts display their own ‘local’ orders of indexicality.

Author Vahid Parvaresh

Vahid Parvaresh is an assistant professor of English at the Faculty of Foreign Languages of the University of Isfahan, Iran. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Isfahan and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Tehran. His research interests are in discourse analysis and cross-cultural pragmatics.

More posts by Vahid Parvaresh
  • Chad Nilep

    I am reminded of Richard Wilk’s chapter, “Consumer goods as dialogue about development: colonial time and television time in Belize”, in the book Consumption and Identity (1995). As I recall Wilk argues, contra those who see blonde dolls as a sign of European/American hegemony, that children in Belize re-signify their toys in ways that are locally specific, much as your cousin re-signified his T-shirt.

  • Sir it was really amazing , specially cause it reminds me of different T-shirts that teenagers wear and are proud of cultural messages which are printed on them. Once I saw a boy with a sentence printed T-shirt and I asked if he knows the printed message and surprisingly enough , he answered me a culture bounded way!
    It’s the way it goes sir! Globe is whirled through the tornado of local cultures!

  • Very nicely written entry. It, along with Chad’s comment above, encapsulates the ongoing tension between those (I admit to being one of these people) who continue to insist that while global (Western) products, cultural and otherwise, are clearly appropriated and used in local ways, the global inequities in production and distribution still matter quite a lot. That is, what is — and, significantly, is not, — on the cultural menu still matters. So, too, does the comparative lack of toy/cultural products back to the so-called center, meaning here in the good old USA, where we, of course, find 90% of our toys are made in China, but in the vast majority of cases, the cultural origin of those toys is the United States.

    On a slightly different note, as someone swimming against the linguistic tide in terms of the tidal wave of English, I can go to — and have gone into — toy stores in Germany in search of educational toys that speak German to buy for my two daughters, whom I’m raising bilingually in German-English here in the USA, and, quite often there’s a switch that allows the toy to speak English as well. I’d never find a toy in the U.S. that switches from English to German in a major toy store, department store, although, I will admit, you might find one that switches from English to Spanish.

    • Thanks, everyone! Like Christof, I also doubt whether a little local re-signification of global consumption patterns matters much. As long as they are all more or less the same plastic junk, the cultural distinction between ‘local’ and ‘global’ toys seems of little substance to me. I’m reminded of the Fulla doll, which is marketed as the ‘Muslim Barbie’ and supposedly represents ‘local’ values vis-à-vis the ‘Western’ or ‘global’ Barbie. However, the two dolls look very similar, have similar uses and come in similar packaging. The main difference is that Barbie wears all kinds of outfits and has a boyfriend while Fulla wears a hejab and has babies. Even if the two brands profess to espouse different values and different cultural orientations, I don’t see a material difference …

  • vahid

    Dear Ingrid and All,
    Thank you so much for your insightful comments.
    My original intention was, as you know, to share a personal story of how the t-shirt in question displayed its own orders of indexicality in that local context, although, I, too, believe that “the global inequities in production and distribution still matter quite a lot” and need to be investigated as systematically as possible.
    All the best,

  • emad

    Hi Vahid. I had a discussion about language on the move today with some colleagues.The website has motivated our students.They now have realized the link between theory and daily life can be made. many thanks.