Little boys in disguise

Why are twentysomethings obsessed with toy robots?

Herpreet Kaur Grewal

Topics Politics

Over Christmas I bought a 23-year-old friend a Transformer – you know, one of those robots in disguise, which can turn into vehicles, weapons, and a host of other things, and were wildly popular in the 1980s.

He must have caught something when he opened that box on Christmas Day because since then he has acquired 44 other Transformer toys within two months, worth £500. He ventured into the New Year sales in Hamleys, to come out with the only item not on sale, a huge evil planet Transformer called Unicron costing £55.

When he went to meet his friends in a bar for a drink after his spot of ‘sales’ shopping, instead of teasing him for getting a child’s toy they fawned over his buy and asked: ‘Is that for me?’ On the train home three drunken women in their twenties saw the toy in its bag and started singing the catchy theme tune to the robot warriors’ 1980s cartoon.

It may be retro-chic to wear a t-shirt with Thundercat Lion-O on it, clad in a tight blue vest and hotpants holding aloft the sword of Thundera, but can nostalgia be just a passing fad when you blow hundreds of pounds on toys? Is ‘geek’ too strong a term to use for seemingly normal people who do this? Surely it would be more sensible – and adult – to save up for a house or a car?

Every time I talked to most of my male friends about my friend’s obsession with Transformers, they didn’t say: ‘He’ll grow up’, but: ‘Wow, which ones did he get?’ showing a uniquely male interest in a world of male robots warring over a metallic planet called Cybertron. (There was one token female robot, and not surprisingly for a male-imagined universe she was femininely shaped, rather pink and had a mothering instinct for a human child.)

A friend in his thirties told me it was nothing to get alarmed about but something that a lot of men did. He said he took secret pleasure in going to amusement parks because he had always enjoyed it as a child but now had the chance to go and indulge himself without worrying about money – there was nothing wrong with this, he insisted. But when I mentioned it to one of my girlfriends, she said the obsession reminded her of one of her exes who would rather play with his toys than talk about their relationship.

My friend’s renewed addiction to the toys was not really surprising – after all, he had been having a recurring dream about them for seven years, rather intense for just a superficial, cheesy-music themed, iconic-t-shirt-wearing 1980s nostalgia fad.

‘In the dream I am in a toy shop with my family and I see a bunch of Transformers on the shelves’, he tells me. ‘I really want to buy them and in the dream, I have bought them and they are mine but just before I have a chance to open them and play with them I walk out of the shop. Then I wake up and realise I don’t have them.

‘I used to go to toy shops full of Transformers with my family when I was younger but we could not afford them. I had a burning desire to possess them and used different tactics to try and get my parents to buy them. I got an intense happy thrill when I did manage to convince them to buy me one, and I relive that feeling when I buy them now, with no parents to stop me.’

Another 27-year-old friend plans to dig into his pockets to buy a Millennium Falcon, to make up for the time his mother threw away all his original Star Wars toys when he was 11 – which are collectively worth an estimated several thousand pounds. Who knows what that first buy may unleash – another £500-plus spending frenzy?

He observes that his motivation for buying the toy is hard to discern, but he is not happy to just put it down to a fascination with the semi-ironic cult of childhood relics.

‘In my case it may run deeper’, he says. ‘My childhood was not easy, as one of the only Asian kids in a nearly all-white suburb. There was a lot of racism and senseless hostility directed towards me, and almost my only means of acceptance, and perhaps the only reason classmates would come to my house, was because I had the biggest collection of Star Wars (and Transformers) toys in the neighbourhood. The psychological scars still linger to this day, and perhaps I need a millennium falcon once more because it was such source of comfort in those days.’

I felt like calling my friend a poor geek, but instead asked him if he got out much. I would have asked both friends if they annoy their girlfriends, but neither of them have one.

My Transformer-obsessed mate sees what he does as no different from those who collect other things. ‘Some people collect books, stamps, Swatch watches or rocks – I collect Transformers. If you buy a toy in your twenties, and then spend hours running around the house making whoosh noises, then you may need more of a social life, but not if it’s a hobby’, he says.

Shortly after, he tugs at my sleeve and asks me to look at his new Protectobots. With a roll of my eyes, but an understanding of the inherent geek stigma attached to their hobby and some awareness of why they do it, I searched for a rational explanation for both my friends’ behaviour.

Dr Steve Chibnall, lecturer at De Montfort University, Leicester, who has researched collecting and collects himself, says that men like to hoard to create a world in which they have the kind of control that they don’t have in their real life. ‘Male collectors have that hunter-gatherer mentality – they go out buying things in obscure places and bring them back to their cave, and display them. In that sense it’s a primitive thing. It is about control and possession.’

Dr Chibnall says that it is too simplistic to describe it as 1980s nostalgia gone mad. ‘People who go to eighties discos – for example – may go simply as a social thing. People who collect eighties records are more obsessional’, he explains. ‘They invest more in that period and what that period means to them. So as soon as you start buying things and keeping them – not random gathering and hoarding but systematic collecting – that’s not a fad.’

He also points out that there are more collecting categories directed towards men, so it is no wonder that more men collect than women, although women do so in different ways. ‘Women may collect shoes or clothes like in Sex and the City. They tend to collect things which are fashionable and current, that you can buy in high street shops.’ He adds: ‘It’s an addiction like drinks or a drug; going out to buy another transformer is like going out to buy a pair of shoes. It is often indicative of something lacking in someone’s life.’

Dr Chibnall argues that a lot of men in their twenties don’t have a lot of control over their lives, and in terms of social power they have lost ground to women. ‘One way of magically recreating their power is to establish these collections which they can order, classify, arrange as they wish – a lot like the record collectors in High Fidelity. It’s about having control, and you can’t have control of your life in modern complex society, where gender relations have been reordered, so you go for something on a smaller scale which you can have dominance over and which is a reflection of yourself in some way.

‘In short, it is about possession, control, a sense of order in your life, and a sense of self. If it’s in a specific area such as Transformers – you give yourself an even greater sense of uniqueness.’

Herpreet Kaur Grewal has been a journalist in the UK for three-and-a-half years, starting her career at The Times and then freelancing for a broad section of publications including the Guardian, Observer, Eastern Eye and the Big Issue. She specialises in current affairs, social issues and music.

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Topics Politics


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