Epilogue to Me and My Character
It was a miracle that I got away in one piece. At a French outdoor market, a so-called vide de grenier, I crept up behind a picturesque giantess completely done up in leopard print with my new Nikon digital camera. Over her hefty bare shoulder hung a flashy suede bag, from which, in turn, hung a cuddly toy dog, which I found striking mainly in light of its juxtaposition with the (barely) live, wheezily panting yapper on her arm. I had trouble getting the combination of dogs into the frame, so I crept around the woman like a stalker. No wonder she nearly walloped me. My question – which dog was the real cuddly toy? – died on my lips, and a good thing too. What was the French for cuddly toy anyway? Chiffonet?
Strictly speaking, Platform 21’s Me and My Character exhibition in Amsterdam wasn’t necessarily about cuddly toys. Yet most of the entries sent in turned out to be of the cuddly persuasion. Perhaps the term – knuffel in Dutch – needs a little explication: I understand it to mean a touchable, strokeable object to which life is attributed in spite of the fact that it doesn’t breathe, poop or eat, and which is assumed to have a soul even though it can’t talk, with which its owner maintains a love relationship. The critical gauge of a cuddly toy is whether it gets to sleep in your bed.
Once I was waiting at a petrol pump behind a black Saab 9.3i cabriolet. Close observation thus required no extra effort. A tanned, handsome man got out, wearing a sharp jacket and Replay trousers that revealed a smart pair of calves. He began filling the tank. There turned out to be another man in the car; he, too, got out, revealing a trendy pair of jeans and a not-at-all-bad cashmere jumper over a T-shirt. A youngish older guy (or vice versa) with a boy’s long, straight hair. He opened the boot. Some remarkably nice leather travelling cases were neatly lined up inside. The guy opened one and took something out. Was that what I thought it was? Yes, indeed: a teddy bear. The young man of a certain age stuck the toy under his T-shirt and jumper and furtively glanced both ways before getting back in the Saab with composure. I checked a few minutes later to see if there were children in the back. There weren’t.
Cuddly toys are in. Young and old, rich and poor, hip and frumpy walk around with them, carefree and unembarrassed. They take them along on holiday and, still more remarkably, attach them conspicuously to clothing, accessories and important possessions like cars, cameras and computers. No one is ashamed of looking childish: the toys are actually status symbols.
So you feel safe and intimate with your cuddly toy, or figure or monster, and at the same time you know you’re hip and glamorous. According to the mechanics of the market, this combination has great appeal, and could even guarantee mainstream penetration. Psychology, you see, characterizes human beings as comfort-seekers, and the comfort zone always demands the reconciliation of two opposing needs: security and challenge, rest and tension, uniqueness and belonging, intimacy and glamour, and so on.
Cuddly toys vary in shape, naturally (that way, you can be unique and belong), but a key prerequisite is the suggestion of lifelikeness, with the apparent minimum requirement being two eyes (buttons, dots, or whatever). A ball with two buttons on it will suffice. Eye contact, then, is priority number one.
Also, the material must be highly textured or woolly: terry cloth, fur and shaggy fabrics are favorites. Strokeability or touchability is basic requirement number two. Hence, for example, the popularity of the ‘wuppies’ – small fluffy spheres with eyes – issued by a supermarket chain in the Netherlands during the world football championship.
The cuddly trend is broad and omnipresent. It’s understandable that big stores are jumping on the bandwagon, but even expensive brands are apparently unabashed. The need for cuddles, it seems, is universal, and touches every price bracket.
How can we explain this need? In my book De Emotiemarkt (The Market of Emotions not yet translated), I observed that the new consumer, driven by the desire for happiness and the expectation that it can be realized through the right consumer choices, has been undergoing an evolution since about 1990 in terms of emotional self-management. Phase one in the development of the emotional market was the infancy phase, phase two was childhood, and so on. Now the emotional market has reached adolescence, and this phase explains people’s hunger to design and establish an identity. Thanks to the Internet, the abundance of possibilities and the pressure to consume, this hunger reigns virally, on a massive scale, worldwide.
There is an urgent desire to create living yet artificial identities that would suggest that people are finding their existing identities unsatisfying – an experience characteristic of adolescents. We see this yearning for makeovers – physical and mental – manifested in new romances, job changes, emigration, moving house, redecorating. It all probably springs from the renunciation of the church and civil authorities, which used to supply us with rites for new lives: confession, baptism, weddings, all complete with plenty of white and washing and new names.
The need for new identities also comes from the fact that these days nearly everyone is confronted in one way or another with the inner conflict of living in more than one culture, and thus with multiple loyalties: it’s easy to be a cultural nomad.
Like one little girl who, although she stayed at her father’s every weekend, was not allowed to decorate her room. In her bag she would bring an incredible amount of jewelry, accessories and cuddly toys, and as soon as she arrived, she would install these on her father’s girlfriend’s immaculate nightstands and windowsills. In this way, she was able to remain herself. There are countless examples: children of divorced parents, immigrant children, organization men with their ties and smiles who go home and try to find themselves, Somalis who must make up surnames as soon as they get to the Netherlands – the Hirsi Ali Complex. Or the Tiger Woods Dilemma: descended from many kinds of blood, on his passport he must choose between two flavors, Caucasian and Afro-American. He is neither, but he checks a box.
For many, choosing an identity is a must, since reality provokes an identity crisis. Their world asks them to be something they aren’t. Living with incongruent outer and inner images often leads to insecurity or worse: sometimes people can no longer keep the versions together. It’s not unusual for such people to vary their identity, selon le marché, more than once a day. Maybe this is the way to effortlessly form connections with oneself and others? Or you can choose to live a real life through a virtual world recognizable to many – such as manga. You can even become a manga artist and create identities as part of a virtual community.
Perhaps in our era of visual culture and digitalization/anonymization, we must all learn to define and, more than that, make friends with ourselves.
Parallel to this is a fear of taking responsibility as a participant in the world. Many adults prefer to prolong their childhood through consumption. They eat children’s food, behave like spoilt children – ‘I want, I want’ – live for pleasure and kicks, and shower their pets and toys with more love and attention than they do their ageing mothers or troublesome children.
Loving, of course, is a problem too, if you consider the above. Entering into a commitment with another person inherently involves enormous risks no insurer will cover. Most people have already been traumatized in childhood (divorced parents), and a sizeable percentage have also been knocked around in a marriage or relationship. Nor do blood ties guarantee unconditional love, as soap-opera morality will tell you. Ergo, it’s best to watch soaps, take comfort from them, and then buy the officially licensed doll of your favorite character in the show. Or get a cuddly toy. Preferably a homemade one, because then it’s like a second self.
The world is full of threats. People (partly for this reason) are becoming ever nastier. Even with all the market has to offer, all the treats and kicks and entertainment, it’s not at all easy to make your life a happiness project, not even if you stow away responsibility, conscience, etiquette and worries in the deep freeze. Just surviving is hard work.
In this phase of the experiential economy, it is
understandable that we are seeing this now: people designing
acceptable, livable selves through creating virtually living characters.
For us as for other mammals, play appears to be a prerequisite for survival. And experience is the new survival.
Loyalty hardly exists any more. Just listen to the lamentations of the labor unions, the political parties, the churches, the idealistic organizations. And look at the advertising efforts of petrol sellers, supermarkets and other vendors. They give you stamps galore, creating the only kind of loyalty that can be relied upon, but really it’s addiction. Let’s be cynical for a moment: you’ll find the strongest loyalty in the pub and at the methadone van.
Yes, loyalty is scarce and consumers, according to marketers, are schizophrenic. It’s no wonder, with all that juggling between one’s inner and outer images. I think Me and My Character is a wonderful project, because people must be taught to form connections with themselves and each other. Not no-strings connections, but committed ones. Becoming friends with yourself – and this is how I end my book The Emocode – is the way to become complete again. How do you do it? The imaginary other self is only a mini-step removed from your consciousness. You can carry on a dialogue with your other self, take yourself along as a travelling companion, help yourself across boundaries, give yourself a pep talk. It’s totally logical that you’d want to create a figure to help you do so – a cuddly toy or something else that (to you) is ‘alive’ and has a personality – and it’s a lovely way to project your second self.