Monday, December 11, 2006

A Call to (Teddy Bear) Arms

Have you heard of Build-a-Bear? My 11-year-old stepdaughter had been going on about how much she wanted to go to Build-a-Bear, and she described it to me as a place where you can make your own teddy bear. I thought that sounded good, creative and all that, so I told her that when she was next with us, I would take her.

But I did a little reconnaissance first. Since I happened to be at the Black Hole of Burnaby, the Metrotown Mall, anyway, I checked out the local Build-a-Bear. As soon as I set foot in the place, I knew it would be impossible to leave, if accompanied by a demanding child, without shelling out a hundred bucks, at least. Full of bright colours, whirling machines and cute fake fur critters, it was immediately evident this place had some connection to the evil Disney empire.

Turns out that the"building" part consists of selecting the deflated body of one of about 30 options (including, of course, various Disney characters), taking it over to a stuffing machine, which blows some polyester fibrefill into the belly of your bear, and doing up a zipper. Voila! See how creative you are? But just not feeling that warm glow of accomplishment yet? Well, walk on over to the well-stocked aisles of little outfits, shoes, handbags, and other accessories (probably made by children in thrid world sweatshops) and you can continue "building" your bear by shopping for its wardrobe. When you're done, the helpful staff will attach a barcode and give you a "birth certificate" for your bear.

I just about threw up, I was so appalled. There was no creativity here, just shopping. As Wendy Tremayne says so eloquently in her essay on consumerism:
"Consumers are asked to view shopping as a creative endeavor, when in
actuality only the designers and engineers of things play a creative
role however limited by the constraints of profit margins. The
consumer’s creativity is simply selection. We interpret. We choose
between things, between styles, between prepackaged lifestyles that
we are each to find ourselves residing in chosen from a predetermined
set designed by marketing, and this is the means to which we’re asked
to express our uniqueness." (You can read the whole essay here).

And what's worse, this is callous, greedy marketing aimed at the most defenseless (and therefore most desireable) group of consumers, children.

I was now faced with the unpleasant task of telling my step-daughter that I would NOT be taking her to Build-a-Bear. To soften the blow, I went to Dear Bears, a sweet little shop in a business park on the outskirts of Vancouver (guess the rents at Metrotown were out of their budget). There, two wonderful ladies who had been making bears from scratch for years, helped me choose a pattern, beautiful soft leopard print fake fur, eyes, joints and the other sundry parts that would be needed. They gave me all kinds of helpful hints, and even said if we had any problems to call and they would help over the phone. I left the shop, yes, having spent about the same amount I would have at Build-a-Bear, but feeling good about where my money had gone. And although her face fell when I told her the news, I know SD and I will have a wonderful time putting "Simon" together. And I hope that when she experiences the fun and pride of accomplishment of really making something herself, I will have a convert.

But that may be me being overly optimistic. It's a battle trying to convince an 11-year-old who says without irony that "TNA is one of my favourite brands" that something made by hand can have any value. But I do think it's a battle worth fighting.

P.S. Since posting this I've been fretting that my visit to Dear Bears is still wanton consumerism, one step removed. Perhaps I should have put my energy into enticing SD into felting old woolen sweaters and making them into robot dolls or some such cool thing. And should I even be trying to share my values with an obviously impressionable child? My success in doing that is so far very limited, but then I don't have the marketing might of mega-corporations behind me.


  1. Jacquie10:33 AM

    I take my hat off to you, Heather. I've managed to steer my 11-year-old away from Build-a-Bear, but not from Beanie Babies -- which, though considerably less money than Build-a-Bear, are perfectly designed for what marketers euphemistically call "collecting." Even the creativity of giving the toys names has been taken away, as they each come with a tag that gives their name and "birth date." My daughter, however, is deeply attached to her much-worn and much-loved favourite Beanie Baby, dresses him in doll clothes made by her grandmother and created a Halloween costume for him made out of felt and fabric scraps. Maybe I should be firmer about discouraging consumerism, but I encourage the creativity where I can.

  2. Brava! You, and the essay you quote, hit the nail on the head.

    I think you can feel good about supporting the independent bear people. After all, you are supporting their creativity, embracing it yourself, and furthering it with a child.

    My own daughter adores build-a-bear (sigh), and happily, like Jacquie's child, makes clothes for her beanies with felt, scraps, and safety pins.


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