Build-A-Bear’s New Line is Really About Adult Infantilization
by Mary Harington
Build-A-Bear’s Sexy Plush
The ‘Build-A-Bear’ children’s toy franchise has launched a line of ‘sexy’ plushes, including one complete with a satin dressing gown and a bottle of champagne.
It’s easy to complain about the commercial sexualization of childhood, a phenomenon now so widespread that even the government has opinions. But I think the best way to look at this is from the other end of the same telescope: not the pornification of childhood, but the infantilization of adults.
This extends far beyond the realm of sex: consider the deeply grimacing term “coming of age,” where the performance of any basic task is associated with ordinary adult autonomy. The term is so popular that it now has its own reward chart stickers; Those who want to recreate the elementary school thrill of getting a sticker can now do so in exchange for managing basic functional adult traits like showing up on time, doing laundry, or wearing pants.
However, it doesn’t stop at adult reward charts. The collapsing cultural distinction between the supposed subjectivity of children and adults is, inevitably, also sexualized, in the growing popularity of BDSM “age play” scenarios, in which one or more participants adopt a childlike persona.
It is difficult to say with certainty what triggered this convergence of the sexualization of early childhood and the infantilization of sexuality. Two possible (and related) factors come to mind: first, the cultural reinvention of sex as a leisure activity, driven by birth control and ubiquitous pornography, and second, rising rates of infertility.
I’m willing to bet that “little” roleplaying is less common among adults who are parents themselves. I’m also willing to bet that for adults who have young children of their own, the idea of a ‘kinky’ version of the Build-a-Bear ritual, where kids line up to put a ‘heart’ in the bear they chose to come to life,” is likely to come across as less edgy or fun than just gross. And, more generally, nothing cures twee’s fantasy that doing laundry deserves an “adult” sticker more vividly than becoming a parent and realizing that a newborn is entirely dependent on you to act together.
I don’t know if childlessness creates infantile adults, or if infantilized adults refuse to become parents, but the two are linked. And the resulting subculture of perpetual sterile preteens actively blurs the lines between childhood and adult sexuality, seemingly unaware of the potential effects on actual children.