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Magnetic Memory Things: Children’s Toys as Objects of Emotion, Memory, and Femininity in U.S. Public Culture

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Public memory studies in rhetoric have typically neglected how we use shared memories to form, maintain, and pass down social norms through the objects we encounter and the practices we participate in during our everyday lives. This is especially true for children’s toys, because they are understood as essential objects that help adults “raise” children in accordance with certain sets of values, beliefs, and norms. Furthermore, rhetorical studies have also struggled to explain the role of emotion in public memory discourse, assuming rather than explaining how emotion produces audience investment. “Magnetic Memory Things” addresses both issues by examining the conditions under which certain children’s toys have been transformed into emotionally powerful objects of public memory—what I term “memory things.” I propose a model of “magnetic memory” that analogizes the properties of an electromagnet to explain how the rhetorical force of affect and emotion “magnetizes” audience investment in public memory. This model brings together Sarah Ahmed’s affective economies and Sara VanderHaagen’s agential spiral to describe and explain how audience commitment in certain public memories is conditioned upon an object’s circulation in public culture. Analyses of the Easy-Bake Oven, LEGO, and American Girl demonstrate that assumptions about gender, class, and race, which permeate the creation of, adults’ deliberation over, and children’s play with toys, are deeply intertwined with emotion and that the accrual of affective force significantly affects people’s ability to leverage the toys’ meaning for public memories. Sometimes, as with the Easy-Bake Oven, those emotional attachments make it possible to negotiate conflicting gender ideologies. But nostalgic memories can also limit a toy’s effectiveness for public memory creation. As evidenced by the LEGO Friends controversy, deeply cherished memories that idealized LEGO as innocently gender-neutral limited feminist critiques and instead focused the debate on policing the borders of respectable femininity. Moreover, toys that are explicitly about public memory—such as American Girl’s BeForever doll collection and related historical fiction—also rely on emotional attachments to encourage audience investment in certain values and invite their potential enactment.

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