The toy industry, which sells upward of $27 billion a year in the U.S., determines what children will play with—be it plastic cars, crying dolls, winged animals with unicorn horns, or, since 2018, a lot of smiley poop. USA Today reported on the then-rising trend of poop toys in December 2018, quoting Jackie Breyer, the editorial director of trade publication The Toy Insider: “This is the biggest year for gross toys I’ve ever seen. Kids love it. Kids see nothing wrong with it. Gross is funny. Poop and farts are a big win for kids.” Beyer connects this trend to the “enduring popularity of the poop emoji,” referencing the brown, soft-serve-ice-cream-looking poop emoji on smart phones, an emoji so popular it’s become a theme for children’s birthday parties. An article written by Vox journalist Kaitlyn Tiffany credits the element of surprise for the rise in unsavory body-function toys. Tiffany writes: “Most toymakers I spoke to traced this new gross toy trend to a broader internet trend of ‘surprise’—popularized by toy unboxing videos and by the general breakneck plot twists of popular children’s YouTube channels. What is more surprising than a fart? What is more surprising than most things your body can do?”
I recently walked the toy aisles of Target and Walmart and, two years into the gross toy trend, I can confirm the craze remains alive and well. Industry leader Mattel features a line of brightly colored toilets called Pooparoos Surpriseroos. The toy includes a surprise pet and three different snacks for the pet, which are also—surprise—a surprise. The premise of the toy is that the pet will eat the snacks and then poop them into the toilet, which doubles as the pet’s home. The toy includes a little shovel so that the child can scoop the snacks-turned-poop out of the toilet and feed the pet again and again in a cycle of endless fun! MGA Entertainment, another industry powerhouse, markets Poopsie Slime Surprises, a highly successful line of “unicorn poop.” These toys essentially are elaborate versions of the poop emoji packed with pasty neon slime, twinkling with that special, magical unicorn je ne sais quoi.
All this raises the obvious question: what parent would ever buy their kid such awful things? Given the toys’ success, many would, indeed, many have—my husband and myself included. Our five-year-old daughter dreams in Poopsie and Pooparoos, both of which we have traded for real dollars and real cents in real stores. Indeed, after ordering my daughter’s first Pooparoos Surpriseroos we, as a family, eagerly awaited its arrival: apparently my husband and I wanted to see our daughter play with her toilet.
Of course, when the toy arrived, there didn’t seem much real surprise to it: it was harmless, amusing, just another piece of environmentally toxic plastic. But even so, the ubiquitous presence of these poop-themed objects around the house suddenly began to exert an eerie, uncanny force. How had my daughter come to play with such toys? How had my husband and I agreed to purchase them? Did we secretly—or is it overtly—want these toys, too? How is it that so many scatological toys thrive in the marketplace? There are plenty of wonderful toy-buying options out there. Why select gross ones? What game is being designed, purchased, and played?
Body functions are indeed fascinating and “surprising,” but they are also alienating. They remind us of our mortality, a mortality that is inconceivable within the grind of the day-to-day. Body functions distance us from what we like to regard as our physical self: that commanding, adroit creature so aptly named homo sapiens. Our physical needs remain just beyond our control. They are interruptions, often inconvenient ones—we are at their mercy. They rudely barge in on our mental and emotional narratives, narratives that often run counter to the daily needs of our flesh and bone. I began to wonder—might the purchase of a rainbow rubber smiling poop toy from the limitless shelves of Walmart serve to mask our perturbed relationship with our physical vulnerability? Does this purchase reveal a need to render our physical selves more—digestible?
Superficial attempts to control the uncontrollable remind me of the human/nature relation Ralph Waldo Emerson describes in his essay “The American Scholar.” Although not conventionally considered a scholar of unicorn poop toys, Emerson seems relevant when he writes: “To the young mind, every thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by it finds how to join two things, and see in them one nature; then three then three thousand; and so, tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies…” The mind’s need to classify, to “diminish anomalies” in the natural world, extends to the body. Though scatological functions may not be anomalies in and of themselves, they are taboos relegated to reduced private spaces and long shunned as topics of conversation. Thus, the explosive popularity of gross toys is indeed an anomaly, one we attempt to diminish by packaging it as kid’s play.
That children even have the option of playing with poop toys in the first place results from the toy industry’s skill at making these objects ubiquitous and engaging. Adult intervention clinches their commercial success at every level. After all, a poop-emoji-themed kid party has a consenting adult wallet behind it. And let’s not forget the poop emoji was birthed by smart phones, beloved possessions of the adult world. It is from the mature adult world that the popularity of gross toys spilled out into kid stores, where gross toys work hard to present the byproduct of digestion as a cheery affair. But, hard as these toys work, their efforts cannot control nor sterilize that uncontrollable and polluting thing — that thing that is the body.
Interestingly, in my experience, kids are not as riveted by their actual body functions as they are by the mention of these functions in spaces other than the bathroom. Talking about potty while going potty is not that funny. My daughter gets furious if anyone calls her on a fart, but a stuffed animal farting—now that’s hilarious. In potty talk, words describe what they name in a straightforward line of signification whose capacity for humor is linked to subversion—to the language of potty rebelling against the civility of a closed bathroom door. In contrast, gross toys present a false, friendly version of the original, one that is intended to be subversively silly at all times. But subversion loses its power when it’s always “on” because then it becomes status quo. Except, there is no doubt that gross toys exert a mutinous appeal. So, what sustains their rebellion? To answer this question, I had to first grasp the fact that my husband and I count the days until the end of our daughter’s potty-talk phase, while buying her poop toys. Somehow, potty talk is bad, but poop toys are fine. Here is a rich—and, yes, pathetic—divide.
Potty talk is deemed inappropriate because it names an honest truth, and the honest truth of digestion, the process by which all human bodies grow and live, is uncomfortable to adults. Rainbow rubber poop, instead, provides a safe, non-confrontational way for us grownups — like me, like maybe Emerson, if he’d had the chance — to rub against the anxiety we feel, but suppress, about our yucky selves. This anxiety generates a push/pull relationship vis à vis scatology that is both fascinating and surprising. Gross toys lure because, subversively, they reveal and poke fun at anxiety at the same time. The fact that their untrue, comical design will never actually make defecation funny also underpins their uncanny allure. Potty toys carry in themselves, as Jacques Derrida would say, “the destiny of [their] non-satisfaction,” which is why their weird plasticity makes you actually need the bendy ideas of someone like Derrida to understand them. These toys can’t escape their inevitable non-truth, but it’s precisely in the exertion with which they present their non-truth where truth hides. By presenting the byproduct of digestion as glittery, scatological toys attempt to deny the messiness of the body, but, by virtue of this denial, the disquiet that surrounds our vulnerability is called forth.
“Scatological” comes from the Latin word stercus, which means “dung” but, more literally, “to cut off.” No coincidence, then, that the word describes bodily byproducts we’d like to “cut off” and wipe clean from reality. Alas, denial is messy, and—to borrow Derridean sentence structure—in the proliferation lies the negation. In the propagation lies the preoccupation. Emerson writes: “Each age, it is found, must write its own books.” What “books” are we writing, what games are we playing, via the toys we buy for our kids? The games of repressed vulnerability, of pink sequin scatology, of make-believe immortality.
Ana Maria Caballero is a student of poetry and other oddities. Her writing has appeared in numerous outlets and lives online at www.anamariacaballero.com.