The Problem with Phallic Play-Doh

Play doh toys

In yet another example of how categorization matters, consider the latest controversy in children’s playthings: Hasbro Corp., maker of the famous Play-Doh brand modeling clay, recently released a Play-Doh set featuring a clay extruder that looks astonishingly like a penis. Hasbro has apologized to consumers offended by the shape of the extruder and has promised a replacement that’s, shall we say, less anatomically correct.

From a critical perspective, what’s interesting here is not so much the shape of the extruder as the various responses to it. As one article suggests, most children wouldn’t think twice about using a penis-shaped extruder in great part because a) most likely wouldn’t recognize that it looks like a penis, and/or b) they wouldn’t find anything particularly problematic about something penis-shaped. The people with the problem are the adults whose concepts of appropriateness and obscenity are creating certain categories of difference that make this particular extruder controversial.

This reminds me of my own response to my youngest son’s tendency to engage in endless rhyming games (hit, bit, fit, sh*&!) that inevitably end up with a four letter word somewhere in there. If I were to correct him and otherwise discourage him from saying certain words, I would be the one who would be turning what, to him, are nonsensical sounds into a moral category. So when we say that “words matter,” we must also, always ask to whom – and why – they matter as well.

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