My Fetal Pony: Neoteny in Girls’ Toys

It’s no secret that Mickey Mouse has evolved in response to consumer pressures. Once a violent river-rat, he became the boy scout of rodents with good looks to match. Steven Jay Gould famously charted Mickey’s pedomorphosis over the years.  The mouse reverted to a baby’s bigger skull, bigger eyes, and pudgier snout.

As a child of the 80s and 90s, I’ve noticed the same trend in the toy brands that once littered the floor of my suburban bedroom. Boys toys may be constrained to adult (and therefore masculine) characteristics, but girls’ toys are free to fall under the consumer pressures of the Mickey Effect.

The My Little Pony (MLP) reboot exhibits a classic retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood, a process known as neoteny. The eyes are bigger, the face is rounder and flatter, and the body size and leg length are reduced. Compared to the more conventional equine outline of the original series, the new MLP appears based on an infant, even fetal stage of development.

Littlest Pet Shop, a toy series introduced in 1990, is subject to the same selective pressures as MLP. The characters’ limbs are dramatically shorter and rounder. Head size has increased relative to body size, and small, close set eyes have morphed into watery saucers well-adapted to low-light conditions.

Girls’ toys also exhibit a strong trend towards progenesis- sexual maturity achieved in a juvenile state. Bagworms do it; so do mole salamanders. Normally induced by environmental stressors, progenesis in toys is the result of a cultural imperative for women to embody both the cute and the sexual.

Bratz Dolls, seen here alongside their direct ancestor, are ‘tweens.’ Compared to the uber-model Barbie, they are less physiologically mature, with gigantic, wide-set eyes and abnormally large craniums. Yet despite their tender age, they exhibit hallmarks of female sexual maturity: a high hip-to-waist ratio and full lips, as well as social markers including skimpy clothing and heavy makeup. Bratz reach sexual maturity as pre-teens; apparently the lingerie-wearing Babyz can accomplish it as infants.

Social selection over the last few decades has heavily constrained the phenotypes of girls’ toys.  The cute-ification of these playthings mirrors the evolution of the dog from a rangy wolf to the pocketbook-size ‘toy’ breeds. What would be lion-fodder in the wild is bred, manufactured, and cherished in Next Nature.

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