There was a moment in the rush of my job interview at Otago, where I looked down from the top floor of the Richardson building and texted my sister a photo: ‘it looks like toy town’. A careless observation from someone who thought they’d put away toys once they’d picked up something else (a job; a husband; a life). A careless observation from someone who though they would never get the job and would never have to live here.
'Cute' was the reply. Toys can be cute. It’s true. Kids can be cute when they play with toys. Sometimes.
I am sitting in a café. I’m trying to make that something else happen – I’m trying to write. ‘I’m writing my way out of there’, I tell people back home. Lacan says we all need an escabeau – a step ladder. A ladder isn’t a toy. It’s a tool. It’s a thing that grown-ups use to do something serious (but beautiful too – right? Lacan puns on l’est ça beau...). Not cute. Beauty is different to cuteness.
A boy is playing Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s one of those cafes which is child-friendly and has a tub of toys. A younger boy toddles over and says 'Look. I have Percy'. He beams and seems to want to play along as he proffers his little green train. The other boy grabs at it. He wants the toy – not the play.
'... remember what we said about sharing ...'
The mother’s voice above swoops in and swoops down to pick up the Thomas-boy. He squalls. He refuses to eat the hot chips she offers him. He wants that other toy.
That wasn’t so cute. Or it was – at the start. Then it wasn’t. It was one of those prickly moments that threw me off my game. I didn’t want to play anymore. I packed up my laptop and left.
The problem is – when you live in a toy town it’s hard not to get caught up in the game.
Everything is ‘wee’ here. They took that from the Scots. Tiny houses and tiny little hatchback cars. 'Nobody here has four-wheel-drives', I marvelled to people back home. Melbournians feigned envy: 'they clutter up the streets'; 'Toorak Tractors'. Not here. No social climbing through big cars. No climbing here.
Cute. A tiny wee town.
Cute little things aren’t always benign though. As Susan Stewart points out, the miniature can make us feel strange as well. It’s uncanny.
In toy town I feel like a stranger. But I keep bumping in to people.
'Small towns...', colleagues who’ve played their hand in other toy towns (Wollongong; Suva; Nagasaki) smile wryly at me: 'you have to get out of there'.
The scale is all off. The tiny timber ‘villas’ are dwarfed by a large stadium: home to the Highlanders rugby union team; a miniature, diasporic version of the Scottish tribe.
Rugby players are huge though.
I know this because you run in to people in toy town. 'That’s one of the Highlanders', somebody hisses at me across the bar.
I seem to have grown all out of scale here too. I teeter over people in platform heel boots. I buy a size up too, so my legs look like little sticks. I bump into a colleague wearing my gym clothes: 'You look so tiny without your heels'.
How do I grow when I’m already grown up? In toy-town people mistake me for a student. No wonder I want to look bigger.
The little toy-cars swerve into menace as well. The fury their occupants perform is more than uncanny. It can be terrifying. Stewart says in her book that the miniature can move like this – from strangeness to threat.
'You fucking dumb cunt! Learn to walk, bitch!'.
The rage these epithets hold explodes their ‘wee’ containers.
To yell out of a Commodore or Hilux is often called obscene. Maybe. But isn’t it more horrifying – more disturbing – when it comes from a Daihatsu Charade? Maybe.
Or maybe I’m just blowing it out of proportion – this scale thing.
What happens when wee explodes? In toy-town it’s called a ‘piss bomb’. A children’s toy – a balloon - is filled with urine and hurled at pedestrians. Walking passed the university library this ‘wee’ thing exploded on to my legs; hurled from a battered hatchback: ‘Fuck you slut!’. Laughing. Ho-ho.
In toy-town, dirty words and dirty stuff are funny. The wee dripped into my oversized shoes. I took them off as I walked home. Scaled down.
Maybe it was the shoes?
Toys play with scale. Thomas and Percy are not to scale. Toys suit the little hands that hold them. A friend posts an Instagram of her toddler brandishing a toy octopus. Another gripping a ‘baby-cino’. ‘Cute <3’, I comment. I scroll on.
I follow the hashtag #dunnerstunner on Instagram. It was a joke at first. It’s funny if you’re looking down from the ladder, from the top floor and you can say ‘what’s so stunning about toy town?’
Lately, #dunnerstunner has lots of photos of toys. So does the daily paper, The Otago Daily Times. Like Percy, these toys are green: they are lime coloured scooters. When they arrived, I smirked. I’m playing my hand. I’m building a ladder.
I smirked because sometimes that off-scale-ness is funny. How can this town get it so wrong? Why not bicycles – a form of transport for grown-ups?
Clang. #dunnerstunner. Scroll on.
In toy-town though, toys aren’t funny. Everyone was talking about the ‘limes’. The Otago Daily Times told us that – apart from the metropolises of Christchurch and Auckland – Geneva and Singapore and Santa Monica also have these contraptions. We are a big city now.
Even when people agreed with me - that something about limes clanged – they kept saying that they signified a type of Silicon-Valley capitalism. There was no disagreement that these machines existed in a big city; and that toy-town was a metropolis now. “They’re for hip, urban professionals,” a colleague said.
We are a big city now. Like the Highlanders, ‘wee’, and the designation that the university is the ‘Oxford of the South’ – the limes come from elsewhere to tell us who we are.
The co-ordinates are off though. We are in Aotearoa – not Silicon Valley. Trucks full of sheep rumble alongside limes. There are 58 articles in the ODT about limes since they ‘landed’ a fortnight ago. The university has sent around a memo about how to ‘lime’ on campus.
Remember what we said about sharing?
Toys come with a rulebook.
But ‘rules are made to be broken’ – right? The boy who didn’t want to play with Percy shows us that. The limers who scoot on the footpath show us that. Toys and play show us the rules but that also show us the limit of those rules. Sharing comes with the will to not share.
In toy-town, though, they mistake the rulebook for gospel. The inbuilt rule-breaking of toys is not seen. So, in toy-town, transgression is off-scale too. It’s outside. It’s wild. It’s real rebellion. It’s big, big, fun to break the rules. They forgot that breaking the rules is part of the rules. Children learn that. Thomas-boy knew that.
In toy-town, though, people don’t seem to know that. There’s a sort of smugness in their transgressions. ‘We’re rule-breakers and innovators’. Limes are just how we roll. In toy-town we travel endlessly elsewhere without getting there. We are a city. We are sophisticated. We are settled, grown up and have arrived.
On a scooter.
On a scooter?
It might sound like I’m throwing my toys out of the cot. That I’m making something big out of something small (or making small out of something big – a city for a town). It might sound like I think I’m above it all in my high heels. Teetering and tittering. Maybe. When ‘wee’ explodes all over you sometimes you explode back.
The boy holding Percy toddled away.
Not me. In toy-town, I’ve held on to toys – the pleasure of spewing bile through my words at toy-town. My own kind of obscenity. I’ve fallen over in my heels a lot. I’ve fallen off.
Learn to walk, bitch!
Lacan is playing when he says l’escabeau is like l’est ça beau. It’s a mistake, he says. But, sometimes, he says, you have to build a ladder to see things at all.
Rosemary Overell is a lecturer in the Media and Communications at the University of Otago. Her most recent work considers how gendered subjectivities are co-constituted by and through mediation. She draws particularly on Lacanian psychoanalysis to explore a variety of mediated sites. In particular, she considers the intersections between affect and signification and how these produce gender. Rosemary has looked at media as varied as anime, extreme metal and reality television.