Scriptive Novelty: A Pair of Bears

And now, on to what scriptive attitudes and actions might be implied by having a set of novelty salt and pepper shakers on the table. Just so that there’ll be something specific to refer to, I offer what I take to be a pretty basic and therefore really rather uninteresting example of the kind of set I mean–novelty shakers that, unlike depictions of women with removable breasts or dark-skinned miniature people riding Chinese cabbages or combinations of dogs and fireplugs or pins and benches, really aren’t all that very much of a novelty.

This pair of bears are, mostly like each other–clearly a pair because each is so much like the other, and yet clearly a pair also because of some relatively minor differences from each other: one wears a baby blue bandanna, one a baby pink one; one plays a banjo while the other appears to be reaching for a pistol. They go together both because they are alike and because they are different enough to need each other in order to make some kind of point about being the same despite the difference–soul-mates despite superficial differences, the salt-and-pepper version of “we were meant for each other,” maybe? Like humans in love, significantly different people, most conventionally in the traditions of romance one male and one female, who are as one.

It’s no accident , I think, that the bandannas are this particular blue and pink. They make an all-important gender distinction visible by an outward sign of it in a way that seems, most of the time, as necessary in salt-and-pepper sets as it appears to be increasingly in our bringing up of young children. These days, boys in the real world do not, not ever, wear pink. Girls do. Girls always do. And thus even complete strangers know at a glance when they pass a baby on the street what particular formulation of genitalia it possesses. We need to know it, it seems. And we need the babies to know it, too, as soon as they can possibly learn it. And we want our novelty salt-and-pepper bears to display the signs of it, too. I plan in a later post to discuss of number of shaker sets in my collection which distinguish between two otherwise exactly duplicate shakers by providing some small symbol of what then becomes a difference in their genders–a difference that makers them as both different and belonging beside each other.

Why the gender of the figures represented by the salts and peppers on our tabletops matters all that much I do not know. It might have something to do with the comforting nature of most novelty salt-and-pepper sets, the way in which they represent safety. There’s a boy and a girl,which is just the sane, safe, old heteronormative ways things ought to be. This is a table, they seem to announce, the table we sit atop, where convention and good-old-fashioned normalcy reign. No surprises here, no radical upsetting of tradition, no perverse or perplexing or uncomfortably mind-stretching anarchy. You may sit and eat safely and serenely, and not be discomfited or challenged.

Apart from their insistence on the importance of gender, what makes these bears good examples of conventional mainstream “novelty’ as expressed in the salt-and-pepper world is their cuteness. They are kind of smily, kind of round-faced and round-eyed and round-bodied, kind of chubby and anything but dangerous–even though one, the one in pink, of all things, appears to be reaching for her gun, perhaps in response to the quality of the boy bear’s banjo-picking?

Hmmm. Perhaps they are more weird and interesting than at first they appeared to be. Wouldn’t you expect the boy to be the aggressive gun-reacher, the girl the artsy musical one? For that matter, wouldn’t you expect the one identified as a girl to be the one with an object carefully placed in front of what would be her exposed breasts if she were a human girl? There is more going on here than first meets the eye.

Nevertheless, the cuteness seems to matter more than, and to trump, that weirdness–and above all, the danger. So what if these are supposed to be bears, savage conscious-less animals no human beings should ever really want to get too close to? So what if one them appears to be about to pull her gun and take a shot at something, maybe her musical companion, maybe the fragile good china they share a tabletop with. They are cute bears, more like teddy bears than actual living ones. And like teddies, they represent a danger defanged, a danger it’s perfectly safe to get close to and cuddle. The bears represent, once more, in this different way, safety and comfort and ease, a soft-edged haven from the less placid reality away from but always all too near the dinner tables they’ve been designed to sit on.

Furthermore, they are humanized animals, bears wearing human clothing–cowboy hats, chaps, bandannas. And that’s another aspect of their cuteness, their existence as animals who appear to be acting safely like humans, or perhaps humans who appear to be safely dressed up in bear costumes and pretending a very undangerous dangerousness. There’s something about humanized animals that makes them creatures of the margins, the border-defying places between what is usually seen as separate and different. And that somehow diminishes them, makes them both less than animal and less than human, but in ways a lot of people find pleasing and comforting rather than distressing.

Okay, you may be asking, so what happened to scriptiveness? Good question. At this point, I have to acknowledge that I appear to have selected the wrong shaker set to talk about–the oddities of these bears have got me sidetracked from my original plan of talking about what kinds of actions they might be scripting, and what implications those actions might have. I’ve talked about how they look, and how they might be inviting specific understandings of aspects of their appearance that imply cultural attitudes. But I haven’t yet talked about what kinds of actions they might be inviting their users to perform with them. I guess that’ll have to be the subject of my next post.

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