Boys will be boys - but we do need to keep an eye on their toys

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The Independent Online

The Princess Diana memorial playground has many virtues. But one of its less satisfying aspects is the one which decrees that while the centrepiece of the playground is a pirate ship, and the whole caboodle celebrates the legend of Peter Pan, the lost boys playing out their Barrie-inspired fantasies in Kensington Gardens are not allowed to do so with the help of plastic cutlasses.

The Princess Diana memorial playground has many virtues. But one of its less satisfying aspects is the one which decrees that while the centrepiece of the playground is a pirate ship, and the whole caboodle celebrates the legend of Peter Pan, the lost boys playing out their Barrie-inspired fantasies in Kensington Gardens are not allowed to do so with the help of plastic cutlasses.

Maybe this is not just political correctness. Perhaps the happy ambience of the playground would be spoiled by boys whacking each other, breaking into howls of hurt or anger, and generally causing disruption to a childish idyll.

Certainly the ban on violence-inspiring toys is not considered a cranky one. Playgroups, nurseries and schools up and down the country enforce the ban without a second thought. Perhaps, though, young boys yearn to act out violent games because they simply need to. Perhaps frowning upon such youthful role play is misguided.

Hamley's, the fabulous London toy shop, also has many virtues, and one or two flaws. One, in my opinion, is the way in which it imposes a total ban on toy guns, but does a roaring trade in computer games that feature the self-same scary object. Can it be that by curbing boys in their wish to explore their aggression through play, we have simply ramped up the problem? Now young boys explore their aggression by playing computer games that have been made with adult players in mind.

The manufacturers and distributors of these games are now coming in for a great deal of criticism. Since it was revealed that 17-year-old Warren LeBlanc, who brutally murdered his 14-year-old friend Stefan Pakeerah, was obsessed with an appalling PlayStation game called Manhunt, there have been calls for games like this one to be banned.

It is shocking to learn that in Manhunt a convicted killer on death row has to kill everyone he meets to avoid execution. It's shocking also to consider how little was known about the content of these widely available "entertainment" packages before this awful case came to trial.

Violent computer games have become a huge but dirty secret, a vastly present part of popular culture, which has little or no critical scrutiny outside its own orbit. Apart from the people who play these games, no one has - or had until Stefan's murder - any idea what they contain.

Now we understand that they contain scenarios of illegal violence outwith a moral landscape and in our panic and horror we demand that they be banned. I'd certainly be in favour of banning the virtual enactment of activities illegal in the real world. But what I really want is for boys to have ways of getting that need to indulge in violent role-play out of their systems earlier instead.

Some research says that if you indulge the desire of small children to play fighting games, they become more aggressive. Other research says that if you stop them from exploring that aspect of masculinity as children, then they will turn to it when they are older.

I do know one thing, though. If you let little boys play with toy swords, or even with toy potato guns, they learn that it hurts when you get hit. When they play similar games on computers, they do not.

¿ At last it becomes apparent why Sven Goran Eriksson was so keen to leap on to the moral high ground when it came to discussing his private life. There were we, the Great British public, assuming that this was some sort of European thing, dignified, mature, contemptuous of the prurient Brits and their nosy, farcical tabloid culture. Now we can see that it was actually just that there weren't enough hours in the day to fit in having the private life and talking about it as well.

Violence in advertising deserves a good kicking

My sons, two and six, both asked me independently the other day to explain to them an advertisement that was perplexing them. It was for some revolting concoction called Carte d'Or by Wall's. It showed, on a London Underground poster, a photograph of a woman's foot in the air, as a man holding two bowls fell backwards into a pond. "If it's not something-or-other, show him the Carte d'Or," the poster declared.

It was hard to explain to my boys that this was a joke. Who in their right minds would kick a person bringing them a dish of animal fat mixed in a factory with refined sugar, after all? But is was also hard to explain to them that while they must never use violence ever, against men, women, children or animals, it is considered quite amusing at this point in time to portray women attacking and berating men.

If the stiletto was on the other foot, of course, things would be different. A poster showing a woman being kicked by her partner for serving him an unwanted dessert would not be allowed because the image would be considered degrading and offensive to women. Degrading and offending men, and letting their sons cop an eyeful of it, is absolutely fine, though.

¿ There has been much celebrating among defiantly "normal" women over the fact that the advert for Dove firming cream featuring real women with real bodies has boosted sales of the product by 700 per cent.

It is being hailed as a breakthrough, this advert, because its fans say it proves that women have had enough of been flogged stuff by stick-thin children like Kate Moss (pictured left in 1993).

This would seem to contradict the view of the chief medical officer, who claims that it is the fault of "role models" such as Ms Moss that women are still smoking. This, he points out, is particularly galling because nothing makes you look old, feel old and die like fags.

Except that there is little real contradiction. Women smoke, to some extent, as an appetite suppressant. They put off stopping for fear of gaining weight. My guess would be that Ms Moss is no different from many other women on that score.

My other guess would be that she's no less susceptible to miracle creams than other women. Dove didn't sell loads of cream just because they'd used real girls as models. True, the campaign was attention-grabbing. But it also worked well because women don't like their flabby thighs and will fall for any quick fix to change them, no matter how ludicrous a line they suspect they're being spun.

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