Toys — whether store-bought or home-made — colored our childhoods; we woke up to them in the morning, shampooed them in the bathtub, brushed their hair; dressed them; fed them; lined them up and taught them all we knew before finally tucking them in at night. Whatever type of toys we had, we treated them like both friends and children. For Mackenzie, a 22-year old college student living in Los Angeles, those toys were Calico Critters — actually, they still are. Although Mackenzie ostensibly outgrew toys a while back — “it gets weird to collect dolls past a certain age and kids would bully you for that” — she always knew she would reunite with them one day: “I said to myself that when I was old enough for it to be cool for me to have a ton of Calico Critters, I’m going all out.” And all out she went. Now, her love of the tiny toys is central to her TikTok presence, where her Calico Critters posts spike at over half a million views.
All over the internet — but, of course, especially on TikTok — teens and young adults are finding more and more niche and precise subcultures to ascribe to, and digging deeper and deeper into their psyches (sometimes to the point of over-diagnosing themselves), perhaps in the hopes of excavating a fully healed and fully baked version of themselves to present to the post-COVID world. And toys are playing a role in that process.
First introduced in 1985 in Japan, Calico Critters are minimalist-looking animal figurines that are, according to the brand, timeless and classic toys that “promote wholesome family values.” If 18 million views under TikTok’s Calico Critters hashtag are any indication, they are also the perfect avatar to cater to our collective craving for a sweeter, softer, and cuter side to our generally cold, dark world. That’s why, on TikTok, the toys are best known for the “aesthetically pleasing” cottagecore attire they wear while they act out dramatic adult scenarios — like paying bills and getting divorced.
“It’s not like I play with them,” Mackenzie explained, “but when I was little and I dreamed of the adult I would be, I wanted to be the type of adult that had fun little trinkets in her house, set up in precarious scenes,” like, a chihuahua doing taxes over a mimosa set on a tiny soap dish tile, just a slammed door away from toppling into the bathtub. But, quarantine turned Mackenzie’s mind onto some childhood trauma and she realized that her Calico Critters were the perfect toy onto which she could project her feelings. She now has about 30 figurines and she’s not interested in collecting more or playing with them, exactly. Instead, she says, “I just get a kick out of seeing them set up in funny little scenes.”
For 17-year-old Micha, Toy TikTok goes beyond Calico Critters. Although they made a TikTok about the free coloring pages available on the Calico Critters website that started with: “This is for my cottagecore b*s that r regressing into childhood by hoarding stuffed animals n shit like that,” they note that there are other popular toys on the app, like stuffed animals and Squishmallow collections. “I have a few Squishmallows myself, but they’re more of a breakup tradition for me,” they add, laughing.
Just like each toy is a vessel for a given feeling or experience, the app’s toy community cares for the toys as a way of rehearsing the type of care and consideration they hope to receive themselves. Micha mentions one particular Squishmallow, a squid named Stacey known to have social anxiety, and says: “People on TikTok put her separate from all their Squishmallows to make sure she doesn’t experience any social anxiety.”
If all this talk of Squishmallows and Calico Critters strikes you as entirely unfamiliar, even though you spend hours a day on TikTok, it’s likely because you’re nowhere near queer TikTok — one of the platform’s most generative “corners,” felt by many, but seen by few. It’s here that people feel like they can find and be their truest selves, even if a part of that is manifested through childhood toys.
“I feel like, for queer youth especially, a lot have had to hide a big part of our identity for a good part of our lives, so getting to share pieces of ourselves on social media is a big way to let go of that constant sense of being a secret,” Micha explains.
This last year of our lives, as we have endured the pandemic and its effects, has been, in every sense of the word, crushing. Spending so many months just rotting indoors with only ourselves to learn from might seem to be a justification for the instinct to look back at our younger selves and relive the simple joys we once knew. But, it’s not a matter of missing the good old days: “Calling it nostalgia just obscures the fact that you just completely enjoy these things,” Micha says. Unlike the millennial obsession with 80’s and 90s remakes, which are always about looking back, the return of these toys into our lives is about giving ourselves the space to just be happy — out in the open, without judging eyes. This has nothing to do with productivity or capitalizing on the moment; nor is there a goal to collect these toys with the purpose of preserving the past or selling for the future. The only hint of the darkness of the real world is the way in which the toys are set up in surroundings that are, as Mackenzie called them, "precarious" — a familiar feeling to anyone enduring life today.
That said, Micha dismisses the idea that a sense of purpose should be imposed on this type of play: “It’s like there always has to be a reason why you enjoy these things, you can’t just like them because you like them.” Calico Critters, Squishmallows, stuffed animals, slime, dress-up — their popularity right now is because we are all learning from the child who is still within us. It’s playtime — and that is good enough for right now.
Mackenzie has a house dotted with Calico Critters, in all the surreal scenarios she’d dreamed of: “I want to always be able to play like a kid and enjoy cute things.” With a Calico Critters tattoo on her arm, she can look in the mirror and see herself not just reunited with her beloved childhood toys, but one with them — even if it all might fall apart at any moment.