Trinkets, ponies and Jems unite

1980s TV shows andtheir intense collectorculture hit campus thismonth

Keri Carlson

Jennifer Crutcher and her daughter, Amber Dudley, drove 12 hours to reach the University last week, but their minds were not on school, and they were not interested in a campus tour.

Instead, they were focused on only one thing: My Little Ponies.

Last weekend, Coffman Union hosted the two-day My Little Pony Fair: Collectors Convention and Expo, celebrating the plastic horses in pink, purple and other pastels spread across dozens of tables. And it wasn’t just the standard merchandise that was present – every piece of merchandise relating to the product line was either on display, for sale or available for the right trade. From seahorses to sparkly outfits to a 1986 “My Little Pony Dance Recital” cassette tape, the convention featured rare and obscure items that only the most devoted fans know about.

But the My Little Pony Fair is not the only toy bringing out collector fanatics. Last month, a G.I. Joe convention was held at the Marriott City Center in Minneapolis, and this weekend, Coffman hosts another toy fair for fans of Jem dolls.

Toy conventions are nothing new – Barbie expos have been around for decades – yet, these recent events are a bit different, hinting at newer cultural trends. G.I. Joe, My Little Pony and Jem were all cartoons in the mid-’80s by Sunbow Entertainment and, at the same time, sported toys made by Hasbro.

Consider that in the early ’80s, the Federal Communications Commission relaxed rules restricting the merging of merchandise and television programming. Critics argue this made children’s programs into elaborate commercials. He-Man, She-Ra and Strawberry Shortcake, among others, had television shows to market their toys and vice versa.

These recent conventions all point to a wave of ’80s nostalgia as well as a collecting fury fueled by online communities and eBay.

Finding communities

At the My Little Pony Fair, sellers called each other by screen names and hugged like old friends, even though this was the first time they had met in person. At these conventions, message boards are the main source of online connection.

The pony collectors seemed to credit the Internet for helping them discover this community – as if pony lovers have always existed but simply needed a forum to find one another.

For Elizabeth Pemberton, coordinator of this weekend’s JemCon 2005, this Internet-and-collector-connection is more of a chicken-and-egg tale.

“Without eBay, I could not be a Jem collector,” she said. Pemberton always had a love for dolls, but did not own any Jem dolls; she later found them for auction online.

Now more than 115 New Wave-fashioned Jem dolls are posed in Pemberton’s living room. She has the entire set of the Jem line, including Jem and her band, The Holograms. She also has each of the Misfits dolls (the Holograms’ rival group), Jem’s boyfriend Rio and the orphaned Starlight Girls.

In Pemberton’s case, the Internet did not simply facilitate a connection, but ignited and fueled an interest in collecting. In her case, it created a collector.

The power of nostalgia

When asked why she kept her My Little Ponies long after the “normal” age, 19-year-old Sarah “Merriweather” Worth readily admitted its relation to nostalgia.

Many convention vendors agreed the lasting appeal of the toy is the fantasy it creates (or created).

Debra Birge, a My Little Pony collector, said she remembers how a pony made her feel better when she had leukemia.

Pemberton said the Jem dolls remind her of fashions she wanted to wear as a teen but couldn’t afford.

More than a feelin’

While nostalgia for childhood memories is certainly a major cause for compulsive collecting, it would be short-sighted to say collectors are simply adults who want to avoid growing up.

Chris Polley, a University graduate student, remembers watching Jem only because it followed ThunderCats.

“I wasn’t a huge fan of (Jem) as a kid,” he said. “But when it came out on DVD I started watching it again.”

What sets Jem apart from other toy conventions is that the attraction does not solely come from acquiring the dolls; much of it has to do with the larger concept of the television show. This weekend’s JemCon embraces the capitalist side of Hasbro’s toy line, but also celebrates the positive female characters on the show.

The series depicted Jem’s all-girl band writing their own songs, designing their own clothes and running their own record label.

Suzy Vowels, a sixth-year journalism student, said, “So many things were boy-oriented. It was nice to have something from the ’80s for girls. We have a show to be dorky about.”

A highlight of JemCon will be the discussion panel She’s Got the Power, which focuses on Jem “grrrl power” and finding feminist role models in the show.

Another section of the conference will display Jem Fan Fiction, also called textual poaching. Jem fan fiction is innovative because the narrative is already based in a feminine perspective, rather than that of the traditional male writer.

At the My Little Pony fair, Jennifer Markowitz was challenging gender stereotypes, too, standing out against the primarily-female crowd. Rather than pink clothes and curled eyelashes, she wore a baggy black T-shirt and sunglasses.

“A lot of Little Pony Web sites are girly and I get sick of them. So mine is for adults – it’s dirty,” she said.

Markowitz’s site features pictures of ponies humping and includes, as she says, “dirty stories.”

Be a Jem girl

This emerging trend of toy conventions seems primarily focused on obsessed collectors. The conventions are designed for the converted, not to attract new converts. A consequence of that approach is that if you’re not already in the know, these recent toy expos are probably not for you.

But again, this is what makes Saturday’s JemCon event unique. Because the convention goes beyond material collecting and focuses instead on the series’ politics and music, surely anyone could find this upcoming celebration truly outrageous.