Countless children since the beginning of the twentieth century have found friendship in the teddy bear. Often the bear is more than a toy or a mere plaything. It is not always an object, but becomes a subject – one in which a person confides, seeks comfort, travels with, and relies upon. This relationship springing between a teddy bear and a human is so heavily imbued with many of the same issues we touch upon in thing theory. For example, if we treat the teddy bear like it is alive and recognize it as so, are we viewing the world with childlike naïvete? Are we simply fetishizing the teddy bear? Or is the teddy bear forgetting its place in the hierarchy of things by starting to act like a subject and blurring the human/nonhuman divide?
To help me through this fuzzy dilemma, I’d like to call on Martin Heidegger as one possible person to help me tackle this “bear-y” large problem. (I apologize profusely for the puns, I couldn’t help myself). So, I’ll begin with a question myself:
What makes a teddy bear teddy bear?
According to Heidegger, as he speaks about the jug, “What is the jug? We say: a vessel, something of the kind that holds something else within it. The jug’s holding is done by its base and sides. This container itself can be held by the handle. As a vessel the jug is something self-sustained, something that stands on its own. This standing on its own characterizes a thing is a self-supporting, or independent” (Heidegger 166). Though obviously different than a jug, a teddy bear can too be seen as a thing by Heidegger’s terms. So, what is the teddy bear? It too is a vessel, holding stuffing inside. The holding is done by the void encompassed by the teddy bear’s “skin,” which essentially functions in the same manner as the sides of the jug. Instead of having a handle, the bear has appendages and a body by which it can be held. The bear, too, can stand on its own, making it a self-supporting, independent entity.
Like Heidegger’s potter, the teddy bear was made by a person as well. People first envisioned the teddy bear as a hybrid of the “natural” bear and human qualities. According to tradition, the American teddy bear was born out of Clifford Berryman’s cartoon from 1902 entitled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” which depicts President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear cub. Marianne Clay from Teddy Bear and Friends writes that,“This cartoon inspired Morris and Rose Michtom of Brooklyn, New York, to make a bear in honor of the president’s actions. The Michtoms named their bear ‘Teddy’s Bear’ and placed it in the window of their candy and stationery store. Instead of looking fierce and standing on all four paws like previous toy bears, the Michtoms’ bear looked sweet, innocent, and upright, like the bear in Berryman’s cartoon” (Clay).
So, if we let the bear stand forth I posit that, like the jug, the teddy bear’s thingness does not lie in the material that it consists of, but in something else.
The teddy bear is qua teddy bear, meaning that the maker – or the process of making – does not make the teddy bear teddy bear. Many people (children and adults) cling to teddy bears that they do not even remember being given or picking out, let alone knowing who made it. Sometimes the most “loved” teddy bear is not the newest one, but the threadbare, well-traveled companion with a life history aligned to that of their human “owner.”
However, a new phenomenon in the world of teddy bears has come onto the scene. In the unique situation of Build A Bear, the process of making the teddy bear should be considered in more depth than Heidegger dedicates to the process of jug making. The Build A Bear process relays the importance of the bond between human and teddy bear. Additionally, it reinforces the teddy bears ability to teddy bear since it encourages humans of all ages to engage with and recognize the teddy bear as more than a mere object. Perhaps, in this way, we may be closer with the teddy bear than we are with Heidegger’s jug
Build A Bear Process
1) Choose your Friend
Pick out an unstuffed/“empty” animal. There are many options available, each kept in a bin according to type. Keep in mind that “teddy bear” may be a misnomer here since there are so many options to choose from including, but not limited to, bears, dinosaurs, dogs, unicorns, and Hello Kitty.
2) Stuff your Friend
At the “Bear Stuffing Machine” an employee will help you stuff your friend to the desired firmness. The employee will manipulate the “empty” animal so that stuffing is equally distributed to all of its appendages while you pump a foot pedal that helps to power the machine.
3) Give your Friend Life
Before sewing up your friend and making it whole, you will give your friend life through a “Heart Ceremony.” You can also elect to include a voice box which can be recorded with a personal message or play a pre-programmed sounds such as children’s laughter.
The employee will sew your friend up!
4) Bathe your Friend
Although the teddy bear is not actually dirty, you will get the chance to bathe your friend in a waterless bath. I’m not totally clear on the reasoning behind this, but, perhaps, this is like a symbolic baptism?
5) Dress your Friend
At the “Bear Dressing Station, add clothes and accessories as you please to make your friend your own.
- “This was definitely the most overwhelming and costly part of the adventure. At one point LL had her cheetah completely dressed but she decided that the tiara she had chosen didn’t go with the outfit and she wanted the “change” her clothes, but we had already taken the tags off so we “owned” the original clothes she chose. It’s an interesting lesson in making choices and living with them.” - From the Blog “Adventures with Yo and Mo”
6) Name your Friend
It’s time to fill out a birth certificate for your new friend and make everything official. Here, you will need to include its date of birth (the day it was made), name, height, weight, a physical description, and who the friend belongs to (you).
7) Buy your Friend
Who says you can’t buy friends? At Build A Bear, you make and buy your friend all in the same day. To make sure your friend is adequately cared for, Build A Bear provides your friend with a brand new “Cub Condo.”
- “In total—after selecting your empty bear, your outfit, your voice box, your accessories—and even your Build-a-Bear furniture (!), the well-dressed bear can easily come to $35…and can range up to $65 if you choose a detailed outfit.)” – - From “Build A Bear Store: Bear-stuffing fun in Downtown Disney Anaheim!”
Back to Teddy Bears Teddy Bearing
If we think of things thinging and humans humaning in the world, how does the hybrid “natural” bear-human (aka the teddy bear) act in this world? Is a teddy bear a subject or an object? Does the teddy bear actively engage with humans? Or is it totally passive and subject to human whims?
The Build A Bear process seems to imbue life into an inanimate object by filling the “husk” of the animal, actually encouraging children and adults alike to recognize it as a subject because this limp thing is now substantive. Each step of the production process acknowledges the teddy bear as a nonhuman with wants and needs – What does your friend want to wear? Does your friend need a voice? Be sure to rub its heart to your tummy so your bear never gets hungry!
By superficially enhancing and accelerating the bond existing between human and teddy bear, Build A Bear recognizes an essential facet of Heidegger’s argument. For Heidegger, the jug is a jug because it gives a gift, meaning that the object itself was constructing a social interaction and stepping out of the realm of thing and into the realm of subject. Though bears do not pour out their contents, they do work to construct a web of social interactions. If they did not, they would not dominate the world of literature with characters ranging from Winnie the Pooh to Paddington to Corduroy Bear. Teddy Bears are iconic as gifts on Valentine’s Day. Adults and children alike cuddle with a teddy bear as they lay down to sleep. We are nearer
to teddy bears than jugs since we discern humanlike traits within them. They have eyes, ears, and – in the case of Build A Bear companions – hearts. The hybrid nature of the teddy bear makes any social interaction with this nonhuman appear to be more “socially acceptable” than, say, chatting with Heidegger’s jug. We are near to the teddy bear, so we extend their social roles to include positions as security items, play things, best friends, confidants, and tokens of affection. The social interaction occurring between a jug and a human still functions along the subject/object divide; yet relations between teddy bears and humans get quite furry as the teddy bears teddy bear.
“Build a Bear!!!” from the blog “Adventures with Yo and Mo,” posted on Jan. 5, 2008, found at <http://adventureswithyandm.blogspot.com/2008/01/build-bear.html>
“Build A Bear Store: Bear-stuffing fun in Downtown Disney Anaheim!” from Family Vacation Getaways found at <http://www.family-vacation-getaways-at-los-angeles-theme-parks.com/Build-A-Bear-Store.html>.
“Build A Bear Workshops” found at <http://www.buildabear.com/>.
Clay, Marianne, “The History of the Teddy Bear” from Teddy Bear and Friends: The Ultimate Authority, found at <http://www.teddybearandfriends.com/archive/articles/history.html>.
Heidegger, Martin, “The Thing.” In Poetry, Language, and Thought, pp. 165-182. Harper Collins, New York, 2001.