The Yo-Bonic Yo-Yo
MMD Global, Inc./LucasArts
Reviewed by Megan Shaw
Wednesday, April 26 2000, 2:42 PM
The slogan emblazoned across the package reads: "Get wound up on Yo-Bonics." It is a yo-yo, "precision engineered for the new yolinium." The exact name of the toy is not clear: Is it "Yo-Bonic"--as on one side of the package--or simply the "Yo"--as on the other side? "Yo" is of course a casual urban form of "hello" traditionally associated with African American communities. And Ebonics is the movement to establish that African-American English is a distinct language. Ebonics advocates seek to normalize the use of what is commonly referred to as "slang" among African-American youth, and to end the linguistic marginalization of Ebonics speakers in school. This yo-yo package appears to bear references to these diversifications of our spoken language. But if it is carrying such references, what do they mean? Are they trying to speak to black youth by appropriating their speech? Its hard to imagine there being any other intended meaning behind this perplexing packaging. But then the little cartoon on the package portrays a grey-race caricature of a kid who is any color other than black, which obscures interpretive efforts.
Maybe to MMD Global and LucasArts the packaging isn't saying anything at all - that it's just a play on the word "yo-yo." Maybe it isn't even meant to be read. After all, assuming that kids are immediately entranced by the fun of the boomerang-on-a-string action that has kept yo-yos popular for decades, it is doubtful that they would hold on to the package for longer than it takes to throw it away. There is no offensive language on the yo-yo itself, just the cardboard it came strapped to. But the manufacturers do not get off the hook so easily.
There is further evidence of social content in the text of the cryptic packaging: "You too can get hooked on Yo-Bonics" the card proclaims. Is this an allusion to the controversial elementary school reading curriculum "Hooked on Phonics"? Phonics is another heavily politicized issue in public education. Its defenders have captured almost as many headlines as the Ebonics movement in their battles with "whole language" enthusiasts (who refer to Phonics as "the F-word".)
Perhaps the "Yo-Bonic" yo-yo is meant to satirize these serious topics, which are generally presented in the media with enough gravity to sink a mountain. But then, if it is aimed at the 6 to 14-year-olds that comprise LucasArts' core toy market, how much depth will the satire reach within its audience?
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the toy was probably packaged with total indifference to the social connotations of the word "yo," to Ebonics, or to phonics. Remember the "Jar-Jar Binks" character in "The Phantom Menace?" Remember George Lucas' claims that he didn't see how that character was demeaning to Caribbean peoples? That's a measure of how blind Lucas can be to the prejudices embedded in his worldview. I don't know that Lucas himself was a part of the team that brought the "Yo-Bonic" to the marketplace, but it was distributed by his company inside packages of Star Wars toys.
No matter what its creator's conscious intentions are, this yo-yo has a much denser sociopolitical meaning than a yo-yo requires. And as to whether such density is a good thing or a bad thing in a children's toy, well, arguments can be made either way. Perhaps I am not the only person who will be stopped in their tracks by the puzzling textual messages present in the packaging. Perhaps it is wise to introduce black kids early to the fact that the Man will appropriate their talk for commercial purposes (if any of them still buy Star Wars toys after seeing "Phantom Menace.") Yeah, perhaps. Ultimately, this toy poses one unavoidable danger to kids of all ages and ethnicities: that the use of the words "Yo" and "Yo-Bonic" in the context of meaningless kiddie hype will devalue the worth of African-American talk and social issues. This toy should only be used under the close supervision of someone with a social conscience.
The Yo-Bonic Yo Yo is available from LucasArts