Plastic pricks: Mr Potato Head, Piers Morgan and the erection of a culture war story

No one demanded a gender-neutral Potato Head but the right-wing media will use a false story about a pretend person to hurt real people.

Thanks to Twitter, I know that Piers Morgan spent last night in performative paroxysms of rage about Mr Potato Head’s putative plastic penis. Remember, Piers Morgan is a serious journalist and not simply a tendentious troll with access to a TV show. (See the previous newsletter about him bullying a headteacher.)

He’s entirely serious and simply engaging in a transparent culture war grift when he rages about vegan sausage rolls or, in this case, the mythical meat of a plastic man with a potato body. It’s his sincere belief that a Hasbro rebranding / marketing stunt is a curse on childhood and yet more proof that the ‘woke’ are “ruining the world”. Thank god we’ve got him to fight these vital battles…

Mr Potato Head trended on Twitter last night because Hasbro announced that the Mr Potato Head brand is going to be renamed Potato Head. A story pushed out by AP News started the hoohaa from the people who seem desperate to ensure that Mr Potato Head has a hog and Mrs Potato Head has some kind of terrifying spud fanny.

The original headline — “A mister no more: Mr Potato Head goes gender-neutral” — was catnip to the culture warriors, but once the ridiculous row was running, AP rowed back on it, changing both the headline and the opening of the story to read:

Mr. Potato Head drops the mister, sort of

Hasbro created confusion Thursday when it announced that it would drop the “Mr.” from the brand’s name in order to be more inclusive and so all could feel “welcome in the Potato Head world.” It also said it would sell a new playset this fall without the Mr. and Mrs. designations that will let kids create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads.

But in a tweet later that afternoon, Hasbro clarified that while the brand is changing, the actual Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head characters will still live on and be sold in stores. In a picture posted on Twitter, the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” names are less prominently displayed at the bottom of the box, instead of the top.

It was in fact AP that caused the confusion rather than Hasbro but it was hardly going to admit that and the explosion of outraged tweets gave it extra material to stuff into the story:

The tweet came after news of the brand name change exploded on Twitter, with people asking if Barbie will change her name next. “I think Hasbro needs to drop the “Bro” and just be “Has,’” another person tweeted.

The tweet quoted in the paragraph above came from an account with zero followers replying to Donald Trump Jnr, who is desperately attempting to cling to any shred of relevance as a disturbed culture warrior.

This matters because it’s yet another example of a major news publisher — AP is one of the world’s biggest news wires — scanning social media to find messages that support a particular angle on a story rather than reflecting the general tenor of the conversation around an issue.

Beyond wingnuts like Morgan, Don Jnr, and Prison Paul, the Muttley to Alex Jones’ Dick Dastardly, most people thought the outrage was silly. But AP went digging and elevated a tweet from a zero follower account that, at the time of writing, had racked up just 5 likes.

BBC News, Sky News, The Guardian, The Daily Mirror (with a comment piece that condemns “rampant wokery”), The Daily Mail and many other outlets took the original AP angle and ran with it. As I was finishing this newsletter the story was also featured in the news bulletin on Radio 4’s Today programme. Predictably, talkRadio was quicker off the block with mask-burning muppet Mark Dolan doing his usual horse face of incredulity at the ‘news’, crying last night:

“Extraordinary, there you have it — the breaking news on talkRadio… The legendary toy Mr Potato Head… is the latest victim of cancel culture, of woke political correctness gone mad. It is a shocking story. It is a disgrace. He’s a potato! He’s not a man or a woman! Please leave well alone! Welcome to the crazy world of 2021.”

It won’t matter that Hasbro’s tweet on the matter is very clear…

… because outrage merchants will stick with the idea that their beloved Mr Potato Head has been chipped by woke extremists.

Hasbro obviously changed the brand name from Mr Potato Head to Potato Head — while retaining Mr and Mrs Potato Head — so it’ll be able to add more characters to the line. The ‘inclusive’ thing is nothing more than a marketing angle that has back-fired because a horde of middle-aged white men who haven’t got enough things to be angry about have leapt on it.

The forced feminisation of Mr Potato Head by the ‘woke stasi’ will now become a zombie fact, raised by talk radio hosts and columnists without question, added to their growing compendium of lies and half-truths.

It would be funny if it wasn’t part of an orchestrated campaign to hurt real people. A marketing decision by a multinational toy conglomerate will be reframed as the result of lobbying by trans people and ‘lefties’, used as another reason for the right to rage at them “ruining the world”.

The ‘Potato Head’ incident will be particularly powerful because the right likes to weaponise nostalgia at all times. It’s why your uncle shares Facebook memes about not having a TV when he was a kid, even though he was born in 1965.

When Dolan wailed that “the legendary toy Mr Potato Head… is the latest victim of cancel culture,” he was hoping to trigger the audience of perma-raging middle-aged men to feel that their very childhoods are under-attack, to feel that were the ‘wokeists’ to get their hands on a Delorian and a spare Flux Capacitor, no beloved toy would be safe.

Obviously, it’s hilarious that grown men are on the cusp of demanding that a plastic potato toy come with a prosthetic penis in the box, but it’s also faintly terrifying. It’s not the left that stirs up these controversies or blames the marketing decisions of global corporations on the right. It’s culture warriors like Piers Morgan who want to wrap everything up in their ‘war on the woke’, and whose performative rage is translated into very real hate for anyone who doesn’t conform to a specific idea of who ‘we’ should be.

The ‘Potato Head’ rage is just another opportunity to set up an ‘us vs. them’ — the ‘sensible’ people who are angered at the ‘castration’ of a beloved children’s toy and the ‘woke mob’ who want to shave Barbie’s head and ensure every doll comes with the complete works of Andrea Dworkin and the S.C.U.M Manifesto.

The anger of middle-aged men almost always stems from the fear that they are no longer going to be the only people considered and pointing out that they haven’t even seen a Mr Potato Head doll in 30 years won’t change that. Outrage artists like Piers Morgan know that and set out to exploit it; angry eyeballs are eyeballs nonetheless.