How an Ex-Porn Star Is Preparing My Toddler For D23 and Comic-Con Culture

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I had never heard of “unwrapping” videos before my then-two-year-old son discovered them a few months ago. I’m late to the trend, but as far as I can tell it’s not really something you should or would know about until your toddler becomes addicted. And then it’s too late. I’m not even sure how he found them. Maybe they found him? There’s probably some paid-for ad placement on all YouTube instances of any Frozen clip or the song “Let It Go” to snare the wandering eyes of every i-device-savvy youth.

Now aged three, my kid is still too young to know why he loves these videos. Or he’s at least too young to communicate to me why he loves them, why he needs to watch one as soon as he wakes up and every moment thereafter until bedtime. But there’s a simple logic to the appeal. Unwrapping videos consist of two hands opening all sorts of surprise items, from Kinder chocolate eggs with prizes inside to blind bag collectible toys. Sometimes the anonymous person behind those hands has additionally covered their goodies in elaborate Play-Doh shells that look like Frozen’s Elsa or, more recently, Inside Out characters. It’s all about the mystery and then the reveal. It caters to our intrinsic curiosity as humans.

But despite what others have said of these videos, they’re not like Christmas over and over. Christmas presents involve tangible things. My son doesn’t get to play with the toys or eat the candy he sees unveiled in these videos. And even stranger, thankfully he hasn’t had any interest in us buying him his own Kinder Surprise eggs or blind bag Disney toys. Maybe he hasn’t made the connection. Or maybe he totally gets it. I recall from my own childhood wanting to get the crap from coin machines that came in plastic eggs and not caring much about whatever was inside once opened. Thanks to YouTube, he gets to experience that suspense and surprise without having to bother with the plastic doohickey at the end.

Part of me wishes he was more interested in the actual products. There could be a lucrative future for him there. Forget encouraging him to become a doctor or lawyer, if I want my boy to make a lot of money when he grows up, I need to encourage him to make his own YouTube videos opening plastic and chocolate for the next generation of toddlers. Many of the videos my son watches are made by a woman posting under the account FunToyzCollector (aka DisneyCollectorBR, aka DC Toys Collector), and earlier this year she was revealed to be the highest-earning YouTube user of 2014, taking in just under $5m. While not confirmed, she also may be an ex-porn star who went by the name Sandy Summers.

I’m less concerned about her past, though, than I am for my son’s future. Instead of influencing him to become a wealthy web-based video maker, she and the other unwrappers are just setting toddlers up, quite early, for the mystery-box culture that is taking over the entertainment and tech industries and may expand to the rest of our lives by the time he’s an adult. Over the weekend, while monitoring the coverage of Disney’s D23 Expo, I came to the realization that events like that, as well as Comic-Con, Apple’s product-unveiling events and other copycats are the exact same thing as unwrapping videos.

We get so excited about the mystery behind such presentations and the immediate revelation of another Marvel movie or Disney Star Wars theme park ride or iPhone upgrade or whatever other shiny new thing we won’t get to literally encounter for a long time. Well, Apple is better at getting things in our hands, and those things are practically useful for a while, too. But otherwise the what’s-next idea of fan culture – and it’s not just comic book movies, because we see the same thing with film festival program announcements and the long road to the Oscars – is no different from watching someone unwrap and open a plastic egg and then briefly parade the unveiled thing before putting it on virtual display in the background.

The sleuthing and speculation aspects of those events and that culture are also part of most unwrapping videos, just on a smaller, contained level. Particularly with the blind bag products that show, on the back of their wrappers, available options that could be found inside, hosts like the woman maybe formerly known as Sandy Summers will comment on what they’d like to find inside or what they might expect not to find given the rarity of some items. If toddlers could blog, maybe they would do so about what they’d like to see in the next FunToyzCollector video upload. And offer commentary on toys they can’t even touch.

Unwrapping videos, it must be noted, shouldn’t be confused with “unboxing” videos, which now seem a sort of adult-version precursor to the phenomenon that toddlers are obsessed with. In unboxing videos, people who’ve purchased (or been sent for review) a tech or luxury product open it up and pore over ever detail. It’s not cracking a shell so much as playing with the actual yolk. Those videos appear to be more akin to the entertainment bloggers who analyze every piece of an announced product and promotional material, but they’re actually more like real criticism and analysis of finished products, the sort of thing that is decreasing in favor of the predicting, previewing and prejudging.

Fortunately, right now my son isn’t only interested in videos centered on the intangible and on possibility rather than practicality. He still plays with the same toys and games he’s had for a long time. He still watches Dumbo, his favorite movie for most of his life, and doesn’t wonder too much about what Disney has down the pipeline – he is excited about The Peanuts Movie, however, though he also doesn’t know that the trailer he enjoys is a commercial for something else. Now I just hope that as he gets older there will be some other internet trend for him to latch onto that encourages him to engage more with content rather than being wowed by its packaging.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.