The other day, flipping through TV channels, I came across an ad for a plastic bird: Perfect Polly. For $14.99 you can buy a bird that needs nothing from you but a pair of AAA batteries. No food or water, no fresh cage liners, no veterinary visits, no attention at all. Motion-activated, it will sing a small variety of songs when you come close, and its head will turn this way and that; even the tail twitches. Doubtless the next version of Perfect Polly—maybe they’ll call it Perfected Polly—will have additional pleasing features. Maybe the wings will flap; maybe the feet will move sideways an inch or two. Maybe it will sneeze, a symptom you can happily ignore.
I don’t know why this product stunned me—we live in a world of illusion. Vinyl plants, rubber lawns, electric fireplaces, faux fur coats, replica handbags, silicone breasts, Botox, Viagra. Las Vegas is a triumph of deception, luring hordes of people, day and night, into its fairy-tale casinos. We eat fake food, wear fake leather, play fake games, and we do these things without a thought. Artifice is so ingrained in our culture that the dividing line is no longer clear. What we see, we eventually accept.
Fakery is not bad by definition. In food, for instance, it has a place. Artificial flavors are not molecularly different from the real versions, and not only do they save natural resources, they can make good things taste better, which is pretty significant when you consider how difficult it can be to get cancer patients and the elderly to gag down anything. Fake plants are also useful. People who habitually kill their houseplants do less damage with facsimiles, while saving a lot of money. Fake fur preserves wildlife, and plastic surgery can have far-reaching benefits, particularly for those who, on account of tragedy, actually need it. As for electric fireplaces, they’re pretty nifty. I bought one years ago. No smoke to bother my lungs or the neighborhood, and after a hard day, that silent fire behind the glass is soothing. The flames look real, but I know they are not. In order to buy an electric fireplace, you have to forgive it.
When I was younger, I loved those vintage beer signs, the ones with rippling turquoise water, sometimes a moving boat. As a child I adored snow-globes and imagined myself living inside them, skating and twirling forever. Children exist in worlds they create. Walt Disney, who understood this, built them a kingdom, a place where their dreams could come true. When I saw the ad for Perfect Polly, I assumed the product was for children. It wasn’t. Perfect Polly is not a toy, it is an alternative, a pet for people who don’t want pets.
There is a popular peanut butter with a label that boasts, No Stirring! How lazy have we become that stirring is so taxing? This is what came to mind when I saw the ad for Perfect Polly. Putting out pellets, a dish of water—that’s work? Pulling out the soiled cage liner and putting in a fresh one—that’s work? Shouldn’t there be at least some satisfaction in cleaning a bird cage, in bringing comfort to another creature?
Practicalities aside, what about interaction? Don’t we acquire pets so that we can bond with them: look into their eyes, scratch their necks, stroke their feathers—what about all that?
Of course the media has already had a field day with Perfect Polly—comedians like Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres have done hilarious spoofs. Surprisingly, the gadget is selling. People are not only buying it, they’re posting reviews, as if the rest of us are waiting to read them, as if the purchase of a $14.99 plastic bird warrants research. Perfect Polly is so ripe for satires that at first I avoided writing about it, doubting there was anything left to say.
It’s a niche market for sure. I picture three groups. One, the novelty buyers, folks who will purchase anything for a laugh. Two, there must be people who buy it for their children, hoping their kids will be find some amusement in a bogus bird, that their interest will last longer than the time it takes them to open the box. Then there is a third category, the elderly or mentally challenged, whose limitations have rendered them quiescent, compliant, accepting. Impairments such as blurred vision can actually be a help here, making the bird appear real. These people can scarcely manage their own needs, let alone a parakeet’s, and so they must be happy to adopt one that comes without conditions. To them, Perfect Polly is a wonder, something small and pretty that sings when they come in the room and quiets down when they leave.
God knows the world does not need another piece of plastic junk, but if we’re going to keep churning out legions of Barbie dolls, might there be some room left for an artificial bird that brings pleasure to the lonely? I know I love my electric fireplace.