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Articulating the Action Figure

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Articulating the Action Figure
Essays on the Toys
and Their Messages
Edited by JonAthAn AlexAndrAtos

McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

Jefferson, North Carolina
Names: Alexandratos, Jonathan, 1986– editor.
Title: Articulating the action figure : essays on the toys and their messages /
edited by Jonathan Alexandratos.
Description: Jefferson, North Carolina : McFarland & Company, Inc.,

Publishers, 2017. | Includes index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017004763 | ISBN 9781476664279
(softcover : acid free paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Action figures (Toys)—Study and teaching.
Classification: LCC NK4893 .A78 2017 | DDC 745.592—dc23
LC record available at


ISBN (print) 978-1-4766-6427-9

ISBN (ebook) 978-1-4766-2847-9

© 2017 Jonathan Alexandratos. All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form

or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying
or recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.

Front cover images by Charles Taylor/CTR Photos

Printed in the United States of America

McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640
table of Contents

Preface 1
Introduction. Posing the Question: An Action Figure Studies 5
thirteen Ways of looking at an Action Figure: Part one 13
dAniel F. yezbiCK
the (re)resurrection of Captain Action: Will Justice be done? 28
thoMAs g. endres
Plastic Military Mythology: hypercommercialism and hasbro’s 39
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero
J. riChArd stevens
the same Aisle: the intersection of resistance and discipline 58
in brony Fandom, or, Friendship is Mythological
trACy l. beAler
selling girl Power in the 1980s: she-ra and the gendered 71
dimensions of Action Figures
Keith Corson
“seeing into the life of things”: Toy Story, The Lego Movie 85
and the Wordsworthian imagination
geoFF KloCK
get your Freak on: the Monstrous seduction in Mattel’s 99
Monster high
CAthy thoMAs
All dolled up: Monster high, Project MC2 and “Action” Figures 120
ChristoPher bell

vi Table of Contents

“toys with brains”: Skylanders and the growth of the 135

toys-to-life Market
KiMberly A. oWCzArsKi
thirteen Ways of looking at an Action Figure: Part two 152
dAniel F. yezbiCK
“i was always Wonder Woman”: An interview with 170
iAmelemental’s Julie Kerwin
JonAthAn AlexAndrAtos
About the Contributors 179
Index 181

My history with action figures goes back far. in fact, it goes back as far
as i can remember. My dad bought me a g.i. Joe Crimson guard immortal
action figure when i was around six, and i’ve been hooked ever since. (i defi-
nitely had action figures before then, family photo albums prove it, but that
Crimson guard immortal was the first one i really remember getting, from
the trip to the store to coming home and playing with it.)
not coincidentally, my history with critical thought also started some-
where around this time, at which point it would have been better known as
“complaining.” “this tie Fighter isn’t the right scale!” “i’m pretty sure this
should have two cannons instead of one!” “Why isn’t the action figure aisle
re-stocked?! it’s a Toys “r” us!” i was toy stores’ one-child website comments
section before they even had websites. no one envied my parents.
i say all this because it’s important context for how this book came to
be. From high school, through college, into a little bit of graduate school, i
felt knowledge had a set body of topics, and, if you were assigned an essay,
you had better choose a topic from that predetermined range. it was almost
like being at the toy store. you can choose a toy from the ones that the store
has, but you can’t make up your own on the spot (at least not traditionally
speaking). Moreover, you’d better choose the smartest, most complex thesis
you can, even if it has nothing to do with what you’d naturally want. (this
part is very different from the toy store.) if you feel miserable writing it,
you’ve chosen wisely.
When i went to Writer school (my nickname for my MFA in Playwright-
ing degree program), the old chestnut “Write what you know” was bandied
about fairly often. “Write what you know.” Well, what did i know? i kept
thinking about sports stars. i never played sports, so i just kind of guessed
what sports stars were like: people who had done a particular sport since
childhood which led to them becoming adults who “knew” their game and
could excel. What did i have? A couple of essays about geological formations
in Central Park and a really, really bad play about Mozambique. i didn’t

2 Preface

“know” anything in the sense that, say, serena Williams “knows” tennis.
i was having this crisis in a room full of action figures. i never stopped
collecting. Maybe, maybe, this is what i know. i tried looking at them through
the lens of the gender theorists i was reading for my graduate classes. it was
as if the action figures suddenly burst forth new features, levels of their exis-
tence i never had the vocabulary to notice before. before long, action figures
had permeated my creative and academic careers. Whenever i’d read some-
thing new, i’d wonder how that could mix with action figures. suddenly, every
toy i owned was new again, even that Crimson guard immortal figure i’d
been kicking around since i was six.
it was out of that excitement this book was born.
i’m lucky enough to co-manage denver Comic Con’s Page 23 literary
conference, and, out of that, i met other scholars who were looking at their
own action figure collections and asking questions similar to mine. i talked
to action figure creators who, through online crowdfunding, were starting
their own lines of toys. i saw plays (some of which, admittedly, were mine)
and read works of fiction that used action figures in new ways. through this
outreach, my once-private action figure fervor started to seem bigger—a rev-
olution, perhaps. it struck me as significant enough to put together a call for
papers, and start shopping around the idea of an edited collection on action
figures to publishers.
of course plenty of others have made this collection the outstanding
piece of scholarship that it is. First and foremost, the contributors, who
worked for over a year generating new essays on the toy lines that mean the
most to them, are the heroes of this book. on a more personal note, one con-
tributor, tracy l. bealer, was an immeasurable help with the technical work
of putting together this volume and always provided a receptive ear as i bab-
bled on about action figures. this book is also considerably enhanced by the
fact that Julie Kerwin, Ceo of iAmelemental, gave me an afternoon of her
time for an interview, which is presented here in full. in addition, Jason
Fischedick, John rice, Jarrah hodge, roberto Martinez, brittany Kenville,
hugh english, nicole Cooley, Chris Angel, doug brode, nate eppler, tina
howe, Jonathan Martel, nick zelletz, and so many, many others have all lis-
tened to me talk, probably ad nauseum, about action figures, and i owe them
a huge debt for giving me the space, advice, and support without which the
ideas presented in this book could have never seen the light of day. thank
you to Mom and dad for buying me action figures before (and, frankly, after)
i was of age to earn legal u.s. currency. i am especially grateful to my grand-
mother, granny, for taking me to toys “r” us and letting me pick out what-
ever “junks” i wanted. A store should be named after us.
Finally, this book is for you. if you’ve made it this far, you’re at least
Preface 3

open to the idea that scholarship can spring from a well of emotion, and
can be as cathartic as a symphony or a poem. this work has come from a
personal place of deep emotional value: the world of toys. thank you for tak-
ing this journey with us, and for, i hope, keeping your own childhood echoes
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Posing the Question:
An Action Figure Studies Manifesto

Action figures are texts. they demand that one operate not just as con-
sumer, but as reader. each plastic body offers readers messages about gender,
politics, religion, sex, race, class, sexual orientation, economics, and culture.
Action figures operate as both a history and a means to express that history.
they often speak for, or against, source texts that have taken the form of
movies, books, tv shows, video games, and historical icons. in brief, action
figures hold within their plastic shells a representation of past, present, and
future that should be subjected to academic rigor.
in her 2002 article “Analysis of gender identity through doll and Action
Figure Politics in Art education,” Anna Wagner-ott writes, “dolls and action
figures have long been an important part of material culture. though ignored
by much of art education, the critical analysis of characteristics between girls
and dolls/action figures provides valuable insights into the continuities and
changes of gender identities in American cultures” (Wagner-ott 246). i would
further argue that action figures have been ignored by many other fields,
while those fields embrace other representations of their theories and ideas.
Judith butler tells us that gender is social performance, and from certain vis-
ible cues, one can deduce information about an individual’s performance of
gender. if one accepts butler’s claim, then action figures can become artifacts
of gender performance. this reading of the action figure holds because action
figures can preserve the performance of a gender—a five o’clock shadow,
breasts, a broad chest, long hair (to use traditional gender signifiers)—without
any underlying biology, much the way an artifact can preserve the essence
of a god without necessarily containing an underlying, scientific component.
eric Margolis and stephen laurence, scholars writing about the nature of
artifacts, stress the importance of artifacts for an understanding of the human
mind in their essay collection Creations of the Mind: Theories of Artifacts and

6 Introduction

Their Representation. the authors write, “We are literally surrounded by arti-
facts of all shapes and sizes, ranging from simple objects, such as tables and
chairs, to vastly complicated feats of technology, including televisions, auto-
mobiles, computers, power grids, and water treatment plants” (Margolis ix).
this implies that, if these material artifacts do surround us so entirely, and
represent human values so visually, one should not be hesitant to expose
them to study. theorists have shed this reluctance when it comes to some
material “artifacts,” but we have yet to follow suit with action figures, though
they are equally as artificial as the tables, chairs, and cars that Margolis and
laurence discuss.
the term “action figure,” for the sake of this book, has been defined
loosely. this allows readers to view these objects through a variety of lenses.
here, action figures are seen as any artifact manufactured for the expressed
purpose of representing a cultural or pop cultural character in tangible, inan-
imate form. the range of possible “action” for the action figures can be as
basic as a lego minifigure or as complex as a transformer. the action figures
studied herein have been marketed toward male, female, and gender-neutral
demographics. historically, the line dividing the action figure from the doll
has been mired in controversy, both legal and cultural. in this collection, that
line is largely ignored for two reasons: (1) the line between action figures and
dolls is largely set at the whim of the individual consumer, even when court
precedents have set a toy in one camp or the other, and (2) ignoring this line
opens up the possibility of analyzing it, as some essays here do. by using a
definition of “action figure” that encompasses so many possibilities, we are
able to show how multiple variations of the action figure all hold a great deal
of meaning when looked at through an appropriate, scholarly lens.
take, for instance, gender theory. According to American media scholar
henry Jenkins, participants in any fandom are “feminized and/or desexual-
ized through their intimate engagements with mass culture” (Jenkins 10). toy
scholar victoria godwin uses Jenkins to show why fans of action figures
and/or dolls would want to distance themselves from the act of collecting
objects that would, in the eyes of certain peers, betray their perceived gender
performance (godwin 1). A study of gender in action figures, however, should
go far beyond its fans. think of the objects, themselves. through accessories
and miniature clothing, action figures perform gender in a way that is com-
pletely in-line with the writings of Judith butler and simone de beauvoir.
“one is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes a woman,” says de beauvoir
(butler 519), a claim that butler has spent years unpacking. the remark leads
butler to suggest that gender is not biological, but relies on gestures, clothing,
artifacts, accessories, and other elements in order to present itself. if we are
to accept that gender is not biological, we should also be able to see it in the
inanimate “things” that mimic biology. Action figures do this extremely well.
Introduction 7

the base elements of an action figure look almost non-gender specific. think
of the body of an unclothed g.i. Joe or barbie doll. sure, one may notice the
molded plastic breasts or broader pectorals as a sign of an intended gender,
but it’s the pink clothing or combat boots that sell the figure. When one con-
siders a figure that is not trying to mimic a human being (like a transformer),
making a gender distinction for the bare, unpainted figure becomes even
more difficult. the action figure of the Transformers Energon character Arcee,
for instance, could not be considered “female” without her white-and-pink
color pattern and the high- heeled boots that transform out of her legs.
removing biology from the equation, as we do when we study action figures,
we see that butler and de beauvoir’s concept of gender still holds up.
but gender theory isn’t the only lens through which one can study the
action figure. Much can be deduced about race through deconstructing the
action figure. Jacques derrida argued for the capital-d deconstruction of
texts. According to yale professor Jack balkin, “deconstruction does not
show that all texts are meaningless, but rather that they are overflowing with
multiple and often conflicting meanings” (balkin). this can be applied to
race in action figures when one considers the process of paint application.
in 2006, toy biz created an action figure of iconic black superhero luke Cage
for its Marvel legends line. the base plastic of the head was a dark brown
color, matching the hero’s skin tone in the comics. however, the base plastic
of the wrists and hands was a light yellow color, matching the jacket Cage’s
action figure wears. therefore, in order to create hands that properly represent
Cage’s comic book skin color, a dark brown paint had to be applied. As often
is the case with action figures, this paint chips and peels over time, especially
if the wrist joints are moved often. the luke Cage comics are all about a
black man who can stand on his own as a hero, but when one deconstructs
his action figure, she will find that, under his meaningful dark brown “skin”
lies a much lighter-toned plastic. here, derrida’s binary opposition couldn’t
be more apparent, or closer in proximity. Analyzing this particular figure
outside of its source media, one could read the presence of a racial conflict:
skin color, when peeled, could reveal a completely different identity. one
could then use this occasion of “peeling” as a metaphor for luke Cage comics,
which couldn’t be more about black identity, but were often written by white
men and women. in other words, under the “paint” of this character lies a
different color, which complexifies its self.
beyond theory, though, action figures also hold a great deal of informa-
tion about history. in the action figure world, it is no secret that the oil crisis
of the 1970s directly impacted the “shrinking” of g.i. Joe action figures from
their 12-inch size to the well-known 3.75-inch figures. the vietnam War, too,
distanced the public from the ever-heroic, ever-pure government issued Joe,
which led to a further rebranding of the line. in fact, these two historical
8 Introduction

moments—the oil crisis and the vietnam War—cannot be overlooked in the

general pantheon of action figure studies. With 3.75-inch figures popularized
in the u.s. with the aid of g.i. Joe, that height became a central measurement
of many action figures to come. Star Wars figures, namely, took on similar
dimensions, if not articulation. even other military action figure lines utilized
the 3.75-inch scale that g.i. Joe launched. if not for the two aforementioned
events, such a scale might not have become as common as it is today. there-
fore, g.i. Joe figures will be forever linked to u.s. history, as will every 3.75-
inch figure.
Furthermore, recent events in the action figure sector have delineated
important distinctions between eastern and Western feminisms that assist
in understanding cultural differences in the global struggle for gender equal-
ity. With the release of blockbuster films such as Guardians of the Galaxy,
Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, fans
have been quick to realize that the female characters who so complete those
movies are strangely absent from toy stores. the action figures of rey and
black Widow were so hard to find, twitter hashtag campaigns cropped up to
call out this form of sexism. #wheresrey and #wheresblackwidow united par-
ents, kids, and collectors who were looking for action figures of these popular,
lead female characters and couldn’t find them. this was the latest incarnation
of the long-held idea that female characters don’t sell, and are either omitted
from a toy line (like nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy, who would only
find Minimate and lego forms) or are shortpacked (essentially shipped in
fewer quantities than male characters, which is what made black Widow so
this marginalization of female characters for the Western market is
especially striking when considered hand-in-hand with the reality of factory
work in China, where these toys are made. various sources place the action
figure–making workforce in China at 80–90 percent female (Chang, Santa’s
Workshop…). one male factory floor manager has even said this is because
women are “easier to manage” (Santa’s Workshop…). According to leslie
Chang, who spent years reporting on factory conditions in China, many of
the women in these factories face sexual harassment, delayed or voided pay,
and occupational hazards like toxic fumes and intense heat (Chang). this
culminated most graphically in 1993 in thailand, when the Kader toy Factory
caught fire with hundreds of workers, mostly female, locked inside by man-
agement. ultimately, 188 workers were killed, and hundreds more injured
the harsh reality of life for women in Chinese factories has birthed a
new type of eastern feminism that Chandra talpade Mohanty describes in
her book Feminism Without Borders. speaking of some Asian factory workers,
Mohanty describes a female workforce that fights their marginalization not
Introduction 9

through massive walkouts, and certainly not through twitter hashtags, but
through far more subtle means. Workers will, for example, strike by showing
up to the factory at their scheduled time and simply making breakfast. Alter-
natively, other workers have been known to help underperforming col-
leagues meet quotas, thereby complicating management’s plans to fire them
therefore, when we talk of history, we see the action figure industry
being shaped by the past, and shaping the future. Were the east and the West
to see the examples of women’s marginalization and oppression that exists
on both sides, perhaps the action figure sector could provide a concrete back-
drop in which to study two methods of protest present in today’s feminism
that are directly in conversation with the history of the Women’s rights Move-
this collection does much to touch on the themes written about in this
introduction. to start, readers will find a primer on action figure studies by
pop culture scholar daniel F. yezbick. it provides readers with a firm ground-
ing in action figure history, giving one a sense of both key moments in the
development of action figures and important milestones in yezbick’s experi-
ence with these toys. his intermingling of the personal and the scholarly
establishes a fine precedent for discussing action figures. After all, these are
objects that, often, are at once intensely personal and expansively cultural.
beyond this opening essay are shorter essays on an assortment of action
figure lines. these essays are arranged in a rough chronological order. one
will notice thomas g. endres’ essay on Captain Action comes first, as that
figure debuted in 1966. While astute readers will note g.i. Joe technically
predates Captain Action (g.i. Joe debuted in 1964), J. richard stevens’ essay
on these toys comes a bit later, due to that essay chiefly focusing on the 1980s
iteration of the line. tracy l. bealer, however, discusses both the original My
little Pony (and My Pretty Pony) line as well as the new Friendship Is Magic
toys, so her essay has been placed in close proximity to stevens’. readers will
then note a number of essays concerning toys of the 2000s, including two
studying Monster high dolls. one may speculate a number of reasons for
this interest in more modern toys. i will posit that, because there is simply
more discussion surrounding the role of today’s toys, action figure scholars
are finding a need to process that discussion through analysis of the action
figures in question. the internet has given toy collectors of all degrees a tool
through which to connect and voice controversy over what is, or is not, in
toy aisles currently (the earlier #wheresrey and #wheresblackwidow cam-
paigns are perfect examples of this). such a network simply was not available
to discuss the toy industry of the 1960s or ’70s; however, that is not to down-
play the importance of those decades. Finally, this collection ends with an
interview with Julie Kerwin, Ceo (Chief Elemental officer) of iAmelemental,
10 Introduction

an independently-funded feminist action figure line geared toward young

girls. While the essays of this book speak to the present and past, Julie Ker-
win’s interview speaks to the future. With the onset of 3-d printing and online
crowdfunding websites, third-party action figures are the future of the indus-
try. iAmelemental saw a deficiency in the big-name toy companies’ products:
they lacked the sense of girl empowerment that she craved. therefore, she
filled that void with her own creation, launched by funding collected on Kick-
starter, and now entering its second wave (with waves three and four
though this collection reaches toward many toy lines, it does not do
everything. there is still more work to do. this collection does not drift into
the territory of some of the more often-documented toy lines. Kenner’s Star
Wars line and Mattel’s he-Man are not featured here (though she-ra is). bar-
bie is certainly not given her due. transformers are absent as well. therefore,
do not view this text as a digest of analyses on the most important toy lines.
it is simply a starting place, a collection of essays about the action figures
that have moved this group of scholars. it is my hope there will be more vol-
umes of this book and books like it, looking toward the worthy toy lines we
have omitted. With the birth of this academic field of study, which i have
termed “action figure studies,” there can be enough of a foundation to build
a class on action figures, using action figures as the primary text. thus, a goal
of this book is to pave some of the path for a course in which students read
not Moby Dick or Bleak House (worthy texts though those are), but the 1982
hasbro snake eyes action figure from G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, or the
1986 screamin’ Janine Melnitz action figure from Kenner’s The Real Ghost-
busters line. these are lofty dreams at this point, but they are worthwhile
the ways in which one could read an action figure are virtually limitless.
For such a near-infinite supply of angles, action figures receive considerably
less attention than other, more established texts such as movies, books, tel-
evision shows, or music. When discussing this project with others, i have
noted a certain trend. there will always come a point where my partner in
conversation describes a toy or action figure he or she played with as a child.
he or she will usually do this with a glint in his or her eye that i’ve come to
know so well. then, as if a sudden victim of whiplash, he or she will snap
into a world they believe to be more “adult,” where these childhood items
have no value.
this is wrong. As academics, it is our responsibility to encourage schol-
arship surrounding matters that cut most deeply into our most emotional
selves. We will find, when we look upon our childhood closets with adult
eyes, that the items we held most dear take on a new meaning. this new
meaning tells us there were layers in that which we could understand only
Introduction 11

on a superficial level once, much like revisiting a childhood cartoon reveals

all of the sexual jokes that were impossible to comprehend with a six-year-
old brain. i do not see how this detracts from the holiness we attach to child-
hood objects. it only deepens their power, bringing them into the present,
and, once again, letting us play.
WorKs Cited
balkin, Jack. “deconstruction.” Yale, 1995,
butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and gender Constitution: An essay in Phenominology
and Feminist theory.” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4, 1988, 519–531.
Chang, leslie. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. new york: spiegel &
grau, 2009.
_____. Santa’s Workshop: Inside China’s Slave Labour Toy Factories. dir. lotte eklund and
Kristina bjurling. lotteFilm, 2004.
godwin, victoria. “Mimetic Fandom and one-sixth scale Action Figures.” Transformative
Works and Cultures 20, 2015.
Jenkins, henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. new york: rout-
ledge, 2013.
Margolis, eric, and stephen laurence. Creations of the Mind: Theories of Artifacts and Their
Representations. oxford: oxford university Press, 2007.
Mohanty, Chandra talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Sol-
idarity. durham: duke university Press, 2003.
symonds, Peter. Industrial Inferno: The Story of the Thai Toy Factory Fire. Mehring books,
Wagner-ott, Anna. “Analysis of gender identity through doll and Action Figure Politics in
Art education.” Studies in Art Education 43, no. 3, 2002, 246–263.
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Thirteen Ways of Looking
at an Action Figure
Part One
DAnieL F. Yezbick

Editor’s Note: The following is Part One of Dan Yezbick’s two-part essay
on the ways in which one might study action figures. Here, Dan will introduce
his project, and present five different lenses through which one can view the
action figure. Part One, below, will establish the theoretical framework that
Dan will then apply to the personal and social experience of action figures in
his Part Two (toward the end of the book), which will include the remaining
eight ways of looking at an action figure. Works cited in both parts will be doc-
umented after Part Two.

Introduction: Homunculus Rex

How exactly, in the last half decade, has the “action figure,” in all of its
myriad cross-marketed incarnations, captured the imaginations of children
and adults? What “discrepancy” of scale, schema, sex, and spirit thus makes
miniaturized men, women, and monsters of resin, plastic, lead, rubber, or
wood so functionally prevalent in global commerce and individual fantasy?
in Sherry Turkle’s view, “evocative objects” such as actions figures “bring
philosophy down to earth. When we focus on objects, physicians and philoso-
phers, psychologists and designers, artists and engineers are able to find com-
mon ground in everyday experience” (Turkle 8). Applying Levi- Strauss’
notion of the bricoleur, or “a practitioner of the science of the concrete” who
“manipulates a closed set of materials to develop new thoughts” out of brico-
lage in tandem with Piaget’s assessment of instructive play rooted in “close
to the object thinking” meant to heighten awareness of the “number, space,

14 Articulating the Action Figure

time, causality, and life” of things, Turkle provides a profoundly simple per-
spective on how “object play—for adults as well as children—engages the
heart as well as the mind” (Turkle 308–309). How can we examine our unique
attraction to miniature plastic effigies and their contexts?
There are, of course, many answers.
To start, the most abject Happy Meal toy lost in the deepest layers of
the toy bin still signifies the epitome of polysemic postmodern participatory
commodity culture. At the same time, the expertly-graded, mint-in-blisterpack
Star Wars rebel or ideal Posin’ Supergirl cocooned for eternity within its
ecoStar Pc50 Recycled PeT acrylic clamshell against all possible risk, play,
or abuse can command thousands of dollars on the collector/investor/spec-
ulator market. From garage sales and Goodwill fodder to certified collectibles
and international internet auction houses, the action figure circulates through
complex aesthetic, psychological, and socio-economic conditions of unusual
scope and power.
its defining characteristics seem obvious enough. An action figure is
generally a manufactured personality or character built to a diminished scale.
it is usually, though not necessarily humanoid, and often designed to encour-
age manipulation, posing, or play including movable body parts, interchang-
ing costumes, accessories, weapons, prosthetics, and related apparatus. At
times, these accouterments can expand to include elaborate vehicles, carrying
cases, and playsets so ingeniously and engineered that they are sometimes
more engaging in their miniaturized discrepancy than the figured body or
character itself. certain bases, expanded worlds, and microcosmic mock-ups
tend to develop their own specialized mythologies. iconic examples include
Shredder and krang’s Technodrome of mechanized evil from the Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise and G.i. Joe’s remarkably oversized Space
Shuttle Defiant. From the figures themselves to the gear, couture, and con-
veyances that enable and transport them, the action figure always signifies a
larger spectacle well beyond its tiny idealized body.
Similarly, the actual scale of figurization—the amount of reduction in
size—can greatly define the popularity, playability, or even profit potential of
any particular example. While many figures are conceived as handheld play-
pals, there are pebble-sized, over-sized, and generally fun or amusement-
based derivatives. Thus, an iconic character like Darth Vader can appear in
any number of scales and compositions from the flea circus rendition found
in certain Galoob Micromachines, to the “four bricks tall” mini-figured Lego
variation, to the “classic” genre-defining 3.75-inch kenner scale, to larger
deluxe 12-, 20-, and even 31-inch avatars. Along with a figure’s scale and pos-
sessions, most are developed, marketed, and consumed as series toys that
immediately encourage further exploration, acquisition, and collection of
every expanding waves of merchandise. emphasis is placed on completeness,
Thirteen Ways, Part One (Yezbick) 15

closure, and comprehension of an entire marketed line or expression of forms,

styles, and relationships embedded within the strategically cross-marketed
continuities of franchised worlds. Fast food licensing, mass media saturation,
and theme-park driven leisure determine the prefab pathos of cultural cathar-
sis. The action figure is endlessly mass-produced, incessantly advertised, infi-
nitely commoditized, hunted, horded, fondled, customized, and adored by
millions of consumers, aficionados, families, and collectors.
Yet, no other commercial object may work as poetically as an action fig-
ure. Like poetry itself, the action figure is all at once trash, trivia, toy, totem,
token and trace of numerous interlocking frameworks of media, mercantil-
ism, and imagination. Poised to provoke, posed to entrance, and plagued by
politics, the action figure is a concrete poem of contemporary hyper-simulated
personality. Like sonnets and sestinas, it defies all efforts at conclusive
description, comprehensive classification, or essentialized interpretation. Like
haiku, the action figure stands inscrutable and infinite. So, to best approximate
any workable anatomy or “poetics,” i recommend applying poetry itself.
Like this collection as a whole, the following hybrid text seeks to examine
the action figure’s shifting role within the teleological debates, specialized
cultures, and intellectualized “confessions” of what Henry Jenkins has labeled
the discourse of the “Aca/fan” who both scrutinizes and plays within popular
forms and systems of communication (Jenkins 1). After all, why talk about
toys if we can’t have any fun? Here then, with more admiration than apology
to action figures and poets and scholars all, is served a freshly opened, tran-
scendental playset crammed with articulated features, transformative acces-
sories, gripping origin stories, provoking avenues of inquiry, and contemplative
detours into the shady corners and dim cul-de-sacs of otherwise insistently
bright and lively hypermarkets.
To unlock the action figure’s playful magnetism, we will enlist both Wal-
lace Stevens’ imagistic poetry and erving Goffman’s unflinching experiential
“framework” theories to construct interlocking thresholds of access into a
supposedly simple toy’s disarming, disquieting, demonstrative place within
the playspaces of our minds, souls, and state. in honor of Stevens’ homage
to nature’s unflinching monumentalism, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a
blackbird,” i have organized this essay into thirteen brief sections. each pro-
vides an equitable vantage point for exploring action figures from a valuable
new angle and each segment’s theme is built to parallel the order and imagery
of Stevens’ original testament to poetic perseverance.
each segment also acts as an individualized revelatory “drawer” built
into a much more expansive and miscellaneous critical “toy chest of the mind”
meant to collect, organize, and ultimately underwrite key points of connec-
tive continuity, parallel meanings, and shared insights into action figure the-
ory and practice. Like any well-stocked wunderkammer, each new selection
16 Articulating the Action Figure

introduces itself with a brief title and altered pastiche of Stevens’ original
verse. if successful, every proceeding threshold or pathway will coalesce
within the larger pageant of wonders and worries. Most texts are comprised
of traditional scholarly analysis drawing on an eclectic bevy of critical theories
and methods. Others attempt more direct theoretical analysis relating to one
major theme or strand of action figure history. in a few cases, including the
first and final elements, the discussions become personal, speculative, and
perhaps a touch poetic. Like Stevens’ nameless blackbirds perched eternally
within the centrifugal frameworks of perception, the postmodern plastic
homunculus deserves its own unconventional, unexpected, and hopefully
viable and vivid celebration.

I. Mego Genesis
Along endless k-Mart aisles,
The only moving things
Were the wrists of the Mego Fist Fighters.

My first memory of action figures involves a hazy winter morning of

running errands with my mother at the seedy k-Mart off 7-Mile and Grand
River in northwest Detroit. i recall the next moments with almost painful,
mythic wonder. i looked up and caught just a glimpse of Spider- Man’s
uniquely American red and blue web motif peaking at me from across the
aisle. it was buried deep in a cardboard coffin hanging in the middle of the
next commercial box canyon. i zipped around the corner and discovered, for
the first time, the magnificent world of Mego.
There they stood, row on row! All of my Marvel media gods suddenly
manifest in dingy cellophaned suspension. They were fully formed, three
dimensional, fist-sized, and even accessorized with magic hammers, starry
shields, and kinky quivers that strapped far too tightly across body and waist.
These were the most compelling commercial products i would ever know,
and they cried out to be owned, possessed, and manipulated. it was the first
time i ever really wanted any single type of toy and i would want no other
until Star Wars conquered my tiny mind about a year later. Here and now
though, in revelatory, transcendent, and as fellow Michigander nick Sousanis
might say “unflattened” form, were armies of my TV heroes and their adver-
saries: captain America, The Falcon, batman, cat Woman, The Hulk, Won-
der Woman, and, most importantly for the rest of my life, the wide wicked
grin of the Green Goblin (Sousanis 14). completely captivated, i could not
believe that any of them held actual physical presence. They could be touched,
held, and made real. They were made to put into action! Their hands could
Thirteen Ways, Part One (Yezbick) 17

hold true objects as much as any Mego ever really did. Some could even
punch or whip their torsos back and forth in wide hulas of hyper-groovy
disco violence. Their heads could turn and their clothes could be changed
or altered to suit new missions or moods. These were not dolls, not at their
wonderful, outrageous, inviting centers. They were, i realized even at six
years old, a new way to play, to give life, to make stories of movement.
i left the Megos, the Marvels, and the Goblin behind in their k-Mart
parade of silent, eternal sleep that day. i left the Goblin, but his smile came
with us back to the car, and rode all the way home where its sinister memory
slithered into my room, my dreams, and most especially, into every lingering
moment i have had ever since. i can gladly say that his smile has served me
well in life, like kafka’s bug, Frost’s “birches,” Stevens’ “blue Guitar,” or Welles’
“Rosebud.” Some part of that smile and my desire to comprehend and collect
it, and the rest of those Megos, and to obliterate forever the crass realities of
that bland, sodden k-Mart simmers with me now and so too with you. My
Mego demon never dies and that is just part of the beauty of such figures
made for action, waiting to strike, and to serve our churning desires for power
and for play.

II. 50 Shades of Aura

i was of three bodies,
Like a wookiee
of which there are many molds.

Why do so many covet, caress, and collect action figures? Take for a
start baudrillard’s hermeneutics of simulation: “it is no longer a question of
imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. it is a question of substituting
the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring
every real process via its operative double, a programmatic, metastable, per-
fectly descriptive machine that offers all of the signs of the real and short-
circuits all its vicissitudes” (baudrillard 2). Perhaps no better teleological
autopsy of the action figure has yet been written? Whether we are dealing
with a Super Powers Riddler with “brain Drain Helmet,” McFarlane Toys’
“perfectly descriptive” rendition of Peter Max-inspired Yellow Submarine
beatles figures, or necA’s 25th Anniversary Grunge rendition of Homer
Simpson, every action figure is a tangible manifestation of a licensed corpo-
rate persona—a descriptive machine rooted to intertwining realities of play,
product, and promotion. in other words, McFarlane Toys provide purely
operational resuscitations of the already cartoonified and animated avatars
of the super-group’s media-sponsored personae: a strangely programmed and
18 Articulating the Action Figure

oddly insubstantial “Pre-Fabbed Four.” Yet, the beatles enthusiast reads the
figure as both homage and heritage; a perfectly operative double- cum-
tchotchke “short-circuiting” the 1968 film’s previously remediated amalga-
mation of music, art, media, history, and celebrity.
The short-circuits become even more cunning and slippery when the
action figure extends or excites rather than simply replicates the spectacles
of established markets. Mego’s Wizard of Oz, Gabriel’s Lone Ranger, Galoob’s
A-Team, or Hasbro’s WWF series obviously market “real operative doubles”
to captivate and consume, but what occurs when the figures actually create
new interactive devotions? in other words, what changes when a relic
becomes a toy?
The contrast between the action figure’s mythic weight as an idol and
its negligible status as a fairly cheap and ignominious toy is key to its gravitas.
The action figure is a hyper-commodified contradiction, a “childish thing”
figuring adult truths, paradoxically rich in short-cuts within and against
authenticity, faith, and identification. it is then, a key “place-holder” in the
“sticky, spreadable media” where Jenkins, Ford, and Green find nodes of per-
sonal and communal resistance used to “share content for their own purposes,
sometimes with the permissions of rights holders, sometimes against their
wishes” (Jenkins, Ford, and Green 3). Like cosplay, slash fiction, model bash-
ing, or homebrewed musical mash-ups, the appropriating and customizing
of long forgotten, purposely ignored, or unpopular characters certainly pro-
motes the pirating of, personifying within, and resistance to prefab, market-
driven life and leisure.
in effect, then the action figure serves as a contemporary media
metaphor for the centuries-old debates surrounding allegiance to iconogra-
phy, temptations toward idolatry, and its dialectical corrective urge toward
iconoclasm. Many such arguments focus on theological “pleroma,” or conti-
nuity between physical things and spiritual truths describing the fullness of
God as experienced by the individual’s own intensely personal relationship
with the larger imagined world. Just as prayer cards, stained glass windows,
or crucifixes allow believers to focus and simplify their devotion to God, so
too Playmates Picards and Toy biz Hobbits connect us more intensely with
Star Trek’s Federation or Lord of the Rings’ Middle earth. The same is true
of any prefabricated universes or fantastic microcosms build around rival
camps and collectives from canterlot to Halo. Specific character mythologies
or hagiographies involving massively “iconic” properties like Mickey Mouse,
Superman, Spiderman, barbie, or G.i. Joe may become more clear and assess-
able if we apply actual theosophical methods to the places of the action figure
within the lives and devotions of their “faithful.”
in the eastern catholic tradition especially, highly codified and ritual-
istically preserved icons such as images, statues, frescoes, and iconostases
Thirteen Ways, Part One (Yezbick) 19

are crucial conduits facilitating prayer and catechism. These figured icons,
are in effect, essential elements of veneration and intervention between God’s
physical and divine forms. As Ouspensky and Lossky relate in their guide to
The Meaning of Icons in the Orthodox tradition,
thus the church gradually creates an art new both in form and content, which uses
images and forms drawn from the material world to transmit the revelation of the
Divine world, making this world accessible to understanding and contemplation.
This art develops side by side with the Divine services and, like the latter, expresses
the teaching of the church in conformity with the word of the Scriptures…. Archi-
tecture, painting, music, poetry cease to be forms of art, each following its own way,
independently of the others, in search of appropriate effects, and become parts of a
single liturgic whole which by no means diminishes their significance, but implies in
each case renunciation of an individual role, of self-assertion [30].

Though precariously close to what many sects consider idolatry, this intimate,
triangular relationship between the faithful, the object, and the spirit provides
a fascinating corollary to the forms of play and “prayer” that action figures
promote in fans, consumers, and collectors of all ages. There is great longing,
intense effort, and considerable contentment –even a form of oddly phrased
grace—within the ritualized seeking, procuring, handling, and displaying of
our household idols and icons.
Whether we are driven more by creativity, competitiveness, or com-
pleteness, the orthodoxy of the action figure—either Mint on card or posed
within its pantheon of pleromatic merchandise, speaks to participatory fan-
dom’s inclusiveness, liturgical intensity, and infinite interrelation to larger
forms of art, affinity, and awareness. Yet, as every iconoclast warns, there are
potentially dangerous and debilitating undercurrents linked with the
unchecked veneration of objects for prayer and pleasure.
in some ways, the over-consumption or obsessive fixation on the liturgic
properties of an action figure as a commodity fetish brings striking life to George
bataille’s Acephalic collapse of the soul. This becomes especially clear in the
exhaustive comparison and contrast of scarce variants, which can lead to cabals
of cryptographic knowledge, arcane lore, and even shockingly transgressive
idolatry. For bataille, the Surrealist librarian pornographer, the luxuriant
worship of the vulgar Acephal idol centers around a perverted, beheaded
heretic corpse emblazoned with outlandish desecrations and erotically acces-
sorized to personify demonic materialism, rooted in “a parody or anti-idealist
version of renaissance depictions of the harmonic arrangement of the human
body” (bataille 12). it is, in many ways, a graven image of wickedly cunning
liturgy, a blasphemous metaphor meant to implicate and entice the innocent
and inveterate towards carnal excess, sadistic glee, and chaotic agony. Akin
to the freakish mutations of McFarlane and Toybiz, action figures can
approach their most acephalic agency in more subtle, disconcerting ways.
20 Articulating the Action Figure

consider one collector’s elated post describing the different manu -

facturers’ variations on the Vintage Star Wars Action Figures Facebook
group. The following text accompanies a close-up sideways view of a daisy
chain of wookiees linked waist to waist with clear emphasis on comparing
their ample ammunition pouches: “Glasslite, Hk, PbP, Tri Logo. Love the
unpainted pouch on the Glasslite and the almost black pouch on the PbP.
The tri logo has 1 leg a lot shorter than the other” (Heller). Here, the user’s
quest for spreadable knowledge builds tightly connected imagined commu-
nities who consult and strengthen each other’s understandings of esoteric,
illicit, suppressed or unconventional knowledge beyond the larger matrix of
Star Wars orthodoxy. As another, less practiced Vintage Star Wars user
responds: “i’m trying to figure out if my chewbacca’s are variants? They are
both 1977 Hk. The early bird version had a greenish pouch and translucent
blue bowcaster. it’s hard to capture the blue, but there is definitely a blue tint
to the bowcaster on the left … the other bowcaster is definitely solid black.
Pouch on right has a greenish tint to it. Anyone have a definite answer or
have something i can compare it to? Thanks!” (Johnson). Such discussions
exemplify how vast networks of fans, consumers, and self-trained specialists
interrogate and interpret the fossil record of popular culture and its acephalic
They also confirm that while many such collectors truly adore chew-
bacca or Yoda or even perhaps the 21-b Surgical Droid for whatever reason,
their lively discussions leak with a worrisome acephalic tendency towards
nearly onanistic obsession over minuscule anomalies or minute differences.
it displays, truly, an obvious and ignominious idolatry. Such conversations
aptly confirm baudrillard’s warning that within the hyperreal markets of the
action figure, “it is generic miniaturization that is the dimension of simula-
tion. The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory
banks, models of control—and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of
times from these. it no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer meas-
ures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. it is no longer anything
but operational. in fact, it is no longer real because no imaginary envelops
it anymore. it is hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combina-
tory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (baudrillard 2). brokering
the purely operational erotica of comparative wookee pouch variants as dis-
cussed and archived across hyperreal social networks, do we not yet again
find ourselves within the decadent desire-driven domain of bataille’s “Secret
Society of Acephale” where “most materialists, despite wanting to eliminate
all spiritual entities, end up describing an order of things whose hierarchical
relations mark it out as specifically idealist. They have situated dead matter
at the summit of a conventional hierarchy of diverse types of facts, without
realizing that in this way they have submitted to obsession with an ideal form
Thirteen Ways, Part One (Yezbick) 21

of matter, with a form which approaches closer than any other to that which
matter should be. Dead matter, the pure idea, and God, all in fact, answer a
question in the same way—perfectly” (bataille 58). Action figures are, poten-
tially, the most prevalent of postmodern teraphim. They are graven idols of
“dead matter” built around individualized theologies of commitment to vast
networks of fantasy and faith. Depending on the particular conditions they
may provide participatory conduits towards imagined communities that share
uniting pleromic perspectives, or they can also abet the venal or grotesque,
Golem-esque descent into crippling addictive fixation on the exotic and aber-
rant fetishes of acephalic power.

III. Guess Who’s Coming to Castle Grayskull?

The Falcon whirled in the autumn winds.
He was a small part of the pantomime.

From He-Man’s horrendously titled African “Master of capture” clamp

champ to Lego’s antiseptically Pc multicultural Friends’ minifigs, the identity
politics and ethnic contrasts of playtime pantomime have always been care-
fully and sometimes forcibly controlled. in fact, few elements of 21st-century
material culture remain as hotly debated and consistently controversial as
the materiality and appropriateness of toys and what they say to young
intrepid minds about self, heritage, and difference. consider the fervor over
the unfortunate racial politics of “black Smurfs,” accidently African WcW
action figures promoting Jimmy Hart, and the short-lived pregnant black
Midge (Samuel; clarke; “Pregnant”). Such controversies were never more
evident than in the more than 40 years of research begun by kenneth and
Marie clark Hobson and continued by Darlene and Derek Hobson confirm-
ing many African American children’s historical preference for caucasian
dolls (xiv).
The action figure plays a prominent role in such toy wars, and the battles
for equitable representation and politically responsible articulations of gender
and ethnic diversity are capably and often elegantly mapped in works like
ellen Seiter’s Sold Separately: Parents and Children in Consumer Culture and
Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Recent internet firestorms
surrounding the supposed islamic designs of Jabba the Hutt’s Lego palace,
the questionable modesty of the black box Slave Leia, and the relative scarcity
of empowering riot grrrl Rey action figures all expose concerns with how
identity gets imbricated within the bricolage of childhood (Paterson; Jao).
even fan voices appear hostile to manufacturers’ relentless segregation
and marginalization of ethnic and non-normative personae. consider one
22 Articulating the Action Figure

collector’s livid reactions to the lack of diversity in mid–1990s X-Men “Gen-

eration X” figures: “There are two female figures in this group, Jubilee and
Penance, which is extraordinary. The entire rest of the Marvel, X-Men, and
Spider-Man line of figures, about 350 strong, only has a total of 12 versions
of 7 other female figures. Give up? The others are Domino, invisible Woman,
Phoenix, Rogue, Spider-Woman, Spiral, and Storm” (Wells and Malloy 22).
Despite the occasional Galoob b.A. baracus, Super Powers cyborg, Marvel
Legends blade, McFarlane Voodoo Queen (whose “barely there” bodice ini-
tiates a very different set of concerns involving representation!), and necA’s
Django Unchained figures, there is a definite dearth of Affirmative Action fig-
ures. Oddly, the expansive Spawn franchise, a toy concept rooted in Todd
McFarlane’s African American assassin turned demonic avenger, has done
little to promote noticeable change outside of its own creatures and heroes.
Sadly though, most hard evidence points to disturbing trends and poten-
tially negative effects on users and consumers. A number of studies led by
chris bartlett and Timothy baghurst in 2005–2006, revealed worrisome find-
ings suggesting that for some “young adult men,” “touching and manipulating
the more unrealistic muscular action figures” led to significant reductions in
body esteem (bartlett, Harris, Smith, bonds-Raacke). Further studies also
suggest that significant changes in action figure musculature over time also
have the potential to seriously hinder or predispose the body images of pread-
olescent males (baghurst, Hollander, nadella, Haff). both studies confirm
an urgent truth surrounding the bodily “discrepancies” that seem so poten-
tially empowering in the arenas of cultural studies and political change. ide-
alized, articulated bodies of fantastic ability do not necessarily empower their
users or encourage the kinds of rich, intrepid, individualized, and opposi-
tional thinking that many parents, collectors, and fans might hope for.
On the contrary, evidence suggests that they are prone to have the oppo-
site effect, promoting impossibly ripped or ridiculously oversexed ideals of
gender, beauty, and health. Of course, more prurient figures like Skybolt’s
anatomically agonizing trinity of sleaze, Hellina, cynder, and Sintha are
rooted in flagrant misogyny, objectification, and polymorphous perversity.
Though progress has been made since the days of “carefully developed
identities” centering around “predominantly white male heroes and a mixed
bag of aliens” with the occasional Mego Falcon, Lando calrissian, or Road-
block thrown in for good measure, the action figure’s cultural politics of dis-
crepancy holds considerable promise for promoting more multicultural,
multi-gendered acceptance and respect with both children and adults (Wag-
ner-Ott). even with the additions of popular figures like “Michonne from
The Walking Dead, Mace Windu from the Star Wars Prequels, Falcon from
Captain America: Winter Soldier, nick Fury from The Avengers, and X-Men’s
Storm” and bishop action figures, kickstarter projects focusing on developing
Thirteen Ways, Part One (Yezbick) 23

interracial action figure “families” also suggest the revolutionary power of

the playroom pantomime (Martell). Similarly, David Gonzales’ lighthearted
Homies line of mini-figures has brought everyday Hispanic American street
life into the action figure market with considerable success. The high end
market has developed notable action figures of civil Rights Leaders like Hot
Toys’ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr., and Olmec Toys’ Malcolm X as well
as more obscure African Americans including History in Action’s line fea-
turing black woman aviator, bessie coleman; mathematician benjamin ban-
neker; and explorer, Matthew Henson.
current action figure markets are abuzz with heartening news of Dc’s
new Super Hero Girls toy line featuring body positive renditions of major
characters including Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Poison ivy, and even
an empowered African American heroine, bumblebee. no better evidence
may exist to support the action figure’s potential to nurture and promote pos-
itive intercultural growth and political change.

IV. I Am Curious Yakface

A child and an action figure
Are one.
A child and an action figure and a cross-marketed multi-
media licensing franchise
Are one.

The action figure stands, or sits, or summersaults so squarely into the

subject positions at the very heart of cultural Studies that its relatively limited
academic scrutiny is truly perplexing.
building on the views of Marshall McLuhan, Stuart Hall, Raymond
Williams, and Federic Jameson, recent theorists have reclassified the unique
discourse which circulates around the magnetism of endlessly perpetuated
simulacra like action figures, computer games, and related participatory mer-
chandise. in fact, current remediations of previous product lines, media
myths, and licensed properties have helped to galvanize and intensify a thriv-
ing, participatory praxis that more accurately and efficiently assesses the roles
of hypermarketed artifacts like action figures with fresh emphasis on schol-
arship rooted in “immediacy, multivalence, accessibility, particularity, con-
textualism, and situationalism” (Jenkins, McPherson, and Shattuc 20). What
Jenkins et al. deem “spreadable,” Du Gay conceives as an active “circuit of
cultural production” (Du Gay). Helpfully, Sandvoss builds upon bourdieu’s
identity-shaping Habitus with the somewhat more specialized Heimat or reas-
suring “home” wherein fans share their arcane knowledge and apply their
24 Articulating the Action Figure

idiosyncratic visions “to form physical, emotional, and ideological” spaces,

shrines, and networks that provide “emotional warmth or a sense of security
and stability” which operates outside of or deeply embedded within more
conventional social codes and structures (Sandvoss 64). Sandvoss further
identifies the endlessly recycled debates of driven bricoleurs as sites of “neu-
trosemic” transformation, where pre-established codes of batman or X-Men-
based commerce are suddenly left vacant, “carry no inherent meaning,” and
are then exploded “intersubjectively” to provide swarms of fans of all ages
and stripes with as many divergent readings as will suit their immediate inter-
ests (Sandvoss 126).
Thus we can begin to map the underpinnings of hyperbolic action figure
marketing language and the spreadable neutrosemy of overdetermined,
almost carnivalesque design. Using themes of circuitous hubs of Heimat, the
spreadable waves of action figure series become more actively readable. both
concepts illuminate themes that bind and separate Mego’s Type 2 batman
from kenner’s Powerwing batman or Toy biz’s Power Guardian batman. Sim-
ilarly, Toy biz’s Savage Strike Wolverine or Space Wolverine with “slashing
space armor” each seem neutrosemically dense in their novelty and partici-
patory playability when contrasted with the coveted “classic” Mattel black
claw Secret Wars edition (Wells and Malloy 105).
Perhaps criticism, culture, and commerce collide into neutrosemic pools
of spreadable knowledge, judgment, and taste most frequently in the mad-
dening, uncharted jungles of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMnT) figures.
Here, scores of reiterations of the four marquee turtle characters are mapped
against “hardcore” collector and fan favorites like the fabulously elusive 1993
Playmates Scratch, or obscure additions to the TMnT mythology like 1990’s
Ace Duck. Finally, new emphasis on circuits of commerce and increased sen-
sitivity to the “particularity” and “situationalism” of hordes of mass-consumed
bricolage can help us to comprehend the obsessive quests and outrageous
prices commanded for accidental variants or aleatoric oddities like “orange
pockets” April O’neil, eyelid-less Hammerhead, half-circle boba Fetts, the
Return of the Jedi’s utterly forgettable but shockingly expensive Yakface, and
the de facto Holy Grail of Star Wars action figures, the blue variant Snaggle-
tooth or “zutton,” originally sold only in Sears’ exclusive cantina playsets.
When minor characters like Yakface and zutton command thousands of dol-
lars because of what are really industrial accidents, we begin to comprehend
just how potent and compelling neutrosemic hotspots have become.
in some cases, fan discourse can even impose order over runaway toy
lines, as when one guide wryly critiques the 1990s Super Powers line, based
on Dc comics heroes, or so we are meant to think: “The last of the line gave
us the likes of Plastic Man, Mister Miracle, captain Marvel, Orion, cyborg,
Tyr, Mr. Freeze, Desaad, Samurai, Golden Pharoah, and cyclotron. before
Thirteen Ways, Part One (Yezbick) 25

you go off screaming as you try to figure out what comics those last three
named characters appeared in, don’t bother; they were specially made-up fig-
ures for the line only” (Wells and Malloy 36). As compulsive or misguided
as fans and collectors’ commitment to such icons of perversity can seem,
they also constitute vivid evidence of the consumer circuits which ignite the
action figure’s Heimat. Such relationships with evocative objects also ring
with the wild and unfettered creativity of children’s freeform play, drenched
in drama and desire and determination, especially when wedded to highly
valued, randomly under-produced, and fabulously overdetermined signifiers
like the fan favorite 1991 kenner batman: The Dark knight Thunderwhip
figure which is much less about batmania than fabulously interactive physics.

V. Stiff Erudition
i do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of impersonations
Or the beauty of articulations,
The action figure simulating
Or just after.

The action figure’s defining conflict centers on its implied contrast

between sculptural statis (the figure) and ecstatic movement (action). in one
sense, every example is designed to accommodate posed, static display and
fluid, efficient mobility. Anyone who has held an original kenner Star Wars
Stormtrooper alongside a 3.75-inch G.I. Joe Snake eyes quickly recognizes
the contrast between stiff adherence to the property designs of Lucas media,
and the more pliable, playable and inviting text, begging to get turned, bent,
and hurled into combat. in such cases, stiff memoralizations work in tandem
with the kinesthetics of joints, twists, swivels involved in karate chops, kung
fu grips, or missile launches.
First, let’s consider the inherent lack of mobility in more monumental
toys like the original 14-inch kenner Alien, the 12-inch kenner chewbacca
built out of the body mold for the Six Million Dollar Man big Foot figure,
and Parker brothers’ nearly motionless Rom, the Space knight ironically
billed as “an advanced electronic toy.” in most cases, such inactive figures
could move limbs up and down, hold accessories and props, and sometimes
turn their heads. Any other motions or articulations were left to the user’s
imagination. Perhaps the most bizarre example of odd action figure paralysis
is the case of the 12-inch Remco energized Spider-Man and Green Goblin,
which could climb walls using a motorized cable, shine flashlights, and carry
a strange and pointless suitcase, but could only move one arm up and down.
26 Articulating the Action Figure

every other limb was frozen stiff with hard plastic rigor mortis. Though every
child surely wants to give their Green Goblin a flashlight, the lack of playable
motion was palpable to all who encountered these sadly disabled statues-on-
Sculpted stasis does provide other benefits however. First of all, intri-
cately rendered figures, play sets, and sometimes entire scenes from films,
comics, games, or related media are meant as grand, silent homages to the
grandeur of remediated experiences or frozen moments. Lego is particularly
adept at crafting playsets around not only film franchises, but whole scenes
which replicate the thrilling plot twists of key moments within the media
narratives. Thus, we find not only Lego Hobbit mini-figures, but also D.i.Y
recreations of Dol Guldor, The Attack on Lake Town, The Lake Town chase,
The Lonely Mountain, and the battle of the Five Armies, among many others.
These Lego sets are also stylishly interwoven into Lego’s digital media includ-
ing broadcast animated shows, computer games, websites, and phone apps.
in a sense then, such industrially reproduced tableaux actually splinter and
disseminate benjamin’s lost aura, rather than erasing or eliding it. This rela-
tionship becomes doubly true if we consider the talents of the commercial
sculptors generally tasked with adapting and detailing high concept proper-
ties for molding and mass manufacture. A number of celebrated professionals
including Randy bowen, clayburn Moore, William Paquet, and Jonathan
Matthews have enjoyed unique popularity as modelers, sculptors, and concept
artists who labor to bring the forms, personalities, and structures of films,
comics, cartoons, and computer gaming into three dimensions with capti-
vating detail and powerful commercial appeal.
Then, of course, there is action: wild, fun, violent, fast, and bold actions
keyed closely to individual figures and their accessories. in some cases, the
sheer wonderment of articulating bb8’s head or swiveling the black Widow’s
waist is enough to amuse or enthrall. At other times, the manipulation of
projectiles, edged weapons, illuminated eyes, and gushing fluids, as in the
case of the Marvel Superheroes 1991 Venom with “living skin slime pores” or
the 1992 edition with ejaculating alien venom adds and intensifies the user’s
agency. neutrosemic fan debates have also christened the Dc Super Powers
series marketed from 1984 to 1986 as “one of the best, if not the best, toy
lines” to fuse both effective, iconic representation of characters with fun and
playable “power action” articulations that include “nuclear punch” Lex Luthor,
“computer kick” braniac, “ring thrust” Green lantern, “flight wings” Hawk-
man, and “madcap mallet” Joker (Wells and Malloy 36).
The faithful rendering of favorite characters, especially superheroes and
villains, seems of particular concern among fans and enthusiasts. both rep-
resentation and articulation must closely follow the theme and spirit of
favorite incarnations or avatars from particular contexts, creators, and pub-
Thirteen Ways, Part One (Yezbick) 27

licity driven “events.” in other words, series figures based on Alan Moore and
Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, Darwyn cooke and Dave Stewart’s New Frontier
and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come comics are rendered with the
same passionate attention to their source material and judged just as harshly
by fans seeking further neutrosemic fodder. At the same time, however, the
conforming of iconic features to standardized brand templates like the Lego
minifigure, the Mediacom kubrick, or the bubble-headed Funko figure also
initiates considerations of witty adaptation and slick remediation. Though
such taut teraphim possess very limited options in terms of both sculptural
detail or kinetic potential, their simulation of personality and “property” as
frozen in a particular scene, segment, or pattern seems to push the con-
structed language of the action figure into more abstracted directions.
The (Re)Resurrection
of captain Action
Will Justice Be Done?

in 1966, i was six years old, a huge fan of the popular batman television
series, and—thanks to older relatives—already well versed in the heroes
springing from the World War that i missed (e.g., captain America, Steve
canyon) and those who embodied the space race which then dominated the
headlines (e.g., buck Rogers, Flash Gordon). in other words, i was the per-
fect candidate and consumer for the newly released captain Action—a G.i.
Joe–like 12-inch poseable action figure who, with a costume change, could
be disguised as any of those heroes above, plus a variety of other favorites.
in my six-year-old mind, there could be no more perfect toy.
not all consumers agreed. The captain Action line lasted only three
years. Using the rallying cry “Let Justice be Done,” the figure was resurrected
in the late 1990s to another lukewarm reception and three-year run. in 2012,
the figure was re-resurrected and, at the time of this writing, is still in busi -
ness.1 This essay, written by a captain Action devotee and collector and a
communication studies scholar, highlights the history of and transitions between
each line, compares and contrasts marketing and promotion tools, and
assesses the influence of the times on consumer demographics, to ask whether
justice will indeed be done.2 is the third time the charm for the modern-day
captain Action? Will he suffer the same fate as his earlier incarnations?

The Original Ideal Captain Action

inspired by the success of barbie (Mattel, launched in 1959) and G.i. Joe
(Hasbro, launched in 1964), as well as the initial success of the TV series bat-

The (Re)Resurrection of Captain Action (Endres) 29

Figure 1: 1966 Captain Action (photograph by Thomas G. Endres).

man starring Adam West and burt Ward, licensing entrepreneur Stan Watson
(one of the original three who created G.i. Joe) developed a new superhero
based action figure. Originally conceived as “captain Magic,” the figure was
released as captain Action by the ideal toy company in 1966. Dressed in a
blue and black leotard uniform, the captain came with boots, a utility belt,
lightning sword, ray gun, and his signature captain’s hat with an anchor crest.
His chest was emblazoned with the captain Action logo: the letters cA inside
an inverted triangle formed by red, green, and yellow arrows (see Figure 1).
Of course, the magic is not in the uniform that he was wearing, but in
the uniforms he could change into. ideal had costume agreements with Mar-
vel, Dc, and king Features, and the original launch in 1966 provided the fol-
lowing nine separately boxed costume options: batman, Superman, captain
America, Aquaman, Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, Sgt. nick Fury, Steve
canyon, and the Phantom. initial sales proved moderately successful, thanks
in part to a decent TV commercial with catchy theme song, and the support
of the Sears christmas Wishbook. in 1967, to forgo a slump, four new cos-
tumes were introduced: Spider-Man, Tonto, Green Hornet, and buck Rogers.
ideal added an arch-villain; a blue skinned enemy named Dr. evil, with an
exposed brain, who wore a shiny blue nehru jacket and sandals. Also added
was a sidekick, Action boy, who could transpose himself to become Superboy,
30 Articulating the Action Figure

Aqualad, or Robin. A few ancillary accessories were also created, such as an

amphibious vehicle called the Silver Streak and a vinyl carrying case made
up to look like a secret headquarters.
At the time, the project had a $1 million advertising budget (equivalent
to $7.2 million in 2015 dollars). The line was sold in the Sears and J. c. Pennys
catalogs, and had store placement in a variety of toy stores, hardware stores,
and five-and-dimes. Perhaps the most significant marketing tool, however,
was the simultaneous release by Dc comics of a five-issue comic book run.
The inaugural issue shows captain Action, led by Action boy’s pet panther
khem, pushing aside a surprised looking Man of Steel while declaring, “Stand
back, Superman! This is a job for captain Action and company!” Top names
in the comic industry were involved in the project, including Gil kane, Wally
Wood, and Jim Shooter. Details were provided in the comic book that were
not available on the toy packaging. captain Action was in real life an arche-
ologist named clive Arno who, while on a dig, uncovered golden coins from
the ancient gods which gave him powers. Action boy is Arno’s son, carl, and
Dr. evil—despite his alien appearance—is Arno’s scientist father-in-law fol-
lowing a lab experiment gone wrong.
Sadly, by the time the fifth and final issue of the comic run was released,
the captain Action toy line had already been canceled and the trademark
had gone dormant. What happened? Much of it boils down to audience analy-
sis. The success of poseable figures led to a proliferation of choices in the
early 1960s. in addition to G.i. Joe and captain Action, kids could choose
from the astronaut based Major Matt Mason lineup from Mattel, or Marx’s
Johnny West cowboy collection (which eventually grew to include his entire
family, historical figures like General custer, Arthurian knights, and Vikings).
eventually, G.i. Joe, with his realistic military and aerospace gear, would sur-
vive the longest in the battle of poseable figures.
in addition to the glut of options, the superhero appeal began to wane
in popular culture. it was not yet the era of megahit movies like The Avengers
or Guardians of the Galaxy. The batman television show, which was the impe-
tus for much of the captain Action line, went from airing twice weekly in
1966, to airing weekly in 1967, to being canceled in 1968. if superheroes them-
selves were declining in popularity, what chance would captain Action have?
As many critics speculated, it was his lack of identity that contributed to his
undoing. When batman takes off his cowl, he is bruce Wayne. When Super-
man removes the cape and dons the glasses, he is clark kent. even the
unmasked Lone Ranger is John Reid, while his nephew britt Reid is the Green
Hornet. not one of them is clive Arno.
essentially, the original captain Action was a solid idea, but it was ulti-
mately a victim of its time and audience, bound only for moderate success
and an eventual premature demise.
The (Re)Resurrection of Captain Action (Endres) 31

Failed Exhumation Attempts

The captain Action brand lay dormant for almost twenty years before
the first of two failed revival attempts were made. The first occurred on Jan-
uary 1, 1987. comic book artist Jim Mann released a new title called
A.c.T.i.O.n. FORce, in which captain Action lead a team of agents. His
uniform remained the same, though the cA in his chest emblem was replaced
with AF. in hindsight, the new name was probably a bad idea, as Action Force
was at that time the title of a british G.i. Joe comic book. Hadn’t clive already
lost this battle? Only one issue of A.c.T.i.O.n. FORce—plus three brief sto-
ries in the 1989 Toy Collectors Journal—was ever released.
The second exhumation attempt came in 1995. The rights to the captain
Action name was purchased by karl Art Publishing. contributors barry kraus
and Michael Luck gave us a new captain Action. in fact, he was captain
Action in name only. The uniform was completely different, the lightning
sword had been replaced with a razor boomerang, and he flew around using
jet propulsion boots. Here, too, only one issue was released; and it wasn’t
even a stand-alone comic book. it was merely an insert into another single
issue entity about whimsical astronaut monkeys titled Space Bananas.

Resurrection #1: The Playing Mantis Reboot

enter Joe Ahearn. A product consultant for Playing Mantis, a toy com-
pany known mostly for its reproduction model kits and Johnny Lightning
die cast cars, Ahearn worked with karl Art Publishing and pitched the idea
of resurrecting the favorite toy from his childhood, approximately 30 years
after its initial release. At this time in history, Warner bros. had released the
batman movies starring Michael keaton, and the rivalry between Dc and
Marvel was taking root. neither comic giant was interested in granting cos-
tume rights on their characters. That left mostly king Syndicate to fill the
void. Still, it was enough to convince Playing Mantis and, in 1998, captain
Action and Dr. evil were re-released. Gone were the days of Woolworths and
the Sears catalog. The figures could now be found at Target or Toys “R” Us.
The reproductions were close, but not exact, replicas of the originals.
While the original captain Action had a bit of a James bond countenance,
the 90s version suffered from a more vacant expression (see Figure 2). They
looked like knockoffs. Unlike the originals, where you bought separate cos-
tumes for your captain Action figure, the Playing Mantis versions were sold
as figure/costume combinations, i.e., you had to buy them together. The
absolute best thing this incarnation had going for it was the display boxes.
With artwork by the likes of carmine infantino, the boxes were encyclopedia-
32 Articulating the Action Figure

Figure 2: 1998 Captain Action (photograph by Thomas G. Endres).

sized masterpieces, with great cover images and a lid/cover that opened to
reveal more artwork and the costumed figure itself. The figures were sold as
color-coded pairs. There were two blue boxes; one for captain Action (and
his “Let Justice be Done!” mantra) and the blue-hued Dr. evil. The yellow
boxes held the Lone Ranger or Tonto. Red boxes were for Flash Gordon and
Ming the Merciless, with green boxes—not surprisingly—for the Green Hor-
net and for kato. All costumes had a new captain Action figure inside, except
for bad guy Ming, who when unmasked revealed a flesh-colored (and there-
fore somewhat rare) Dr. evil underneath.
in similar fashion to the original, initial sales were strong but dropped off
quickly. in 1999 and 2000, changes were made to attract customers. A kid Action
sidekick (no longer called Action boy due to a copyright issue) was introduced,
and figures and costumes were now sold separately as they were in the 60s.
Most of the heroes from the colored boxes did not get individual costume sets.
Green Hornet and kato were sold as costumes only, along with a color variant
for the Lone Ranger. new to the costume lineup was the Phantom and his
nemesis kabai Singh. Unfortunately, none of these strategies were enough to
keep cap’s pulse going. Overproduction was a problem, and product ended
up in clearance bins. Plans to release Speed Racer and Johnny Quest costumes
were scrapped. in July of 2000, captain Action was once again discontinued.
The (Re)Resurrection of Captain Action (Endres) 33

What happened this time around? Much of it seems to be a matter of

timing. While the batman movies of the late 80s and 90s demonstrated an
audience for superhero storylines, the explosion caused by the Spider-Man
franchise had yet to occur. While Toys “R” Us was initially on board, Marvel
and Dc were not. Thus, other than the nostalgia crowd reminiscing about
the 1960s, there really wasn’t a market for off-brand superhero action figures.
The most popular “action figure” toys in the 1990s were limited primarily to
Star Wars and professional wrestling figures. even the once victorious 1:6
scale (12 inches) G.i. Joe had long since given way to his smaller 1:18 scale
counterparts, and Hasbro had turned the franchise over to kenner. Larger
action figures were no longer in vogue.
Add to this the lack of advertising dollars, along with technology limi-
tations, and it was almost impossible to grow the consumer base. There were
no television commercials or retail catalogs to promote the product. Accord-
ing to Ahearn (personal interview) advertising was done primarily in toy
collector periodicals such as Action Figure Digest. This is a bit like preaching
to the choir, and the general populace was left unaware. Unfortunately, web
technology was not as reliable or widespread as it is today. While Playing
Mantis launched a captain Action website, it was rudimentary. consumers
could send in cards found in the boxes and join a captain Action collector
club, but there was no real value added and the club didn’t catch on.
Once again, the re-released captain Action was a solid idea, but it was
ultimately a victim of its time and audience, bound only for moderate success
and an eventual premature demise.

Resurrection #2: Round 2 Launches

Round Three
“And knowing our valiant hero’s resiliency, perhaps a dif-
ferent toy manufacturer will bring him back again for
another shot at stardom”—eury 173

Re-enter Joe Ahearn who, in 2005, purchased the rights to the captain
Action trademark. Along with marketer and self-described retropreneur ed
catto, and later entertainment lawyer Michael Haviland, the men launched
captain Action enterprises. Their goal is to turn captain Action into a trade-
mark, a brand, a property—more so than an action figure toy line. To that
end, dozens of products bearing the original triangular cA logo are available
on, e.g., t-shirts, coffee mugs, wall clocks, buttons, and phone
cases. Hoping to broaden the consumer base, cA enterprises introduced a
new character—Lady Action (a Uk spy named Lady “niki” Sinclair)—and
34 Articulating the Action Figure

cross-populated with other storylines including Savage beauty (UcLA grads

turned jungle girls) and zeroids (a reboot of ideal’s Robots in Space line).
And, as in the ’60s, there is a comic book. Released by Moonstone in
2008, the story arc was updated for contemporary readers. Unbeknownst to
most, modern- day earth has been covertly conquered by an alien force
known as the Red crawl. cole Arno, son of the original clive Arno and the
first captain Action, reluctantly dons the uniform and takes over the family
business. cA enterprises founder Joe Ahearn calls the comic “our calling
card,” though he admits that “it didn’t perform as well as we’d have liked”
(personal interview).
Armed with this cross-section of product, coupled with a growing pos-
itive reputation in the comic community, Ahearn and company make the
action figure pitch once again—this time to Round 2, LLc (basically, the for-
mer Playing Mantis in its new incarnation). next came getting Toys “R” Us
back on board; they were eventually convinced. Finally, the biggest and most
critical pitch was to Marvel. Given the huge success of movies like Iron Man,
Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, would Marvel want to capi-
talize on that success and give their permission to reproduce the costumes?
in July of 2012, the re-re-release of captain Action hit the shelves at Toys
“R” Us. First came captain Action himself, in a slightly updated but still true
to the original blue and black leotard with lightning sword and ray gun. The
hat’s emblem is shinier, and the utility belt has changed from blue to white,
but the triangular logo remains unchanged. As for cap himself, he boasts a
more muscular build and a strong featured face with an energized if not
manic expression (see Figure 3). Unlike the 90s, this is not just a knock off;
it is a step up. Most important is that, alongside him on the toy shelves, are
captain America and Spider-Man costumes! Marvel has come through. A
few months later, a re-sculpted but still blue Dr. evil is released, as well as
Thor and Loki costumes. One year later, iron Man and Wolverine costumes
hit the market. With the intersection of Round 2, Toys “R” Us, and Marvel,
coupled with the improvements made to the figures themselves, finally, justice
seems to be done.
However, as with his two predecessors, there appear to be hiccups. As
a fan and collector, i admit to some frustration and confusion about the
Round 2 products. The comic book doesn’t seem to add much. The storyline
is a bit convoluted, and each new issue comes with multiple variant covers
and graphic novel compilations. As a collector, do i need them all to maintain
the integrity of my collection? And the figures themselves can be equally
complicated. The first costume sets were released with both regular and
deluxe versions. The deluxe versions included additional accessories, like one
of the original Moonstone comics (left over from overproduced stock). One
incentive to purchase the deluxe versions is that each character has a piece
The (Re)Resurrection of Captain Action (Endres) 35

Figure 3: 2012 Captain Action (photograph by Thomas G. Endres).

or two of a build-your-own Hawkeye costume. if you buy all the deluxe cos-
tumes, you complete the set. Oddly, the regular versions sometimes include
accessories not found in the more expensive deluxe sets so, if you want to
own everything associated with a costume, you need to buy both.
This plan starts to unravel when Toys “R” Us drops Round 2 after the
Thor and Loki costumes. The iron Man and Wolverine costumes had to be
ordered online or purchased in select comic book shops. by then, there was
only one version of each costume; the remaining Hawkeye pieces were
included with the standard sets. but that didn’t stop the variation train.
Slightly modified versions of existing costumes are released, based upon select
comic book covers, e.g., the captain America costume has a different belt
and shield, and the Thor face is bearded rather than clean-shaven. An Arctic
Adventurer captain Action is released, and those sections of his costume
that are traditionally black are now white. Again, in order to be a legitimate
collector of all things captain Action, you have to purchase a lot of redundant
Adding to the complexity is that, motivated by the goal of being a brand
name rather than an action figure, cA enterprises branches out into the chil-
dren’s cartoon market. Ongoing attempts are made to create an animated series
that looks little like the action figure and more like the artwork associated
36 Articulating the Action Figure

with cartoons such as Teen Titans or Kim Possible. And then there is captain
Action cat; yet another variation, this time with our hero as a comic strip
feline. The savvy shopper can find him portrayed in one of the several captain
Action coloring books on the market. While some may argue that such diver-
sification broadens the appeal and client base of the trademark, others might
claim that these forays away from the original water down and diminish the
integrity of the brand.
With these pros and cons, it’s reasonable to ask whether or not this cap-
tain Action can survive longer than his ancestors. Once again, it’s worth look-
ing at the audience and the socio-cultural milieu that defines their experience.
One the one hand, the timing is right for a superhero product. comic culture
fans are excitedly looking years ahead the list of hero movies pending pro-
duction. Ahearn plans strategically “to backdraft a lot of these movies” (per-
sonal interview). And, right now, tying your coattails to Marvel rather than
Dc is probably a wise decision. Despite the popularity of batman and Super-
man, the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man seem to
dominate in the movie toy market. From a larger standpoint, from mega-
movies to comiccon, it’s a grand time to be a comic book geek and superhero
nerd. So it should be a great time to sell a superhero action figure. And finally,
as Ahearn (personal interview) notes, the Round 2 toys have two different
generations—the ’60s group and the ’90s group—purchasing for nostalgic
On the other hand, money still comes into play. Round 2 doesn’t have
a large promotions budget, and still relies heavily on word of mouth adver-
tising. it cannot be expected to compete with Marvel itself when it comes to
pushing Marvel toys. The Round 2 version of the captain Action website
( was an improvement over its 90s counterpart but,
now in 2016, it seems to be defunct. When active, the website provided
numerous links to reviews from toy collector web pages, but the circular
“preaching to the choir” factor still comes into play. Perhaps the biggest
change in marketing since the Playing Mantis days is in the explosion of
social media. captain Action is on board, and has its own Facebook page.
However, at the time of this writing, they have just over 3,900 likes. That
indicates a fiercely loyal, but still very small, consumer base. by contrast,
Marvel’s Facebook page has over 21 million likes. The difference in consumer
audience size is staggering.
All that aside, there are three factors that are most likely to derail captain
Action this third time around. First is the product itself. The new figure is
more proprietary than earlier versions. The body is shorter and broader, so
it is difficult to put the form-fitting costumes on any other type of 1:6 scale
figure. compounding this is the fact that the new figure has removable hands.
When you switch costumes, you switch it with the interchangeable gloved
The (Re)Resurrection of Captain Action (Endres) 37

hands of the new character. if you use another generic figure, you must cut
off its hands. This means, if you want to play with or display your new $20
Wolverine costume, you must buy another $30 captain Action figure to put
it on. Want Wolverine and iron Man to fight together? buy another captain
Action. And it might be all worth it if it were not for that certain characteristic
that shows up in reviews. in truth, some of the characters end up looking a
little goofy. captain America’s Steve Rogers’ mask, for example, has come
under criticism for looking weird and having amblyopic eyes.
The second harbinger is the gremlins that cA enterprises has encoun-
tered on occasion. This is a small company in a big market, and little hiccups
can have large ripple effects. For example, the original release, slated for the
start of 2012, was delayed by over six months. There were constant delivery
and shipping issues from china, and Toys “R” Us ran out of opening stock
in the first month. Once that settled down, the website had a security breech
which the company was not prepared to handle. And information was leaked
somehow about a proposed Rocketeer costume; one that never came into
fruition. now there are rumblings of a pending batman costume, but con-
sumer confidence may be shaken. And, though this is really nobody’s fault,
the Tonner company which produced the Lady Action figure made her 16
inches tall, so she towers over her male counterpart in a display case (a 12-
inch version is promised).
The third and final challenge facing cA enterprises goes back once again
to audience. Once the nostalgia buffs have purchased their figures and cos-
tumes, you are left with trying to find a new clientele. And this toy does not
seem to be what today’s youth are looking for. As mentioned, when i was six,
this was the perfect toy. Then again, if we wanted to play with hero figures,
our other choice were the 6-inch-high solid color molded plastic figures from
Marx. nowadays, kids have toys that look identical in feature and scale to
their heroes from the movies. Right now, with my fifty-something arthritic
hands, it can take me 20 minutes or more to get a captain Action out of his
blue tights and into another costume. While young fingers may be able to do
it more quickly, do they want to? if the choice is between having to buy mul-
tiple proprietary figures so you can spend hours changing them into a couple
of somewhat difficult to manage costumes where the belts pop off no matter
what, or having the picture perfect and ready-made replicas of captain Amer-
ican, iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk (often sold for $10–12 at every toy store,
drug store, or grocery store) available at your fingertips … well, which would
you choose?
Though it saddens me to say it, i fear that the re-re-released captain
Action is a solid idea, but it will ultimately be a victim of its time and audience,
bound only for moderate success and an eventual premature demise.
38 Articulating the Action Figure

At this point, the reader might conclude that releasing a captain Action
line in any decade is not a profitable idea. However, to the loyal captain
Action devotee (like this author), every short-lived rendition is a cherished
collectable. The 1960s figures and accessories, which pre-dated the era of
“adult collectors” and are therefore difficult to find in decent condition, are
the Holy Grail of the action figure world. A single loose figure or costume
can fetch a hundred dollars or more, and asking prices for pristine figures
still in their original package are in the thousands of dollars. The problem,
of course, is that the community of collectors, while steadfast, is small and
relatively finite.
if one considers the launch of the Moonstone comic book in 2008 as
the start of the current captain Action’s timeline, then this version has out-
lived his predecessors by more than twice their lifespan. if you start the clock
when the figure itself was released in 2012 then, at the time of this writing,
he has reached the three-mark which ultimately signals his demise. currently,
life signs are stable. Product is still available and promises of a pending bat-
man costume keep consumers coming back.
With captain Action, it’s best not to measure success in terms of
longevity. Or even in terms of dollars. The line should not be viewed as one
of those ubiquitous toys like barbie dolls or Hot Wheels (which, while dif-
ferentiated by generation, have never vanished from store shelves). it is a
captured-moment-in-time toy; new to some, nostalgic to most. Joe Ahearn,
ed catto, and the crew at captain Action enterprises have not launched a
lucrative juggernaut, but they have captured and re-captured an important
piece of childhood for many. The scale may be small, and demise is inevitable,
but justice has indeed been done to this unique character in toy history.
1. An earlier version of this essay was delivered as an oral presentation at the Rocky
Mountain conference on comics and Graphic novels, Denver, cO, June 2012.
2. Most historical information that is not from the author’s firsthand experience hails
from Michael eury’s 2002 Captain Action: The Original Super-Hero Action Figure. The coffee-
table-style book has numerous photographs of the original 1960s costumes by ideal, and pro-
vides a brief introduction to the Playing Mantis line.

Ahearn, Joe. Personal interview. 29 May 2012.
Captain Action, n.p., n.d.,
Captain Action company Facebook page, n.d.,
eury, Michael. Captain Action: The Original Super-Hero Action Figure. Raleigh: TwoMorrows
Publishing, 2002. Print.
Plastic Military Mythology
Hypercommercialism and Hasbro’s
G.i. Joe: A Real American Hero

Among all hypercommercial toy lines, the multimedia properties that
makeup G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero stands out as a seminal site of the
fusion of the entertainment and toy industries into becoming “two sides of
the same coin” (clark 2007, 212). built around a 1982 war-themed Hasbro
bros. action figure line, the hypercommercial campaign included a wildly
successful comic book series published by Marvel comics and a cartoon tel-
evision series produced by Marvel entertainment and Sunbow entertainment,
both in the service of Hasbro’s advertising ambitions. carefully skirting the
restrictions on televised animation for children’s toys, Hasbro and Marvel
engaged in a production strategy that resulted in close collaboration between
the toy company, the Marvel creators (who also created the art and story for
the toy packaging), the advertising firm Griffin bacal, and the television pro-
duction wing for each to coordinate a synergistic set of texts designed to
present story, demonstrate toy play, and locate the toys within a broader fan-
tasy narrative. in this way, the collaboration served as one of the earliest long-
standing “promotional toy texts,” creating media messages that created a
demand both for themselves and the associated products (cooper 2005, 118).
“Toy-led programming … has become part of mainstream marketing,”
and the success of G.i. Joe was instrumental in the popularization of that
trend (clark 2007, 220). After the initial 11-figure wave (with four more action
figures packaged with vehicles), G.i. Joe figures were produced every year
until 1993, resulting in more than 500 different figures and more than 250
vehicles and playsets.

40 Articulating the Action Figure

G.i. Joe also represents a significant media franchise, consisting of

motion pictures, comic books, cartoons, novels … stories upon stories. And
yet, the core of this $100+ million franchise (Gardner 2015) is an action figure
toy line that continues to be offered in contemporary toy stores 35 years after
its introduction.
Action figures ARe media texts, carriers of cultural meaning, sites of
exploration. Though they are informed by the supportive intertextuality of
cartoons and comic books (which is why these texts should be examined
alongside toys), toys themselves represent an open platform for interpretation
and exploration. This chapter seeks to analyze the initial 1982 action figure
line at the heart of the G.i. Joe franchise, considering the way it positions
character narratives and military themes away from the “wounded veteran”
Vietnam texts of the 1970s and towards the hyper-masculine military texts
of the 1980s and beyond.
Prior to Hasbro’s commercial endeavors, the moniker “G.i. Joe” existed
as a World War ii comic strip (breger 1945), novel (Streeter 1943), and adapted
film (cowan 1945) about the common man’s experience of war. “G.i. Joe”
also was published in 1951 as a 51-issue korean-war comic book by ziff-Davis,
inc. (“Red Devils of korea” 1951). However, the best-known use of the term
appeared as the 1964 Hassenfeld brothers (later Hasbro) introduction of G.i.
Joe toys, 12-inch soldiers with uniforms and weaponry modeled on contem-
porary military hardware. Later that year, Dc comics published two issues
of G.I. Joe, heavily cross-promoting the toy line, both in the narrative and in
the enclosed advertisements (kanigher and kubert november-December
1964; kanigher, kubert and novick January-February 1965). The action figure
line was commercially successful until the unpopularity of the Vietnam War,
protests by parenting advocacy groups and impending oil shortages under-
mined its sales and profitability.
in the 1980s, Hasbro decided to re-launch G.i. Joe, and commissioned
Griffin-bacal Advertising to develop a cross-promotion strategy. Marvel
comics was enlisted to design the toy artwork, develop storylines, produce
a comic book, and help produce a cartoon series distributed by Sunbow Pro-
ductions (the animation arm of Griffin bacal). To get around animation
restrictions in toy advertisements, Marvel and Sunbow produced animated
advertisements that promoted the comic book issues, accompanied by smaller
segments of the animation in toy ads. As a result, Hasbro’s toy line received
a carefully scheduled transmedia promotional campaign that leveraged the
commercials, the comics and the television cartoons to show off toys as they
hit the store shelves. in effect, the comic book, the commercials and the car-
toon series served as a sophisticated advertising campaign masquerading as
narrative culture.
The concentration of promotional toys in the 21st century is simultane-
Plastic Military Mythology (Stevens) 41

ously a powerful force affecting the attitudes and values children learn
through play and an essential tool for the survival of toy companies. Since
the rise of extreme forms of hypercommercialism of the mid–1980s (and the
toy industry consolidation that followed), promotional toys have become the
standard source of stability for toy companies. Hypercomercialism is defined
by Mcchesney (1999, 1993; also Samuel 2001) as the increasingly central influ-
ence advertising has on media content, eventually resulting in an era of
enhanced commercialization of culture (Frith & Mueller 2003; Goldman &
Papson 1996; McAllister 1996). in this environment, embedded advertising
messages and product placements are found throughout media texts, includ-
ing movies, television, video games, popular music, comic books, and book
publishing (Galician 2004; Mcchesney and Foster 2003). cross-promotion
campaigns commonly pair brands such as media characters with fast-food
restaurants in multimedia platforms (McAllister 1996). Often, these forms
indicate not just a large number of commercial influences throughout society
but also a depth of them: “branded entertainment” hybrids are designed and
created to serve a promotional function by co-opting popular culture forms.
One of the core concerns within the hypercommericalism critique is
that the excessive use of mercantilism emphasizes commercial messaging,
undermining the cultural contribution of the text (McAllister 2010). This cri-
tique positions social arguments about the issue framing within such texts
as particularly salient when the target audience members are children. From
its onset, the 20th century was the “century of the child,” as child-centered
arguments dominated discourse about home life, play and media content
(calhoun 1919, 131). After the 1961 book Television and the Lives of Our Chil-
dren created widespread concern with its report that children spent almost
as much time watching television as they did in school (Schramm, Lyle, &
Parker 1961, 156), and its suggestion that television was causing children to
grow up too quickly, a massive amount of scholarly and advocacy attention
has focused on the content and reception of children’s television program-
echoing hypercommercial political economy concerns within the
domain of reception studies, critics of product-based programs such as Action
for children’s Television and the American Academy of Pediatrics argue that
product-centric programming shows provide ready-made story lines for chil-
dren to use in their make-believe play and, therefore, offer little motivation
for them to think up their own creative ideas (Meyer 1988). Such studies tend
to focus on the role of television in forming the narrative structure of children,
noting that television programming elicits more recall-oriented and fewer
creative responses than other media (Greenfield & beagles-Roos 1988; Green-
field et al. 1990; Greenfield et al. 1987; Greenfield et al. 1986; kerns 1981;
Meline 1976). These concerns are amplified in scholarly and popular literature
42 Articulating the Action Figure

when a commercial text embodies values related to controversial subjects

(such as when cartoons and comic books engage themes of military engage-
ment or violence, like in the case of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero). For
example, Machin and Van Leeuwen (2009) called for more scholarly attention
to role of “war toys” in the moral discourse of military values for children,
and echoing the naisbitt, naisbitt and Philips (1999) concerns about the “Mil-
itary-nintendo complex,” Turse (2003) suggested war toys help create “a
media culture thoroughly capable of preparing America’s children for armed
Given the divisive political discourse around military culture, such calls
and concerns are understandable. However, such conceptions of the texts in
question suggests that play, even play informed by commercialized program-
ming, presumes simple mirroring of intertextual narratives. As brian Sutton-
Smith (1986) observes in his book Toys as Culture, “despite the apparent hege-
mony of toys in much of today’s world, a real case can also be made that usu-
ally the child players control the toys rather than the other way around. This
is what we have meant by the toys as agency. They are the agencies of the
players. They are controlled rather than controlling” (205). Smith notes that
many critiques of play presume “laminations from various historical periods,
and these enter diversely into modern views of nature of both play and toys”
(244), rather, concluding that with modern toys, “play is deceptive; it is a
vehicle for antithetical purposes. it is the primitive communication system
par excellence through which you can express and communicate all the long-
ings, furtive wishes, glorious dreams, hopeless fears, the cannot be expressed
in everyday arrangements” (252).
Toys as cultural texts themselves are receiving an increased amount of
attention, such as when baghurst et al. (2007) found that action figure
physiques appeared to influence standards of normal body shape and health
among 9- to 13-year-old males, or when barlett et al. (2005) found that play
with the advanced physiques in 1990s actions figures negatively affected the
self-esteem of college students. However, understanding toys as part of a tex-
tual franchise is also a growing area of interest, as scholars explore the semi-
otic spaces created around more mass media texts.
Gerard Genette (1997) cited the importance of looking at the “paratexts,”
the often-ignored promotional texts (like movie trailers or DVD extras) that
prepare audiences for the reception of mediated culture (3). Jonathan Gray
(2010) extends this understanding to understand the “supportive intertextu-
ality” that merchandise lends to the reception of a mass media text (38),
though ultimately finds the imposed dichotomy of primary and secondary
texts unsatisfactory, given the cultural work done in the “secondary” texts
The current work also struggles at the prospect of considering action
Plastic Military Mythology (Stevens) 43

figures and toys as “secondary texts.” However influential to shaping the play
narratives of children the Sunbow cartoon and Marvel comics comic book
series were, those properties themselves were created in order to promote a
semiotic narrative space in support of the sale of action figures and toys.
Writers and editors at Marvel comics created names, personalities and his-
torical backstories, but the character designs and configurations mostly orig-
inated with Hasbro toys.
in the supportive intertextuality, the semiotic spaces created by mass
media properties are extended into play spaces through toys and action fig-
ures, but the practice of play (as noted above) is still controlled by those that
play. Dan Fleming (1996) argued that toys generate their own textual expe-
riences in an ongoing textual phenomenology (11), that children might start
with commercial narratives but quickly seek the “story within the story, of
what is really going on while the aggression rages” (107). ellen Seiter observed
in her book Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture that
mass media narratives can actually contribute to socialization, “because they
are mass- media goods, these kind of toys actually facilitate group, co-
operative play, by encouraging children to make up stories with shared codes
and narratives” (191).
What this means is that to decode the meaning and values transferred
through a hypercommercialized text like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, one
must consider the contributions of narrative attributes from multiple dimen-
sions of the semiotic space in which the franchise exists for commercial pur-
poses, but also realize experiences involve polysomic readings and cultural
influence from each of its component parts.
G.i. Joe enjoyed sales of $51 million in 1982 and that number had grown
to nearly $185 million by 1986 (Walsh 2005, 201). Viewed together or inde-
pendently, the cultural texts designed to promote the toy commodities were
themselves extremely popular. After G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, the reg-
ulation of children’s television loosened, and the creation of television pro-
gramming based on toys became normalized. but the dense integration used
to circumvent the animation restrictions served as a model for future toy
Though the individual texts of the various G.i. Joe incarnations were
originally part of a strategy to sell toys, those texts popularity have lead to
waves of nostalgia in fandom and the collector’s markets, as well a recent
resurgence of G.i. Joe texts. While trading on the popularity of the toy line,
the various incarnations were also enslaved to its parameters in certain ways,
though each text appears significantly different in the relationships between
the military unit and society, the role of the mission in the lives of the soldiers
and even in the way heroism is communicated.
Studying how G.i. Joe created cultural meaning is important, for it exists
44 Articulating the Action Figure

as one of the prime movers in the trends widely adopted by other toy prop-
erties, to the extent which some have argued: “Play, the most important
modality of childhood learning is thus colonized by marketing objectives
making the imagination the organ of corporate desire. The consumption
ethos has become the vortex of children’s culture” (kline 1989, 311).

Locating G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero

The timing of the 1982 re-introduction of G.i. Joe was significant for
several reasons. Advertising for children’s toys and cereal has been severely
limited because children were seen as a special audience that needed protec-
tion (Roberts 1982). believing that animation was a key component to mar-
keting success, Hasbro embarked on an unusual advertising campaign that
focused on a comic book series as the lynch pin. According to Larry Hama,
the prime author of the Marvel comic books series, Hasbro “wanted an angle
on being able to advertise [G.i. Joe], which is how the Marvel connection
came in…. There were only a few seconds of animation you could have in a
toy commercial, and you had to show the toy, so people wouldn’t get totally
deluded … [Hasbro] realized that a comic book was protected under the first
amendment and there couldn’t be restrictions based on how you advertised
for a publication” (irving 2006, 15–16).
Hasbro approached Marvel comics to create a G.i. Joe comic book, and
to develop the characters and storylines around these action figures. Marvel
was also commissioned to provide fully animated commercials for the comics,
animation also used in the advertisement for the toys (clark 2007, 215–16).
One of the variables contributing to the decline in popularity of Hasbro’s
original 1964 G.i. Joe line had been the rising opposition to the Vietnam War.
America’s need to cope with the military defeat in Vietnam would prove to
be a central factor to the new version’s success.
The failure to win a war caused damage to American’s mythos, and chal-
lenged deep-seated aspects of American identity: “The winners can afford to
treat the accidents of history as irrelevancies, but for the losers explanations
that restore national self-confidence and provide scapegoats for public dis-
grace are avidly sought” (kern 1988, 38).
Popular culture played a large role in restoring the psyche of American
culture following the war, perhaps most notably through the portrayals of
“post-traumatic cinema” (Morag 2006). The films that considered Vietnam
immediately following the conclusion of the war tended toward stories of
wounded veterans, unable to cope with the results of their wartime service
re-entering society as emotional time-bombs, waiting to go off amongst an
unsuspecting populace. 1 These films would soon transitioned into a new
Plastic Military Mythology (Stevens) 45

genre, the MiA/Avenger movies, which featured veterans who, having been
betrayed by society, seek to re-fight the war on their own terms.2 Portrayals
of veterans and the role of the American military establishment shifted dra-
matically during this transition. in the former, the focus on the trauma of
the veterans negated their critique of the establishment, whereas the second
genre featured vigilante refighting of the war conflict with a reinforcement
of the scapegoating of failed government policy as the reason American lost
the Vietnam War.
Additionally, the political messaging of Ronald Reagan’s administration
and the U.S. national hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980
Olympics helped created a new brand of patriotism that helped restore con-
fidence to the nation. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero emerged during this
transition, and taken as a whole, the property exemplifies characteristics of
both genres of post–Vietnam popular culture.
At the same time that Hasbro was developing its 3.75-inch Real Amer-
ican Hero toy line in 1981, Marvel comics editor and freelance writer Larry
Hama was pitching a series called Fury Force, made up of an elite squad of
soldiers (led by nick Fury’s son) hunting down the evil forces of the terrorist
organization Hydra (Michlig 1998, 190). When Hama signed on to write the
G.I. Joe comic book, he took many of the elements from Fury Force and even
transposed several characters onto Hasbro’s initial Real American Hero line-
Most toy-related comics fail after a few years, as the toy property on
which they’re based are supplanted by other toys (Salisbury 1999), but G.I.
Joe: A Real American Hero was a smash success, running 155 issues before
cancellation in 1994 after a 12-year run.3
The 1982 Marvel comic book text stresses personal journey and over-
coming the sins of the past, combining the paradox of the hyper-masculine
meta-text with the hypo-masculinity present in many post–Vietnam war nar-
ratives of the 1970s. Almost all of the original Joes (and certainly all of the
officers) are Vietnam vets, and flashbacks to their military service in southeast
Asia figures prominently in both the comic narrative and the various origin
stories in the series.
in this manner, many of the Joes enact the classic monomyth story struc-
ture, as presented by Joseph campbell (1949). As the unit or mission teams
work together to achieve the goals of their missions, each struggles to learn
internal lessons about his or her character in order to find the resolution or
peace needed to re-enter society. Like most superhero comic characters, many
of the characters in G.I. Joe are orphans or have suffered significant family
loss (clarkson 2008, 181). in their interactions with the public, the Joes’ secret
mission is often obstructed and though the receive a mild version of the anti-
veteran sentiment witnessed in the first wave of “post-traumatic” cinema,
46 Articulating the Action Figure

but largely place their mission above their fractured relationship with the
American public. Themes of honor and action ability are the focus of the
series, consistent with classic military masculinity (Hall 2005). Within the
context of the comic book narrative, the unit serves as a surrogate family for
most Joes, and the mission serves as a sacred trust with the nation, even as
the citizens of the nation often do not appear to honor the soldiers’ service.
Though the comic series and the cartoon series feature the same char-
acters, the portrayals of the individuals and the team culture possess stark
differences. beginning with the original five-episode miniseries,4 the cartoon
series usually isolated small clusters of characters and focused on their indi-
vidual and small-team collaborative efforts. This focus allowed for individual
characters and toys to be briefly but prominently featured in environments
that demonstrated action features. As a result, very little character develop-
ment occurs beyond a core group of primary characters. Given that the “num-
ber one priority in television is not to transmit quality programming to
viewers, but to deliver consumers to advertisers” (kim 1994, 1434), this fram-
ing makes some structural sense.
On television (and particularly in cartoons), the “narratives are similarly
simplified along with the characters. Repetition and predictability are impor-
tant because younger kids only remember sequences as isolated bits” (klein
1989, 313). As a result, complex issues are simplified or simply removed.
Whereas the comic text of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero struggled with its
relationship with the general public, the cartoon series possesses no such
conflict: characters and code-names appear widely known to the public at
large, and the team is universally supported and cheered when bystanders
come into contact with their efforts.
And though the comic text struggled with the specter of the Vietnam
War, no mention or allusion is made to that conflict in the cartoon. in fact,
the Sunbow cartoon series reverses this paradox, stressing the hyper-
masculinity consistent with the worst of the American monomyth texts from
1980s action movies.
John Shelton Lawrence and Jewett (2002) defined the American mon-
omyth as a distinctly American form of mythology present in popular culture.
Drawing upon campbell’s archetype analysis of mythology in The Hero with
a Thousand Faces, the authors adapt the classic monomyth to argue that
superhero narratives (encapsulating Western and action hero movie narra-
tives as well as comic book superheroes) represent a form of mythology in
which the protagonists subvert democracy by acting outside democratic
structures without accountability.
The American monomyth follows a predictable pattern, one that the
authors argue was formed in a distinctly American context:
Plastic Military Mythology (Stevens) 47

Helpless communities are redeemed by lone savior figures who are never integrated
into their societies and never marry at the story’s end. in effect, like the gods, they
are permanent outsiders to the human community.… The tales of the American
monomyth depicting threatened communities typically express frustration with the
limitations of constitutional government and with its allied ideals of reconciliation
and compromise. These stories show that, when confronted with genuine evil, demo-
cratic institutions and the due process of law always fail. in the face of such threat,
democracy can only be saved by someone with courage and strength enough to tran-
scend the legal order so that the source of evil can be destroyed. Hence the super-
hero, who couples transcendent moral perfection with an extraordinary capability for
effective acts, spends much of his time in hiding, because he cannot be an identified
voice in the corrupt democratic process. even when present in public, the super-
heroes of the comics and movies wear a mask or uniform that hides their identity as
citizens. The American monomyth thus embodies the vigilante tradition, in which
redeemer figures who often wore the white robes of the book of Revelation rid the
community of its ostensible enemies [Jewett and Lawrence 2003, 29].

Jewett’s specific criticism of the superhero version of the American mon-

omyth is the undemocratic nature of masked vigilantism: “There is a pro-
foundly undemocratic quality to the superheroic version of the story,
however. The democratic public is a mere spectator in the struggle for justice;
constitutional government is always depicted as powerless to cope with evil;
total powers must be granted to extralegal redeemer figures; in contrast to
traditional stories of heroes with fatal flaws, these stories always end with
triumph. The public is restored to a millennial paradise through the destruc-
tion of its enemies by superheroic powers exercised by self- appointed
redeemers” (Jewett 1880, 238).
it should be noted that the specific versions of the American monomyth
that concern Jewett and Shelton the most, are the ones that create a “cultural
matrix for action” (Jewett and Lawrence 2003, 28), as they emphasize the hyper-
masculine remedy of cultural conflict without consideration for democratic
processes, which the authors argue affects foreign policy by encouraging mil-
itary solutions and cultural crusades by reducing the horrors of military con-
flict to adventures placing the conflict in terms of righteous zealousness.
Though cartoon Joes make frequent use of firearms and artillery, very
little consequences are shown. in fact, beyond the original miniseries, it is
difficult to find examples in which the deployment or use of military hardware
results in any significants injury or death of any kind. Rather, the narrative
promotes a masculinity around the use of firearms that treats guns as a deter-
rent of intimidation more than weapons that cause actual harm. Most encoun-
ters end when a team of G.i. Joes bravely run at their foes with guns blazing
to cause them to flee. And in the even a Joe does come into close proximity
to an enemy, the gun is dropped and the Joe uses his or her fists to subdue
the enemy with blunt force assault.
48 Articulating the Action Figure

not only are cobra forces almost never killed, but typically the goal
appears only to put them on the run, to defend some kind of invisible ideo-
logical boundary. in this way, the G.i. Joe force from the Sunbow cartoons
serves as a kind of mechanized sheriff, simply guarding the boundaries of
freedom from the forces of evil, who are free to roam the world so long as
they don’t threaten the structures of democracy (klein 1989, 314).

G.i. Joe: A Real American Hero

(Hasbro, 1983–1994)
Reading the action figure involves a combination of object analysis and
the semiotic narrative space constructed for the object. Jean baudrillard’s
(1968) considerations for how models fit within series is valuable, particularly
in the sense of collecting objects, “where each item in a collection is marked
by a relative difference which momentarily lends it a privileged status” (154).
each action figure is a distinct model, containing specific attributes that dis-
tinguish it from a different action figure, yet all G.i. Joe action figures in the
series share certain attributes, and their meaning is comprised against one
another. For the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line, this collective meaning
is particularly salient, as the move from 12-inch action figure towards the
3.75-inch platform was in part intended for expansive ownership: smaller,
cheaper figures designed for larger scale of play with larger quantities of them
(bainbridge 2010, 834).
The G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toy line emulates the successful ken-
ner Star Wars toy line in scale, but sought to improve upon that product
offering with more points of articulation and a larger number of accessories
per action figure. To achieve the higher level of poseable articulation, Hasbro’s
figures consisted of a molded plastic shell covering a rubber o-ring band,
held together with small screws. Through the first two years of production
(20 carded figures, 11 figures included with vehicles, and three promotional
mail-in figures) every figure boasts identical internal construction, differen-
tiated primary by different outer molded plastic pieces and different paint
application. Many of the molded plastic shell pieces were re-used throughout
the line (for example, the initial versions of Flash, Hawk, Short-fuse and
Steeler all possessed the same head molds, while the initial versions of
breaker, Grunt, Hawk, Snake-eyes and Stalker all shared the same torso
mold). in terms of object material, the initial action figures were mostly dif-
ferentiated through different combinations of molded parts and different
paint schemes. Though accessories were presented as tailored to individual
figures, most of them were also reused throughout the line in different con-
figurations and combinations. All accessories are compatible with each figure,
Plastic Military Mythology (Stevens) 49

and mixing the various accessories (not to mention vehicles) is a designed

part of the series’ appeal.
Of course, the individual object model is as much comprised of story
value as the object design, for without the narrative contributions, such
descriptions cannot explain why a consumer would prefer a Snake-eyes
action figure to a Grunt action figure. each figure exists in a paratextual semi-
otic space potentially informed by the comic book series, the advertisements
for the comic books, the advertisements for the toy itself, the cartoon series,
and the packaging for the toy (particularly important in this series, as
explained below).
On the other hand, the promotional materials for the toy line offered
strong suggestions for play. in particular, the “file card” attached to product
packaging detailed a narrative continuity for each character and vehicle.
comic book author Larry Hama created most of the original file cards
(referred to as combat command File cards). From the image and specialty
of each figure Hama would provide a codename, birthplace and two-
paragraph biography. importantly, Hama noted: “it has to be read on two
levels…. A ten-year-old kid has to be able to read it and think it’s absolutely
straight [but] there should be a joke in there for the adult. One of the factors
that helped sell G.i. Joe [figures] was that the salesmen who sold it to retailers
used the dossiers as a selling point” (irving 2006, 18).
This text often aligned with the characterization from the comic book
(Hama wrote both, after all), but squared less cleanly with divergent portray-
als in other media or merchandise. Any combination of these texts contribute
to the Marvel/Sunbow/Hasbro semiosphere, noting in many places the con-
tributions from those component texts are not wholly consistent, nor do they
contribute the same messages.
For example, the Marvel comics’ series positions Hawk as the field com-
mander of G.i. Joe (Hama and Trimpe June 1982). The first animated adver-
tisement for G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #1 dubs in a line (“Who’s leader
of the Joe Team? Hawk!”) identifying Hawk as the leader of G.i. Joe. Hawk
was packaged with the Mobile Missile System (M.M.S.) toy, which was only
featured in two 1982 toy advertisements (showing Hawk for about 1 second
each time, never named). When the first cartoon miniseries aired (Friedman
September 12, 1983), Hawk did not appear at all. instead the Joes were lead
by a new character named Duke for all five episodes. in the comic narrative,
Hawk would be shot by cobra commander in issue #16 (Hama and Vosburg
October 1983). Duke would appear in the comics in issue #22 the following
year (Hama and Vosburg April 1984). Hawk would not appear in the cartoon
narrative until the 26th episode of the first regular season in 1985 (Dille Octo-
ber 21, 1985).
The file card printed on the packaging for the M.M.S. does not specify
50 Articulating the Action Figure

that Hawk is the Joe commander, but rather “Missile commander.” Hawk is
listed as O-6 (which would be consistent with the rank of colonel), the highest
ranking of the original Joes. Additionally, the file card ends with the following
notation: “He is keenly intelligent and perceptive and quite capable of totally
selfless acts in support of his team-mates. An excellent leader!” it should be
noted that the M.M.S. did not sell particularly well and was discontinued in
1984. Priced at $7.95 (compared to carded figures, which retailed at less than
$2 each), Hawk would have been less likely to be in a toy collection than
most other characters.
The file card narratives position the G.i. Joe team as an ethnically diverse
squad with a variety of American backgrounds:

• Tank commander: Steeler (Ralph W. Pulaski, Polish-American, Pitts-

burgh, PA); “a blue collar middle-class background”; “Young, reckless,
often clashes with authority (superior officers), but he’s one tough sol-
• VAMP Driver: clutch (Lance J. Steinberg, Jewish, Asbury Park, nJ);
“He greases his hair with motor oil, rarely shaves, and chews on the
same toothpick for months. clutch still calls women ‘chicks.’”
• Laser Artillery Soldier: Grand Slam (James J. barney, Midwesterner,
Wisconsin); “He’s soft-spoken and calm—just a bit shy. intelligent.
Loves to read escapist fantasy (science fiction and comic books).”
• Ranger: Stalker (Lozono R. Wilkinson, African American, Detroit,
Mi); “Stalker was warlord of a large urban street gang prior to enlist-
ment. Fluent in Spanish, Arabic, French and Swahili. Graduated top
of class—basic combat Training. Advanced infantry Training (Top
of class).”
• Mortar Soldier: Short-Fuse (eric W. Freistadt, Austrian-American,
chicago, ill); “Short-fuze comes from military family (Father and
Grandfather both career Top Sergeants). enjoys abstract mathematics
and can plot artillery azimuths and tribulations in his head.”
• communications Officer: breaker (Alvin R. kibbey, Southerner,
Gatlinburg, Tn); “He’s efficient and self-assured and has an uncanny
ability to turn adverse situations to his favor.”
• commando: Snake-eyes (cLASSiFieD); “Snake eyes is proficient in
12 different unarmed fighting systems (karate, kung-Fu, Jujitsu) and
is highly skilled in the use of edged weapons. Has received exten-
sive training in mountaineering, underwater demolitions, jun-
gle, desert and arctic survival, and some form of holistic medicine.”;
“The man is a total mystery, but he’s real good at his job, heck, he’s
the best.”
• bazooka Soldier: zap (Rafael J. Melendez, Latino-American, new York
Plastic Military Mythology (Stevens) 51

city, nY); “zap is the fun loving type … he’s cool under fire. The stuff
he works on could blow up at anytime.”
• Laser Rifle Trooper: Flash (Anthony S. Gambello, italian-American,
Lodi, cA); “Flash is methodical and persistent. Has an innate and
unshakable faith in the order of the universe. He’s working on his
Master’s degree in electronic engineering (nights).”
• counter intelligence: Scarlett (Shana M. O’Hara, irish-American,
Atlanta, GA): “Scarlett’s father and three brothers were martial arts
instructors. She began her training at age 9 and was awarded her first
black belt at age 15.”
• Machine Gunner: Rock ‘n Roll (craig S. Mcconnel, Malibu, cA):
“Rock ’n’ Roll was a surfer in Malibu prior to enlistment. He was also
a weight lifter and played bass guitar in local rock bands.”
• infantry Trooper: Grunt (Robert W. Graves, Midwesterner, columbus,
OH): “Grunt is a highly motivated, systematic individual. He’s a stand-
up guy who doesn’t blow his cool in a fire-fight.”

As a toyline, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero skirts the explicit narrative posi-
tions of both the Marvel comics comic book series and the Sunbow animated
series. Focusing on the individual motives and personalities of the characters
represented by the action figures, the promotional materials and packaging
make no reference to Vietnam at all, nor do they reference the cartoon nar-
ratives (which wouldn’t air until two years later).
in the original advertising jingle, the mission of the Joe team is declared
to be a “fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble.” Of course, in all media
forms, the Joes are defined by their struggle against cobra. in the comic
series, the Joe team (“Special counter-terrorist Group Delta”) is an existing
force called in to confront cobra, and the team has to be briefed on who the
officers of cobra are (Hama and Trimpe, June 1982, 10). in the Sunbow car-
toon, the Joe theme song declares that the team exists as a foil for cobra: “its
purpose, to defend human freedom against cobra—a ruthless, terrorist
organization determined to rule the world.”
cobra itself appears to prefer uniforms reminiscent of nazi German
military uniforms, though the soldier all wear face masks beneath their hel-
mets. cobra personnel are presented as American terrorists, with some dis-
gruntled europeans in its leadership. in 1982, terrorism loomed as an
existential threat because of the rising news coverage of terrorist acts, such
as the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, iran. in fact, the injury at the heart of
Snake-eyes’ origin appears to come during a failed rescue attempt in the iran-
ian desert in April 1980 (Hama and Vosburg April 1983, 10). Against this
backdrop, G.i. Joe fights for democracy, but only against aggressive external
52 Articulating the Action Figure

in the Marvel comics series, cobra might initially appear to borrow

heavily from Hydra, Marvel’s terrorist organization comprised of former nazi
agents, but as the series wore on, the American roots of the organization were
stressed as a critique on the evils of neoliberalism. cobra commander’s origin
is framed as a crusade against “the wheels of big government” that were
opposing his pyramid scheme, and so he formed cobra as “an underground
organization that will bypass government restrictions, and garner power
through terrorism and extortion” (Hama and Whigham August 1985, 6). At
the organizations earliest rallies (visually reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s 1927
nuremberg Rally speech), cobra commander declares, “War is an extension
of politics and politics is an extension of economics! if the government says
that an honest man can’t work as much as he wants to and earn as much as
he wants to—it’s wrong! And we have a right to fight back if we want to!”
(ibid., 7). These goals are pursued by terrorist acts, but the other tools in the
organization’s strategy include propaganda, economic interference and cul-
ture war argumentation:
Do not let the false rumors of our military mishaps alarm you! cobra is WinninG!
When the citizenry loll back on their fat haunches and hire the poor minorities to do
their dirty work, we Win! When love of money eclipses moral conviction, we Win!
When good men see the ascension of evil and do nothing, we Win!
Our household cleaning product pyramid scheme grows exponentially! it is a
money-making juggernaut! it is based on man’s willingness to exploit his neighbors!
Our nationwide “greed is good for you” seminars are filled to capacity and our media
department has succeeded in selling ten more mindless sitcoms to the networks to
further lower the intelligence of America! Armies of cobra accountants advise mil-
lions of Americans to cheat on their taxes, denying funds to the government, and
prompting cuts in defense spending! [Hama and Springer november 1984, 5–6].

Through its struggle with cobra, Marvel comics’ G.i. Joe, a military unit
supported by government funding, becomes a guardian of the military-
industrial establishment as well as a protector of national security and the
social status quo (“democracy”). by comparison, the threat posed by cobra
in the Sunbow cartoons is more physical in nature, and G.i. Joe’s mission
seems largely to stop physical invasions and terrorist plots enacted by cobra.
The file card text for the initial three cobra action figures is largely
devoid of ideology and specific motives beyond role is to oppose G.i. Joe
• cobra Officer—“cObRA Officers are dedicated to destroying G.i. Joe
and the American way of life. beware … they are extremely dangerous
• cobra Trooper—“cObRAS swear absolute loyalty to their fanatical
leader…. cObRA commander. Their goal … to conquer the world
for their own evil purpose!”
Plastic Military Mythology (Stevens) 53

• cobra commander—“Absolute power! Total control of the world …

its people, wealth, and resources—that’s the objective of cObRA com-
mander. This fanatical leader rules with an iron fist. He demands total
loyalty and allegiance. His main battle plan, for world control, relies
on revolution and chaos. He personally led uprisings in the Middle
east, Southeast Asia and other trouble spots. Responsible for kidnap-
ping scientists, businessmen, and military leaders, then forcing them
to reveal their top level secrets.” “cObRA commander is hatred and
evil personified. corrupt. A man without scruples. Probably the most
dangerous man alive!”

The Hasbro toy text does not connect to specific ideological grounds
for the military struggle in which its toys participate, those understandings
are left to the paratexts (the comics series, the cartoon episodes, the adver-
tisements), each of which proposes a different framing of the conflict. beyond
the heavy-handed allusions of non-explicated patriotism and the vague strug-
gle to oppose cobra’s plots for world domination, the action figures and toys
are presented as open texts, seemingly devoid of the specific politics of the
companion media texts. The toy line promotional materials stress function-
ality, action features, and personal narratives largely independent of political
elements, and related literature is explored suggesting that open-ended “state
of play” in toy experience allows for multiple modes of political engagement,
accessing both the structured narrative provided by the various media texts
and the unstructured exploration of play. Of course, the manner and method
of play could likely adopt traits of any of the mediated models of militarism
without subscribing exclusively to any specific frame. The recognized open-
ness of play should signal to scholars the difficulty of definitely assessing the
effects of an umbrella text like G.i. Joe on its audience without specific inves-
tigation of particular audiences.
Playing is a method of communication of the impossible and/or the
wants of the person playing (zago 2001, 146), even as they allow for the mod-
eling of adult behavior: “action figures provided this generation with some
of their earliest avatars, encouraging them to assume the role of a Jedi knight
or an intergalactic bounty hunter, enabling them to physically manipulate
the characters to construct their own stories” (Jenkins 2006, 147).
in their semiotic analysis of 200 years of war toys, Machine and Leeuwen
(2009) describe the era of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero as a shift in war
discourse from strategy to personal narrative: “Playing with toy soldiers no
longer meant arranging armies in battle formations. it now meant arranging
the articulated bodies of action figures in heroic individual poses” (54).
On the other hand, the racial and ethnic diversity within the toy line
presented children with opportunities to play and explore relationships
54 Articulating the Action Figure

among different social identities. At a time when racial representation was

woefully thin in most toy properties (even kenner’s Star Wars line only con-
tained two African American characters and no female characters beyond
Princess Leia), G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero would continue to offer char-
acters from diverse backgrounds. between 1982 and 1994, the action figure
line featured multiple African American characters (e.g., Stalker, Doc, Road-
block, iceberg, Alpine), native Americans (e.g., Spirit, Airborne), Asian
Americans (e.g., Storm Shadow, Quick kick, Jinx), Latin Americans (e.g.,
zap, Law) and several female characters (e.g., Scarlett, cover Girl, The
baroness, Lady Jaye, Jinx, Pythona, zarana). Of course, Hasbro had long fea-
tured diverse characters in its action figure lines, beginning in 1965, when
the company offered its first African American Action Soldier in its 12-inch
G.i. Joe line (item #7900). That figure had the distinction of becoming one
of the first ever mass-marketed toys produced for African American children.
by comparison, Mattel would introduce its first African American dolls in
Of course, Hasbro’s motive for offering diversity in its toy line is likely
as much about appealing across demographic lines for its sales, but the effects
of having racial and gender diversity in action figure lines are no less impor-
tant. Toys serve as a medium for learning about the world through simulation,
one of the ways in which children make meaning and express desires (Sut-
ton-Smith 1986). Though childhood remains “a condition defined by pow-
erlessness and dependence upon the adult community’s directives and
guidance” (kline 1993, 44), toys provide a place of power and exploration:
“Socio-dramatic play with fictional characters engages far more profound
psychological processes than theories of behavioral modeling and imitation
admit. identification is itself a mental process which implies both an emo-
tional investment (cathexis) with the toy and some internalization of traits,
motivations and attitudes exhibited by the character into the child’s sense of
self ” (325).
by creating explicit heroic narratives out of marketing materials, the
Real American Hero collaboration by Hasbro, Marvel comics and Sunbow
Productions offered a generation of children contradictory models of mas-
culinity, military culture, justice and the justification of violence that form a
multifaceted and contradictory framework of American society and social

1. For example, The Deer Hunter (1975) and First Blood (1982).
2. For example, Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984), Rambo: First Blood
Part II (1985).
3. in fact, the series was so popular that when publisher Devil’s Due acquired the license
for G.i. Joe in 2001, it released a four-issue limited series from the original continuity, which
Plastic Military Mythology (Stevens) 55

grew into an ongoing series of 43 issues, and was relaunched as another 36-issue series before
the license expired in 2008. iDW acquired the license in 2010 and continued the Larry Hama
storyline and the Marvel series’ numbering in a new series that continues today.
4. Once of the reasons the G.i. Joe television series escaped scholarly scrutiny was
because the cartoons were originally produced in five-episode miniseries and offered directly
into syndication. in all, 95 episodes of 22 minutes in length and a two-hour motion picture
were produced.

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The Same Aisle
The Intersection of Resistance
and Discipline in Brony Fandom,
or, Friendship Is Mythological

Introduction: Of Ponies and Men

The My Little Pony Pretty Parlor was released in the United States in
1983, part of Hasbro’s first generation of My Little Pony toys and accessories
(“Pretty Parlor”). i was a horse-obsessed six-year-old child at the time, and
i remember unwrapping the Pretty Parlor for christmas that year. The playset
came with Peachy the pony, a cat figure named Twinkles, and grooming acces-
sories including a brush shaped like a pink heart, green and yellow hair rib-
bons, and a white flowered bonnet. As the name of the set indicated, the
purpose of the accessories was to “prettify” the ponies i owned by and through
adorning the toys, which as plastic horses would otherwise be equine
epicenes, with markers of femininity. The Pretty Parlor pointed back to the
title of the first pony created by Hasbro, a 10-inch moveable figurine called
“My Pretty Pony” (“MLP”), and also the key characteristic about the toys.
They were valuable because they were pretty, and needed work and acces-
sories to become more so. A television commercial for the figures, also from
1983, similarly enforces the connection between beauty and worth, urging
the toys’ owners (all girls in the advertisement) to “comb and brush her hair”
and “tie a ribbon to show how much [they] care” (Pony collectors). The pos-
sessive “my” of the toys’ title therefore had a seemingly clear antecedent. My
Little Ponies were “for” girls, and they, like most gender-coded toys, enforced
and perpetuated normative gender performance in the children who played
with them (as well as those who didn’t).

The Same Aisle (Bealer) 59

However, as the My Little Pony entertainment franchise evolved to

appeal to a 21st-century market, not only the creators of the rebooted figures
and television series, but also the fans themselves, took the disciplinary func-
tion of the “girls” toy and radicalized it. Due to the popularity of the My Little
Pony: Friendship Is Magic television series across gender and age demograph-
ics, the plastic ponies have become texts hyper-infused with meaning, where
sociocultural definitions of gender, fandom, and normalcy are hotly contested
by enthusiasts and critics alike. This essay aims to look at the phenomenon
of “bronies”—adult male fans of My Little Pony—in order to discover the
place of material objects, namely the My Little Pony figures and the fan art
they inspire, in the fan base, and to investigate the ways the body of the brony
is a politically progressive interruption of the way toys and toy stores police
gender difference through arbitrary segregation of play.
in her 2012 book The Gender Trap, sociologist emily kane examines
how parents, to varying degrees, comply and resist with normative gender
expectations when raising their children. in her introduction, kane explains
that contemporary sociological thinking understands gender as socially con-
structed, not biologically determined: “Gender is not a straightforward ampli-
fication of underlying biological differences between males and females;
rather, gender is constructed through social processes and enforced through
social mechanisms” (13). kane introduces her study by contextualizing the
choices parents make in relationship to the cultural landscape in which a
child is raised. in addition to parental influence, “the children themselves,
plus a host of other factors including schools, peers, television shows, teach-
ers, and video games, influence the process and do so in ways inextricably
linked to the construction—and constraints—of race, class, and sexuality”
(2). Though kane does not include toys in this catalog, their relevance
becomes clear in the interviews she conducts with parents. One of the pre-
vailing behaviors mothers and fathers discuss when either defying or con-
forming to gender normativity is buying gender-typed toys. Therefore, the
production, marketing, and consumption of toys is one of the “social mech-
anisms” by which the binary categories of gender are reproduced in children.
bronies trouble this process not primarily because of their age—after all, a
quick internet search will reveal dozens of on- and off-line communities of
adult men who collect action figures with comparatively little social stigma—
but because of their refusal to obey the often unspoken but pervasive mate-
rially and socially articulated constraint that some toys are only for girls.
Though bronies typically do not prioritize My Little Pony figures when
narrating the foundation of their fandom, their appreciation for the show
inextricably points back to the toy aisle. in interviews, the men identify a
sophisticated appreciation of the Friendship Is Magic television series as the
source and content of their brony identity. As well as enjoying the style of
60 Articulating the Action Figure

animation (Bronies), bronies cite the show’s “great storytelling” and “impec-
cable” voice acting (Brony), as well as applaud its “authentic … sincere” tone
(kassell). However, the predominance of multi-platform marketing in the
21st-century toy business makes such a division not only unprofitable but
illogical. As The Economist reported in 2013, Hasbro, along with other com-
panies like Mattel and Lego, are boosting their sales by ensuring their fran-
chises span multiple platforms, “from cartoons to video games to films to
physical toys” (W.b.). My Little Pony is no exception. not only are the toys
themselves featured as characters on the show, but some of the plastic ponies
include symbols that can be scanned by a smartphone to access online-only
features. Additionally, during the fan interviews in the documentaries A
Brony Tale and Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little
Pony, My Little Pony figures are often visible in the background of the sub-
jects’ homes. it is this intersection of toy ponies as physical objects and
bronies as consumers that is an unexplored, though crucial, element to under-
standing how this particular fan base challenges traditional definitions of
masculinity, and why that challenge is often met with such severe backlash
and social shaming.
Several cultural commentators have suggested that the brony phenom-
enon is a politically progressive challenge to facile and sexist social norms
that define masculinity as “not feminine.”1 These arguments all refer to the
way adult male fans of a television show marketed towards young girls prob-
lematize binary notions of gender, and reveal that (for example) cute animals,
friendship, and the color pink are not inevitably entertaining for or appealing
to young girls alone. The fact that men respond to media marked as feminine
both exposes and upsets the assumption that anything—television shows,
clothing, hairstyles—is “naturally” masculine or feminine. i would like to
extend the thinking on the progressive potential of bronies for gender politics
to include an investigation of how the brony body intersects with the pony
figure to provoke a radical reorganization of both.
in their introduction to Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Medi-
ated World, the editors identify a concern of “third-wave” fandom studies as
“explor[ing] the intrapersonal pleasures and motivations among fans, thus
refocusing on the relationship between fans’ selves and their fan objects” (8,
emphasis editors’). For bronies, the (male) body becomes the lens through
which this relationship is refocused. The male My Little Pony fan’s physical
self in the “girl’s” toy aisle is both the reason bronies provoke at best suspicion
and at worst rejection even in communities otherwise tolerant of non-
normative gender performance, and simultaneously offer an opportunity to
resist the notion of binary gender fandom and play through a radical per-
formance of the male body as pony figure.
The Same Aisle (Bealer) 61

A Cutie Mark of One’s Own

before analyzing brony fan culture, it is illuminating to explore the foun-
dational text of that fandom: My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The ani-
mated series is a reboot of the 1980s cartoon, and was part of Hasbro’s attempt
to reinvigorate the franchise after a decades-long dip in popularity and sales.
Friendship Is Magic debuted in October 2010 under the leadership of Lauren
Faust, a “self-avowed feminist” (bustillos) already well-respected in the world
of progressive animated storytelling for her work on the emmy-winning
Powerpuff Girls. in addition to Faust, who left after the show’s second sea-
son, there are a number of women writers and producers helming the epi-
sodes, entering its sixth season in 2016. The show uses the existing parameters
of the toy to reimagine the ponies as feminist role models, giving its audi-
ence a conceptual framework in which the “Pretty Parlor” would have no
Friendship Is Magic uses the conceit of female ponies to create a self-
contained gynocentric universe, equestria, in which there are many socially
supported ways to express and inhabit a feminine identity. The “Mane 6”—
the core group of pony characters centrally featured in the show—are meant
to represent different elements of friendship, but they also embody their girl-
hood distinctively and subversively. Twilight Sparkle is bookish and obses-
sively Type-A; Rainbow Dash is athletic and outspoken; Rarity is creative
and ambitious; Applejack is hardworking and headstrong; Fluttershy is intro-
verted and empathetic; Pinky Pie is fun-loving and fiercely loyal. All of these
characteristics are valued and valuable, and none of them is marked unfem-
inine or unacceptably out-of-bounds for a girl. Additionally, the Mane 6 are
rewarded not for prettiness, but for teamwork, problem solving, and creative
equestria, the pony realm, is a matriarchal space where male and female
ponies (as well as dragons, gryphons, and manticores) explore and express
their identity in relation to social norms that are noticeably more forgiving
and fluid than those found in contemporary Western society. Rather than
being “assigned” an identity and then abiding by the rules of that role to avoid
risking social policing or punishment, ponies in equestria are able to craft
their own identities through self-discovery and pleasurable work. The show’s
reappropriation of the “cutie mark” conceit is an example of this process-
based (rather than socially-assigned) model of identity formation. From the
first appearance of the ponies in the 1980s, the toys featured a colorful symbol
on the flank that was unique to that toy model and from which the pony’s
name was derived. For example, one of the earliest ponies from the First Gen-
eration wave of figures was named “cotton candy” and featured a starburst
of white puffs as her symbol. The season one episode “call of the cutie” ret-
62 Articulating the Action Figure

cons and reframes this original characteristic of the toy as a sophisticated

account of self-actualization.
in the episode, written by Meghan Mccarthy, we learn that ponies are
born without the mark, and only achieve this physical transformation when
they have done the emotional work to discover their purpose and pleasure
as citizens of equestria (“call”). The appearance of the mark typically appears
around the pony’s early teens, as evidenced by the “cute-ceañera” party fea-
tured in the episode (“call”). Though the metaphorical parallel to puberty
and the onset of a human girl’s menarche comes to mind, the episode takes
the discovery of an adult identity away from the realm of the biological and
into that of the emotional and intellectual. When the pony discovers what
makes her or him “special,” the mark appears (“call”), or, in the language of
the episode, is “earned” (“call”). identity is therefore not bestowed upon the
ponies by the social world, but rather results from self-actualization and pur-
poseful reflection.
The formation of the “cutie crusaders” in the episode, comprised of
three young ponies who have yet to achieve their cutie mark, not also rein-
forces the show’s active rather than passive model of identity formation
(“call”), but also conveys its communal component. Three young ponies
team up to plan adventures and intern at different jobs in equestria in order
to discover their purpose and prompt the appearance of their cutie marks.
in the season 1 episode “The cutie Mark chronicles,” written by M.A. Larson,2
the three fillies discover the origin of the Mane 6’s cutie marks. As the ponies
realize through sharing their stories, the visual and auditory explosion of
Rainbow Dash’s first sonic rainboom was the central event that prompted
each character to overcome initial humiliation and failure in order to “earn”
their marks and discover their purpose as citizens of equestria (“cutie”). in
the Friendship Is Magic universe, identity is not socially imposed, but com-
munally supported.

Coming Out of the E-Stable

The origins and online communal space of brony fandom replicate the
freedom and fluidity of identity formation embodied by the cutie mark.
bronies were born on the internet, a domain that, at its best, provides space
for exploring and shaping a self relatively unfettered by dominant social
norms. As Davis notes, “within a networked era, part (perhaps a large part)
of how one comes to know the self is by looking at online reflections” (500).
For bronies, however, the relationship between “online reflections” and non-
virtual identities as fans of My Little Pony is one fraught with heteronormative
gender expectations.
The Same Aisle (Bealer) 63

The origin story of bronies relies on the internet but is also shaped by
toy production and marketing. brent Hodge’s 2014 documentary A Brony
Tale traces the earliest mentions of bronies to the anonymous message board
4chan.3 interview subject Mike bernstein relates that in 2010 a male contrib-
utor to the site watched Friendship Is Magic in order to respond to an article
that claimed, “[toy] companies were micromanaging programs” and “new
cartoon shows are all about merchandising” (Brony). The writer posted a
positive review, which sparked a flurry of laudatory posts and fan-art images
from other male fans celebrating the show. According to bernstein, the “clan”
that formed on 4chan developed into the bronies.4 bronies continue to enjoy
and meaningfully contribute to a thriving community online, with a variety
of Pony-themed sites including Equestria Daily, a brony blogsite and news
aggregate; Ponychan, an imageboard site; and PonyvilleFM, an electronic/
Dance/Music (eDM) online radio station dedicated to music created by
bronies. Additionally, online fan sites like DeviantArt and
include myriad brony created art and fiction. However, it is the presence of
bronies in non-virtual spaces that produce notable and complicated anxiety
and hostility from those outside the fandom.
backlash against bronies is so profound and prevalent that responding
to anticipated ridicule can be understood as a structuring component of the
fandom itself. in interviews, bronies relate being called “feminine” (Abad-
Santos), a “pedophile … or big ol’ manchild” (Brony), and “socially incom-
petent and perverted” (Gennis). nPR host carl kassell felt compelled to
follow up a show on the fandom with a rebuttal interview from a self-
identified brony on his staff because, “we implied that perhaps these people
might be unemployed and they might be found in their parent’s [sic] base-
ment” (kassell). Articles reporting on the brony phenomenon take stances
ranging from defensive (“bronies: Why it’s Totally Okay for a 20-Something
Dude to Love ‘My Little Pony’”5), to puzzled (“inside the bizarre World of
‘bronies’”6), to outright fear-mongering (“Mamas Don’t Let Your babies Grow
Up to be bronies”7). Whereas a voyeuristic tone might be expected from out-
siders, even other fan communities within the big tent of nerd culture often
express either ridicule or suspicion of bronies (Abad-Santos).
This overwhelming wariness is directly related to and generated by the
physical reality of a person presenting as male expressing appreciation for a
show and toy line that predominantly features and is marketed towards girls.
bronies use the phrase “coming out of the stable” to describe the process of
publicly admitting affiliation with the group and to lightheartedly recognize
and address the attendant social stigma that attends the admission. The
expression’s allusion to coming out as a homosexual is not only humorous
but multivalently appropriate because it drolly references the false assumption
that most bronies are gay men (Gregory), and simultaneously points to the
64 Articulating the Action Figure

way male My Little Pony fans transgress and resist definitions of heteronor-
mative masculinity simply by being fans.
The My Little Pony toy, by and through fulfilling its market-driven pur-
pose of successfully appealing to consumers, exposes and challenges the
imposition and policing of gender identity in toy stores. Much as Lauren
Faust took the original My Little Pony figure—an equine representation of
normative human femininity—and radicalized it through transforming the
ponies into feminist role models, by buying Friendship Is Magic merchandise,
bronies resist the strict enforcement of binary gender categories through
A brony featured in A Brony Tale insightfully identifies the subversive
intersection of masculinity, My Little Pony fandom, and social space when
discussing the complicated problem that arises from the seemingly mundane
scenario of a brony in a toy store. Steven “Saberspark” carver is shown in
the film selecting a pony figure in an unidentified retail shop, and explains
in a later interview, “the toy has been designed to be sold to little girls. The
weird thing about it is, guys love the show, and they want to be able to buy
the merchandise” (Brony). The desire carver describes indicates brony con-
formity to a social norm under 21st-century capitalism: if you’re a fan of
something, you communicate that appreciation through consumerism. How-
ever, that very socially-sanctioned impulse is simultaneously subversive.
carver notes that because the My Little Pony fandom includes both young
girls and older men, “you have both of those people showing up in the same
aisle that’s designed for little girls. So it’s kind of the bizarre, you know, gender
roles conflict” (Brony). That physical proximity—men in the “same aisle” as
girls—is a literal enactment of the theoretical way bronies break down the
gender binary through their fandom.
The “aisle” is a rich metaphor and metonym for the pervasive and per-
sistent gender-typing of both toys and bodies in a hetero- and cisnormative
social world. An aisle makes visible and tangible how one “social mechanism”
(kane 13) produces gender identities that are socially legible as male and
female in contemporary American society. Aisles are both three-dimensional
borders that neatly divide toys marketed for boys and girls, and they are the
locations marked by those boundaries that organize and discipline the bodies
of consumers. children and their parents are subtly shepherded into a space
where they are brought face-to-face with the plastic representations of the
“appropriate” gender ideal—plastic bodies that are beautiful for girls and
plastic bodies that are strong for boys—which they are then meant to approx-
imate (but can never fully achieve) with their own human bodies.
Though aisles are not impenetrable or unbreachable boundaries, they
function as borders, and crossing them can provoke profound social anxiety.
Simply by walking into the same aisle, bronies demonstrate that a fan can
The Same Aisle (Bealer) 65

look and act male but consume goods nominally designed to help construct
a feminine identity.8 This simple physical act is a profound (and politically
progressive) transgression because it upsets a largely invisible, but pervasively
powerful paradigm: binary gender organization. This subversion is the cause
for the at best wariness and at worst social shaming that bronies inspire even
in otherwise open-minded fan communities. However, it is also the reason
that the brony body can resist the disciplinary function of toy aisles and mar-
keting at the very site where it is imposed.
because of this widespread social disapprobation, brony fandom is espe-
cially tied to and reliant upon creating safe non-virtual communal spaces
where material objects can be displayed and exchanged. bronies’ interactions
with each other in these sanctioned spaces are often mediated and strength-
ened by material representations of their fandom. bronies have formed infor-
mal meet-up groups across the country that provide regular opportunities
for fans not only to watch episodes of the show together, but also to venture
out into their communities for hikes (Gregory) or outings to the Santa Monica
Pier (Brony). The members of these groups often wear clothing that features
the Mane 6 to the meetings, or bring images of ponies they have bought or
created (Brony). The largest national gathering for bronies is bronycon, an
annual convention that began in new York city in 2011 with 100 attendees,
and attracted over 9,000 at its 2014 meeting in baltimore, Maryland (Greg-
ory). Over 200 vendors sold handmade art objects at the baltimore con, but
fan created pony merchandise carries a value that transcends the demands
of the market. by engaging in and with material culture, bronies create an
economy of fandom where the value of toy ponies is not only monetary, but
also derives from the statement and reinforcement of an inclusionary, non-
normative group identity.
A Brony Tale centers on a group of fans who converge on the 2012 brony-
con in new York city, including a brony artist and iraq War veteran named
bryan Mischke. Mischke found himself unable to draw while suffering from
depression after deployment, and was only able to rediscover his creative
impulse after becoming a fan of Friendship Is Magic. He particularly responded
to the character of Princess celestia, an authority figure he admired for her
benevolence and empathy. byran creates a drawing of the character, and
expresses his desire to give the artwork to the actress who voices celestia at
the convention: “i really want to give this image to her, this drawing that i
did of her character. i think it’s really important that i give it to her because
i really want her to know that she’s able to change lives” (Brony).
This impulse to communicate and reinforce fandom through the exhi-
bition and exchange of material objects both part of and inspired by official
Hasbro merchandise speaks to Walter benjamin’s seminal essay, “Art in the
Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” in discussing the changes to art objects
66 Articulating the Action Figure

wrought by capitalism, benjamin writes: “For the first time in world history,
mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art…. To an ever greater
degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for
reproducibility…. [T]he instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be
applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. instead
of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics”
(220). This “emancipation” benjamin identifies is the good news in the realm
of toy production. The art that bronies produce, as well as the fans’ con-
sumption and display of the toys that structure their fandom in safe and sanc-
tioned spaces, increases the value of the art object through providing a
language and economy that strengthens and perpetuates, and perhaps works
to normalize, brony community and culture and its inherent deconstruction
of the gender binary. The way this process extends to the body of the brony
himself points toward and engages with a foundational concept in media
studies: popular culture as myth.

Friendship Is Mythological
First published in 1957, Roland barthes’ Mythologies, what one critic
speculates “may well be the founding work of the field of media studies”
(brody), applies the ancient concept of myth to the study of popular culture.
in a series of essays culminating in an afterword entitled “Myth Today,”
barthes dissects the form and content of myth in modern society. Proclaiming
myth “speech,” the philosopher explains that the form and language of myth
can consist not only of writing or oral communication, but also “photography,
cinema, reporting, sport, shows, publicity” (108)—in short, popular culture.
The content of mythologized texts is notable for how it “postulates a kind of
knowledge” (116) in a way that drains that knowledge of historical specificity
and refills it with hypersignificance that appears to transcend politics (143).
in other words, mythologized texts in pop culture seem as if they are reflecting
a natural truth about human life rather than responding to and creating a
reality that is inflected by sociopolitical norms that are fluid and arbitrary.
For example, the idea that girls like cute ponies and boys like aggressive sol-
As critic Michael Robbins explains, “the more ‘natural’ a sign appears,
the more likely to be loaded with myth” (Robbins). Therefore, pony figures
seem to be an ideal representation of the way pop culture mythologizes texts
not only positively (for example, toys that purport to show you the “right”
way to be a boy or girl), but also negatively. Through feminist characterization
and storylines, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, drains the ponies (and
the figures) both of their “horseness” and their role as enforcers and perpet-
The Same Aisle (Bealer) 67

uators of normative feminine identity and refills them with progressive mod-
els of girlhood. bronies, however, have been negatively mythologized, their
fandom drained of the historical specificity of 21st-century masculinity and
refilled with a disciplinary meaning: it is unnatural for men to engage with
media marketed towards girls. because of this spectre of the natural (or “un”),
barthes argues in Mythologies that “revolutionary language [including the
non-textual and non-oral modes of language noted above] proper cannot be
mythical” (146). However, i contend that the bronies’ language of fandom
does gesture towards, if not the revolutionary, at least the politically progres-
sive, not only through exposing the fiction of a “natural” gender binary, but
also by harnessing (pun intended) the mythologizing process and applying
it to their own bodies.
both online and at conventions, some bronies, particularly those cre-
ating fan art, create and adopt a pony identity, or “O.c.” (original character).
For example, israeli musician Yoav Landau produced many popular Friend-
ship Is Magic inspired remixes and music videos (“Living”) under the name
“The Living Tombstone,” including several that feature a pony wearing head-
phones and featuring a similarly headphone-sporting tombstone cutie mark
as his pony avatar (eurobeat). Though members of many online communities
and fandoms construct alternate names, and even bodies, to interact in cyber-
space, i’m interested in the brony trend that sees these personas manifesting
in non-virtual space through self-naming and costuming.
First, it is important to distinguish this practice from cosplaying. cos-
playing, a popular and prevalent practice at many comic cons and conven-
tions, refers to variations on dressing up as a fictional character from an
established universe. Gender swapping, character mash-ups, and “zombify-
ing” all fall under the category of cosplay as, even though the presentation
is being altered, the primary referent is still a pre-existing character created
by another author or artist: for example, a brony wearing a pink wig and
sporting a balloon cutie mark would be cosplaying as Pinkie Pie. The embod-
iment of O.c.s, however, differs from cosplay in that the fans themselves cre-
ate the character through naming and costuming.
The 2012 documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans
of My Little Pony chronicles fans traveling to and attending fan conventions
bronycon (new Jersey), Galacon (Stuttgart, Germany), and b.U.c.k. (Man-
chester, Uk). The film both documents O.c.s with a strong internet presence
such as the aforementioned Living Tombstone, and the film’s producer Sr
Foxley (whose cutie mark features a telescope), and interviews bronies who
have self-named (co-producer of bronycon Starlight ironhoof, laser animator
LaserPon3, and bronycon founder Purple Tinker). The conference footage
features countless fans who experiment with original costuming ranging from
pony ears and unicorn horns to full-body suits and Pegasus wings. These
68 Articulating the Action Figure

accoutrements are not meant to reference a specific character from Friendship

Is Magic, but rather imaginatively place the fan’s body in the equestria uni-
verse on their own terms, as their own creatively actualized selves.
As Jenny L. Davis writes in “Triangulating the Self: identity Processes
in a connected era,” “rather than separate spheres, social life moves fluidly
within and between the physical and the digital—neither more ‘real’ than the
other” (507). For some bronies, the physical sphere of their fandom is not
only real but hyperreal, comprised of not only their physical bodies (as
opposed to online personas), but a “ponified” version of those physical bodies
that communicates a group identity based on abstract values, not gender per-
formance. i suggest this phenomenon is mythological in the sense barthes
theorizes, because the fans are draining their bodies of their “real-world”
gender policed personas, and refilling them with a “ponified” self that signifies
above and beyond their human identities.10 by self-naming and costuming,
the fans embody not only their fandom, but also their endorsement of the
values and politics of equestria. As imagined on the show and perpetuated
through the merchandise, that politics is one of inclusion, equality, accept-
ance, and creative self-expression. For bronies in particular, the creation of
an O.c. is a way to drain their stigmatized bodies of the negative associations
imposed upon them. if the threat posed by bronies resides in the location of
their male body in “the same aisle” as merchandise meant for girls, the trans-
formation of that body into an equestrian pony reconfigures it as a symbol
that points toward citizenship in a world that challenges and undoes preju-
dice, exclusion, and gender policing.

Conclusion: Brohoof the Bizarre

The shaming of bronies stems from limiting and reductive social con-
structions of gender. calling male fans of shows and merchandise marketed
towards girls “twisted” and “devian[t]” (Bronies), though degrading, is also
revelatory. bronies do twist and deviate from the mandate that men should
be anything and everything girls are not: detached rather than emotional,
individual rather than communal, “strong” rather than “weak.” So, does it
follow that men who identify as feminist, non-binary, or gender progressive
should all dress up as ponies?
Obviously, the imposition of such a stricture would only replicate the
gender policing that brony fandom actively undoes. However, there is an ele-
ment of brony fandom that can be applied as a larger social metric. Steven
“Saberspark” carver, the brony who concisely identified the problem of the
male body in the “same aisle” as pony merchandise, calls this juxtaposition
“the weird thing” and “the bizarre … gender roles conflict” (Brony; emphasis
The Same Aisle (Bealer) 69

mine). carver is right to identify the weirdness of this resistance to accepting

gender roles, and the next step would be to look carefully at the social dis-
comfort that results from any defiance of the gender binary, and to not just
tolerate it, but embrace it.
Often behaviors that are perceived as and deemed “bizarre” are devalued
and punished because those are the very behaviors that expose the social fic-
tions that our institutional reality constructs as “natural.” Rather than auto-
matically shun or shame people who seem weird, what if we, as fans, as
consumers, and as a community, instead examine ourselves and our assump-
tions to ascertain if the problem isn’t, in fact, in the social organization itself
and not in the people who comprise it? That is, maybe we should restructure
the blueprints, dismantle the aisles, and welcome the fan into the store.
1. PbS idea channel’s “Are bronies changing the Definition of Masculinity?” is the
most entertaining, concise, and theoretically informed approach to this argument. See also
Shoshana kessock’s “in Defense of bronies—The Quest for Gender equality in Fandom” and
Lauren Rae Orsini’s “PbS Asks: ‘Are bronies changing the Definition of Masculinity?’”
2. Larson is a male screenwriter and YA literature author who is active in the brony
community, so much so that a profile referred to him as a “brony king” (Ode).
3. 4chan’s history and reputation regarding gender politics is, to put it very mildly,
troubling. in fact, trashing feminism seems to be one of the site’s raisons d’être (see Alfonso
and Dewey). However, it is a paradox of the internet that a space where a type of masculine
performance that ontologically and epistemologically opposes the dangerous toxicity of incels
and men’s rights activists also generated here.
4. bernstein also maintains that “brony” is not, as is commonly assumed, a portman-
teau word combining “bro” and pony. Rather, he claims that the term originated from the
“/b/” message boards about the show (Brony). Though the possibility of a gender-neutral
etymology is interesting, the former connotation has undoubtedly gained prominence in
contemporary definitions of the term.
5. Zimbio.
6. The Daily Beast.
7. National Review.
8. This reading is not to suggest that the creators or show runners of Friendship Is
Magic would endorse a strict gender binary—in fact, i would contend that the content of the
show suggests precisely the opposite. However, Hasbro markets the figures alongside other
toys “for girls” like their Disney Descendents line and Littlest Pet Shop figures. indeed, in
October 2015, the banner image for the Hasbro “Toys and Games: Girls” page features the
arrival of My Little Pony Rainbow Friends (“Hasbro”).
9. in arguing that branded products undergo the process barthes describes, the PbS
idea channel episode entitled “Have #brands™ become Mythological” proposes action figures
as another pop culture text that could be analyzed using a similar methodology. This section
attempts to answer and extend that hypothesis.
10. This impulse is also present in Star Trek fandom, which finds fans wearing Starfleet
uniforms, adopting military titles, and forming their own crews (Trekkies).

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A Brony Tale. Dir. brent Hodge. Hodgee Films, 2014. Film.

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Selling Girl Power in the 1980s
She-Ra and the Gendered Dimensions
of Action Figures
keiTH cORSOn

Mattel’s Masters of the Universe toy line introduced the world to He-
Man, a hard-bodied character whose name would become synonymous with
hyper-masculinity in the 1980s. Featuring musculature of comedic propor-
tions, the first He-Man action figure was packaged in a traditional clear plastic
bubble with a red and blue backing card that gave the impression of the char-
acter bursting free from a volcanic explosion. Four years after his initial
appearance on toy store shelves, He-Man’s twin sister appeared a few aisles
over in the girls’ section. Retaining the clear bubble and backing card of the
Masters of the Universe line, the packaging for She-Ra’s Princess of Power line
replaced the dark red volcanic explosion with a pink and purple backing card
featuring a drawing of the slim, blonde She-Ra riding a white unicorn with
a pink mane. Mattel’s attempt to translate its successful Masters of the Universe
line for girls traded in action and brawn for fantasy and fashion, creating an
awkward hybrid of gendered toys. On one hand She-Ra was meant to chal-
lenge stereotypes. The “most powerful woman in the universe” according to
the backing card, She-Ra was a departure from the Barbie line that Mattel
had been selling to girls for decades. Here was a female character that showed
strength, courage, and leadership that had nothing to do with living an ideal
domestic life. Yet the Princess of Power line also utilized the outward markers
Barbie, conforming to the pink packaging conventions for girl toys and man-
ufacturing costuming and accessories that invited children to engage with
She-Ra as a fashion doll, not an action figure.
The contradictions of She-Ra extend beyond the gendered dimensions
of Mattel’s project. A hit on television, Princess of Power was a disappointment
at the toy store. Whereas Masters of the Universe used television to generate

72 Articulating the Action Figure

a buying frenzy for all things related to He-Man, his twin sister failed to turn
loyal viewers into rabid consumers of her plastic likeness. The failure of the
Princess of Power line cannot be chalked up to any single circumstance. A
host of intersecting factors led to She-Ra’s short shelf life, including shifts in
children’s programming, the gendered nature of children’s play, and the trans-
formation of the toy industry at the end of the 1980s. All of these factors
point to a disconnect between memory and reality. Those who grew up with
She-Ra on television remember her as a central part of their childhood, which
is evident in the scores of nostalgic Princess of Power pages on Pinterest, con-
tinued marketing of She-Ra Halloween costumes for adults, and the line’s
appearance on lists of iconic ’80s toys. For example, a list on BuzzFeed places
She-Ra: Princess of Power as number two among “The 10 Absolute best Girl
Toy Lines of the ’80s” (Galindo). BuzzFeed staff writer ben Galindo makes a
telling mistake in naming the line “She-Ra: Princess of Power” for his list,
which was actually the name of the television program, not the toy line. He
also places it second behind Jem and the Holograms, a short-lived toy line
from Hasbro that failed to meet sales expectations despite having a successful
animated television series in syndication. This conflation of toy lines and tel-
evision shows is a byproduct of the interwoven nature of children’s television
programming and the toy industry in the 1980s, clouding recollections and
giving false markers of success. Understanding the contours of Mattel’s busi-
ness failure with She-Ra and the Princess of Power line does not fully reconcile
the disconnect between memory and reality, but it does explain how a fleeting
challenge to the rigid gendered definitions in children’s toys came into being.
Mattel’s Masters of the Universe toy line was a major turning point in
using television to identify and appeal to child consumers. Rather than fol-
lowing the established model of ancillary tie-ins derived from media prop-
erties, Mattel was the first to create a television show based on an extant toy
line, ostensibly turning the half-hour children cartoon He-Man and the Mas-
ters of the Universe into a long form commercial for action figures aimed at
boys. in 1985, Mattel worked with the television production company Filma-
tion to bridge the gender divide by developing She-Ra: Princess of Power,
performing a reversal of He-Man to create a female lead character that could
replicate Mattel’s success in toy stores. The show became a pop culture staple
for a number of women who grew up in the 1980s, with its appeal premised
on providing a strong female role model to young girls. but the failure of the
accompanying Princess of Power toys coincided with a steep downturn in
sales for Masters of the Universe, prompting Mattel to abandon both lines in
1988. While the television show She-Ra: Princess of Power successfully chal-
lenged static notions about the relationship between female spectators and
action/fantasy narratives, the toy line reinforced rigid gender definitions.
She-Ra was the right show at the right time and the wrong toy at the
Selling Girl Power in the 1980s (Corson) 73

wrong time, with the latter being magnified by its premise alone. On televi-
sion, She-Ra: Princess of Power was only a modest challenge to the viewing
practices of both boys and girls. Mattel’s toy line, however, asked girls and
their parents to radically alter their conceptions of playtime. Department
store toy aisles provide one of the clearest examples of how gender roles are
an extension of social conditioning, with pink hued rows of dolls and domes-
tic play-sets geared toward young girls kept separate from the action-oriented
boys section. Princess of Power was one of the rare toy lines that attempted
to bridge that gap without being decidedly gender-neutral like Slinky, Simon,
or Play-Doh. She-Ra was not a doll, but an action figure, replete with weap-
onry that invited girls to engage in the same battle-oriented imaginative play
as boys. it would seem that the failure of the Princess of Power line can largely
be understood through parents’ investment in traditional gender roles and
the resistance of young girls to enact masculinity at home and in the school-
yard. Yet the success of the television show and the lasting impression of the
character among women who grew up with She-Ra suggests there is more at
work than inflexible gender definitions.

He-Man and the Changing Landscape

of Children’s Television
To make sense out of She-Ra it is instructive to start by looking at her
twin brother He-Man, who was introduced by Mattel in 1982. The develop-
ment and success of the Masters of the Universe, as well as the eventual expan-
sion of the franchise to appeal to girls, speaks to peculiar transitions in the
broadcasting landscape and a struggling toy industry in the 1980s. Mattel’s
initial concept for the Masters of the Universe line was born from a missed
business opportunity a few years earlier when they declined the invitation
from 20th century Fox and George Lucas to produce the action figures for
Star Wars (1977). (Arrington) instead, the toys were made by the fledgling
kenner Products, which not only turned the tide for that company but also
changed the very nature of the action figure from the 12-inch doll à la G.i.
Joe to the three and .75-inch plastic figure we still see on shelves today. but
Star Wars also changed the structure of the toy industry, shifting the power
and profits from manufacturers to the media companies selling licenses to
their properties. The runaway success of the Star Wars toys increased royalty
rates for films and television series. Over the next few years popular media
properties like The Dukes of Hazzard and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
would become infamous for the percentage they demanded in licensing fees
(nelson-Horchle). in the most famous example of a toy manufacturer suf-
fering due to the new realities of property licensing, the exorbitant fee paid
74 Articulating the Action Figure

upfront by Atari for the right to produce a video game for E.T. (along with
overproduction and poor game design) played a major role in the company’s
demise and the crash of the video game industry in 1983 (brown 38–39).
combined, Star Wars and E.T. showed the possibilities and perils of
media licensing for the toy industry as kenner grew exponentially while Atari
collapsed. Media-related toy production began to reflect the boom or bust
model of Hollywood filmmaking in the era of the blockbuster, made even
more complicated in that simply aligning with a box office smash was not
enough to ensure a successful toy line. Rather than wait for the next block-
buster and see the lion’s share of the profit go to the film’s producers, Mattel
set out to bypass the process completely by creating their own character first.
Hiring an outside production company to make and distribute a show based
off of their own property allowed Mattel to not only keep all of the profits,
but it also provided an opportunity to craft the show’s content, ensuring syn-
ergy between the toy line’s promotion and the narrative content of the show.
Mattel originally launched their Masters of the Universe line at the beginning
of 1982 without the benefit of the television series to pre-sell the line to child
consumers. instead, each figure was accompanied by a mini comic book that
helped situate the toys within a specific storyline. While the comics helped
children identify the good guys from the bad, their slapdash quality failed to
create a compelling universe, which was a task that would ostensibly fall to
the animators developing the television series the following year.
Aside from naming and visualizing the individual characters, the most
important story decision from Mattel was to place the line firmly within the
sword and sorcery fantasy subgenre. credited to Robert e. Howard, who cre-
ated Conan the Barbarian during the Great Depression, there was a boom in
sword and sorcery in the early 1980s, evidenced by films like Dragonslayer
(1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The Beastmaster (1982) as well as in
the iconography of hard rock acts like Dio, not to mention the role playing
board game Dungeons and Dragons. Looking to do more than simply situate
the character within an established genre, Mattel was counting on animators
to turn their action figures into a compelling media property that would cap-
ture the imagination of children and help wrest money out of the pockets of
their parents. To test their idea of a toy-to-TV property, Mattel was able to
find a production studio in Filmation and independent stations across the
nation eager for programming. There was a lag of almost a year between the
introduction of the toys and the arrival of the show due to the nature of
made-for-syndication series, with Filmation given the task of churning out
80 episodes for the first year. When these episodes were finally competed,
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe became one of the earliest and most
successful made-for-syndication cartoons to thrive on independent stations.
independent stations (meaning, non-network broadcast stations) made
Selling Girl Power in the 1980s (Corson) 75

an investment in first-run syndication in the early 1980s to meet the needs

of a growing afterschool children’s audience. in the 1970s this programming
had largely come in the form of old cartoons that were either repurposed
film programming from the Hollwyood studio era (Paramount’s Popeye,
MGM’s Tom & Jerry, Warner bros.’s Looney Tunes, et al.) or syndicated reruns
of television shows (The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo). The major networks
filled afternoon time slots by airing soap operas, talk shows, game shows,
and sporadic afterschool specials geared toward school age children (Abc
started their after school specials in 1972, with cbS following in 1980) (Perl-
mutter 165). independent stations, on the other hand, provided counter-
programming that groomed a daily audience made up of the growing number
of latchkey kids. When He-Man and the Masters of the Universe premiered
in September of 1983 it became an instant hit, transforming both children’s
television and the toy industry. The rise in syndication success for children’s
programming began to impact the major networks, which struggled to sell
advertisers on Saturday mornings now that their core audience could be
delivered throughout the week and for lower ad rates. The ability of inde-
pendent stations to deliver a young audience (and, by extension, youth con-
sumers) changed the dynamics of children’s programming, which was further
complicated by the ascendency of cable throughout the 1980s. Rather than a
weekly morning slot dedicated to children provided by the major networks,
advertisers could now sell their wares to kids after school, on weekday morn-
ings, and eventually throughout the day via specialty cable networks like
Mattel’s goal was never to transform the landscape of American televi-
sion. While He-Man and the Masters of the Universe challenged network
supremacy and reshaped advertising opportunities, Mattel simply looked at
the show as a way to move products in toy stores. Rather than looking at rat-
ings or any other metrics used to designate success for a TV program, Mattel
defined success by the show’s ability to help sell toys. by that standard the
series outpaced the company’s loftiest expectations. nineteen eight-four was
the tipping point in the popularity of Masters of the Universe with the TV
show fueling sales that sparked shortages in toy store around christmas time
based on the outsized demand (“He-Man, a Princely Hero”). by the end of
1984, little over a year after the debut of the cartoon series, Mattel had sold
over 70 million Masters of the Universe figures worldwide, with the majority
of those being sold in the U.S. in 1984 alone the Masters of the Universe line
sold $350 million in toys, with various licensed products including tooth-
brushes, bed sheets, t-shirts, and alarm clocks pushing the total to more than
$1 billion. Only Mattel’s Barbie line came close to the success of Masters of
the Universe, earning $260 million in the same year (“He-Man, a Princely
76 Articulating the Action Figure

He-Man helped save a struggling Mattel, righting the ship after a disas-
trous foray into handheld video games in the early 1980s nearly bankrupted
the company (Gellen). in the immediate aftermath of Masters of the Universe
Mattel’s competitors rushed to replicate the strategy of proactively creating
synergy between toy lines and media properties. Over a dozen toy-to-TV
shows were introduced by 1985, catering to boys and girls separately. Mattel
chief rival Hasbro produced the cartoons G.I. Joe and Transformers for boys
while also making My Little Pony for girls. The toy-to-media phenomenon
also proved successful on the big screen, with the cheaply made The Care
Bears Movie (1985) earning $22 million at the domestic box office on a budget
of just $2 million, earning money for American Greetings from film revenue
in addition to sales of their stuffed bears ( The industry
was transforming and profits were soaring, but for all of their success in using
television and film to market their products, the toy manufacturers also found
themselves at the center of an ongoing debate about the ethics of targeting
children as consumers.

She-Ra and the Pro-Social Ruse

The creation of She-Ra: Princess of Power was consciously designed to
meet the commercial interests of Mattel’s executives while placating parent
and consumer groups as well. Mattel hoped that the show would obscure
their corporate interests by rooting the narratives in basic moral lessons, pro-
viding public service add-ons, and creating a progressive female character.
Gender equality was a central component of the show, with She-Ra possessing
the same physical strength and courage as her brother. Moreover, when com-
pared to her male predecessor, She-Ra’s voice and demeanor is far more self-
assured and forceful than He-Man, whose lavender clad Prince Adam alter-
ego has become something of a running joke over the years. The show’s pro-
social agenda went beyond gender equality, touching on a wide range of
topics ranging from basic messages about telling the truth and being polite
to more serious issues including drug use and child molestation. Mattel was
adamant with the writers at Filmation that that the show keep violence to a
minimum, have no killing whatsoever, and moral messages that would be
both infused into each show’s narrative and also tacked on in standalone
vignettes at the end of every show, functioning along the lines of public serv-
ice announcements (much in the same fashion as G.I. Joe’s “knowing is Half
the battle” campaign). All of these efforts, however, were rooted in brand
management and halfhearted attempts to appease parent groups.
Debates over commercialism, impressionable audiences, and the respon-
sibility of broadcasters to serve the greater good date back to the advent of
Selling Girl Power in the 1980s (Corson) 77

radio, so it was no surprise that this new trend in toy-based programming

came under fire from parents and consumer groups. critics of He-Man and
the Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Transformers and the like looked at these
shows as being little more than program length advertising targeting the most
impressionable demographic. The boston-based group Action for children’s
Television (AcT) filed a formal complaint with the Fcc, charging this crop
of shows with violating the commission’s guidelines for advertising to children
(nelson-Horchle). At the same time, toy companies were becoming even
more emboldened in their use of television, with Mattel launching its own
programming department in 1983 with the sole purpose of working with pro-
duction companies to help turn more of their toys into media properties
(nelson-Horchle). With the Reagan administration’s broader economic phi-
losophy as a guideline, the Fcc helped toy companies gain a stronghold in
television by moving away from regulations passed in the 1970s that limited
broadcast advertising to children and instead let the marketplace dictate what
was aired (Hendershot 109).
in the early 1970s AcT had petitioned the Fcc to require broadcasters
to air an hour of educational programming every day in order to maintain a
broadcast license (Arnett 262). While the Fcc failed to adopt the measure
as law, it did make recommendations to broadcasters that resulted in the
development of prominent programs with an educational focus. Abc’s
Schoolhouse Rock! set lessons on math, grammar, and civics to music while
after school specials dealt with topical issues. The most prominent example
of educational network programming for children was Fat Albert and the
Cosby Kids, which aired on cbS from 1972 to 1984. cosby’s development of
the show coincided with his pursuit of a doctorate in education from the
University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the show serving as the primary
topic of his successfully defended 1977 dissertation. The title of cosby’s dis-
sertation, “An integration of the Visual Media Via Fat Albert and the cosby
kids (1972) into the elementary School curriculum as a Teaching Aid and
Vehicle to Achieve increased Learning,” speaks to the hubris of the project,
as he argued for his show to become a staple of classroom instruction (Robin-
son). even though cosby was the face of the program, the show was a part-
nership with Lou Scheimer and the animators at Filmation. The studio
brought cosby’s characters to life and fleshed out his stories, taking to heart
the project adding racial diversity to network programming and foreground-
ing educational initiatives. A decade later, Filmation was at the forefront of
a new television trend, borrowing the format elements from Fat Albert to
help Mattel in its attempt to disguise toy advertising as educational program-
Mattel and Filmation’s commitment to pro-social values and educational
television was largely cosmetic. Hoping to deflect the criticism they had
78 Articulating the Action Figure

received for He-Man and the Master of the Universe, the female spin-off
feigned having a coherent social message at the heart of each entertainment-
focused episode, often stretching awkwardly to draw connections between
the narrative and its supposed message. At the end of every episode of She-
Ra: Princess of Power the character Loo-kee appears to give a brief summary
of the day’s story and situate the message, providing a clumsy bridge between
the narrative and the supposed embedded moral that children may have
missed. The episode “The Perils of Peekablue” is a perfect example. Following
a story involving a character falling victim to an evil sorceress’ mind-control
spell, Loo-kee talks directly to the audience, saying, “in today’s adventure
Shadow Weaver controlled Peekablue’s mind and made her do wrong. Drugs
can do this to you. They can mix you up so much that you can’t tell the dif-
ference between right and wrong. So please, if someone offers you drugs, say
no. See ya next time!” (“The Perils of Peekablue”). This addendum at the end
of the episode is clearly not meant to function as a standalone public service
announcement but instead strains to re-contextualize the entire show as thirty
minutes of anti-drug programming. The transparency of Mattel and Filma-
tion’s attempt to pass off the show as educational programming only served
to compound the initial unease regarding the commercial underpinnings of
the series, painting the producers as calculating and manipulative.
clearly, Mattel’s goals in creating the She-Ra character and developing
the television series were far from altruistic. The intent had always been to
sell toys and the Princess of Power line was a heavy investment that they hoped
would match the success they had with boys a few years earlier. not satisfied
with only reaching half of the children in America, Mattel wanted to expand
the Masters of the Universe line to draw in girls. Mattel had been successful
with the launch of Rainbow Brite in 1984, but this was a property that they
had licensed from Hallmark. Rainbow Brite reached girl consumers and ben-
efitted from its presence on television, but Mattel had to share the profits.
even though they had a stake in a successful new product and had been able
to maintain the appeal of the company’s Barbie line, Mattel saw that the suc-
cess of the Masters of the Universe outpaced anything the company had seen
before, leading them to conceive the line as their new flagship property
despite the fact that it was only a few years old. What Mattel also found was
that while the He-Man cartoon was geared toward boys, 30 percent of the
television audience for the show was made up of girls (“He-Man, a Princely
Hero”). With little more than an idea that they would like a female character
to not only reach these girls on television but influence their buying habits,
Mattel had the writers and producers at Filmation create the character and
story from scratch with the only real guideline being that it would be geared
toward young girls. What they came up with was the character Princess
Adora, He-Man’s long lost twin sister who lives on a different planet that also
Selling Girl Power in the 1980s (Corson) 79

needs protection from the forces of evil. The tropes and structures of He-
Man are followed to a tee, and when the time comes to fight, Adora holds
aloft her mighty sword and with a few magic words transforms herself into
She-Ra: Defender of the crystal castle.
While the She-Ra concept worked remarkably well on television, the
ways Mattel tried to translate the He-Man model for girls proved more diffi-
cult in terms of selling plastic figures. She-Ra: Princess of Power was paired
with episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to form an hour-
long programming block every afternoon. The shows blended together, so
rather than creating a segregated block with boys watching one half and girls
watching the other half there was a crossover between the two. She-Ra
attracted more young girls than He-Man had in the past, which was in line
with Mattel’s intention for the project. What came as a surprise to Mattel was
that there was no noticeable drop off in boy spectators when the program-
ming block transitioned to episodes of She-Ra (Johnson 58). in terms of cre-
ating a hit television show, Mattel and Filmation were just as successful with
She-Ra than they had been with He-Man. Unfortunately for Mattel, making
a hit television show was not their primarily goal. expanding their viewership
among girls and retaining their loyal boy audience never translated into toy
sales, as their much-hyped Princess of Power line never gained traction.

Redefining Playtime
The most obvious explanation for the failure to turn a hit television
show into a successful toy line comes in the revolutionary gender aspects of
Mattel’s project. Selling action figures instead of fashion dolls, She-Ra also
challenged the generic confines of girls programming. Rather than the col-
orful fantasy worlds of My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite,
and The Care Bears, which foreground broad themes of happiness and friend-
ship, She-Ra is firmly situated within the tradition of sword and sorcery fan-
tasy, placing the character in physical battles of life or death through a
narrative framework largely associated with male audiences. She-Ra was not
wholly unique as there were other contemporary attempts to subvert the mas-
culine bias in sword and sorcery fantasy (with the Red Sonja comics and the
novels of Marion zimmer bradley as examples), but selling this to such young
girls was certainly unusual. Underpinned by corporate interests and the need
to appeal to a mass audience, the genre translation presented a major chal-
lenge. Mattel made went out of their way to make the line work, bringing in
their top designers and marketing the toys heavily, but what they essentially
called for was a dramatic shift in the ways they wanted girls to approach play-
80 Articulating the Action Figure

in terms of the types of toys girls choose and the imaginative process
that creates (or replicates) scenario, Mattel wanted girls to move from a
domestic/consumerist model into action/fantasy mode overnight. As soci-
ologists point out, much of the ways children play is guided by parents along
gender specific lines, although some studies also suggest that gendered toy
choice is more complicated than simple socialization, perhaps predetermined
along gender lines regardless of social influence (Sweet; bulger). Toy choice
is not only about a child’s preferences, but is largely dictated by the invest-
ments (ideological and financial) of the parents making the purchases. What
is striking about the Princess of Power line is that it was released at a time
when the toy industry was reinvesting in segmentation along gendered lines.
As elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist at the University of california—Davis, points
out, the toy industry in the 1970s had largely moved away from gendered
specific marketing, with 70 percent of the toys advertised in 1975’s Sears cat-
alogue having no outward markers of gender specificity (Sweet). The nor-
mative gender division of postwar American toy manufacturing that had
been largely overturned in the 1970s began to return in the 1980s, reflecting
broader conservative shifts in the Reagan era.
Gearing the line toward a single gender, Mattel was not overtly chal-
lenging the boy/girl binary with Princess of Power. However, even though
they were marketing toys to girls and assuring parents that the line was gender
specific, Mattel was asking girls to engage in the same type of playing as boys.
While there have been debates about the social and psychological dimensions
of the types of toys girls gravitate toward, Mattel’s choice to produce 5-inch
action figures for the Princess of Power line instead of the 10- or 12-inch dolls
that had previously been marketed to girls had consequence. The size, shape,
and associated narrative of the figures made the line an oddity in the girls’
toy aisle. This is not to suggest that Mattel made exactly the same toys for
the Princess of Power line as they had for Masters of the Universe. The design-
ers pulled from Barbie in giving the She-Ra figure long, brushable blonde
hair, as well as ample options in costume. but most of these accessories had
the dual function of performing some sort of action task, so the fashion aspect
was displaced. One accessory set titled “Hold Onto Your Hat” provides the
She-Ra figure with flattering gold chapeau that can also be used as a shield.
This is just one example in the line that shows how much Mattel was grasping
at straws when it came to developing the Princess of Power toys. While the
show struck a balance between feminism and femininity, the toy line strug-
gled to navigate the regimented gender dynamics of the department store.
The launch of the line in 1985 generated $58.2 million is sales, a much
stronger opening than Masters of the Universe had enjoyed in its first year
(Sweet and Wecker 129). However, considering that Masters of the Universe
debuted without the benefit of an accompanying television show, the sales
Selling Girl Power in the 1980s (Corson) 81

for Princess of Power was more of a Pyrrhic victory. in 1986, the first full year
for the Princess of Power line, Mattel only made $40 million on their new
venture (Gellen). in 1987 they would completely discontinue the line. com-
paring the $98.2 million in Princess of Power retail sales over the span of two
years to the $736 million that the Master of the Universe sold in 1983 alone,
the scale of the failure comes into sharp relief (Arrington). Mattel’s effort in
getting their products in stores was wasted, as their over-expansion of the
Princess of Power and Masters of the Universe lines caused retailers to rebel
after seeing the continual glut of unsold figures taking up valuable shelf space.
Mattel also burned bridges within the company, taking key designers from
the Barbie division to work on the Princess of Power line, a move unprece-
dented in the company, which for decades had treated Barbie as sacrosanct
as she was not only the biggest money-maker, but dependable (Gellen). When
Princess of Power failed it was seen within the company as a case of misplaced
priorities, betraying their most reliable product line for a passing fad. This
was something Mattel would face again in the early 2000s with their attempts
to replicate the success of insurgent Bratz dolls by changing the actual design
of Barbie figures to match their competitors.
Mattel’s failure to translate the television success of She-Ra into toy sales
was certainly impacted by gendered nature of the project, but there were
larger forces at work in the toy industry at the time that made a successful
action figure line unlikely regardless of which gender was being targeted.
From a business stand poin, Masters of the Universe was the right idea at the
right time when it launched in 1982, taking advantage of the untapped and
unregulated potential of syndicated children’s programming to give Mattel
the perfect platform for marketing a new product line. it also coincided with
a major downturn in video games that left plastic figures as the uncontested
rulers of the toy store for the span of a few years in the mid–1980s. Princess
of Power, on the other hand, was the victim of bad timing.
After Mattel regained its place atop the toy world in 1984, its competitors
became even more successful replicating its model, with Hasbro overtaking
Mattel in 1985 largely on the shoulders of their own toy-to-TV properties
G.I. Joe, Transformers, and My Little Pony (Gellen). now facing stiff compe-
tition and a flooded market of toy lines that also had their own long form
advertisements via syndicated television series, Masters of the Universe lost
its novelty and struggled to retain its hold on the market. in 1986 sales of
Masters of the Universe toys began to slow, but they still sold $400 million
worth that year (Gellen). in 1987 the bottom dropped out, with the entire
line only earning $7 million in sales, leading Mattel to abandon the Masters
of the Universe line altogether (Sweet and Wecker 224). That is less than 1
percent of what Mattel had sold for the line just a few years earlier. coinciding
with the visible summer box office disaster Masters of the Universe (1987), a
82 Articulating the Action Figure

live action feature film made by the cannon Group and starring Dolph Lund-
gren as He-Man, the shocking face plant of the franchise in 1987 seemed to
come out of nowhere. Launched at the tail end of He-Man’s success, the She-
Ra spinoff never had much of a chance. Mattel had bet big, doubling down
on their most successful product by creating an interconnected second line
that would reach the other half of the child population. in the end they were
left with nothing.
if it was any consolation, Mattel was not alone in the free fall, as nearly
all of the high profile toy-to-TV properties from 1984 and 1985 were margin-
alized by 1987. Part of this has to do with the faddish nature of children’s
toys, where staples like Barbie and Lego are few and far between. but the sud-
den demise of so many product lines is striking, showing that children were
moving away from plastic figures and plush dolls at rates that must have been
alarming to companies like Mattel and Hasbro. The introduction of the nin-
tendo entertainment System in the fall of 1985 reallocated the spending budg-
ets of parents and transformed the playtime practices of children. Plastic
figures did not disappear, but they were no longer the staple of an entire
industry. even more telling in light of the failed gendered experiment of
Princess of Power line, nintendo bridged gaps and reached boys and girls
with the same ease as many toys from the 1970s. Although gaming is too
often considered solely through the experiences of male gamers (and the dis-
turbingly misogynistic undercurrents of gaming culture), part of the success
of the neS was its ability to attract girls as well. in essence, nintendo became
the ultimate gender-neutral toy, with games like Super Mario Bros. and The
Legend of Zelda operating outside of the strict boy/girl binary on which the
toy industry is so often premised. Mattel’s investment in plastic figures and
imaginative play was out of step with the increasingly mediated lives of chil-
dren, while the gender project of She-Ra seemed contrived and unoriginal
compared to the broad appeal of neS games.

Five years after the introduction of She- Ra the landscape that had
allowed for the development of the character was virtually unrecognizable.
by 1990 video game sales topped $5 billion annually, growing exponentially
as the rest of the toy market sputtered. A number of toy companies fell into
bankruptcy or sold out to competitors. Mattel refocused their energies on
classic product lines like Barbie and once again signed licensing deals for
media properties, making products like the See ’n’ Say with Disney characters.
A few years later, Mattel would repurpose unsold Masters of the Universe toys
by repainting their bodies and replacing the head molds for action figure tie-
Selling Girl Power in the 1980s (Corson) 83

ins to the science fiction film Demotion Man (1993). Also in 1990, congress
passed the children’s Television Act, requiring broadcasters to provide edu-
cational programming and limiting the time allotted for advertisements dur-
ing non-educational shows geared toward kids. The further expansion of
cable in the 1990s and the impact of the internet at the end of the decade was
a world removed from the power once wielded by broadcasters. Simply devel-
oping a show like She-Ra: Princess of Power would have been difficult in the
years to follow, but the fracturing of media would have made it impossible
to so easily find the large and captive audience Mattel had reached between
1985 and 1987.
With its brief lifespan and limited success, situating the legacy of She-
Ra is problematic, particularly in terms of female identity. This is not simply
a case of history competing with memory. it prompts questions of whether
success should be defined by a media property’s profitability, artistic legacy,
or, in the case of Princess of Power, nostalgic memories. While He-Man pro-
vides an icon of 1980s masculinity, with hard bodied heroes in film and tel-
evision reflecting the national mood, She-Ra’s mix of physical assertiveness
and outward femininity fails to fit in with broader trends of 1980s represen-
tation. Perhaps She-Ra can be read as an unconscious foregrounding on the
part of Mattel and Filmation of third-wave feminism, which looked to create
more fluid definitions of gender. Or maybe She-Ra should be seen as nothing
more than a corporate profit scheme devoid of any sincere social agenda. Fil-
tered through memory and nostalgia, the emotional connection people had
with She-Ra when they were young, coupled with their own conceptions of
female identity, creates the false impression of a successful franchise, leading
to a misremembered sense of omnipresent plastic She-Ra toys. At the same
time, defining success simply by Mattel’s financial goals is shortsighted. The
lasting memory of Princess of Power speaks to a complicated divide that toy-
to-TV properties created, functioning on dual levels where the character’s
impact on the lives of children could not necessarily be measured by whether
or not they were successful in badgering their parents into buying plastic fig-
ures. Filmation’s television show was a hit, Mattel’s toy line was a flop, but
for a generation of women who grew up searching for images of strong and
independent female characters, She-Ra was much more than a pawn used to
sell plastic figures.
Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen, ed. Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents, and the Media. Thousand
Oaks: Sage, 2007. Print.
Arrington, carl. “it’s Pumping Plastic Time as He-Man and His Multi-Muscled Minions Rule
Toyland’s battlefield.” People. 2 July 1984. Print.
brown, Harry J. Videogames and Education. new York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
bulger, Peggy. “The Princess of Power: Socializing Our Daughters Through TV, Toys, and
Tradition.” Lion and the Unicorn 12.2 (1988): 178–192. Print.
84 Articulating the Action Figure

“The care bears Movie (1985)—box Office Mojo.” The Care Bears Movie (1985)—Box Office
Mojo. n.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
Galindo, ben. “The Absolute best Girl Toy Lines of the ’80s.” BuzzFeed. n.p. 27 Mar. 2013.
Web. 27 July 2016.
Gellen, Denise. “embattled Mattel Searches for Profits and Superheroes.” Los Angeles Times.
24 May 1987. Print.
“He-Man, a Princely Hero, conquers the Toy Market.” New York Times. 18 Dec. 1984. b3.
Hendershot, Heather. Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation Before the V-Chip.
Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. Print.
Johnson, Derek. Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Indus-
tries. new York: new York University Press, 2013. Print.
nelson-Horchle, Joani. “can Your Product be a TV Star?” Industry Week. 31 Oct. 1983. Print.
“The Perils of Peekablue.” She-Ra: The Princess of Power. Syndicated. 22 nov. 1986. Televi-
Perlmutter, David. America Toons In: A History of Television Animation. Jefferson, nc: McFar-
land, 2014. Print.
Robinson, Louie. “Dr. bill cosby” Ebony. June 1977: 130–136. Print.
Sweet, elizabeth. “Guys and Dolls no More?” New York Times. 23 Dec. 2012. SR12. Print.
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Billion-Dollar Idea. cincinnati: emmis, 2005. Print.
“Seeing into the life of things”
Toy Story, The Lego Movie
and the Wordsworthian Imagination

Wordsworth may seem an odd fit with Toy Story and The Lego Movie,
but the founding figure of Romanticism, the first poet to find a powerful new
way forward after Milton, did so by taking the imagination of childhood seri-
ously, seeing it as fundamental as the ancient Greeks saw the muses. Like
these contemporary movies, Wordsworth had faith that childhood imagina-
tion, struggling to find purchase as the child ages into the adult world, was
the best equipment we had for solving the problems of being human. Toy
Story and The Lego Movie are Wordsworth’s true descendants, and if that
seems strange consider the gap between Wordsworth and Milton, his major
in “intimations of immortality” William Wordsworth famously reflects
on childhood:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
but trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy,
but he
beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;

86 Articulating the Action Figure

The youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
is on his way attended;
At length the man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day [59–77].

As infants we bring a bit of heaven with us to earth, according to Wordsworth.

As young children, we see the light of earth and know it comes from heaven.
That vision more weakly follows us as we age, and it dies away when we
become adults. So the perfect happiness of the baby in the YouTube video
who laughs uproariously when his mother sneezes gives way to the kid playing
with action figures, the teenager who wants to change the world and himself
through the fame that comes with being a rock star, and finally crash-lands
as he is forced to take a job as an accountant. As one comedian put it on
Twitter, the music that we used to base our dreams on become the songs you
need when you want to do an additional mile on the treadmill to keep your
waistline from getting too big. The world works, Wordsworth says, to take
your natural infant powers from you. even people that mean well can do last-
ing damage.
And, even with something of a mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely nurse doth all she can
To make her foster-child, her inmate man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came [80–86].

This is romanticism in the casual sense, and you have to wonder if

Wordsworth ever met a child. infants often don’t seem that happy. Trailing
clouds of glory as they come, they also scream a lot and pull hair. The idea
that we have fallen away from some forgotten happiness, that we have lost
something of infinite importance that we need to recapture is the wish-dream
of every conservative from the American Republican Party and the nazis to
radical eco-warriors, who want to get back to nature and away from the cor-
rupting influence of civilization, which includes atom bombs and the holo-
caust, but also Twinkies, air conditioning, and a drastically lowered infant
mortality rate. People, including Lewis carroll in his Alice books, have made
fun of Wordsworth for his foolishness, his lack of humor and self perspective,
his sentimental claptrap and his egomania, in which other people sometimes
seem not that real to him.
but his ideas, articulated earlier by Rousseau and elsewhere, have made
their mark on the society in which we live regardless of their accuracy.
Stephen king, for instance, is very much in line with Wordsworth, and takes
the title of one of his novels, Needful Things, from one of Wordsworth’s most
“Seeing into the life of things” (Klock) 87

famous poems, “Resolutions and independence.” Where would king’s mas-

terpiece It be without Wordsworth’s idea that in childhood we see more clearly
than we do as adults, and that the aim of adulthood must be to recapture or
hold on to that early vision? Wordsworth may not have been thinking about
adults bonding with childhood friends to recapture the childhood belief that
your asthma-inhaler contains a powerful poison that could destroy the spider-
form taken by an other-dimensional Lovecraftian alien clown haunting a
small Maine town, but, nevertheless, king is Wordsworth’s most notable mod-
ern descendent.
in the immortality Ode Wordsworth looks at a child at play:
behold the child among his new-born blisses,
A six years’ darling of a pigmy size!
See, where ’mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learnèd art
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart,
And unto this he frames his song:
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
but it will not be long
ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his “humorous stage”
With all the Persons, down to palsied age,
That life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation [85–108].

This stanza must remind us of the action figures of our childhood, the child
a tiny director playing out scenes: a wedding or a festival, mourning or a
funeral, the part from Age of Ultron where the Avengers have to rescue Vision
from a truck speeding down the highway, and black Widow retrieves captain
America’s shield. The child crafts dialogue (“Avengers, assemble!”), shifts
from scene to scene, and his life is one of imitation, his toys acting out things
he has seen, including the phrase “Avengers, assemble.” Hamlet said the aim
of art was to hold a mirror up to nature (3.2.23), in other words, to copy real-
ity, and this is what the child does. Wordsworth sees him as a tiny artist, an
early and more pure vision of Wordsworth himself.
Wordsworth is often described as a poet of nature, and his insights may
88 Articulating the Action Figure

not seem to work well in a book about action figures. but Wordsworth
describes the natural scene in “Tintern Abbey” and adds, almost in passing,
“the mighty world/ of eye and ear—both what they half-create / and what
perceive” (105–107). This is similar to a passage in emerson’s “nature” in
which that writer, also considered a poet of nature, describes the natural
scene, but adds, again almost in passing, “the whole of nature is but a meta-
phor of the human mind” (24). This aspect of both emerson and Wordsworth
is more complex than really fits the scope of this essay but one way of quickly
thinking about these things is that these guys, like many of their kin, appear
to be writing about nature but are really writing about human imagination,
a force which for Wordsworth “half creates” the natural world, and which for
emerson is so fundamental that all of external reality is really just a metaphor
for it. Wilde memorably said that Wordsworth “found in stones the sermons
he had hidden there” (301), and that is the best word on the subject. The
word “nature” is misleading to the modern reader, and it is important to
remember that in a earlier age it just meant “the given world” rather than
“birds, bees, trees and waterfalls.” We still use “nature” to mean reality in
phrases like “what is the nature of the problem.” So Wordsworth, not the poet
of nature we thought him to be, is a good place to start thinking about the
role of imagination, not just up a goddamn mountain, but anywhere. So let’s
turn now to that kid with his fragment of his dream of human life, and con-
sider what happens to the Wordsworthian imagination in modern capitalist
society with its movie theaters and toy stores.
The success of Star Wars to sell action figures inspired a host of cynical
corporate driven entertainments designed primarily not to tell stories but to
sell toys: the 1986 Transformers movie, G.I. Joe, and Teenage Mutant Ninja
Turtles stand out in this regard as entertainments in which story is essentially
an excuse for merchandising. As a child i can still recall with vivid horror
the amazing amount of death in that Transformers movie. So many characters
died in the 1986 Transformers because the company had a new line of toys
coming out and needed to make space for them in the cartoon, so people
would buy the new stuff. in the Marvel movies no one dies, to the same effect:
they don’t die so Marvel can sell you the next movie they are going to be in,
along with the action figures. it’s all about selling the next thing, often with
little variation: to what extent is The Force Awakens equivalent to an old
Transformers toy with a new coat of paint?
The Toy Story films and The Lego Movie, major corporate projects, sub-
vert this trend of movies as two hour long commercials for action figures in
favor of using action figures to think about the Wordsworthian imagination,
and that is why i want to look at them here. The Toy Story films are made by
Pixar, which is now owned by Disney, which also owns Marvel comics and
the movies associated with that brand, such as The Avengers and Guardians
“Seeing into the life of things” (Klock) 89

of the Galaxy. The Lego Movie is a Warner bros. movie, owned by Time-
Warner, who also owns Dc comics and so batman and Superman and their
movies. They are also written by some very smart and canny people: Joss
Whedon, of Firefly and Buffy fame, helped write the first Toy Story movie,
and The Lego Movie was written and directed by the guys that created Clone
High, Phil Lord and christopher Miller.
Unlike their brethren, these films do not feature heroes that will be made
into plastic action figures. They are explicitly about plastic action figures
themselves. in the case of Toy Story this is a smart way around a technical
limitation. While Pixar can now create essentially photo-realistic anything-
they-want—think of the texture of those copper pans in Ratatouille—in 1995
anything they created was going to look quite simple because of the limits of
computer rendering at the time. Telling a story about action figures is brilliant
because anything they made was going to look like action figures anyway,
and now the simple designs and limited movement was part of the concept,
ironically realistic.
in Toy Story Andy is a week away from moving and gets buzz Lightyear,
a space-man action figure, as a birthday present. Woody, Andy’s cowboy toy,
revealed to us to be a living being, is jealous and squabbling causes them to
get separated from Andy’s things, and they must make their way back before
the truck takes the family away.
Toy Story’s concept bears out one of Wordsworth’s most important for-
mulations of the imagination, from “Tintern Abbey,” “with an eye made quiet
by the power / of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / we see into the life
of things” (48–50). Wordsworth attributes this power to his seeing and think-
ing on the natural world, but in “intimations” it is clear that this power is
innate in children, a natural ability removed by contact with civilization. in
Toy Story literal things have literal life. Andy’s feelings that his toys are alive,
born out by the fact that they seem never to be where he left them, are not
a delusion but a truth about the universe that adults are not capable of seeing,
any more than they adults can see the clown in It. A friend of mine told me
how his child’s favorite toy was torn up by his sister-in-law’s dog and how
horrifying that was for him and how desperate he was to get the toy to a doc-
tor. For children toys are absolutely alive, and the movie is not so much a
fantasy as a way of thinking about this inviolable childhood truth.
consider also when the toys reveal that they can move to Andy’s neigh-
bor Sid. breaking a cardinal rule of the toy world, this act is presented by Toy
Story as an almost Lovecraftian violation of the natural order and he cannot
handle what he has seen, allowing them to escape. it is because Sid is older
that he has lost the knowledge he was born with, knowledge that the younger
Andy still retains on some level, that seemingly inanimate things are very
much alive. He is so far away from this knowledge that the reminder that
90 Articulating the Action Figure

they are alive does not bring Wordsworthian recognition but dread, and we
will recall that one of the grown children in It kills himself when he remem-
bers what he knew as a kid, that evil is real. Wordsworth does not really have
a place for cosmic evil, and Sid’s story follows suit. in Toy Story 3 Sid has an
easter egg cameo as a garbage man (you can recognize him because he wears
the same T-Shirt he did as a kid): having lost touch with Wordsworthian
imagination, he does not grow up to be a psychopath, but fall into a lowly
rote job that he has no imaginative connection to (he is seen zoned out lis-
tening to music at work).
For Wordsworth the life of the city and its institutions help to sweep
away those trailing clouds of glory from the child and communing with the
natural world can help us retain, or resurrect those powers. This urban-rural
dichotomy is captured in Toy Story through buzz and Woody, the techno-
space explorer and the traditional 1950’s cowboy. Woody’s primary fear is
that fancy shiny new things, the things of the city, will replace him in Andy’s
heart, and this is mirrored in Wordsworth’s concerns that the city will destroy
our ability to appreciate nature, as seen in poems like “The World is Too
Much with Us.” in “The internalization of Quest Romance” Harold bloom
sees poetry as shifting, with Wordsworth, from the external quest, for the
grail or whatever, to an internal one, the poet searching out and holding onto
his own imaginative gifts through self-knowledge. notice that Woody, the
rural figure, has much deeper self-knowledge than buzz with his technology,
whose sophistication gets him no closer to an ontological reality Wordsworth
says we get from nature: Woody knows he is a toy, and a large part of the
movie pairs the external quest to get home with the internal one of convincing
buzz to know, and then to accept, his place in the universe. buzz must realize
that he is not a real space ranger, that he is a toy, but that that lowered station
is actually the higher calling.
in Toy Story 2 Woody, damaged, is accidentally sold to a collector and
the other toys, including buzz, must rescue him not only from the collector
but from the collector’s toys, who value their place in the collection.
The idea of toys as valuable collectors items connects the story to the
larger world of capitalism, where buying things, and keeping them pristine,
means they are investments. The movie could have portrayed collecting as a
noble cause, a different kind of play, but it’s Wordsworthian universe, where
adults have a very hard time holding onto the purity of childhood, pretty
much forbids this. And so Toy Story 2 presents its characters with a heart-
breaking choice: they can be played with and loved, but ultimately discarded
as all children, as shades of the prison house begin to close upon them, out-
grow their toys; or they can live in a pristine diorama, what Milton would
call “a universe of death” (2.622), forever treasured and admired by nostalgic
adults, but behind glass and away from emotion, because those adults cannot
“Seeing into the life of things” (Klock) 91

understand what they are looking at. in other words, the choice is between
the values of traditional humanism, and the values of neo-liberal capitalism,
which measures everything in terms of market value. What better way of
thinking about the falling away from childhood vision than the adult who
does not play with toys because toys are seen as money?
The villain in the piece, the toy Stinky Pete, appears at first to be kindly,
and his rural appearance supports this. Wordsworth argues that our child-
hood imaginations sustain us well into adult-hood, but Stinky Pete, it turns
out, was severely damaged from his inception, as he was never played with,
and that early damage, like Wordsworth’s imagination, follows him. His ulti-
mate punishment is that he is forced to be played with as buzz and Woody
and the gang contrive to give him to a little girl who will surely not keep him
in pristine condition, but the larger punishment is reserved for the collector:
because of the actions of the toys, rescuing everyone from the cowboy dio-
rama, the collector is unable to sell his collection to a Japanese buyer, and
his business goes under, taken down by the same brutal capitalist system that
he tried to support.
The reason that the collector’s scheme falls apart is because, like capi-
talism itself, it must be accepted by all or it starts to break down. “Why should
nickels be bigger than dimes?” (29) asks a character in a David Mamet play,
and part of capitalism is just accepting this fact: the value of our money is
symbolic, and is not determined by the materials of its construction. Similarly
in Toy Story 2 the cowboy diorama needs to be assembled and complete before
it can be of value, and in the world of the movie this means the toys involved—
crucially all of them—must chose capitalism over humanism. it only takes
one person to say no, to call the emperor on his new clothes, for the edifice
to fall apart.
in Toy Story 3 Andy is off to college, and is only bringing Woody with
him, but all the toys end up at a daycare which turns out to be hellish; and
after surviving a near death experience at a landfill as a result of an escape
attempt, the toys are returned to Andy, who takes them, including Woody,
to a young girl where they will be played with again.
Toy Story 3 is apocalyptic on a number of levels, most strikingly in the
moment at which the toys, about to be burned in a fiery pit, heartbreakingly
accept their fate, holding hands on the way to their doom, certain they will
not survive, glad only to die together. Rescued from the pit at the last second
by the alien toys employing “the claw” the imagery is of Jonathan edwards’
“Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” where that otherworldly and alien
hand or claw is the only thing preventing humanity from sliding into the pits
of damnation (12–13). More subtle but no less distressing is the continuum
between the horrors of the daycare, where younger children are playing with
the toys roughly and damaging them, and the way our heroes are gifted to a
92 Articulating the Action Figure

younger child who will play with them. best case scenario: they keep getting
passed down, suffering inevitable damage and destruction. in Toy Story 2 the
toys accepted being eventually abandoned as better than the virtual death of
an aseptic life behind glass. in Toy Story 3, which begins with them being
thrown in the trash, they fully accept mortality, not as an alternative to any-
thing, but as all there is, the condition of life itself.
The Lego Movie tells the story of a world of an ordinary construction
worker, a Lego figure, who looks to be the chosen one who can save everyone
from the evil Lord business threatening to freeze reality; an act three twist
reveals a live-action father with an extensive Lego diorama, and his lonely
kid who is playing with it, taking it apart and rebuilding it, telling the story
of The Lego Movie with it as a way of working out his relationship with his
controlling dad in his imagination.
The most common Hollywood blockbuster formula involves taking an
ordinary person and revealing them to be some special chosen one: The
Matrix and Harry Potter are only two of the most famous examples. The rea-
son for the popularity of the device is obvious—ordinary movie viewers con-
nect with the ordinary hero on screen and also want to be told they are not
ordinary. The Lego Movie starts out with this story but reveals it to be a fab-
rication by one of the characters in the movie. There is no such thing as the
chosen one, in real life or in the Lego Movie. This is an important piece of
self-knowledge, similar to the self-knowledge buzz gets in Toy Story that he
is just a toy. We learn to accept our place in reality, we learn that dreams of
grandeur may be delusions of grandeur. ironically the claims of both Toy
Story and The Lego Movie are anti–Wordsworthian in this regard—he would
surely see this kind of knowledge as shades of the prison house closing on
the young intimations of immortality, but this does not mean these movies
are any less in conversation with Wordsworth.
camille Paglia, in her book on The Birds, gives us an excellent test for
understanding science fiction and fantasy movies. She says we should describe
the movie without reference to the science fiction or fantasy elements. So
Cloverfield is about a guy who is gets in a fight with a girl and he needs to
find her to tell her he loves her. Attack the Block is about a woman who gets
mugged but discovers, in the course of the night, that her muggers are not a
force of faceless evil, but just struggling kids, and she embraces them as her
neighbors. The Exorcist is the story of a girl discovering sexuality and rebel-
lion and battling with her mother, who has to call in religious authorities to
tame her wildness. Nightmare on Elm Street is about parents who, in protect-
ing suburban kids from real world horrors, like child molestation, actually
leave them unprepared to deal with danger when it arrives. if a movie does
not have this basic relatable human core inside of its unrealistic pyrotechnics,
then why are we spending time with it?
“Seeing into the life of things” (Klock) 93

The Lego Movie is remarkable for the way it takes the metaphoric ordi-
nary heart of all good movies and explicitly incorporates it into the movie
itself. My friend Mitch Montgomery points out that the Lego Movie is true
to both sides of the Lego experience. A lesser movie might have valorized
creative building over following the instructions but following the instruc-
tions is, at one point, the only way our heroes can sneak into the evil head-
quarters, by blending in and going in undercover. This would have been
sufficient, i think, but the Lego Movie does more. in Toy Story buzz needs to
achieve self-knowledge and realize that he is a toy. in The Lego Movie this
kind of knowledge is properly presented as otherworldly and cosmic and about
our relationship to the universe and higher planes of reality. it is not high-
lighted much in the film but emmet lives alone and his only building idea,
terrible, is a kind of bunk-couch to seat six people. At the start of the movie
he does not have friends and is quite lonely. Once we meet the live-action kid
playing with his dad’s Legos in the basement we are to infer that Finn has no
friends, which is why he is down there playing alone. And just as we realize
emmet is a stand in for the kid, we realize the kid is a stand in for us.
in Toy Story the toys can really move. importantly though they do not
move when Andy plays with them. His imagination supplies the movement.
The fact that they can move is really just a metaphor for how he imagines
they could. in the Lego Movie toys can also move but what they can do is so
absurdly limited—emmet can fall off a table basically—as to border on
straight realism. The Lego Movie is an advance on Toy Story in this respect.
To understand The Lego Movie we need to return to Toy Story’s Sid. in
Toy Story Sid is presented as a Dr. Moreau-style evil who tears toys to pieces
and reassembles them into horrific hybrid creatures, like the mythological
monsters with the head of a lion and the tail of a scorpion, or the shambling
cyborgs neither human nor machine we see in science fiction. in Toy Story
this is a total violation of the natural order, and appropriately horrible. but
in The Lego Movie this kind of deconstruction and reassembling of pre-
fabricated things is celebrated as the primary imaginative resource of the
modern age. The battle between emmet and Lord business about how the
universe should be is the battle between father and son about how the Legos
should be played with: the father is like the collector from Toy Story 2, but
the kid is actually a less violent version of Sid. in The Lego Movie playfully
remixing elements is actually an extension of Wordsworthian imagination,
and to some extent it rehabilitates the way Sid plays in Toy Story. Michael
chabon, in an interview, describes how his kids play with Legos and they
sound exactly like this gentler version of Sid:
in the world of Legos, what i did discover is that my kids were taking these beautiful,
gorgeous, incredibly restrictive predetermined Legos Star Wars play sets—and yeah,
they really wanted it to be put together just the way the box showed it. i don’t think it
94 Articulating the Action Figure

occurred to them you’d want to do anything else with it. but inevitably, over time, the
things kind of crumble and get destroyed and fall apart and then, once they do, the
kids take all those pieces, and they create these bizarre, freak hybrids—of pirates and
indians and Star Wars and Spider-Man. Lego-things all getting mashed up together
into this post-modern Lego stew. They figure out a way, despite the best efforts of
corporate retail marketing [chabon].

The Lego Movie stages a battle between contemporary artists and the
corporate owned intellectual property that makes up so much of the way we
think about the world from our earliest years. Lord business wants to freeze
the world in place, so no one can take the Legos apart and build things not
according to the instructions, or Lord business’s design. but the film is a plea
to corporate America to allow for remix culture, to allow artists to play with
what has become the building blocks of our culture, blocks that are owned
by major corporations. This is part of Toy Story as well where licensing was
worked out with Mr Potato-Head and barbie, not owned by Pixar. in the
larger culture consider the work of DJ artist Girl Talk, who in the album All
Day, reassembles bits of 372 pop songs into a 71 minute collage that is
extremely danceable. The Lego Movie wants to call this the future of art and
be proud to be a part of it.
i have quoted Hamlet, who said that the aim of art was to hold up a mir-
ror to nature, but as Oscar Wilde so helpfully pointed out the only reason
Hamlet said that was because, at that point in the play, he is pretending to
be insane (306). Wilde argues that the aim of art should be to improve upon
nature, upon reality, and one way it can do this is by building a better world.
The better world built at the end of The Lego Movie is built of mixing and
matching elements of movies—batman, Gandalf, Star Wars—and chucking
in other name brand products such as band-Aids. The Lego Movie is a demon-
stration that this kind of free play can make smart challenging stories as well
as make money.
This brings us back to the Wordsworthian child with his toys. Words -
worth sees as crucial to the imagination, and hence the spiritual life of the
adult, this phase of play, the acting out of reality, the imitation of reality, with
toys. The Toy Story movies are true to the toys they represent, as we learn
from the movies the kind of lessons we learn in life, and work though emo-
tionally and intellectually with action figures: learning our place in the scheme
of the world though self-knowledge, the choice between protecting our hearts
by isolating ourselves emotionally from others or risking heart-break, accept-
ing abandonment, old age, and death. My own realization of growing up
came when i realized that my huge Lego diorama, much like the one the dad
has in The Lego Movie, was not something adults had, and that in growing
up i would have to give it up.
but in the modern world the toys we play with are not faceless dolls.
“Seeing into the life of things” (Klock) 95

The toys are G.i. Joe and barbie, Pokemon, batman and Superman, The
X- Men and Spiderman and The Hulk, all owned by a handful of mega-
corporations. For man Americans childhood imitations are not of weddings
and festivals, but of things seen on screens, TV shows and movies, things
also owned by that same handful of mega-corporations. And we are not
encouraged to give up our childhood passions. The blockbuster film industry,
with its endless parade of nostalgic heroes from childhood and an attendant
emotional maturity, is the playground for 35-year-old ticket buyers who are
told they never have to leave these things behind.
The severing of the relationships between say, elliot and e.T. or Pete
and Pete’s Dragon, for example, stands in stark contrast to The Iron Giant
and Big Hero 6, where companions seem to die, but don’t really. And in terms
of comic book movies, aimed at an older audience, this trend continues to
an amazing degree, especially at Marvel: as a post circulating on Tumblr
points out, in X-Men 2 Jean dies but not really, in X-Men: The Last Stand
Professor X dies but not really, in Thor Loki dies but not really, in Captain
America bucky dies but not really, in the Avengers coulson dies but not really,
in Iron Man 3 Pepper dies but not really, in Thor 2 Loki dies again but not
really, in Captain America 2 Fury dies but not really, and in Guardians of the
Galaxy Groot dies but not really.
Wordsworth’s child plays with his toys in a world unconcerned with brand
power, and he tells his own stories, using public domain situations. Star Wars
was not designed to sell toys, but Lucas was smart enough to keep the mer-
chandising rights, and, with help from kenner, a toy empire was founded. The
story came first, but the merchandising threatened to take over. in the case of
Transformers, the action figures were absolutely primary, the show was made
to drive toy sales. but as the generation raised on Star Wars and Transformers
became filmmakers in their own right, the primary-secondary relationship
became blurry. in an interview with filmmaker kevin Smith, Paul Dini, who
created the cartoon Young Justice among other, talked about a problem he
had with the executives at the cartoon network. They cancelled his show, Tower
Prep even though his audience was on the rise. The reason: the audience num-
bers were on the rise because girls were watching the show and that’s a
problem because girls don’t buy the toys, and the money comes from the
toys. because the relationship between action figures and movies and televi-
sion are symbiotic it is hard to know if this is a case of the tail wagging the
When a 37-year-old director, whose childhood bedroom was littered
with Transformers and Star Wars figures, steps up to direct the latest feature
from Marvel, to what extent is he simply playing with action figures on a
gigantic budget? To what extent is chris Pratt a very expensive action figure,
to be posed and moved around with the other toys? Michael bay does not
96 Articulating the Action Figure

invent new characters, but neither does far superior filmmaker christopher
nolan. They are playing with the toys that were in the sandbox when they
got there. We have seen a host of superhero movies from Dc and Marvel but
not a one has invented a new hero or villain of substance. What we praise in
the genre is using an old toy in a new way—Vincent D’Onofrio as kingpin
and Heath Ledger as Joker are great interpretations of preexisting characters;
the closest these movies get to invention is christopher nolan’s bane, a char-
acter so obscure that most of the public had no memory of him to violate.
They take these characters apart, and put them together again in different
ways, as The Lego Movie shows.
Toy Story and The Lego Movie occupy a special zone, able to use the
tools of commerce and junk culture—specifically lucrative action figure tie
ins—to make great art, art in conversation with Wordsworth. They hold out
the potential for any corporate owned, intellectually emotionally and spiri-
tually limited creations, to transcend themselves and matter to us in a way
that goes beyond filling our lives with more plastic junk.
Wordsworth praises the child with his toys to a degree that caused him
to be mocked by his contemporaries:
Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul’s immensity;
Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
in darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy immortality
broods like the day, a master o’er a slave,
A presence which is not to be put by; [109–121]
immortality is always with Wordsworth’s child, and cannot be given up.
On Facebook my brother-in-law posted up an article from the New York Times
called “How Hollywood killed Death.” The author, Alexander Huls, bemoans
how many blockbusters kill characters but not really, and he in part blames
books that “provide step-by-step instructions, as a Lego set does, on how to
assemble the necessary 15 pieces of a movie.” He also blames capitalism: char-
acters can’t really die because they have to appear in sequels and we cannot
have merchandise become dated too quickly. Huls concludes: “no matter
how much movies or comics depart into realities with superpowered beings
… they still need to do what all good stories should: Tell us something about
being human. but most of today’s movies are telling us death doesn’t matter.
And it’s hard to imagine a more inhuman observation than that” (Huls).
“Seeing into the life of things” (Klock) 97

What struck me about his final words was that they were shared by my
brother-in-law, who is a minister. isn’t his whole job, at least from his per-
spective, to tell people that death doesn’t matter? isn’t that the “Good news”?
And isn’t immortality Wordsworth’s point as well? You can think little kids
are dumb and adults cannot learn from them, and you can call action figures
junk, and you can say that Disney movies are mindless and inhuman, but
Wordsworth’s child, Toy Story, and the Lego Movie prove that junk culture
can be a way of thinking though our most vital problems: growing up, coming
to terms with heartbreak, age, and death, the relation between ideology and
art, immortality, and of being able to see into the life of things—even the
things owned by corporate America.
Attack the Block. Dir. Joe cornish. Perf. Jodie Whittaker and John boyega. Optimum, 2011.
Avengers. Dir. Joss Whedon. Perf. Robert Downey Jr and chris evans. Marvel, 2012. Film.
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2015. Film.
Batman: The Dark Knight. Dir. christopher nolan. Perf. christian bale and Heath Ledger.
Warner bros., 2008.
Big Hero 6. Dir. Don Hall. Perf. Ryan Potter and Scott Adsit. Pixar, 2014.
bloom, Harold. The Ringers in the Tower. chicago: University of chicago Press, 1971.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dir Joss Whedon. Perf. Sara Michelle Gellar and nicholas brendon.
Fox, 1997. TV.
Captain America. Dir. Joe Johnston. Perf. chris evans and Hayley Atwell. Marvel, 2011.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo. Perf. chris evans and
Scarlett Johansson. Marvel, 2014.
carroll, Lewis, and John Tenniel. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; &, Through the Looking
Glass. new York: Macmillan, 1963. Print.
Clone High. Dir. Ted collyer and Harold Harris. Perf. christopher Miller and Will Forte.
MTV, 2002–2003. TV.
Cloverfield. Dir. Matt Reeves. Perf. Lizzy caplan and Jessica Lucas. Paramount, 2008.
Daredevil. Dir. Drew Goddard. Perf. charlie cox and Deborah Ann Woll. netflix, 2015. TV.
Davis, Lauren. “Paul Dini: Superhero cartoon execs Don’t Want Want Largely Female Audi-
ences.” i09. Gawker, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.
edwards, Jonathan, and Reiner Smolinski. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. A Sermon
Preached at enfield, July 8th, 1741.” 1741. electronic Texts in American Studies. Paper
emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. ed. Joel Porte. new York: Library of America,
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Henry Thomas and Drew barrymore.
Universal, 1982.
The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. Perf. ellen burstyn and Max von Sydow. Warner bros.,
Firefly. Dir. Joss Whedon. Perf. nathan Fillion and Gina Torres. Fox, 2002. TV.
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Perf. Michael bell and Arthur burghardt. claster, 1985. TV.
Girl Talk. All Day. Rec. 15 nov. 2010. Gregg Gillis, 2010. MP3.
Guardians of the Galaxy. Dir. James Gunn. Perf. chris Pratt and zoe Saldana. Marvel, 2014.
Huls, Alexander. “How Hollywood killed Death.” New York Times. 18 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Print.
Iron Giant. Dir. brad bird. Perf. eli Marienthal and Harry connick, Jr. Warner bros., 1999.
Iron Man 3. Dir. Shane black. Perf, Robert Downey, Jr., and Gwyneth Paltrow. Marvel,
98 Articulating the Action Figure

kellogg, carolyn. “Michael chabon Q and A: Fatherhood and Writing and Midnight.” LA
Times blog. 13 October 2009.
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The Lego Movie. Dir. Phil Lord and chris Miller. Perf. chris Pratt and Will Ferrell. Warner
Home Video, 2014. DVD.
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Web. 27 Aug. 2015.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. ed. barbara kiefer Lewalski. Malden, MA: blackwell, 2007. Print.
Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes craven. Perf. Johnny Depp and Robert englund. new
Line, 1984.
Paglia, camille. The Birds. London: bFi, 1998. Print.
Pete’s Dragon. Dir. Don chaffy. Perf. Sean Marshall and Jim Dale. Disney, 1977. Film.
Ratatouille. Dir. brad bird. Perf. Patton Oswalt and ian Holm. Pixar, 2007. Film.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Riverside Shakespeare. ed. G. blakemore evans. boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Star Wars. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamil and Harrison Ford. LucasFilm, 1977. Film.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Dir. J. J. Abrams. Perf. Daisy Ridley and John boyega. Disney,
2015. Film.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Dir. Steve barron. Perf. Judith Hoag and elias koteas. new
Line, 1990. Film.
Thor. Dir. kenneth branagh. Perf. chris Hemsworth and natalie Portman. Marvel, 2011.
Thor: The Dark World. Dir. Alan Taylor. Perf. chris Hemsworth and natalie Portman. Marvel,
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Toy Story 3. Dir. Lee Unkrich. Perf. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Disney/Pixar, 2010. Film.
Transformers: The Movie. Dir. nelson Shin. Perf. eric idle and Judd nelson. De Laurentiis,
1986. Film.
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Wilde, Oscar. The Artist as Critic; Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. comp. Richard ellmann.
new York: Random House, 1969. Print.
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new York: Modern Library, 2002.
X2. Dir. bryan Singer. Perf. Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman. Fox, 2003. Film.
X-Men: The Last Stand. Dir. brett Ratner. Perf. Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman. Fox,
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2010. TV
Get Your Freak On
The Monstrous Seduction
in Mattel’s Monster High

Mattel’s “Other Girls”

With two pairs of articulating arms bending from her detailed crab
joints, bracelets adorning three of her four wrists, and wearing a squid-print
peplum vest belted beneath her slight breasts, kala Mer’ri balances herself
on four yellow suckers as the symmetry of two glow-in-the-dark pink tenta-
cles arch up framing her color coordinated mantle and fins. it all complements
her indigo skin. On my credenza, kala Mer’ri stands next to Frankie Stein
who balances on her seagreen tail. Yellow lines representing lightning or cir-
cuitry painted across her eel hips and on her cap-sleeved blouse dress are
clever details that remind us of her grandfather’s, Victor Frankenstein’s, life-
giving experiment with electricity. The allusion extends onto glow-in-the-
dark fins attached to her long eel torso. Frankie’s aquatic incarnation has
added cobalt streaks to her signature Bride of Frankenstein black and white
tresses. Her hair cascades in a ponytail over the undead pale green of her
stylishly scarred skin; black metal bolts ornamenting either side of her neck
match the black eel belt peeking out over her tiny waist. They both have tiny
waists. Under a button nose, her red lips purse while kala’s slightly parted
pink lips add mature detail to her jawline. Her speckled full lips point to her
life as a stage performer. They both look forward with large navy blue eyes
brought into even more focus by the brightness of their make-up—but kala’s
eyes are larger. kala Mer’ri’s butterflied eyelashes are longer compared to
Frankie Stein’s relatively shorter lashes that are contained under strong black
brows and four colors of eye shadow. Their deadpan stares fall somewhere
between barbie and bratz Dolls. kala and Frankie are just two of the eight

100 Articulating the Action Figure

adolescent mer-creatures in the Great Scarrier Reef storyline created for Mat-
tel’s Monster High® dolls, toys, playsets, DVDs, and accessories. Monster
High®, Disney classics®, ever After High®, Little Mommy®, and Polly Pocket,
collectively, are Mattel’s “Other Girls”; American Girl brands is now its own
major brand category. including four from the Reef collection, i have eight
of these fashionable “ghouls” which also include a “manster” and a make-it-
yourself monster. i am fascinated by their head-to-toe play on iconography
as if couture and those hierarchies of being that affirm the distinction between
self and other, human and inhuman, and the “normal” and the “freaked”
body. These hierarchies not only articulate the dolls’ bodies but market “cul-
tural” narratives.
Monster High®1 launched in 2010 as a line of fashion dolls descended
from Western literary monsters and world myths. The “main tribe” is made
up of the most popular horror story monsters—though, noticeably missing
is the zombie who is cast as the best friend to the mummy. clawdeen Wolf
(werewolf), Frankie Stein, cleo nile (mummy), Draculaura and Lagoona
blue (sea monster) are the informal ambassadors of Monster High, a cele-
brated self-quarantine away from “normies” who are threatened by their dif-
ference. The “normies” are what barbie might be in this world. Using tie-in
media of movies, animated shorts, video games and books, the dolls/char-
acters encourage us to, “be yourself, be unique, be a monster.” We are made
to collect Monster High dolls based on our preoccupation with the vampire,
zombie, werewolf, reanimated dead and our own family. For example, if your
pet peeve is a bossy older sister, you might be attracted to cleo De nile.
Although, the fascination of pop culture egyptology is another valid reason.
The visual appeal of these dolls harken us back to classic Gothic monster fic-
tion that carry central tropes of homophobia (Dorian Gray), xenophobia
(Dracula), and classism (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). The 81 dolls in the collec-
tion represent the offspring of classic creatures and an array of other ethno-
graphic renditions of mythos like the Mexican calavera, a native America
wind dancer, and a Russian yeti. Self-identification and belonging become
central to Mattel’s approach in their dissection of each character. The con-
sumer, themself overcome by curiosity and what freakish nature exists within
them or about them, is eager to suspend disbelief and project their own nar-
rative onto these monsters’ peculiar situations and vice versa. This bi-
directional force is beautifully examined in baudelaire’s essay, “The Philos-
ophy of Toys,” in which he observed that children act upon toys and likewise
toys act upon them. “it would hardly be surprising if a child … to whom his
parents chiefly give toy-theatres so that he can continue by himself the pleas-
ures he experiences from the stage and from marionettes, should grow early
used to regarding the theater as the most delicious form of beauty” (von
kleist et al. 17). in our time, the “theater” translates broadly to all types of
Get Your Freak On (Thomas) 101

cultural production that nostalgia helps shape. Thus the business of attrac-
tion, which is to say, the sense of sight and touch of the dolls, creates profitable
material markets that rely on the interplay between affect and cognition. We
need only glimpse a child psychology text to know how important play is to
human language and behavioral development. So then, what kind of play—
evolving from experiences and judgments—is being invited into the world
of “Other Girls” of the Great Scarrier Reef?
The design of the Great Scarrier Reef dolls play on nature’s oddities and
aberrations by making scar into beauty marks, skin surface in to wardrobe,
and diluting their fathers’ social deaths and actual deaths with their highly
seductive cross-gender embodiment. beauty is re-contextualized. And so,
the attraction of monstrosity in Mattel’s Monster High® world invite us to
look even closer at the array of 81 dolls in their collection because their “beau-
tiful representation of ugliness” (eco 133) is inherited from both a trace vision
of barbie and ken and from our fantasies of their monster parentage written
on the back of every box—everyone’s box that is, except for kala Mer’ri. We
only find out her origin by watching the movie. Her father’s name is scratched
out on the box. “Shhh! it’s a secret!” in other words, where this freakish fas-
cination is concerned, parents not only make the doll, they mark her differ-
ence. i read this difference as symbolic blackness and ethnic otherness. no,
the indigo surface is not the necessary stand-in for black skin the way the
Jynx Pokémon2 changed colors after its blackface controversy. nor do i
assume her living conditions in the “deepest dark” in the Great Scarrier Reef
points to some socioeconomic blight inured by only tan, black and brown
girls. While these may have some traction, i begin by reading kala’s otherness
with regards to her undisclosed parentage. because by playing with these
dolls, you come to understand that difference is a physical reality for all dolls
in the Monster High collection and decisions on “skin” and bodily transfor-
mations are thinly veiled metaphors for race, nation, or (dis)ability. “black-
ness” is the classic otherness that toymakers attempt to represent as an
essentialized whole or with metaphor. What does it mean to construct a black
doll in the “storied” Monster High line whose textual roots are hidden but
marked on their physical surface?
i am particularly interested in dolls with depicted animality “that some-
times sticks to animals, sometimes bleeds back onto textures of humanness”
(chen 89). These strange hybrids are, after all, deliberate aberrations carrying
their brand’s body-positive recitation to “embrace their freaky flaws with
pride” ( to a larger audience. However, because their
liberatory power is yoked to over-determined signifiers that organize the
rhetorical devices and racial imaginaries of past and present discourse on
the proper body,3 Mattel discloses their own freaky flaw: milking difference
for profit. but therein lies the paradox in promoting diversity via the spectacle
102 Articulating the Action Figure

of monstrosity; it makes freakish fascination a mixed message and a normal-

ized commodity.
Animality, in addition to textures of race and gender, draws on Mattel’s
history of well-meaning albeit convoluted messaging for its girls and boys
brands. The slight differences in body molds between certain dolls and the
painting of their surfaces become an invitation to self-identify where the psy-
chic and social projection is bi-directional. in order for a “child” to self-
identify, that self has to be organized into recognizable parts on the doll’s
surface and this is the beauty of manufacturing an otherness campaign that
can capitalize on decades of Mattel’s manufacturing success and failures. 4
This kind of identification simultaneously encourages wishful thinking about
our influence on the dolls’ lives and exploits the dolls’ seductive powers over
us. Seduction in this sense invites us, the viewer, the child, and the collector
to look closely and take note of how “stitches,” scars, the artifice of clothing,
facial feature, body proportion and biography builds a seamless experience.
Locked into adolescence and young adulthood, these monsters provide the
vital service of speaking to and speaking as a “child.” And Mattel casts a wide
net to catch that child. To play with them, i argue, is to experience your self
in/as a persona with eclectic yet seamless parts. And still, Mattel’s imagination
is a mere departure from the capacity of one’s own imagination especially
this pop culture and critical theory scholar—who owns, among other dolls,
every Teletubby, Scully, Mulder and even a nelly action figure. What i see in
Monster High is Mattel’s ongoing experiment with discursive markers along
with doll-body molding variation. Reading kala Mer’ri provides a compelling
opportunity to deconstruct the complex cultural combinations fashioned
around her imagined doll life. it will be helpful to trace the toymaker’s syn-
thesis of otherness in order to understand how we land on marketing seduc-
tive monsters.

Freakish Play
Monster High’s prettified deformity moves us from ambivalent pleasure
to a full on embrace of their teratogenic5 outcomes. Of the six dolls in the
Great Scarrier Reef collection, i have four of them: Toralei, kala, Frankie
Stein, and the two-headed hydra Pearl and Peri. in addition, i was drawn to
four other dolls belonging to four other collections: make-your-own monster
kit from inner Monster, Honey Swamp from the Freak du chic collection,
kiyomi Haunterly from Haunted, and Finnegan Wake from a global fan vote.
Their names, visual representation and character biography are signifiers for
race and difference. For example, “manster” Finnegan Wake is a para-athlete
accessorized with his “iconic wheelchair” and “fin-tastic tats.” Though
Get Your Freak On (Thomas) 103

aquatic, this tough merman is not part of the Reef narrative. The dolls’ textual
and physical articulations are complements. The details on the dolls are as
exquisite as their monster narratives are specific to their marketable other-
ness. biographies written on the back their boxes along with diaries included
when a new doll is first launched tells us about monster joys and monster
grievances with a kind of specificity that codes for a shared understanding
or race, region, gender, even subtly sexuality. For example, metrosexual Gar-
rot Duroque, the son of gargoyles is a French fashion designer whose “killer
style” basics are his skinny jeans, scarf, dragon leather jacket and boots. He
carries a rose and his closest friends are two of the vainest female dolls in
the 81-doll collection. Jinafire Long is the fire-breathing daughter of a chinese
dragon with a personal mantra that begins, “i honor!” Similarly, kiyomi
Haunterly, daughter of Japanese faceless ghost has written in her diary that,
“Reading my diary without permission would not be honorable.” The two
overtly Asian dolls are tied to narrative tropes of honor and duty. Then there
is clawdeen, a werewolf who, for whatever reason in the animations, sounds
like an impression of Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump—in anything
really. Her bio states, “clawdeen is from a HUGe family! She has so many
siblings, she’s lost count—no joke!” The Latina voice marker and the stereo-
typing of large families may be too vigilant a reading, but both are out there
in our racialized world and both are used for this one doll. Ghoulia Yelps is
a brainy, organized and slow walking zombie who can only communicate in
zombie grunts. Whereas there is Moanica D’kay who believes “peace is boor-
ing” and since she can’t change monsters into zombies the “old-fashioned
way,” she’ll charm and manipulate instead. cleverly, Mattel has covered the
Romero zombie and rage zombie categories by taking the market to market.
Mattel’s strategy is simple: commodify difference. Unlike the various incar-
nations of barbie that simply appropriates a way of living like camping, sun-
tans and space exploration, “Other Girls” can inhabit particular worlds with
narratives as old as their body parts. Garrot Duroque is 512 years old, cleo
and her sister nefera are over 3,000 years old and in the case of Frankie Stein,
she is “115 days old. but some parts of [her] are older than others” (play.mon- kala Mer’ri and the aquatic version of Frankie Stein belong to a
collection called the Great Scarrier Reef. in this anti-bullying plot, Lagoona
blue returns to the Reef to face her childhood nemesis kala. What is most
significant about the Great Scarrier Reef collection is how the action figures
go through another round of monstrous bodily modifications to which even
they react to it—in the DVD—as an aberration of their “normal” bodies.
interestingly, complaints and frustration about the sea bears with it a deep
unease with kala who, despite being born that way, yearns for a way of being
that privileges Lagoona’s bipedal nuclear family: normal bodies. The “nor-
mal” body, then, is disciplining the “natural” monstrous body. “The motto:
104 Articulating the Action Figure

‘Monster High students come from all walks of life. From ghosts and were-
wolves to vampires and sea monsters (and more!)’” calls into action the utopic
vision of eclecticism, acceptance and possibilities ( How-
ever, opening the door to “all walks of life” ignores the unimaginative space
of assimilation that Monster High ultimately constructs. The appeal to con-
sumers is that the dolls’ and the childs’ bodily differences should not obstacles
in social success. essentially, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” The problem
of assimilation is the ironic twist.

The “Blacker” the Meri, the Deeper Her Roots

barbie doesn’t dish it out. Her lack of personality allows for limitless
experiences to flow in and to escape. if as baudelaire writes, toys act upon
us as we, in turn, act on them, then barbie’s appearance not her achievements
is the action. Mattel’s 2016 online financial confirms this trait when they
boast, “barbie debuted in 1959 and now has more than a billion pairs of shoes”
( On the other hand, Mattel’s “Other Girls” embody and
display an excess that not only makes them visibly different but so discursively
embedded in that difference that they function pretty much as technical arti-
facts. For one thing, the molds used to fabricate “Other Girls” come in vastly
different sizes and proportions. My Scene barbie was slightly bigger than her
traditional counterpart; Diva Starz was squat with elfin facial features; and,
Monster High figures wildly vary in their surface colors, head sizes and
appendages (see Figure 1). The introduction of kala Mer’ri in the Great Scar-
rier Reef™ storyline, with her undisclosed genealogy, marks her even more
as a figure of excess; her monstrosity embodies an excess that draws our atten-
tion to the very process of visual interpretation. From whom or from what
is she aberrant?
On the back of the kala doll’s box are: “Daughter of ☐☐☐☐☐ Shh! it’s
a secret!” The obfuscated letters and the invitation to both keep and discover
a secret is unique to this one of 81 Monster High characters (dolls). The ani-
mated DVD story follows an anti-bullying plot that starts on land at Monster
High where Frankie Stein, clawdeen, and Draculaura agree to perform in a
dance choreographed by Torelei daughter of werecats. Torelei is a terrible
dancer—think elaine from Seinfeld. When she discovers that stage hand
Lagoona blue is a better dancer but suffers from physically debilitating stage
fright, she hatches a plan to embarrass her in front the whole school. Though
no one in the auditorium laughs, Torelei’s sidekick bad apple friends who are
also werecats, Purrsephone and Meowlody, snap a cell phone picture that
goes viral. Lagoona confronts Toralei at a party where they begin tossing
cupcakes at each other. Frankie, Lagoona, Toralei, clawdeen, Draculaura and
Get Your Freak On (Thomas) 105

Figure 1. Pictured left to right, My Scene Barbie, Barbie, Monster High, and
Bratz (

Gil, Lagoona’s freshwater water boyfriend, are sucked into the vortex of a
magic whirlpool that grows in proportion with the animosity of two bickering
frenemies.6 The whirlpool is established in the school’s large coffin shaped
outdoor pool.
They are transported to the Great Scarrier Reef where they become mer-
creatures. Toralei’s tail fins are striated orange, black and white as either a
beta fish or a lionfish. Frankie is an eel. clawdeen becomes a wolfish, which
is also known as devilfish or Atlantic catfish. Lagoona blue might be an
angelfish or mermaid. Draculaura is an octopus or a black starfish embodying
the visual pun of sucking. There is no Gil “manster” doll (but in the animation
this son of the River Monster has his two legs transformed into a tail). After
they get over the initial shock of their new bodies, they meet Poseidon’s
daughter Posea, transfigured kelp, who informs Lagoona she has to overcome
a challenge in order to return home. Strange enough, the Great Scarrier Reef
is Lagoona’s home. We meet her family: siblings and father. Her mother is
conveniently absent visiting relatives allowing Mattel to preserve its cross-
106 Articulating the Action Figure

gender monster lineage from box to screen. Lagoona’s father, the sea creature,
meta-comments on her body, “You crazy kids with your fads. Why you do
what you do … how you do it. i don’t know.” All this is delivered in the charm
of an Australian accent that Lagoona also has. Draculaura has a stereotyped
Transylvannian accent. Frankie has a non-descript good girl American accent.
Toralei sounds like a cartoon troublemaker while clawdeen impersonates
Rosie Perez. The challenge is made clear when they stumble upon a large
open water arena where kala Mer’ri and her sidekicks the hydra Peri and
Pearl rehearse a dance routine. in a flashback, we learn Lagoona and kala
were once a dance team duo. behind the curtain looking out on the crowd,
a younger Lagoona innocently remarks on her family’s presence and moral
support and that they will celebrate after the performance. it is important to
note, in close reading of bodies, that Lagoona and her entire family are bipedal
mer-creatures with fins on their ankles. Lagoona’s Great Scarrier Reef fishy
form is foreign to her unlike kala who was born with her squid body. Young
kala Mer’ri asks to celebrate with her too but Lagoona is not paying attention
to the nuance in her friend’s voice and instead of welcoming kala, she inno-
cently asks why she wouldn’t rather be with her own family. kala avoids the
answer but something about the
words “family” and “parents”
become a trigger and kala’s
temerity turns to jealously. She
sabotages Lagoona’s shoelaces
making her stumble on stage
hence develop performance
anxiety stage fright. And this is
what Lagoona believes is the
challenge to be overcome, or as
Lagoona says, “getting us back
to normal.” but it is not over-
coming stage fright; it is over-
coming kala.
What does it mean to con-
struct a black action figure in the
“storied” Monster High line
whose textual roots are hidden
but marked on their physical
surface and now, marked by her
personality? i say “black”
Figure 2. Kala Mer’ri and Lagoona Blue in because on “first” glance, she
their “natural” forms (christinaarticulates. looks the way black dolls are/ have been molded. but, origi-
Get Your Freak On (Thomas) 107

nating from the Great Scarrier Reef one cannot assume an African American
or aboriginal status. One can’t even assume American despite the voice actress
that performs as kala. One will need to look past this, for now, even though
the actress does sassy inflections a few times in the animation and in a flash-
back sequence we see kala rubbernecking. but kala is marked in a different
way than Lagoona. Again, Lagoona and her family have Australian accents
and two feet. She is ethnographically marked for the region that puns the
Australian Great barrier Reef. kala and other featured Reef natives have tails.
Lagoona’s body anchors her to a space where walking (or floating) on feet is
privileged as “normal.” Lagoona’s large family lives in a big well-lit coral-
embedded house whereas kala lives in the “deepest dark.” Her father, as it is
revealed when kala summons him to help her destroy her frenemies, is a
non-lingual cephalopod with a large translucent head where his purple brain
glows. He is the dreaded kraken who lives in the crack beneath the Reef. He
is an urban legend who creates an atmosphere of fear and paranoia in the
Reef. newspapers circulate stories about his destructive and threatening
behavior. i watched this movie in the thick of police shootings and so this
kraken comes together under historical and contemporary biases about black
men. There is even a tongue-in-cheek freeze frame where clawdeen gives
the advice to never look a kraken in the eye. no one in the Reef, save for
kala, has a relationship with him, and yet how he is known is as a scapegoat.
He is living a social death whereas the other sea monsters in the story are
only a symbol of not being fully human or normal. The Great Scarrier Reef
uses “natural” difference to establish hierarchical categories between fathers,
daughters, legs, fins, space, and language. We see this in the climax and res-
olution after the kraken and kala chase the crew through the vortex back to
oxygenated Monster High. The kraken attacks Monster High like Grendel
attacked Hoeret. Likewise, the high school building is a symbol of civilization
and order. The kraken represents disorder and excess with his gigantic flailing
arms. in the end, Lagoona and kala have a face-off in which Lagoona con-
vinces kala that Monster High is a place where “we celebrate everyone’s freaky
flaws.” kala responds, “So at Monster High, i won’t be judged?” “As long as
you don’t judge yourself.” And in this taming-of-the-shrew-meets-king-king
moment, kala asks her father to let go of Lagoona, “Put her down … dad.”
This reluctant reveal confirms her hidden shame: lineage. Has self-acceptance
been addressed? i am not convinced. i believe she is accepting the hierarchy
of “normal” over “natural.”
if we consider kala Mer’ri, the action figure, without the help of the ani-
mated DVD, this shame/awareness is inscribed in the diary included with
her action figure box. kala is burdened by “gossip, rumors, stereotypes, innu-
endos” that are intended to “frighten and provoke” and sell newpapers. She
writes, “can’t they tell the difference between fact and fangtasy? Don’t they
108 Articulating the Action Figure

understand the damage they can do? it makes me so fangry!” Further, she
has cut out pictures of Lagoona tossing her image aside and then feeling that
“Lagoona was always flaunting her smiley family…. All i know is the constant
reminder gives me a sinking feeling.” The constancy of her disaffection is
what constructs the personality of this doll and her role as the antihero (con-
temporary bully).
if we consider how heroes are defined by their monsters, and how heroes
restore order then Lagoona’s categorical mismatch to kala creates her negative
identity. in writing about the technology of monsters, specifically, their sur-
faces and joints that make them discursive material, Halberstam argues:
“Monsters and the Gothic fiction that creates them are therefore technologies,
narrative technologies that produce the perfect figure for negative identity.
Monsters have to be everything the human is not and, in producing the neg-
ative of human, these novels make way for the invention of human as white,
male, middle class, and heterosexual” (22).
in the Great Scarrier Reef, “the negative of human” is kala and her father
the kraken. She is, at first, othered so that she might be assimilated as a “like
me” friend then a Monster High student by Lagoona’s symbolic patronage.
in the end, kala’s narrative details become signifiers for competing fantasies
that construct the (un)spoken assumptions about the body be it raced by epi-
dermis, molding, or adornment. And indeed, this is trajectory that i follow
in the Great Scarrier Reef with its monsters. i suggest that in this collection
origin narratives also provide other fantasies about the interpenetration of
visual representation (doll surface and tie-in movie) and textual information
(box and diary). This interpenetration instigates play. competing fantasies
in such a reading is significant, firstly, for the potential of making these dolls
bodies even more subversive and radical in nature. Then, we can see how the
aquatic hybrids they become articulate possibilities for different and truly
monstrous embodiments. i mean, they already invite underwater play7 to go
with their bodies. So, i want to privilege “monstrous” here in my essay as a
way into opening up room for a queered feminist reading that will reveal
how incoherent bodies that are defined by difference remind us of boundaries
between human and animal and machine and self and other. not that i imag-
ine 8- and 9-year-olds are sitting down to play out radical queer feminist sce-
narios but their attraction to each dolls’ anomaly may be the gateway stuff.
Again, i say “black” because of a reductive reading of her facial features
that are reminiscent of other black fashion dolls such as her nose and mouth
features. i am also reading her incoherent body formation as a signifier for
blackness that situates itself in the “like me/unlike me” metaphor and “black
is beautiful” moment that sells black barbies (ducille 16). The dolls are not
only redefined to be signifiers of deliberate posthuman embodiment, they
(can) emerge as a kind of post-monster embodiment that is interested in nat-
Get Your Freak On (Thomas) 109

uralizing the relationship between a body that has transcended its humanness.
Yet, all the dolls, with accompanying narratives, aren’t so transcendent. They
merely combine clever puns, teenage biography and oversimplified signifiers.
in kala Mer’ri—acknowledging i have not spent as much time with the other
80 dolls—i read a combination of identities. Her physical and textual artic-
ulation inscribes historical, social, and cultural practices and representations
that point to cultural syncretism and to the black female body. First, kala
Mer’ri’s arms are reminiscent of the Hindu goddess kali who has eight or
Vishnu who has four. kali represents Time, change, Power, creation, Pres-
ervation, and Destruction. “kali” also means “the black one,” the feminine
noun of the Sanskrit adjective kālá. Vishnu is the preserver or protector.
kala’s tail portion belongs to a giant squid known for their deep-sea gigan-
tism. Scientifically, giant squids are of great interest because of their sophis-
ticated nervous system. culturally, giant squids are responsible for destructive
behavior like downing ships and whales. Giant squids or krakens are the
things of nordic folklore. but the squid portion is just the accent for her per-
ceptible mermaid features beginning from the hip down. in Australia’s Great
barrier Reef, seacows or dugongs are prevalent. Dugongs belong to the sci-
entific order Sirenia, also referred to by the common name sirens that derive
from the sirens of Greek mythology. Dugongs are social creatures and use
barks, chirps and whistles to communicate. Siren myths are a way of pre-
serving animals through stories told by humans. it is then interesting to con-
sider that the Great Scarrier Reef story is focalized through Lagoona; to wit,
it is her hero story about overcoming kala. i also read a subplot in which
kala withholds then discloses the story of her father the kraken. is kala’s
subplot preserving their animal roots through story? is he a pet, a father or
a mirror? Perhaps, he is all these things to her because her experiences and
encounters are categorically mismatched to Lagoona’s.
kala’s obscured parentage gives me further license to bring in the Mami
Wata spirit that is given great respect in certain religious practices of West,
central and South Africa and the African diaspora in the Americas. The
spirit is mentioned in the published travel journals of 17th-century Dutch
soldier John Gabriel Stedman when he traveled through Suriname. in his
notes, he writes that black slaves would pretend to have seen the “Water-
mama” in order to avoid doing work, thus reaffirming her power. Mami Wata
is a transgendered transcultural deity associated with fertility, wealth, danger,
sin and fidelity. Her trans-ness comes from stories of seductive powers to
attract men and women. kala is a popular performer in the Reef and has her
father and the hydra sisters at her bidding. “Mami Wata literally creates wet
dreams” and if we think of the whirlpool’s power moving bodies from one
reality into another, then we can say the Great Scarrier Reef is a monster’s
(Lagoona’s) wet dream (Drewal 1). Mami Wata’s transcultural influence can
110 Articulating the Action Figure

be seen in a webcomic called the Factionalists whose character Mami Watan-

abe is a play on Mami Wata with her skin darkened in the ganguro style.
Another manifestation of this water spirit is the Haitian voodou Loa (or
spirit) of La Sirene. La Sirene draws people to her much like kala Mer’ri’s
stage performances. Her incoherence is syncretism. kala’s narrative is con-
structed in a more atavistic sphere, whereas Lagoona, anchored to a “back
to normal” lifestyle, privileges Human lungs and feet. Despite both of their
amphibious abilities, kala’s animal roots stick. Her plastic fashion(ed) body,
her accompanying diary, her display box, DVD animation, and current and
future costumes8 designed in her likeness all focus on her body—all the dolls’
bodies—as a precondition for play. The ‘imaginary’ representation of mon-
strous people tends to coalesce the signifier (their name, origin, if available
their character voice) with the signified (concept of hero and anti-hero).
Another unsettling racial signifier is the measurement of the dolls’ hips
in this collection. i look at the physical bodies of the dolls as something to
be analyzed for possible stereotypical representations. kala’s hips measure
two inches whereas the other mer-creatures in the collection are 1.25 to 1.5
inches. Posea Reef, daughter of Poseidon, has a wide hip area but that is due
to how the “boning” of her kelp costume flairs out. From the waist down,
paint adorning their tails are made to emulate clothing and therefore the fit
of flesh on clothe. This suggests that kala Mer’ri’s wide hips belong to a figure
that is, at first, a bad role model for girls. This also suggests—hallelujah!—a
beautiful fully articulating doll with two pairs of hinged arms and adjustable
tentacles that has a curvier body size is, at last, an option for girls.9
but there is history in those hips. Her voluptuous detail is historicized
in Sander Gilman’s research looking at visual conventions of the 19th century
that used the black female body to categorize French prostitutes. Gilman
explores how stereotypes in art, medicine and literature are constitutive parts
to how we know the self and other, basically, how visual culture is produced.
Gilman’s analysis lands on Saarjtie “Sara” baartman, a khoikhoi women who,
due to steatopygia (large buttocks), was exhibited as a freak show attraction
in 19th-century europe, London and Paris. (in Paris, she traveled with an
animal trainer.) Under the name Hottentot Venus—“Hottentot” being a
derogatory term for stuttering because that is how the Dutch perceived khoi
speech—with her full hips and prominent labia, she became a marker for the
black female. Unfortunately, she died young from illness, at which time sci-
entist George Leopold chretien cuvier autopsied baartman’s body so that he
might confirm rumors of “Hottentot” anatomy. Her body was dissected and
displayed for the pleasure of a museum audience, on and off, for a century.
Her skeleton was mounted next to a wax replica of her nude form.
in 2002, France acceded to nelson Mandela’s request to return her body
to her homeland in South Africa. cuvier discovered not an aberrant skin flap
Get Your Freak On (Thomas) 111

Left: Figure 3. Kala Mer’ri of Monster High® hips measure at approximately 2

inches. Right: Figure 4. Frankie Stein of Monster High® hips measure at approx-
imately 1.5 inches (both Cathy Thomas personal collection).

but an ordinary overdeveloped labia minora to which he claimed was “an

extraordinary appendage which nature had made a special attribute of her
race.” He pathologized her “excess.” To cuvier’s public, her abnormal physi-
ology was primitive and antithetical to european sexuality and behavior; the
less european the body, the less human it was. The abject is “the place where
meaning collapses” (kristeva 9). We see meaning collapse for Lagoona with
her unease to her fish form, at recognizing that her body is in excess of what
is “normal.” She can’t even perform on stage with the support of her friends
because her body’s new ambiguous limits are a reminder of a self that is not
her self; it disrupts Lagoona’s self-control. contrarily, the animal body is nat-
ural to kala. if fish-ness is the marker of disorder then Lagoona’s bipedal
body articulates biological and psychological order since she is the hero of
the Great Scarrier Reef story line.
kala’s monstrosity would be an example of abjection as monsters have
to be everything a human is not. Monsters do not have a “proper body.” The
112 Articulating the Action Figure

concept of a proper body began in the Victorian era. it was a way of identi-
fying those physiologically qualified to participate in civil society: the free
fungible individual who ideally was white, masculine, normal and liberal
man capable of owning property and participating in economic exchange
(Youngquist 19). Hence, the threat of monstrosities was their “threat of inter-
dependency” (21). To understand the impact of propriety, one has to look in
to the roots of the pariah. The term teratology comes for the Greek word
teras meaning monster. Teratogenic in modern medicine and science relates
to congenital abnormalities and abnormal formations that present as physi-
ological abnormalities at birth. in the 18th century, the science of tertatology
shaped understanding of disability from “monster” to some part of “God’s
natural order.” This set the stage for the Victorian era. The emergence of Dar-
winism of the 19th century gave rise to freak shows, then the twentieth cen-
turies eugenics movement placed a stigma on physical abnormality similar
to the stigma of racial difference and persons with undesirable bodies were
removed from public eye, social life and even life itself. So, it would seem
that concept of the improper would be embodied in a non-white, non-male,
differently abled body. How, then, despite being such a vilified characters
does kala win our sympathy?
i look to another relevant 19th-century example of difference for
answers. Hiram Powers’ famous 1844 sculpture, The Greek Slave, depicted an
Anglicized Grecian maiden chained to a pillar. Powers embellished the statue
with a christian cross and explained that she had been taken to a Turkish
slave market. The image aroused so much intrigue in england that replicas
had to be made, both full size and portable. in 2015, The Smithsonian exhib-
ited a replica along with some of Powers’ mass production devices built to
reproduce it. One can say The Greek Slave is the progenitor for the barbie or
the action figure. Abolitionists used this to their advantage in 1851 when
Punch Magazine printed a cartoon of a black woman in chains with the cap-
tion “The Virginian Slave, intended as a companion to Power’s ‘Greek Slave’”
reminding the fascinated masses that real slavery did exist. Punch’s deliberate
juxtaposition of the Virginia slave and the Greek slave encouraged spectators
to draw sympathy from the white christian female’s association with purity
and superiority. The sympathy, ironically, is drawn out from racist knowl-
edges. With both Saartjie baartman and The Greek Slave, racial otherness is
constructed as well as contested so that meanings attached to them reflect a
My examples are drawn from the past, but these historical circumstances
highlight the processes for marketing “Other Girls” and their narratives. Oth-
erness is filled with iconographic functions and helps to shape our perception
and representation of the world. To pursue another approach to kala Mer’ri,
i draw on current female iconography, consumerism and cosmetic surgery,
Get Your Freak On (Thomas) 113

which contrarily argues for a diva trend in celebrating curves and audacity.
immediately, nikki Minaj, Dancehall music, and kim kardashian come to
mind. What can be more exemplary of a diva shift in constructing racial oth-
erness than beyoncé showing interest in making a movie about Saarjtie baart-
man. being an “Other Girl” is marketed as a badge of honor. incoherence
and transgression facilitate the fantasy of monsters. Let us consider the tax-
onomy of a mermaid or mer-creature that allows it to transgress boundaries
of air, earth and water. it is that dynamic contradiction of beautiful voice or
face and hideous body. David Williams writes on the feminization of beast-
monsters wherein the water element symbolizes menstruation. Her body and
her medium produce an uncanny account of embodiment that sets up the
self and other. He writes, “Such a dynamic produces the transcendence to
which all monstrosity points, the transcendence of all discourse and the lim-
itations of logic” (188). in his essay “Why Look at Animals?” critic and art
historian John berger looks at the visual representation of animals and women
and links the oppressive way that spectatorship has a way of making subjects
into observed objects. Agreed. but, there is something to be learned from
the sexualized power of the monstrous body.
in examining the role of women in horror films, barbara creed argues
that mothering functions and women’s reproductive functions are often
placed in conjunction to the monstrous when it is marked as feminine. She
uses the term monstrous feminine rather than female monster to orient her
reading through psychology rather than a simple concern of gender. Her con-
cept of the deadly femme castratrice, “a female figure who exists in the dis-
courses of myth, legend, religion and art but whose image has been repressed
in Freudian psychoanalytic theory largely because it challenges Freud’s view
that man fears woman because she is castrated” (creed 127), is taken up when
discussing female heroine’s of slasher films. This symbolic castration is a
more conventional view of the female monstrosity in that “she seeks revenge
on society, particularly the heterosexual nuclear family, because of her lack”
(122). Whereas the beef in the Reef pales in comparison to the conflicts in
Single White Female, kala, nevertheless, seeks to dismantle the “normal life”
the Lagoona represents. The monstrous feminine combines analysis of mon-
strosity so that in the twin role of castrated female and castrator creed can
discuss how reading spaces like tunnels and caves suggest vagina dentata.
The theme of dangerous passageways is key to how and where kala exists.
There is also the figure of the beautiful woman from classic art who is accom-
panied by an animal with “open jaws and snapping teeth” (108). This com-
panion animal would be the kraken with its beak-like mouth expressing
voracity and violence. While not offering anything new to the male-centered
readings of these films, creed’s concept of the deadly femme castratrice as it
relates to kala opens up a new model of spectatorship.
114 Articulating the Action Figure

The reclamation of the negative identity is, in part what Mattel, pur-
ports to be doing with this line of dolls. in fact, re-scripting and reclaim-
ing the underdog in popular culture drives our attraction to monsters
whether they are phoning home or have a head full of pins. because, let’s
face it, once we get the backstory, once we challenge processes of abjection
by bringing ourselves to the surface to touch, the anxiety of the Other makes
the monster- we-fear into the monster- we-know. The known monster is
particularly active in shoring up the categories of difference they trans-
gress. When monsters get to articulate their lives, they seduce us. in framing
the monsters of Monster High, i want to focus on the story articulated in
and out of their box: fantasy and social alienation. As such, i want to situate
kala Mer’ri as a post-monster precursor; a type of monstrous seducer who
we come to know and who embodies the potential for identity to be muta-
ble and unfixed, but whose rhetorical boundaries remind us of discourses
and social conditions where her blackness may be hailing us in a simultane-
ous affective mode: empathy. We are made to sympathize for kala by reading
her diary. She is a bit of a prickly pear, self-described as a “control shriek”
who is hiding a secret. Her pet peeve is “when other monsters think they
know you based on shallow stereotypes and underwater legends.” She is jeal-
ous of her friend’s nuclear family while both protecting and being ashamed
of her own father, the kraken. With these dolls, the site/sight of abjection
becomes and opportunity for beauty and direct refutation of social conven-
Mattel did not stumble upon monstrosity; it consumed it.

Conclusion: Sink or Swim

kala Mer’ri is a key figure that links together discourses on commodi-
fication, taxonomy, and play. but, my seduction by this doll does not settle
on her surface. kala’s physical and textual articulation is a perpetual resig-
nification of the monster through hyper-realized modes. it makes me wonder:
For whom is this progression created? Do these dolls answer a crisis in man-
ufacturing? is there a cultural ethics to this syncretism or is spectacle the
failsafe? What is the role of the fictive that allows for the reconfiguration of
these bodies, our bodies? And most pressingly, why can’t i stop collecting
them? it is not because Mattel’s self-esteem message promotes them as figures
of social redemption, as a bodily representation of something that is sym-
bolically whole or proper. The move from object to subject, rather than being
liberatory for all 81 dolls, loses traction when the posthuman subject is a fixed
narrative that travels across national and ethnic boundaries. This fixity
undoes Monster High’s celebration of its student body’s diversity. Though
Get Your Freak On (Thomas) 115

Table 1. Annual Report Data

from Mattel’s Investor and Shareholder Page
Year Annual Report Position, Barbie growth “Other Girls” sales
tagline from previous from previous
year year
1999 A truly great company, with the +11% worldwide n/A
very best people, a compelling (+9% domestic)
underlying strategy and
resources for sustainable
2001 energize. Globalize. –3% worldwide n/A
Mobilize. Optimize. (–12% domestic)
(+15% international)
2003 Lead: every day. everywhere. +17% international +5%10
everyone. every brand. –15% domestic Polly Pocket, ello
2005 Play to win. –13% worldwide +25%
(–21% domestic) Polly Pocket,
(-7% international) Disney classics

2007 commitment. “commitment 1% worldwide +2%

is what transforms a promise (–15% domestic)11 Polly Pocket, Little
into reality.” Abraham Lincoln (+11 international) Mommy, Disney
classics, Pixel chix,
High School
2009 i will let you in on a secret: –3% worldwide –20%
we don’t just make toys. We create (+4% domestic) Polly Pocket, Little
emotional connections that last (-6% international) Mommy, Disney
a lifetime. classics, High
School Musical
201112 The imagination of children +12% worldwide +27%
inspires our innovation. (+8% domestic) Polly Pocket, Little
(+14% international) Mommy, Disney
classics, Monster
2013 Financial highlights infographic –12% worldwide +19%13
showing Mattel’s $7.1 billion Polly Pocket, Little
gross sales Mommy, Disney
classics, Monster
High, ever After
2015 Mattel is a creations company –14% worldwide –17%14
that inspires the wonder of Polly Pocket, Little
childhood. Our mission is to be Mommy, Disney
the recognized leader in play, classics, Monster
learning and development High, ever After
worldwide. High
116 Articulating the Action Figure

Year Annual Report Position, Barbie growth “Other Girls” sales

tagline from previous from previous
year year
2016 Quarterly dividend statement +23% worldwide –60%
Q2 Polly Pocket, Little
Mommy, Disney
classics, Monster
High, ever After

Monster High is home to an array of mythical creatures, their celebrated dif-

ferences trade on cultural stereotypes. This is not a polemic finger pointing
at toymakers because how else might they attempt to be simultaneously inclu-
sive and profitable without caricature that codes race and Human-ness?
Monstrous seduction, in this sense, is a discursive, material and embod-
ied practice that reifies boundaries and surfaces around taxonomic and tex-
tual lines, so much so that the seduction of Monster High consumers may
be reliant on supplementing the act of embracing difference with the process
of interpreting difference. And although the Monster High collection pur-
ports to challenge the politics of disability disclosure with their doll’s overt
developmental differences, the discursive technology that re-produces con-
ditions for empathizing with embodied Others also replicates the modes of
identifying difference. Monstrous seduction, then, relies on the queer inter-
sections rooted in our childhood attachment to not only the dolls’ surfaces
and their narratives but to the otherness that is all too very familiar to us:

Acknowledgments: i am grateful to Ronaldo V. Wilson, SA Smythe and

Whitney DeVos for their “fin-tastic” feedback; Micah Perks and kim J. Lau
for their monstrous support; Simone brown for her curiosity; norah for play-
ing with me; Matt for indulging me; William kuskin for inspiring me; and
Jonathan Alexandratos and Tracy L. bealer for always inviting me to join the

1. Written as “Monster High” onwards.
2. A bipedal ice/Psychic type Pokémon who was originally drawn with black skin and
prominent bright pink lips leading it to come under fire by some critics as being a blackface
drag queen (
3. “Proper” as a concept of society and economics; white, masculine, fungible. P. Youn-
quist, Monstrosities: Bodies And British Romanticism (2003); S. Gillman, Black Bodies, White
Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine,
and Literature (1985).
4. colored Francie was released in 1967. She was a darker toned doll using the white
barbie head mold; she was modeled after the white Francie. African American consumers
Get Your Freak On (Thomas) 117

disregarded her. in 1994, there was also the release of a black version of Oreo barbie. it was
a marketing tie-in with the cookie brand meant to encourage Oreo cookie sharing between
kids. Manufacturers may or may not have been oblivious to the derogatory use of the word
“oreo” which describes a person who is black but “acts white” or people who are half black
and half white. in 2014, Mexican barbie upset the Mexican community for its outdated stereo-
types. but, bad press is still press, right? Ann ducille writes in length about Mattel’s challenges
with positioning their brand through various incarnations of the black barbie in “Toy Theory:
black barbie and Deep Play of Difference,” Skin Trade (Harvard University Press, 1996). She
writes, “Though i don’t mean to imply that there is no social conscience behind Mattel’s poli-
cies, one doesn’t have to be a cynic to think that profit is the major motive behind the peddling
of multicultural wares” (35).
5. These are congenital birth defects that may cause developmental or structural mal-
formations. The term teratology comes from the Greek teras meaning monster or marvel.
6. Frenemy=“friend” + “enemy.” colleagues in contention whether of not both parties
accede to their roles, i.e., Seinfeld & newman, Plath & Sexton, or Salieri & Mozart.
7. The online chatter between Monster High collectors includes questions about the
doll’s resilience in water. A series of popular YouTube videos, “carla Underwater,” show an
eight-year-old girl playing underwater with Monster High dolls. While it is incredibly fun
to watch carla underwater, the sometimes moody downtempo eDM soundtrack coupled
with her adept diving skills invites a complex image of “child.” The staging of “carla Under-
water” on the internet blurs child play and adult gaze performance.
8. Monster High trademarked costumes are sold in children and adult sizes. kala
Mer’ri is not available; only the “main tribe” and a few of the older dolls are available. At the
2016 San Diego comic con, i took a picture with an adult Draculaura as we waited in line
for the Monster High photo booth,
9. Mattel released Fashionista barbie dolls in 2016 recognizing different body sizes
and seven skin tones.
10. in 2003, the Flavas product line did not meet expectations and would be discon-
tinued in 2004. it is unclear where Diva Starz and Flavas fall in Mattel brands. My Scene
barbie is included in “barbie.”
11. The 2007 15 percent decrease in barbie sales is attributed to sales decline sin My
Scene and barbie Fantasy.
12. The report notes that this increase is due to higher sale son Monster High and Dis-
ney Princess products.
13. Of the 19 percent increase in “Other Girls” in 2013, 11 percent is attributed to Monster
High and 7 percent to the ever After High launch.
14. in 2015, Monster High was reported as being responsible for 16 percent of the 17
percent decrease in consolidated gross sales. The Great Scarrier Reef DVD dealing with anti-
bullying would be released in spring 2016. Mattel also boasted the Welcome to Monster High
DVD meant to be a brand reintroduction to a new generation of fans. Also in 2016, Monster
High will partner with Lady Gaga’s born This Way Foundation.

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All Dolled Up
Monster High, Project MC2
and “Action” Figures

There is, perhaps, no more impactful practice on the development of

children than play. it is through play that children develop “the ability to
form images; skill in storing and retrieving formed images; possessing a store
of images; skill in recombining and integrating these images as a source of
internal stimulation and divorcing them from reality; and reinforcement for
skillful recombining of images” (Russ 33). children learn to tell stories by
playing. They develop creativity and expand their imaginations. More than
that, “play helps the child to (a) expand vocabulary and link objects with
actions, (b) develop object constancy, (c) form event schemas and scripts,
(d) learn strategies for problem solving, (e) develop divergent thinking ability,
and (f) develop a flexibility in shifting between different types of thought
(narrative and logical)” (Russ 33). Playing is an integral function of the devel-
opment of a child, both as an individual and as a member of a society. it is
generally accepted that “childhood is a generative cultural site unlike any
other. childhood generates bodies as well as meanings which grow, interact,
and transform” (cook 2). Through play, children learn how to think and
function as adults.
Play involves four essential components: “First is the environment: the
setting(s) where play activity takes place. Second involves the materials: the
instruments (or absence thereof) that facilitate play activity. Third is the dra -
matis personae: how many and who is or are playing, as well as the relation-
ships among those playing, including solo players. Fourth is freedom: how
much control a child or children have over their play activity” (chudacoff 3).
children spend a great deal of their play time engaging with toys, both
alone and in groups (Seiter; cosaro). Toys modify each of those four com-

All Dolled Up (Bell) 121

ponents materially. A toy may require a quite a bit of physical space or none
at all; a toy may limit or expand the number of children that may play. but
in facilitating play, a toy may actually constrain the intellectual and imagi-
natory freedom a child has over his or her activity. The toy itself may direct
the play of a child in very specific ways. For example, “a consistent finding
in the developmental literature is that children tend to prefer toys that are
stereotyped as appropriate for their own sex rather than toys that are iden-
tified with the other sex” (cherney & London, 717). According to Tobin et
al., “by 3 or 4 years of age, most children are aware that their social worlds
are divided into two categories—male and female—and that they belong to
one of these categories; they also know that persons of each category often
behave differently from persons of the other” (Tobin, Menon, Menon, Spatta,
Hodges, & Perry 601). This extends to the selection of toys (Auster & Mans-
bach) and to the manner in which those toys are engaged (Martin, eisenbud,
& Rose). A child can tell the difference between a “boy’s toy” and a “girl’s
toy” (blakemore & centers; coyle & Liben), even though those categories
are often arbitrarily applied. There can appear to be no logic to the manner
in which “boy’s” and “girl’s” labels are determined. The labels can be confus-
ing: nickelodeon’s “Paw Patrol Marshall’s Fire Fightin’ Truck” features a spot-
ted Dalmatian in a red hat atop a fire engine; this is listed on the
site as a “boy’s toy.” nickelodeon’s “Paw Patrol Play Time Fun” features three
play tents in the shape of a fire engine and firehouse connected together by
tunnels; this is listed on the site as a “girl’s toy.” There is often
no rhyme or reason to labeling of “boy’s” or “girl’s.” it should be noted, how-
ever, that a Google Shopping search of “boy’s toy” and “girl’s toy” reveals the
main way in which categorization takes place: pink is definitively a “girl’s”
color. but blue can be either “boy’s” or “girl’s,” depending on the exact hue.
And what of green? Yellow? White? it, pretty quickly, becomes obvious that
“girl’s toy” is the definition category, while “boy’s toy” or “toys for either gen-
der” are comprised of any toy that isn’t pink.

Gender Schema and Play

if children are already understanding the differences between (among)
genders by the age of three or four, it stands to reason that they are also
already developing the necessary tools for socialization into those respective
genders. children “learn, via socialization, to associate gender with a vast
array of attributes (e.g., traits, roles, occupations). The resulting gender
schema are, in turn, used to evaluate, process, and assimilate new informa-
tion, with important consequences for children’s cognitions, preferences, and
behaviors” (Liben & bigler).
122 Articulating the Action Figure

This information about gender is then condensed into schema, which are
structures that are used to interpret socially-constructed norms about behav-
ior, dress, preferences, and so on (bem). For example, “according to the male
gender schema, men are agentic, instrumental, and task-oriented; according
to the female gender schema, women are communal, nurturant [sic], and expres-
sive” (Valian 226).1 This is not to say that all men are task-oriented or all women
are expressive; it is merely to suggest that children begin to associate person-
ality traits and behaviors with one gender or the other very early on in life, often
based on the environment in which they are raised. When children discover
and “understand that they belong to a gender category, they embark on an
investigation as ‘gender detectives,’ attending to information about their own
gender and about differences between girls and boys” (Halim, Ruble, Tamis-
Lemonda-zosuls, Lurye & Greulich 1092). This begins to manifest in the
ways in which children play: “there is considerable evidence that children
apply their developing understanding of gender to play, approaching what
they perceive as culturally appropriate for their own gender, and avoiding
what they perceive as appropriate for the other gender” (coyle & Liben 3).
As children begin to gender schematize their play, their selection of toys
and the manner with which those toys are played also begins to fall along
gender lines. This may be “a result of explicit verbal labeling (‘That’s a boy’s
toy’ or ‘That’s a girl’s toy’) or implicit labeling (e.g., labeling by masculine
and feminine colors, toy type, or other toy features)” (Weisgram, Fulcher, &
Dinella 401), but it is clear that children can definitely make this distinction
(caldera, Huston, & O’brien; Alexander, Wilcox, & Woods).
not only do children differentiate between schematically appropriate
toys, but evidence also shows that children gravitate toward schematic rein-
forcing characters, even when those characters may engage in aschematic
behaviors. coyle and Liben state: “Given that children tend to take on char-
acteristics or behaviors of same-sex models and are generally attracted to
own-sex-typed toys … girls might be especially attracted to play with a char-
acter that is strongly feminized. From a modeling perspective … girls might
be expected to be especially drawn to masculine activities that have been
modeled by a strongly feminized character rather than by a weakly feminized
character” (3).
This is to say that if a character or toy is portrayed as stereotypically
feminine, but engages in stereotypically masculine behaviors, girls may still
be drawn to play with the toy or as the character. This is primarily because
“there are gender schemas [sic] for the self (i.e., self-concept and personal
preferences) and gender schemas [sic] for others (i.e., stereotyped knowledge
and attitudes). Gender schemas [sic] about the self and others are often unre-
lated” (Leaper 332). A boy may be able to differentiate between what is gender
appropriate for himself and what is gender appropriate for all other boys, for
All Dolled Up (Bell) 123

example. it may be perfectly normal for him to like My Little Pony: Friendship
is Magic, while simultaneously acknowledging that other boys think the show
is for girls (bell, “The ballad of Derpy Hooves”).

Toy Selection
by and large, children are not in charge of procuring and/or purchasing
toys for themselves; at least, not directly. From the earliest ages, toys are
selected for children by adults, and, unsurprisingly, adults tend to follow
stereotypical gender schema, “including adults’ perceptions of the toys that
are appropriate for boys and appropriate for girls” (Auster & Manbach; see
also blakemore & centers, caldera et al.). bradley and Gobbart conducted
an experiment in which parents were asked to present a series of toys to their
toddler child. The toys were secretly coded by the researchers as masculine
(e.g., a truck), feminine (e.g., a doll in a cradle), or gender neutral (e.g., a
stacking pole and rings), according to stereotypical gender roles. Parents were
observed to determine which three toys were first offered to the child. Accord-
ing to the results, “fathers but not mothers discriminated in their treatment
of boys and girls, offering both more toys appropriate to their gender”
(bradley & Gobbart 454). Additionally, fathers were noted to be “primarily
responsible for the emergence of gender-typed play in their toddlers” (bradley
& Gobbart 455). Fisher-Thompson further found that “customers selecting
toys for boys were more likely to purchase [sex typed] toys than customers
selecting toys for girls. These data agree with results of previous research
indicating that boys are given stronger socialization pressure to act sex-
appropriately than girls” (Fisher-Thompson 400).
This would seem to follow logically; men select more gender schematic
toys for their children, particularly for boys, than women do, because men
had more gender schematic toys selected for them during their own social-
ization process. Men are replicating the socialization they received as a child.2
Williams believes this to be process by which “the child … experience[s] the
pleasures of gender and pick[s] up some lessons on proper stereotypical
behavior” (171), as guided by a parent. indeed, “parents are often more positive
towards their children and become more involved in their children’s play
when they play with ‘gender-specific’ toys as this is viewed as ‘gender appro-
priate’ behavior” (boekee & brown).
Thus, children are able to formulate gender schema at a very early age,
guided primarily by the cues given to them from parents through gender-
based toy selection and gender schematic play. A child given a toy and told
that the toy is “for” his or her gender is encouraged to play with that toy in
ways that are “appropriate” for the child’s gender.
124 Articulating the Action Figure

However, parents are not the sole influence in the selection of toys; not
in a 100 percent media-saturated society (bell, “Princess Pedagogy”). Media
have a profound impact on the socialization process (bandura), particularly
for children. Typically, media are viewed as having a negative impact on the
socialization process, a “discourse that can be characterized as ‘moral panic’
about children’s culture, in general, and their communication and leisure
activities, in particular” (Götz, Lemish, Aidman, & Moon 4). However, it is
clear that children very quickly form relationships with media characters
who “also can become meaningful social partners to children” (Gola,
Richards, Lauricella, & calvert 391). children ascribe relationship statuses
to fictional characters much in the same way they ascribe those same statuses
to their real life friends, often through play. A child’s favorite Transformer
or favorite My Little Pony is not simply a character on a screen or a piece of
plastic on the floor; that is OPTiMUS PRiMe, THe GReAT DeFenDeR OF
LAnD OF eQUeSTRiA. More importantly, that character is a child’s friend,
in a very literal sense of the word. in fact, since “children treat toy characters
as if they are real people during symbolic play, playing with characters after
viewing them onscreen may provide a bridge between the symbolic world of
television and offscreen settings” (Gola et al. 394). The child can become a
part of the character’s world, and the character can become a part of the
There is an ancillary effect of this parasocial relationship (see bell
“American idolatry”; J. Alexander for more in-depth explanation), which i
refer to as “media-directed play,” and which kline refers to as the “synergy”:
“The synergy created between television and toys through their merger within
a single narrative universe. Understanding the latter should be a prerequisite
for debating its supposed effects (in the conventional sense of influences …
). kline asks, therefore, who or what the child is identifying with when playing
with media-marketed toys, and what opportunities for exploring specific
problems and related emptions those particular contexts allow? The proffered
‘narrative universe[s]’ are thus understood to be made up of such identifica-
tions and opportunities” (Fleming 29).
That is to say, as the child brings the mediated character into his or her
own world, s/he also brings with it situations, events, and storylines in which
the character has been involved. For example, a child playing with Optimus
Prime might reenact an epic battle with Megatron that the child has seen in
a television episode.3 The toys themselves direct the child’s play, hand in hand
with the television episode. in this way, the child’s own imagination is both
supplemented and sublimated. The media production suggests to the child
particular ways to play, but concurrently drowns out uniquely individual
ways to play the child may have come up with on his or her own; “so playing
All Dolled Up (Bell) 125

with Gi Joe toys is understood within that particular ‘narrative universe,’

whether one then argues that the children are either constrained by it or tran-
scend it” (Fleming 30). This media-directed play can also contain deeply gen-
der schematic messaging, teaching girls to play in one way and boys to play
in another.

“Action” Figures
nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of action figures. As
the entire purpose of this volume is the discussion of action figures, and the
genealogy of the action figure is surely covered in-depth multiple times in
multiple chapters, i will defer to those scholars on the matter of history. How-
ever, there is a salient point to be made in the context of this chapter in terms
of the label “action figure” vs. the label “doll”—because the distinction is
based almost exclusively on gender schematization.
The term “action figure” necessarily implies a juxtaposition between the
term “action” and the contrary, inaction. clearly, the inaction figure is the
doll, “essentially passive receptacles of the fantasies of the children who played
with them, to be dressed and undressed, posed and manipulated” (bainbridge
831). Quintessentially, this has been embodied by Mattel’s barbie. barbie is,
perhaps, the most commercially successful doll of all time—it is estimated
that 90 percent of American girls between the ages of three and ten own at
least one barbie doll (Worobey & Worobey). barbie play is gender schema-
tized for girls: “some claim that the toy represents the paradigm of adult
female beauty to which young girls learn to aspire … it has been argued that
barbie dolls reflect a highly sexualized image and circumscribe girls’ play by
emphasizing prescribed roles and patterns of interaction. it is feared that by
dramatizing stereotypical feminine roles during play, girls will internalize
and later embody such roles” (kuther & McDonald 40).
barbie’s focus, over the years, has largely been her wardrobe (Pearson
& Mullins; Motz) and her body proportions (Worobey & Worobey; Dittmar,
Halliwell, & ive):
Although barbie is available in a variety of costumes, including athletic wear (which
might suggest muscularity or agency) and those relevant to many careers (which
might suggest intellectual capacity), her most commonly sold style of dress consists
of a form-fitting sparkly evening gown and high heels (in fact, her feet are molded
for high heels). This style of dress highlights only the doll’s physical appearance and
her unattainable figure; brownell and napolitano (1995) showed that, to have the
physical measurements of barbie, an average U.S. adult woman would have to be 2
feet taller, have a neck 3 inches longer, have a chest 4 inches larger, and be 6 inches
smaller in the waist [Sherman & zurbriggen].
126 Articulating the Action Figure

Although barbie wears athletic clothes and has a variety of careers, the
emphasis of the toy is definitely more on the “figure4” than on the “action.”
barbie is a passive participant in play by design; things happen to barbie: her
hair gets done, her clothes get changed, she lounges in her Dream House and
sports her Dream car.
This is contrasted with an emphasis on “action” rather than “figure.”
Action figures are “small plastic figures, typically ranging from 3¾ in. to 12
in. in height, used by children in play, and frequently collected by adult hob-
byists. Among the best known examples are the Gi Joe figures, Star Wars and
Star Trek characters, Superman, Spiderman, and batman” (Pope, Olivardia,
Gruber, & borowiecki). G.i. Joe, in particular, serves as the quintessential
avatar for action figures, as they, in 1963, ushered in the split between “dolls”
and “action figures”:
for the first time the toy not only had the figure of an adult but was also articulated
and therefore capable of performing like one. The only other male adult toy at the
time, ken, didn’t need to be fully articulated. but G.i. Joe needed to be capable of
kneeling, sitting in jeeps, posing with weapons and, most basically, being able to
stand on his own, something no barbie or ken doll could do. Through his 21 move-
able parts, Joe brought “action” to the children’s toy in a way that had never been
seen before, becoming the first socially accepted “doll” for boys and creating a whole
new category of “boys’ toys” [bainbridge 831].

essentially, the G.i. Joe figure was a doll for boys. However, dolls were gender
schematically infused with feminine passivity—these figures were “movable
fighting men” (Walsh 197).
The key difference appears to be in the convergence of points of artic-
ulation and purpose. barbie articulates at the neck, shoulder, and hip—five
points of articulation. A standard contemporary 3.75-inch G.i. Joe figure
articulates at the neck, shoulder, elbow, waist, hip, and knee—ten points of
articulation. A G.i. Joe can literally do more than a barbie. it is a figure built
for action. Points of articulation are an important division between dolls and
action figures, the latter of which must possess “toned muscles, realistic body
shapes, [be] completely posable and articulated, and [be] involved in real-
life activities … as opposed to being a princess, for instance” (Fishel 32).

Monster High
in July 2010, Mattel, the toy company responsible for barbie, engaged
in one of the largest franchise launches in the company’s history: Monster
High (Tse). Mattel refers, in their own materials, to the Monster High fran-
chise as a series of fashion dolls with a twist: “Monster High is a school where
teenage monsters from all walks of unlife are accepted, just as they are. The
All Dolled Up (Bell) 127

students and the classes they attend are definitely out of the ordinary, but
what makes this school special is the community where imperfections are
scary-cool and embracing everyone’s differences is encouraged. Monster High
captures the awkward teenage moments that we all experience in high school.
At its core, the brand celebrates everyone’s inner monster by encouraging all
to: be Yourself. be Unique. be a Monster™” (Mattel).
each of the characters, referred to as “ghouls” (as opposed to “girls”; an
important distinction to which i will return), are in some way related to
classic monsters (often as offspring). For example, main characters include
Frankie Stein (daughter of Frankenstein), Howleen and clawdeen Wolf
(daughters of The Werewolf), Draculaura (daughter of Dracula), Abbey bom-
inable (daughter of The Yeti), cleo Denile (daughter of The Mummy), and
Lagoona blue (daughter of The Sea Monster). There are also male character
toys as well (Gil Webber, son of The River Monster, for example, or Deuce
Gorgon, son of Medusa), but they are more difficult to find and are often
only available as part of box sets. Available accessories range from clothing
sets and pets to various play sets of locations within the school (the creep-
ateria or the Student Lounge) to a dollhouse-sized “Deadluxe” playset.
Familiar criticisms that have been levied at barbie for decades have also
been directed Monster High, primarily in terms of socialization of girls’ body
types, wardrobes, and activities:
A Monster High doll’s is more uncovered than covered, exposing the midriffs, shoul-
ders, or thighs of body with a model’s anorexic torso and long legs, topped by a very
large head with heavily-mascaraed eyes, full and unsmiling lips, and colorful high-
lighted hair. The characters’ costumes are hip with intentional juxtaposition of fish-
net, plaids, sequins, fur, and lace, with accessories and patterns stylized from monster
features: stitched flesh, claws, fangs, unraveled bandages, dripping blood, exposed
brains, and so on. Regardless of the gruesome undertones, the characters’ activities
largely focus on familiar barbie territory: shopping, clothing design, hair styling, and
makeovers [Wohlwend 117].

However, such short-sighted analyses fail to take into consideration sev-

eral key features of Monster High as a text. First, and very most importantly,
the Monster High text repeatedly makes it clear that the body proportions
of the ghouls are not the same as the body proportions of “normals” who live
in the town just outside Monster High (“Ghouls Rule!”). The Monster High
ghouls look the way they do because they are monsters. While in early films,
the terms “ghoul” and “girl” were both used, by the second DVD, the term
“girl” had been phased out almost completely. Monsters look one way and
have one body type; humans look different have a different body type. i will
concede that there is an argument to be made about the sexualization of the
characters through clothing and makeup choices, but that is beyond the scope
of this particular analysis.
128 Articulating the Action Figure

Secondly, the intertextual nature of Monster High makes for very inter-
esting media-directed play. Twelve Monster High films have been produced,
in partnership with nickelodeon. The plotlines of these films have evolved
considerably over time. The first, “new Ghoul @ School,” concerns basic
stereotypically gender schematic problems: Frankie Stein is new to the school
and wants to make the “fearleading” team. She overcomes stereotypical new
kid problems with making friends and fitting in, and is eventually accepted
by the other characters (“new Ghoul @ School”). by the second film, “Fright
On!” the plotlines have taken a distinct turn away from stereotypically gender
schematic problems. in “Fright On!” Frankie, Lagoona and Spectra Van-
dergeist (daughter of a ghost) undertake a spy mission to recover a powder
necessary to remove a curse from a friend, Abbey rescues Draculaura and
Howleen from certain doom, and Draculaura fights off the attack of a gargoyle
(“Fright On!”).
in the fourth film, “escape from Skull Shores,” Abbey and Ghoulia Yelps
(daughter of a zombie) fight off the attack of hostile combatants while Frankie
talks her way out of having to fight “the beast of Skull Shores” (“escape from
Skull Shores”). The seventh film, “Friday night Frights,” is about what hap-
pens when injury decimates the schools “Skulltimate Rollermaze” team.
essentially the Monster High equivalent of high school football, Skulltimate
Rollermaze is a game that has only been played by boys for over a century.
When the boys are all injured, Frankie, clawdeen, Draculaura, Lagoona blue,
and Operetta (daughter of the Phantom of the Opera) step in to take their
places. initially, the school is outright hostile to the idea of ghouls playing
Skulltimate. However, after Ghoulia revives the last ghoul to play Skulltimate,
Robecca Steam (robot daughter of a mad scientist), the ghouls win the cham-
pionship for Monster High and earn the respect of the boys in the school
(“Friday night Frights”).
in one story, “Freaky Fusion,” Frankie Stein literally sacrifices her own
life for that of her friends, giving up her “spark” (in a scene gruesomely rem-
iniscent of an electric chair) to power the machine that saves the day (“Freaky
Fusion”). This event does not take place in a mall or at a slumber party; it is
the culmination of a time-traveling adventure in which the lives of every
character in the story are in constant danger.
The key component in all of these stories (nearly all twelve in the series)
is action. When eight characters are fused together into four hybrid monsters
in “Freaky Fusion,” they do not sit around and cry about it or start trying on
new clothes or go shopping. They time travel, they solve puzzles and over-
come obstacles, and, most of all, they fight, sometimes literally (in the end
scene, Ghoulia fends off a tyrannosaurus rex with a sharpened stick) (“Freaky
Fusion”). The intertextual nature of Monster High necessarily means that
children are bringing these action- oriented stories into their own lives
All Dolled Up (Bell) 129

through media-directed play. if a child’s favorite character is Abbey bom-

inable, maybe she will change the figure’s clothes or swap her shoes, but she
may also reenact Abbey freezing the bad guys with her frost breath and saving
her friends from peril (“escape from Skull Shores”). Monster High characters
do much more than shop, change outfits, and go to school; they run, jump,
swing through the air, fly, swim, skate, problem solve, and physically fight.
They are action-oriented characters.5
This media-directed play is augmented by the fact that Monster High
figures are absolutely not fashion dolls in the traditional sense. Monster High
figures articulate at the neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, waist, hip, and knee—
twelve points of articulation, as opposed to the ten points of articulation of
a standard G.i. Joe figure. A Monster High figure can literally do more than
a G.i. Joe. Monster High is not simply “all about fashion, circulating a well-
worn post-feminist trope: fashionistas (e.g., Clueless) who want to stay current
by buying the latest trends with a crossover subtext that staying in style is
the key to popularity in high school” (Wohlwend 122). That sort of stereo-
typically gender schematic play is certainly available. However, much like a
child could arrange his or her G.i. Joes into a circle and have a tea party, gen-
der aschematic play is also available—and much more readily accessible due
to the intertextual nature of Monster High and the fact that the toys are not
merely fashion dolls, but action figures—in both the conventional and literal

Project MC2
MGA entertainment has pushed this one step further with the intro-
duction of the Project Mc2 line. it is an unlikely source of positive female
action figures, as MGA entertainment is also responsible for the questionable-
at-best bratz dolls: “bratz are a range of highly sexualized teen dolls whose
sexuality is evident in their bodies, makeup, and clothes, which have been
described as trashy … ‘streetwalker’ clothes … and sexualized” (karniol,
Stuemler-cohen, & Lahav-Gur 897). bratz dolls have also been categorized
as “pole dancers on their way to work at a gentlemen’s club” (Talbot), “asking
for trouble” (Meltz), “trampy” (LaFerla), and “at home on any street corner
where prostitutes ply their trade” (LaFerla). To this criticism, MGA once
responded, “They look like streetwalkers? controversy is a boost to the
brand” (Meltz).
bratz are a range of highly sexualized teen dolls whose sexuality is evi-
dent in their bodies, makeup, and clothes, which have been described as
trashy (Gibbs), “streetwalker” clothes (McAllister), and “sexualized” (APA
Task Force).
130 Articulating the Action Figure

A company responsible for such a negative product might not be the

first place one looks for the exact opposite, but MGA’s Project Mc2 line is
diametrically opposed to its bratz line: “The dolls, with names like Adrienne
Attoms and bryden bandwedth, were designed to have ‘different body types
and faces to show that not everyone is blonde and tall,’ says isaac Larian,
ceO of MGA. each comes with a do- it-at-home science experiment.
bandwedth’s kit shows kids how to make a glow stick necklace from house-
hold ingredients—with apologies to adults who have to clean up afterward—
while Attoms’ kit lets girls create an erupting volcano with items found in
the kitchen” (Moran).
Like Monster High, the intertextual experience of Project Mc2 is not
one of malls and shopping and slumber parties. Project Mc2 does not inhabit
the world of the fashion doll, despite resembling barbies in superficial ways.
Project Mc2 is a line of action figures, particularly given the nature of the
media production that accompanies the toys.
The netflix Project MC2 series is a live-action program aimed at tween
girls. its four teenaged stars (Genneya Walton, Victoria Vida, Ysa Pena-
rejo, and Mika Abdalla) occupy a diverse array of ethnicities, interests, and
styles. each is an expert in a STeM field: computer programming bryden
bandweth, science whiz Adrienne Atoms, engineer camryn coyle, and math-
ematician Mckeyla McAlister. As of this writing, there are three episodes
available on netflix. in these episodes, the main characters solve problems,
invent machines, and engage in a spy adventure under the watchful eye of
The Quail (played by education advocate and veteran actress Danica Mckel-
These activities are mirrored in the toys themselves. The Project Mc2
toys articulate at the neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, waist, hip, knee, and ankle—
fourteen points of articulation, as opposed to Monster High’s twelve points
and G.i. Joe’s ten points. each toy is packaged with a science experiment or
engineering project, encouraging children to play with the toys actively rather
than passively. even moreso than G.i. Joe or Monster High, Project Mc2 is
a line of literal “action” figures, as the intertextual media-directed play expe-
rience strongly suggest actually doing things with the toys. (Anecdotally, i
can attest—my own 10-year-old daughter spent entire days after watching
Project MC2 actively engaging in “spy activities” all over our house. There
was a lot of sneaking along walls, tumbling, decoding messages and building
“spy traps”—all highly active activities.)
importantly, ancillary accessory merchandise for the Project Mc2 action
figures include not clothes and shoes, but additional experiments, including
a kit that allows a child to build a robot and the “Project Mc2 Ultimate Lab
kit,” which features a microscope, beakers, test tubes, and Petri dishes. in
fact, none of the action figures are packaged with clothing changes at all; the
All Dolled Up (Bell) 131

characters come with disguises, beakers, and a specialty-appropriate acces-

sory (camryn coyle is packaged with a skateboard that must be assembled,
for example). These are not fashion dolls; these are action figures.

Monster High and Project Mc2 demonstrate that “the whole system of
meanings and other effects generated around toys today makes available some
of the resources for such play and for more diverse, open and flexible identity
effects” which is then closed down by “reinforcing in the end the central
identity effect, the configuring of dimensions around male identity reduc-
tively defined” (Fleming 58). in other words, if we are being intellectually
honest about the definition of “action figure,” there is necessarily a hidden
component of “for boys” contained within—a narrowly-conceived “for boys,”
at that. This undermines both the potential of the action figure as cultural
text for children and belies the reality that “action” and “figure” are highly
contestable terms to which toys “for girls” can lay claim. Rigid adherence to
stereotypical gender schema colors the manner in which we approach the
categorization and taxonomy of children’s culture, particularly when it comes
to toys. The ghouls of Monster High and the STeM wizards of Project Mc2
are no less action figures than the hypermasculinized and hypermilitarized
G.i. Joes or Transformers.
This is rapidly becoming evident in the success of Mattel’s Dc Super
Hero Girls line. Released in July of 2015, the line includes popular Dc comics
characters, such as Wonder Woman, batgirl, bumblebee, and Supergirl, as
well as traditional villains, like Harley Quinn and Poison ivy. There is an
intertextual experience, as Warner bros. Animation developed an animated
series for the line, and a series of middle-reader novels have been released.
Most interestingly, Mattel released figures in both the traditional 12-inch for-
mat and the traditional 6-inch format. Dc Super Hero Girls can fit into any
style of play a child chooses; the larger figures scale perfectly with barbie,
making them a part of her world, while the 6-inch figures scale perfectly with
most standard superhero action figures, making them a part of the superhero
world. in both cases, the figures feature advanced articulation (13 points of
articulation for the 6-inch figures; 11 points of articulation for the 12-inch
figures) and accessories geared toward active play (Wonder Woman’s lasso,
for example, or bumblebee’s wings). These action figures are on pace to earn
Warner bros. one billion dollars in 2016 (Arrant), placing them among the
most commercially successful action figures in history, and hopefully smash-
ing the idea that action figures are “for boys.”
How we refer to toys matters, particularly when we are engaging in pro-
132 Articulating the Action Figure

cesses of public pedagogy with our children, who are attempting to formulate
and interpret the gender schema that will dominate the rest of their lives.
1. This is not a new concept. As far back as the 300s b.c., Aristotle was arguing that
women are “more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive … more compassionate[,] …
more easily moved to tears[,] … more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to
strike[,] … more prone to despondency and less hopeful[,] … more void of shame or self-
respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, of more retentive memory [and] … also more
wakeful; more shrinking [and] more difficult to rouse to action” (Deslauriers). Aristotle viewed
men as “active” and women as “passive,” particularly in terms of biological procreation. Women
have been struggling against this conception of the female sex for a very long time, indeed.
2. it should be noted that the study does not account for the differences that could
occur, for example, in terms of race, or class, or sexual orientation. All of these could be con-
founding factors, so the term “men” is being used fairly loosely here.
3. Toy commercials may also contribute to the manner with which a toy is played.
Many toy commercials are demonstrative and prescriptive in the way the toys are presented,
which provides a blueprint for a child’s interaction with the toy at home: “See, kids? This is
how you’re supposed to play with this!”
4. Mattel recently announced that barbie will be produced, from now on, in multiple
skin tones and body shapes, such as “original” barbie, “tall” barbie, “curvy” barbie, and
“petite” barbie, and skin tone/hair texture combinations for black, Latina, Asian and white
dolls. While this is a step in the right direction, barbie still remains, largely, a passive doll
rather than an “action” figure. That said, Mattel’s recent introduction of the “barbie Spy
Squad” line and the “barbie Princess Power” line are certainly moves into more action-
oriented play.
5. A legitimate argument can be made here that it is problematic to tell girls that run-
ning, jumping, fighting, and defending themselves is to become monsters. However, the same
argument can apply to “boy’s” action figures—the only way to access running, jumping, fight-
ing, and defending themselves is to become a hypermasculine, overly-muscled super sol-
dier—its own kind of monster.

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“Toys with brains”
Skylanders and the Growth
of the Toys-to-Life Market
kiMbeRLY A. OWczARSki

At the annual American international Toy Fair in February 2011, Activi-

sion blizzard (hereafter, Activision) unveiled their newest game, Skylanders:
Spyro’s Adventure, with much fanfare. Activision was founded in 1979 as a
video game publisher, and notable titles developed by the company include
Pitfall! (1982), the Quake series (1996–2007), and the Call of Duty series (2003-
present). This new game featured Spyro the Dragon, a character who had
sold over 20 million units for Activision since the first Spyro game was
released in 1998 (Snider). Yet, it was an interesting choice of venue for the
game’s introduction, considering that the annual electronic entertainment
expo (e3) was a mere few months away and was solely dedicated to video
games. From this initial debut, Activision executives maintained that Sky-
landers was more than a video game and stressed that the game let kids “bring
[their] Toys to Life” through its innovative system (“Activision to Unveil”).
by placing one of over thirty characters equipped with a readable microchip
onto a Portal of Power, in reality a Radio Frequency identification (RFiD)
reader, players imported their toys into the virtual world of the video game.
indeed, with the release of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure in stores in October
2011, Activision established a new hybrid gaming genre: the toys-to-life mar-
Within fifteen months of its launch, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure
spawned a sequel, Skylanders: Giants, and together they sold over 100 million
action figures and earned over a billion dollars in revenue globally (Molina;
“‘Skylanders’ is Officially”). The success of Skylanders helped propel Activi-
sion to its most profitable year ever, with the company netting $1.1 billion in
2012 (Makuch, “Activision”). For the first half of 2013, Skylanders: Giants led

136 Articulating the Action Figure

as the best-selling video game overall and Skylanders emerged as the top-
grossing action figure line of 2013 (kain; Suellentrop). Activision thus ben-
efited significantly from establishing the toys-to-life market. Disney launched
its infinity toys-to-life game later in 2013 and, with its base of well-known
intellectual property which included Pirates of the Caribbean, Frozen, and
Toy Story, it became strong competition for Skylanders. in 2014, nintendo
entered the toys-to-life market as well with its Amiibos which featured dozens
of popular characters including Mario, Pac-Man, and Donkey kong. That
year, the toys-to-life market grew to over $670 million in sales in the United
States alone (barnes). in 2015, Warner bros. launched its own toys-to-life
game series through Lego Dimensions, cross-branding the construction toy
company with properties such as Doctor Who, The Wizard of Oz, and Batman,
among others. between the four key companies in 2015, the toys-to-life mar-
ket increased to over $720 million domestically (needleman).
Given the success of these games, the toys-to-life franchises recently
have expanded into books, comic books, merchandizing, and even film and
television properties. License agreements to cross-promote the games with
established brands such as crayola, McDonalds, and General Mills have also
been plentiful (“Activision’s Licensing Program”). For Activision, this is a
particularly impressive feat given that Skylanders is not as dependent upon
prior well-known intellectual property at its base as the other entries in the
toys-to-life market are. While the first game featured Spyro the Dragon, and
other games in the Skylanders series feature well-known characters, the vast
majority of the action figures were created specifically for this series. Thus,
Activision has established Skylanders as an original franchise, an increasing
rarity with video game properties. indeed, as a testament to its success, Sky-
landers was the fastest kids’ video game property to reach the $1 billion mark
in sales, accomplishing that feat in fifteen months (“‘Skylanders’ is Officially”).
While starter sets for Skylanders contain the game, a Portal of Power, and a
few action figures, consumers must collect an average of eight action figures
in order to complete all areas of the games (kain). Players can bring older
characters into newer games, but they lack the abilities and upgrades that
new characters feature. Activision’s Skylanders sales revenue, therefore, is
heavily weighted towards the action figure aspect of the toys-to-life sales
equation as players amass multiple characters (or multiple iterations of the
same characters) across every new game release.
eric Hirshberg, the chief executive officer of Activision Publishing,
claimed that “when we created Skylanders, we invented a new category of
play and, in the process, disrupted two industries—videogames and toys.
With each new Skylanders game, our commitment to continuous, disruptive
innovation has led to surprising and delightful new ways for kids to play with
toys and games” (qtd. in “newest Skylanders Game”). kids can certainly play
“Toys with brains” (Owczarski) 137

with the action figures on their own without the game; in one study, parents
reported that approximately 20 percent of children’s playtime with the figures
involves no video game aspect at all (Robertson). However, the figures provide
the individualization aspects that mark the toys-to-life genre as a unique
form of video game play. because of their microchips that store information,
the action figures allow players to customize characters’ skills and transport
them to other Portals of Power without losing any data. each player’s path
through the game varies depending on what figure(s) he/she uses to finish
levels. Hirshberg referred to the figures as “toys with brains” when they were
introduced at the Toy Fair, emphasizing their individualized nature (qtd. in
Snider). While the games are the nucleus for the franchise, the action figures
are essential to the property’s success.
With Skylanders action figures at times outselling some of the largest
franchises in this category—Star Wars chief among them—Activision’s prop-
erty is demonstrative of a new generation of interactive action figures (kain).
in this essay, i examine the Skylanders franchise as it established the lucrative
toys-to-life market and has since continued to push the boundaries of what
constitutes this hybrid form of play between video games and toys. claimed
Hirshberg about what made the Skylanders action figures different than other
toys on the market: “These are more than action figures. They are inter-action
figures” (qtd. in “Activision to Unveil”; emphasis in original). indeed, Activi-
sion’s toys-to-life property, by combining an interactive video game world
with a multitude of physical toys, builds upon the key strategies of both mar-
kets in ways previous hybrid forms have failed to achieve. by bridging two
separate types of media—video games and toys—Activision has created a
formula for success for its Skylanders series. in examining Skylanders, i argue
that Activision established a foundation for a new type of video game play,
one that relies heavily on action figures not only as its key source of revenue,
but also for differentiation in a marketplace marked by well-established intel-
lectual property.

Foundations for the Toys-to-Life Genre:

The Children’s Market, Toys
and Digital Media
in the last two decades, toy manufacturers have complained about a
growing phenomenon that affects children and their purchasing behavior:
age compression, referred to colloquially as kids Getting Older Younger
(kGOY). The re-categorization of childhood into multiple phases has accel-
erated this trend as those deemed to be tweens (between ages 9 and 12) and
138 Articulating the Action Figure

teens (between 13 and 17) seek to distance themselves from younger children.
key to this separation has been the adopting of media at the expense of the
use of toys at a younger age. A 2004 Financial Times article cited a study
where it was found that boys between the ages of 9 and 12 who were video
game players spent 40 percent less time playing with action figures (Foster).
Stressed Michael Redmond, an industry analyst for the market research com-
pany The nPD Group, about reaching boys in particular: “For toy manufac-
turers, determining how to leverage the power of video games in order to
take advantage of their popularity through different marketing tactics is
essential” (qtd. in Foster). The same article highlights the importance of dig-
ital media in children’s lives, as 70 percent of money spent on toys revolved
around products with a microchip (Foster). A decade later, Melissa bernstein,
co-founder of traditional toy company Melissa & Doug, commented on the
continuing effects of these trends on her business: “We are waging war….
We are fighting age compression. That’s technology. There’s no question it’s
impacting us” (qtd. in chaker). in fact, it is the combination of these trends—
age compression, the increasing digital nature of toys, and the difficulty of
reaching boys other than through video games—that created the foundation
for the toys-to-life market.
While the toys-to-life market emerged in the early 2010s, toys that have
crossed over into the digital world have been plentiful for a few decades.
Scholar Stig Hjarvard argues that children’s movement away from physical
toys and towards digital ones is a byproduct of the “mediatization of toys”
(44). in Hjarvard’s view, “toys are increasingly of an immaterial nature” (43;
emphasis in original). indeed, he claims that the balance between the mental
and the physical aspects of playing have shifted to favor toys which access
the digital realm: “Play has become synonymous with mental activity: imag-
ining, planning, simulating, reacting, communicating etc. Physical activity
is, to a limited extent, still a necessary part of playing, but the manipulation
of objects no longer involves the same concrete senso-motoric action. Objects
are visual representations on a screen and they are manipulated through a
media interface: the mouse, the joystick, game pad etc.” (43).
Hjarvard’s case study examines Lego as it moved from being a traditional
toy company that was founded in the 1930s to one that had increasingly
embraced digital content. Hjarvard argues that in the 1990s, the company
shifted its focus from the basic LeGO brick as a construction toy to the “value
inherent in the LEGO bricks … [which was] applicable to other kinds of toys
and types of play” (52; emphasis in original). Rather than LeGO just being
a construction toy, the company expanded its focus into print, retail stores,
and computer and video games as well as into branding partnerships with
other companies such as Disney and Lucasfilm. The release of LEGO Stars
Wars: The Video Game in 2005 across multiple gaming platforms is a case in
“Toys with brains” (Owczarski) 139

point. it reconstructs the narratives of the three films of the prequel trilogy
via digital versions of LeGOs. The game was so successful that it spawned a
new game in 2006 based on the original Star Wars trilogy, in addition to
merchandise in retail stores as well as Star Wars-themed LeGO construction
sets. in fact, it is estimated that in the first ten years of the Lego/Lucasfilm
partnership, over 100 million Star Wars LeGO products were sold, many of
which did not contain a material LeGO brick (Williams).
Partnerships like the one between Lego and Lucasfilm eschew easy dis-
tinctions between toys and media properties. According to Hjarvard, there
is great utility in this fuzzy line, particularly in reaching the tween age group:
“‘Tweens’ play with mobile phones, cD-players, television, internet, computer
games etc. just as much as they used to play with the old Wild West fort or
the doll’s house. For these youngsters, media companies like nokia, Microsoft,
Sony, electronic Arts etc. are as much toy manufacturers as Mattel, LeGO
and Hasbro used to be—although this age group doesn’t like the connotations
of the word ‘toy.’ it has become childish to play with toys—and attractive to
play with media” (61). Hjarvard argues that today’s tweens do spend time
playing, as they have in previous generations; however, the locus of their
playtime has moved from material toys to digital ones that are associated
with media companies, brands, and products. in his study of LeGO’s move
into the digital realm, kevin Schut argues that “when LeGO becomes virtual,
it frequently ceases to be only a toy and starts to be part of a game…. The
most significant differences are that games are far more goal-directed activ-
ities than toys, and often feature some kind of explicit, pre-determined nar-
rative” (229). Schut’s view is in line with Hjarvard’s argument about the
mediatization of toys, as these LeGO games adapt to the aesthetic qualities
of media products rather than their material properties as toys. For example,
the LeGO Star Wars games hew close to the films’ narratives rather than pro-
viding a space to roam and construct freely in the LeGO-based Star Wars
world. Schut argues however that even with the LeGO Star Wars series there
is no clear separation between toys and games, and as scholars it would be
more fruitful to discuss specific case studies as part of “a continuum between
these two poles” (231). indeed, Lori Landay asserts that today’s children make
no distinctions between these poles: “The practices of play have changed
because of children’s transmedial experiences; they can easily fuse virtual,
physical, textual, and screen experiences because they do not seem as dis-
parate to them as to perhaps their parents or previous generations” (64).
As the mediatization trend continues, Matthew Thomas Payne and
Gregory Steirer argue that defining what constitutes a video game has gotten
more difficult for scholars, especially when other recent trends such as market
saturation and the digital distribution of content are factored in as well. As
publishers try to navigate an increasingly crowded field of digital content,
140 Articulating the Action Figure

video games “are designed not merely to be successful in the global gaming
market, but to parley that success into greater sales and/or attention to related
products, such as films, comic books, novels, card games and television
shows” (Payne & Steirer 69). Rather than studying games as singular pieces
of content, then, Payne and Steirer suggest that scholars push to understand
how the management of intellectual property (iP) impacts games, particularly
in terms of narrative:
Viewed through the lens of iP management … narrative might better be conceived
not as storytelling rooted in aesthetic values, but as marketing rooted in business
concerns and behavioral psychology…. instead of narrative, the circuits of the texts
that constitute such iPs could be productively conceptualized in terms of promo-
tional strategies. From this framework, video game scholars could explore how differ-
ent methods of intertextual promotion link the video game to other texts within a
particular cultural circuit and examine how the experience of the game changes
(both in theory and in practice) depending on the particular path the gamer has fol-
lowed through the circuit [69].

Payne and Steirer briefly examine the Skylanders games as demonstrative

of this iP focus. in their view, Skylanders “represents a dramatic reimagining
of what the gaming experience can be” (68). indeed, the reliance on action
figures as a core aspect of the Skylanders experience mark the property as a
unique form of gameplay; each player’s experience of the game is based on
the figure(s) with which they play. With the centrality of the action figures,
the Skylanders games follow an alternative pattern of circulation according
to Payne and Steirer: “These new configurations and extensions of digital
play are in turn predicated on new industrial relationships and processes:
the input of toy designers and manufacture[r]s, more carefully managed dis-
tribution networks and inventory control, longer-term windowing and prod-
uct cycles, and new forms of retail promotion and display” (68). All of these
factors have been crucial in the production, marketing, and distribution of
toys, but have only become more pertinent to the video game industry in
recent years as the franchise focus becomes increasingly important to pub-
lishers. indeed, the lead time to create tie-ins to a video game is often longer
than the production of the game disc itself, an issue that affects when, where,
and how consumers access these products (clark).
in such a market, the importance of established intellectual property
cannot be underestimated. Media products based on original ideas face an
uphill battle gaining shelf space in retail outlets and therefore lose valuable
marketing opportunities and merchandizing revenues. in his essay “Fully
Articulated: The Rise of the Action Figure and the changing Face of ‘chil-
dren’s’ entertainment,” Jason bainbridge details Pixar’s Up, the fifth highest
grossing film domestically in 2009 with $293 million at the box office and
sixth highest grossing worldwide with $731 million (“Up”). With the film’s
“Toys with brains” (Owczarski) 141

focus on an old man as the main character, retailers chose not to stock Up-
related merchandize since they believed the film had limited potential for
children’s interests. Argues bainbridge: “[T]he questions raised over Up’s
‘commercial attractiveness’ highlight the changing nature of children’s enter-
tainment, particularly the increased emphases on merchandizing, franchise
development and the ‘toyetic’ potential of properties (their ability to generate
attendant toy lines)” (32). in his essay, bainbridge examines the process of
franchise building through the history of the action figure. He argues that
these toys serve “as a metaphor for children’s entertainment, both sympto-
matic of modern commodity culture and indicative of the current trends in
media convergence” (32).
According to bainbridge, the release of Hasbro’s G.i. Joe toy line in 1964
set the foundation for contemporary action figures in a number of respects.
First, the figures were among the first to feature multiple moving parts,
emphasizing their ability to do actions. Second, the toy line used the razor
and blades strategy, whereby there were only a few figures sold (the razors)
but dozens of options for accessories, weapons and vehicles were available
for purchase (the blades). The renewable part of the equation—the blades—
provides long-term profitability for the company. Third, the toy line was orig-
inally to be tied into a television program, The Lieutenant (1963–64), which
would help advertise the action figures. While the original tie-in fell through,
Hasbro later formed a partnership with Marvel to rejuvenate the G.i. Joe toy
line via an animated series and comic book in the 1980s (35–36). Marvel cre-
ated storylines and personalities for each character, which helped promote
the purchase of each individual action figure. This multimedia approach to
G.i. Joe provided ample advertising opportunities, multiple pipelines for rev-
enue, and a template for other Hasbro products. indeed, Hasbro employed a
similar three-pronged strategy of media for its brand new My Little Pony and
Transformers toy lines shortly after its success with the revamped G.i. Joe
While the importance of action figures to kid-oriented media franchises
like G.i. Joe has been clear for decades, incorporating action figures as an
essential part of the game experience has been a much slower process. Video
game franchises such as Microsoft’s Halo series have established a successful
line of action figures and assorted merchandize, though those are peripheral
to the games themselves. The many crossovers between toy companies and
the virtual world before the toys-to-life market was established by Activision
in 2011 provided a sense of the possibilities for this hybrid market. in addition
to the traditional toy company Lego, Mattel pushed many of its toy lines into
the digital realm by the end of the 1990s. For example, the company offered
the Talk with Me barbie in 1997, a doll which included a serial port to connect
to Pcs. Once connected, several phrases could be downloaded to the doll’s
142 Articulating the Action Figure

computer and activated for her to speak in the real world (Makris). A decade
later, Mattel offered a version of the barbie doll that functioned as a MP3
player. Once the barbie was placed in its docking station, it allowed access
to barbie’s online world which included games, shops, and chatrooms (Story).
One of the most interesting precursors of a physical toy being directly
tied into a virtual world environment, however, was Webkinz, launched by
toy company Ganz in 2005. by purchasing plush animals at retailers, cus-
tomers received a code that allowed access into the Webkinz online world
for a year. There, players could play games and purchase objects, accessories,
and decorations for their virtual pet, while socializing with other Webkinz
avatars and the people playing with them. claimed Paul kurnit, head of the
consulting firm kidShop, of the Webkinz strategy: “it’s a gaming concept, it’s
a nurturing concept, it’s a highly interactive concept” (qtd. in Mui). in its
first two years, Ganz sold over two million Webkinz, and its website traffic
outpaced more established toy brands including barbie, Hasbro, and Toys
“R” Us (Dwyer). Stressed Piers Harding-Rolls, a media analyst for Screen
Digest: “There is a lot of interest in the Webkinz business model as it is one
of the first to combine the real and virtual worlds so effectively. Offering real
toys, reinforced by a virtual world of games, is a brilliant way to enhance a
brand and build up a continual relationship with it” (qtd. in Dwyer). it is the
idea of a continual relationship built through the online world that mimics
the razor and blades strategy that is common with action figure lines.
based on the success of Webkinz and other virtual/real world hybrids,
the franchiseable aspect of this equation was hardly lost on Hollywood stu-
dios. Disney’s purchase of the children’s website club Penguin in 2007 is a
case in point. Filled with chatrooms and games, and navigable via an ani-
mated, customizable penguin, club Penguin had over 700,000 subscribers
paying $5.95 in monthly fees when Disney purchased the company for $350
million (Wallenstein and bond). in 2009, 20th century Fox partnered with
Mattel to produce a series of toys for its film Avatar (James cameron), items
which were then promoted through third party brands including McDonalds
and coca-cola. As an original premise, Avatar faced many of the same prob-
lems that Pixar’s Up did, as retailers were hesitant to stock the merchandize
on an untried property. by using augmented reality as the base of the prod-
ucts, Fox tried to appeal to an older demographic than is typical with toys—
young adult males rather than children (Graser, “‘Avatar’”). Vehicles, action
figures, creatures, and coke zero cans were fitted with a 3D tag that, when
scanned by a Webcam, created additional content on the computer screen.
A coke zero can, for example, turned into an animated, 3D helicopter in the
virtual space as the consumer moved it in front of the Webcam. claimed
Doug Wadleigh, Mattel’s Vice President for boys Action Plan Marketing:
“The development of our ‘Avatar’ toy line with the integration of the aug-
“Toys with brains” (Owczarski) 143

mented reality technology marks an entirely new level of innovation in

toys…. boys will be able to play with the ‘Avatar’ figures and vehicles in ways
that previously could only be imagined” (qtd. in “Mattel Launches”). As inno-
vative as the toys were in 2009, sales figures for the toys were hardly astro-
nomical. by June 2010, Avatar products had reached $153 million in retail
sales, but without a sequel or TV series to continually promote the property,
sales figures soon lagged behind other franchises like Fox’s The Simpsons
When the toys-to-life market emerged in 2011, then, it did not do so in
a vacuum. The blending of the virtual and real world through toys had been
established through other brands including LeGO, Mattel, and Webkinz.
While Skylanders furthered the mediatization trend of toys seen with these
brands, it did so in a new direction through its game base. Activision sought
the attention of boys younger than the tween demographic, an indication of
the impact of age compression even on video game publishers. Due to the
prominence of franchises based on well-known properties, Activision sought
an innovative method to challenge other game publishers. What Activision
was able to implement with Skylanders was an original, renewable franchise
based on the key interplay of the action figures and the video games, an inte-
gration that would re-establish the company in the children’s marketplace.

Activision, Skylanders and the Centrality

of Action Figures
Activision was established as a third-party game publisher in the late
1970s as several developers defected from leading video game company Atari
over conflicts with compensation (Fahs). barely surviving the 1983 video
game financial crash, the company diversified its content in the 1990s and
early 2000s with first-person shooter series (such as Quake and Call of Duty),
movie tie-ins (such as with Sony’s Spider-Man films and Fox’s X-Men films),
and brand partnerships (Tony Hawk’s skateboarding games). After purchasing
the company RedOctane in 2006, Activision obtained the rights to Guitar
Hero, a series of cross-platform music rhythm games (2005–2015). The suc-
cess of the Guitar Hero series was fueled by the peripherals available for pur-
chase to enhance the game experience—from additional songs to perform to
game-specific drum sets, guitars, and microphones. by 2010, the Guitar Hero
series garnered over $2 billion in sales (Thorsen). Part of the series’ success
was the wider demographic pool that played the game. claimed Robert
kotick, chairman and chief executive officer of Activision in 2007: “We’ve
never had anything like Guitar Hero in terms of appealing to a mass of peo-
ple.… The game has been on ‘South Park,’ ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘The ellen
144 Articulating the Action Figure

DeGeneres Show.’ i don’t know the audience demographic for ‘ellen,’ but it’s
not your typical gamer” (qtd. in Levine). Activison’s key properties like Call
of Duty skewed older and male, much more in line with the typical gamer
While the Guitar Hero games had wide appeal across both sexes and
across a range of ages, Activision did not have a popular property that
appealed directly to children. in 2011, an estimated 91 percent of children
played video games, and children comprised approximately 44 percent of
video game software sales for the first half of 2011 (Reisinger). children rep-
resented a growing game demographic, especially with publishers’ expansion
into social and mobile gaming which served a robust youth market. As Activi-
sion looked to create a children’s game franchise, Guitar Hero provided some
key lessons, according to the company’s chief executive officer eric Hirshberg:
“The guitars and the drums weren’t toys per se, they were controllers … but
the manufacturing, the supply chain, the distribution and the unusual foot-
print at retail it takes to make a property like this a success was something
we did have experience in” (qtd. in Dean). Still, because of the newness of
the technology, developers at Activision subsidiary Toys for bob worked for
three years to bring Skylanders to life after seeing an initial demonstration
with an RFiD reader (clark). The action figures were not peripherals or con-
trollers, but necessary components, and as such every step of the supply chain
needed to be in synch. The release of Skylanders: Spryo’s Adventure in 2011
established the hybrid toys-to-life market that the success of Guitar Hero’s
peripherals had hinted at and provided a franchise geared towards children
that the company needed to serve that growing market. As with most action
figure lines, Skylanders’ initial target was 6- to 12-year-old boys (Snider). Sky-
landers: Spyro’s Adventure featured several female characters, which helped
attract girls, with estimates of 20 to 40 percent of the game’s players being
female (Graser, “Activision”).
However, by featuring action figures that were individual characters,
Activision executives had more considerations than peripheral products in
creating the game; each character needed to seem integral in order to encour-
age the sales of its action figures. While the game was promoted as Spyro’s
Adventure, the dragon was the only known figure at the game’s launch. Hir-
shberg claimed that “when you see the lineup of toys together, you will under-
stand this has gone way beyond Spyro. This has become an ensemble cast”
(qtd. in Snider). To create that large cast, Toys for bob hired two of the screen-
writers of Pixar’s Toy Story (1995), Alec Sokolow and Joel cohen, to shape
the narrative and create backstories for each of the planned action figures.
For example, the writers provided a backstory for Stump-Smash, who was
initially described to them as a character made out of wood and logs, where
he seeks revenge after his homeland is deforested and he is left for dead as a
“Toys with brains” (Owczarski) 145

stump (cowen). Activision hired Shrek (2001) character designer Tom Hester
as a consultant on the look of the game and the action figures. Design teams
used 3D printers to create prototypes of each character, then fine-tuned the
designs for both the virtual and physical world (clark). Over a thousand
designs were culled down to the original three dozen seen in Skylanders:
Spyro’s Adventure (Fritz).
in creating each individual, original character, then, artists had to come
up with designs and customizable abilities that would not only work in game-
play, but also in the manufacturing process for the figures. Designs had to
receive final approval twelve to fourteen months before the game’s release in
order for the action figures to be ready for retail (clark). Argued Hirshberg
about the centrality of the action figures to Skylanders’ release strategy: “You
can’t play the game without these toys…. it was absolutely essential that we
launched the two side by side” (qtd. in Graser, “Activision”). indeed, Activi-
sion ran into a supply chain problem as production could not keep up with
demand, leaving retailers without product and parents complaining on social
media about their inability to find certain figures. John coyne, Activision’s
vice-president of marketing, addressed the problem in early 2012 by stressing
that “we are doing our best to keep up with consumer demand for Skylanders
and are shipping them to retailers worldwide as soon as they come off the
production lines. We have worked with our manufacturers to increase and
expedite production to the best of our abilities” (qtd. in Pilieci). Despite the
manufacturing problems, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure was the only new
property to be among the highest grossing games of 2011 and continued to
sell well into 2012 (Graser, “Activision”).
Since Skylanders was a new property for Activision, and it used an inno-
vative technology at its base, the game itself was expensive to create, produce,
market, and distribute with rumors of Activision spending over $100 million
for Spyro’s Adventure (Fritz). initially, according to Hirshberg, the game was
not intended to have such a costly price tag: “This started off as a modestly
scoped project, but when we saw the idea in action we decided to delay the
release for a year and go big with it” (qtd. in Fritz). With the high margins
on action figures and other merchandize, however, a children’s game franchise
is a lucrative investment for a publisher (Molina). Upon the game’s release,
the starter set averaged $70, while individual action figures ran from $8 to
$15 apiece. Retailers in particular were excited by the property because of
consumers’ desire to collect multiple action figures, which meant several trips
to the store rather than the single trip usually seen when players initially pur-
chase a game (clark). Skylanders’ business model thus emphasized the razors
and blade strategy, with the action figures making up the core of revenues.
As a testament to this strategy, Activision had sold more than 20 million
individual action figures by April 2012 (Pilieci).
146 Articulating the Action Figure

With each new game release, more action figures were created and sold,
further adding to the lucrativeness of the toy line. The sequel, Skylanders:
Giants, featured eight new figures and reconfigured two dozen of the original
characters from Spyro’s Adventure with new poses and abilities (Graser,
“Activision”). With the release of the third game in 2013, Skylanders: Swap
Force, Activision added sixteen more characters who could exchange body
parts (kraft). While there was a small increase in the sale of starter sets from
the previous two games, Swap Force’s action figure sales jumped 40 to 50 per-
cent as consumers collected even more of the characters (Loh). by this third
game, action figures averaged between 5,000 and 8,000 sales each (Loh). The
fourth game, Skylanders: Trap Team released in 2014, was compatible with
the 175 previously released characters while offering fifty new ones in addition
to the ability to trap up to forty in- game villains with a special device
(McGuinness). it was also the first Skylanders game to be playable on iOS,
Android, and Amazon tablets, a sign that Activision executives understood
the growing importance of mobile gaming to the children’s market and were
adapting to a post-console world.
Through the first four games in the franchise, Activision focused on
action figures as necessary parts of the game experience rather than any other
accessories. With the release of Skylanders: SuperChargers in 2015, however,
players needed special vehicles in order to complete significant areas of game
play. The starter pack featured only one vehicle, and, at $85, was more expen-
sive than in previous game releases. To complete the levels, though, players
needed to purchase an additional two vehicles, priced at $19 each. Super-
Chargers was also different from the previous three games in that it featured
known characters. Two of the characters in the game—Donkey kong and
bowser—functioned as action figures for both Skylanders and Amiibos, nin-
tendo’s toys-to-life system. bowser and Donkey kong were available solely
in the nintendo starter packs, and were the only established characters to be
introduced in the Skylanders universe since Spyro in the first release. The
collaboration was an unusual one, since nintendo and Activision were com-
petitors in the toys-to-life market. Perhaps as a result of the increased cost
to play the game, in addition to the growing competition from Disney, nin-
tendo, and Warner bros. with their toys-to-life game systems, Skylanders:
SuperChargers underperformed in retail sales and contributed to layoffs at
Activision in early 2016 (Makuch, “Layoffs”). by moving away from the core
aspect of the Skylanders experience—the action figures who were original
characters—Activision seemed to be ceding ground to its challengers, all of
which had better known intellectual property as their base and cheaper sys-
tems with which to play.
For the upcoming 2016 release of Skylanders: Imaginators, Activision
has removed the vehicle component to game play. However, the game will
“Toys with brains” (Owczarski) 147

also incorporate a known character; this time, it is crash bandicoot, a Sony-

based character who has not been featured in a game for six years. crash bandi-
coot will be exclusive to Sony game systems. The biggest difference from the
previous Skylanders games will be the customizable characters within the
game itself. Toys for bob co-founder and chief executive officer Paul Reiche
claimed that this development was the result of fan feedback that the company
had received for years: “[W]e’d just get tons and tons of letters from kids with
their designs, and you just can’t deny your fans. They tell you over and over
‘We want to make characters’” (qtd. in Peckham). Players can customize and
refine their Skylanders’ look, name, and abilities as they proceed through the
game. certain players’ creations will be turned into “real” Skylanders through
3D printers, though the process of selecting those creations was unclear at
the time of this writing (Peckham). Stressed Jeff Poffenbarger, a senior exec-
utive producer at Toys for bob, about the game’s customizable feature: “We
don’t have an iP that’s 75 years old, where we can just give out the same thing,
and say, ‘hey here’s that thing you love.’ We have to recreate the magic every
year—our focus is trying to find what that innovation is” (qtd. in Stuart).
Still, this innovation represents a significant departure from the previous
games as the vast majority of player-created Skylanders will remain virtual,
and not exist as physical toys. With action figures being the central profit
generator for the company, Activision is releasing thirty new battle master
characters, including crash bandicoot, that help train the customizable char-
acters as they move through the game. Thus, the company will still emphasize
the razor and blades strategy while incorporating this new game feature.
in the last two decades, Activision has been one of the most successful
publishers in the game marketplace as the revenues from Skylanders can
attest. The company’s history of successful game series most notably features
Call of Duty which has spanned sixteen games since 2003 and whose most
recent iteration, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, garnered $550 million in sales its
first three days of release (Gaudiosi). The Skylanders property is a much
younger game series that Call of Duty, with a different audience focus. The
children’s gaming market is a lucrative one, but it comes with an inherent
danger of age compression as kids move from one property to the next
quickly. Despite that threat, Activision has continued to make Skylanders rel-
evant with each new game release through its additional characters and its
innovative upgrades. With original intellectual property at its core, Skylanders
is an anomaly in the toys-to-life market and a rarity in the video game mar-
ketplace. Activision’s focus on action figures has remained central with Sky-
landers, and distinguishes it from its other game properties. indeed, by
bridging the video game and toy markets, Activision has not only pioneered
a new genre of gameplay, but also established a new franchise for a younger
generation of players.
148 Articulating the Action Figure

The Future of Skylanders and the Toys-to-Life

As the Skylanders franchise nears five years of sales, Activision finds
itself at a crossroads. Having established the toys-to-life genre, the company
has remained a force in the children’s gaming market. However, with increas-
ing competition from other publishers in the genre, as well as the rise of
social and mobile gaming, Activision’s position as a leader has become pre-
With four major toys-to-life systems currently in the marketplace, con-
sumers have options that did not exist when Skylanders was launched in 2011,
options which involve known intellectual property. Disney’s infinity system
was the second to launch, and has offered significant challenges to Skylanders
since 2013. in 2015, Disney’s infinity system overtook Skylanders in sales,
driven in large part by its Star Wars: The Force Awakens set (Passalacqua).
Despite this sales victory, Disney announced in May 2016 that it was shut-
tering its infinity system. Disney spent over $100 million to launch infinity
in 2013, much like Activision spent to launch Skylanders (needleman). Dis-
ney’s chief executive officer Robert iger stated that declining sales overall and
increasing competition in the toys-to-life market no longer justified the large
outlay of expenses for infinity (needleman). Asked about Disney’s exit from
the market, Activision’s Hirshberg was guardedly optimistic about Skylanders’
fortunes: “There was a glut of competition that rushed into the space … and
i think that made it more difficult for everyone…. Obviously we still think
there’s potential because we’re coming out with the new game that has a huge
innovation and is incredibly imaginative. We’ll see how it goes” (qtd. in
Rosenberg). While it may seem like a boon to have such a tough competitor
out of the market, some analysts argued that the hybrid gaming aspect was
a fad that was dying out.
One of the reasons analysts were concerned about the future of the toys-
to-life genre has been the rapid rise in social and mobile gaming, particularly
in reaching the children’s market. in 2015, the revenue from games for tablets
and phones grew 10 percent over the previous year to $25 billion (Dichristo-
pher). Activision remained the top revenue generating publisher in 2015 with
nearly $3 billion, but it lacked a robust game in the growing social and mobile
gaming markets (Dichristopher). in late 2015, executives at Activision
announced the purchase of mobile gaming company king Digital entertain-
ment for nearly $6 billion (de la Merced and Wingfield). known primarily
for Candy Crush Saga, king’s business model emphasized a similar strategy
to the razor and blades concept through its use of freemium content—pro-
viding the games for no cost, but charging for options such as extra levels,
“Toys with brains” (Owczarski) 149

skills, and items (consalvo 189). king also focused largely on franchises,
which was attractive to Activision’s leadership (de la Merced and Wingfield).
Still, it was an expensive merger in order to gain entry to the mobile gaming
market and acquire potential new franchises.
indeed, since Activision launched Skylanders in 2011, executives sought
a sustainable franchise that not only included the games but also other media.
extensive licensing agreements with key brands and retailers was one aspect
of this strategy. Right after the king Digital merger was announced, Activision
officially launched its own film and television studio, Activision blizzard Stu-
dios, in order to exploit its properties in these media. While Activision had
worked with two Hollywood studios to produce a film adaptation of its online
game World of Warcraft, executives wanted to control their intellectual prop-
erty in these new domains. First announced was an animated series based
on Skylanders, which was already in production featuring the voices of Justin
Long (as Spyro), Ashley Tisdale, and norm MacDonald, among others (Jar-
vey). netflix picked up two seasons of thirteen episodes apiece and set its
initial worldwide debut for Fall 2016 (Lincoln).
As the sixth Skylanders game nears its release, then, Activision has
restructured the company significantly through a large acquisition and the
creation of a new unit to exploit its key properties. Likewise, the toys-to-life
market lost a formidable competitor, greatly benefiting Skylanders: Imagina-
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Thirteen Ways of Looking
at an Action Figure
Part Two
DAnieL F. Yezbick

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of Dan’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking
at an Action Figure.” Part One is presented earlier in this book. It contains an
introduction and the first five ways of looking at an action figure. Here are the
final eight, and the works cited information for both parts.

VI. Cancer-Grip Vader

icicles once filled the playroom window
With barbaric glass.
The shadows of PVc bodies
now crossed it, to and fro.
The mood traced in the shadow
An indecipherable doom.

The majority of all action figures are manufactured by systems of

exploitation, pollution, and toxification that would make the Once-ler himself
weep with rage and remorse. Most action figures from Hot Toys to Hasbro
are constructed overseas or outside the U.S. in foreign markets throughout
Mexico, china, and Southeast Asia (Jrtoyman). Like so many other consumer
goods including christmas decorations and sports equipment, the rotomold-
ing, sonic welding, and blister packaging of action figures perpetuates the
relatively under-regulated industry and under-compensated workforce that
continues to plague global markets and environmental reform. Of course,

Thirteen Ways, Part Two (Yezbick) 153

we cannot condemn only action figures for their association with the
exploitive methods of production which provide industrial culture with the
bulk of its low cost goods and conveniences. Yet, the toy market’s reliance on
questionable labor practices and unsustainable environmental policies con-
tinues to spark debate, further tainting the public image of an already com-
promised genre of bricolage.
More serious and disturbing, however, is the science behind the dangers
of actually giving action figures to children. With some exceptions, action
figures are predominantly fashioned from Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene
(AbS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVc). While AbS, from which all Legos and
some high end figures are made, is considered fairly safe for both children
and adults to handle, its manufacture does perpetuate concerns surrounding
industrial pollution. Still, it is an almost sinless material compared to PVc
and the phthalates, organotins, and lead generally blended into the com-
pounds which, until very recently, have been used to construct and assemble
the majority of the world’s action figures. consumer advocates continually
warn against PVc’s toxicity and the “developmental damage” it can deliver
to “the liver and central nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems”
( As one chemical awareness advocate advises, “PVc is haz-
ardous from production to disposal and that’s why we call it the poison plastic.
There’s no safe way to manufacture, use or dispose of PVc products” (Schade
in blum & Fox). Yet, toy safety relating to design, materials, and component
parts has been a major factor in action figure design since four year-old Jeffery
Warren died from swallowing Battlestar Galactica missiles in 1978 (Micro-
even more worrisome than PVc or potential choking hazards, some
figures are further treated with Dissiononyl Phthalate, or DinP, a known car-
cinogen, used to increase pliability and softness in toys. both PVc and DinP
represent strong health risks: “Studies have demonstrated that phthalates
such as DinP pose hazards in animals which raises concerns for infants and
young children chewing on PVc toys. Studies have demonstrated links
between DinP and cancer, adverse impacts on the reproductive system, kid-
neys, liver and blood.” Some progress has been made to improve the chemical
risks of family environments with new toys. Most famously, Lego has recently
“pledged 1 billion Danish krone ($150 million) for the new ‘Lego Sustainable
Materials centre’” charged with discovering “sustainable replacements for all
LeGO materials by 2030” (Fisher). Hasbro also has removed PVc from most
packaging and toy material since 2013 (Passard). For adult consumers and
collectors of older vintage toys, however, the action figure’s poison grip may
have especially harmful health considerations as “Pthalates leach from PVc
toys like water from a wet sponge” (Schade in blum & Fox).
Such problems have escalated in recent years. As activist parents like
154 Articulating the Action Figure

science journalist, Florence Williams, reports, the industrial chemicals, flame

retardants, and dyes used in toys, clothes, athletic equipment, and the pack-
aging that contains them are often loaded with carcinogens, toxins, endocrine
disruptors, and non-degradable landfill fodder that turns playrooms, toy
stores, and even adult collections into potential incubators of dysfunction,
disease, and death. This is especially worrisome, as researchers have shown,
for pre-adolescent girls whose body chemistry makes them especially sus-
ceptible to the offgassing and degrading of plastics and treated fabrics
(Williams 89). Viewed from an eco-environmental perspective, the heady
patchouli odor of Stinkor’s “stench of evil” suddenly seems quite benign.

VII. Spank Me, Elmo

Oh, He-Men of eternia,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the action figure
Walks around the feet
Of the dreams about you?
Welcome to the dark side of the action figure.

James Whale’s 1935 Bride of Frankenstein is probably the most perversely

eroticized film of its time. it throbs with campy extravagance, oddly licentious
performances, freakish bodies, sadistic dominations, erotic bondage, and
unnerving necrophilia. Whale’s masterpiece also includes one of classic hor-
ror cinema’s most outlandish depictions of eroticized possession and sexual
perversity. Looking backwards from 2016, the scene is, ultimately, all about
action figures and the sensual pleasures of playing with or palming over pretty
little bodies.
The erotic potential of the action figure as a sex toy and exploratory
fetish is undeniable. The stripping and probing of “adult” dolls and action
figures by curious, excited children remains a common and important rite
of passage towards pre-adolescent comprehension of gender difference and
bodily privacy. critics also assail the projection of sexual characteristics onto
action figures. Parents comment on the odd paradox of blocky mini-figure
midriffs and two-dimensional Lego cleavage. Sultry Slave Leias and panty-
less “Party” Angelas raise eyebrows of all ages and the brawny pecs and mega-
abs of most Masters of the Universe figures are so hyper-sexualized they can
make body-builders, pro wrestlers (who often have their own lines of figures)
and S&M models seem demur.
The act of opening, toying with, manipulating, and generally hording,
collecting, or even storing action figures is a richly erotic act fraught with
Thirteen Ways, Part Two (Yezbick) 155

themes of aggression, domination, and control. At best, physical marvels like

Superman, Giganta, the Hulk, and Wonder Woman can allow for the healthy
channeling of taboo urges and cruel instincts into experimental, formative
play that assimilates and normalizes what fetish theorist Valerie Steele
describes as otherwise “frightening or destructive impulses with an avoidance
of emotional intimacy” (Steele 8). From He-Man to the equestria Girls, as
David Morris suggests, there is a good deal of potential “Sadean medicine”
in the way we are drawn to manipulate or toy other bodies. in the final
remove, it “serves as lubricant for a sexuality that finds its ultimate fulfillment
in slow, cold, stimulating murders” (229). Anyone who has watched children
develop imaginary battles, duels, or war games with action figures can attest
to the sudden, ecstatic paroxysm of delight that accompanies agonizing deaths
within such Sadean catharsis.
The majority of action figures also tap into highly sexualized celebrity
cultures involving the tantalizing bodies of media stars, fashion models, pro
athletes, and even the frequently eroticized virtual bodies of computer gaming
and role playing franchises. From Tomb Raider and Resident Evil to Deathnote
and Assassin’s Creed, the virtual operation or mastery of celebrated, enticing,
or customized bodies under intensely menacing or painful circumstances –
via joysticks or action figures, pulses with pleasurable confirmation of the
more primitive elements of human desire and destruction.

VII. Fun with Barb and Joe

i know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
but i know, too,
That the action figure is involved
in what i know.

What is the natural History of the Action Figure?

Most sources tell the same origin story: With the arrival of Ruth and
elliot Handler and Jack Ryan’s barbie as commercial Ur-mother in 1959, Mat-
tel successfully cornered the girls’ doll market, but with the sudden surge of
very playable, poseable girl dolls “a new need was being created” in the parallel
pre-adolescent male market (Jon). enter Hasbro’s Stan Weston and Dan
Levine, who crafted the military toy lines that would evolve into the influ-
ential G.i. Joe and captain Action brands. While some still consider early
Joes and captain Actions as dolls, their 12-inch scale and full grown features,
much like barbie and Skipper and ken, suggested something different from
previous toys meant to rehearse love and war. As Shanahan argues, Handler
156 Articulating the Action Figure

believed that much of barbie’s popularity was rooted in the notion that “her
daughter barbara (and other girls her age) might like to play with a doll mod-
eled after a mature female body as a means of ‘practicing for adulthood’”
(Shanahan). Little wonder then that the baby boomers’ practicing or rehears-
ing of adult bodies and themes in adventurous and largely unsupervised
childhood contexts represents the action figure’s single most revolutionary
The phenomenal success of barbie and Joe are predicated on the strength
and continuity of their “adult” playability for children and their infinite poten-
tial for accessorizing or building new scenarios out of further purchases.
They are both heavily gendered, often insistently caucasian, fashionably
eroticized, and yet their actions, postures, and their nudity is an eerily demur
and dishonest blankness.
neither barbie or G.i.Joe are truly genealogically unique. Handler and
Ryan largely cribbed barbie from a doll designed to personify the main char-
acter in Reinhard beuthien’s slinky German pin-up cartoon, Lilli, which ran
from 1952 to 1961. Similarly, Weston and Levine borrowed their Hasbro toy’s
grunt-on-the-front-lines concept from William Wellman’s 1945 The Story of
G.I.Joe, a thrilling film based on the biography and characterizations of
beloved war correspondent, ernie Pyle. both origins continue to haunt their
brands in uncomfortable ways. Urban legends, tenuous associations, and
kooky rumors abound relating to barbie’s secret nazi origins as a German
sex toy associated with Hitler’s bizarre “borghild Project” (Donald). even
more weirdly in terms of replications and simulacra, Hasbro has paid homage
to Pyle’s legacy by transforming the iconic journalist into his own official,
memorial G.i. Joe action figure.
This is the standard narrative, but the action figure is also the latest in
litany of household idols, Lilliputian legacies, and hybrid homunculi. What
if there have always been action figures of bold dialectical dalliance, psycho-
sexual significance, and spiritual efficacy? Has every age developed its tiny
teraphim and if so, how do they perpetuate their eons-old grip upon human
imagination, domestic space, and personal pleasure? When exactly does the
toy become a totem and the fun turn to fetish, rooted in the sensuality of
both spirit and sex?

IX. Toying with the Past

When the Space Ranger flew out of sight,
it marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
Thirteen Ways, Part Two (Yezbick) 157

The ascendance of barbie and G.i.Joe comprises only one of many inter-
locking circles of myth and influence. From when and where else might have
come the Machinders and Madballs, kubricks, and Funkos? Where in the
arts of dimution and discrepancy do we find lost parallels and forgotten pred-
ecessors, harbingers and haliographies of the PVc plethora that now swarms
across stores, homes, and internet auctions? Let us then, explode and expand
the basic game of action figure ancestry and explore what it might reveal
about other toys, previous times and how they have contributed to the life,
the universe, and everything now subsumed within Action Figureology.
Ouspensky and Lossky point us toward previously hidden or miscon-
strued continuities. Their work encourages the slamming or colliding of sup-
posedly discordant, or mismatched images and totems to derive revelatory
new cohesion and the scintillating epiphany of spiritual commonality: “A dis-
tinction which separates or divides is never perfect nor sufficiently radical:
it does not allow one to discern, in its purity, the difference of the unknown
term, which it opposes to another that is supposed to be known. Separation
is at the same time more and less than a distinction; it juxtaposes two objects
detached from one another, but in order to do this it must first of all lend to
one the characteristics of the other” (11). Tracing our global compulsion for
miniature männer und frauen in different, obtuse directions, we can begin
to fathom potential, unexpected connections or affinities across eras and
interests. For example, is there not a certain formal correspondence between
the scarcely clad McFarlane Pewter edition Angela and china’s ivory medical
dolls? both are conceived as polite surrogates that are publically displayed,
but privately handled and closely examined. Along similar lines, does Hasbro’s
subjugated Slave Leia, or any Leia Organa figure for that matter, in some way
resemble the powerfully eroticized Shunga netsuke used by upper class Japa-
nese as fertility fetishes? The endless “metal bikini” references that punctuate
sitcoms and dot the blogosphere certainly suggest a connection.
consider the incredibly compelling realism and unparalleled craftsman-
ship committed to Hot Toys’ highly detailed one-sixth scale Millennium Fal-
con measuring close to 18 feet (5.5 meters) long by 12 feet (3.7 meters) wide.
is it not, in all its mesmerizing detail, a roguish Sci-Fi corollary to the british
Museum’s intricate 16th-century Flemish boxwood Tabernacle and its “several
sections which come apart to reveal in astonishing detail scenes from the life
and passion of christ” (Liszewksi)? How might such “minutely detailed, small
scale works of art that were owned by nobles or wealthy merchants” and col-
lected by legendary taste-makers like baron Rothschild enter into meaningful
dialogue with Lego’s much coveted “Ultimate collector’s Millennium Falcon”
or “Super Star Destroyer” (Waddeston)? All such objects simulate icons of
faith and perpetuate mythologies through the insistent reverence of obstinate
detail and pain-staking realism. even Hopi katsina dolls, zuni kokopelli,
158 Articulating the Action Figure

and Mexican Día de Muertos skeletons, are equally equitable playthings of

immense resonance as didactic decorations and deific agents of play. could
the eternally popular Nightmare Before Christmas toy lines even exist without
the unique visual and material culture so closely connected with this seminal
To broaden our perspective even further, action figures and franchise
toys may revise previous notions of austere ornament and aristocratic afflu-
ence rooted in the well appointed homes of bourgeois Muggledom, or the
more stately mansions of aristocratic aesthetes. in this regard, do the clock-
work “robots” of Pierre Jacquest-Droz somehow simultaneously initiate the
rise of the “business machine” and the action figure? Where do the Lewis
chessmen, or any chess pieces for that matter, find conference and conver-
sation with the playable postures of black Series kylo Ren or Lego “Jedi bob”
or any other Jedi knight? can the classic chessboard’s calculating queen ever
truly checkmate necA’s ferocious Xenomorph?
Do we even need to locate the first inklings of Action Figure aesthetics
in the reality of artisan or manufactured objects? Perhaps only an intimate,
energizing fidelity between a playful person and a personified plaything is
necessary. if so, then the uncanny themes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Lewiss carroll’s Alice
books, and e.T.A. Hoffmann’s Automata including The Sandman’s Olim-
pia and emma’s brave little nutcracker add heady Freudian concerns of
dream and dread to this expanding tradition. What then would such conti-
nuity also provide for the critical consideration of the personified toys in
children’s classics like Williams and nicholson’s The Velveteen Rabbit, Don
Freeman’s Cordurory, and even more modern mini-men like Mini Grey’s
Traction Man?
What also of action figures that pry open new dimensions of play and
representation, as in the somewhat glitchy but innovative Star Wars
commTech figures, brio’s “Lights & Sounds” Thomas the Tank series, or even
the fabulously snarky “big blastin” Rocket Raccoon with “battle Sounds and
Phrases.” As cultural historian of sound and voice, Steve connor argues, the
compelling contradiction of such lifelike sounds emitted from otherwise
obviously “dead matter” establishes a powerful vocalic illusion “which can
take the form of dream, fantasy, ideal, theological doctrine, or hallucina-
tion—of a surrogate or secondary body, a projection of a new way of having
or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of
the voice” (35). in which case, the sonically enhanced action figure finds new
kinship with the bodies of ventriloquist dummies, marionettes, Punch and
Judy shows, and all manner of piquantly voiced puppets, magic tricks, musical
instruments, and vocalic paraphernalia. As one consultant notes, “today’s
generation of micro-chip-powered voice simulation and sound effect-laden
Thirteen Ways, Part Two (Yezbick) 159

toys are now the industry standard, but this will undoubtedly be made obso-
lete by future evolutions of controllability and interaction” (balasco 3).
Vocal or not, is an action figure necessarily playful in its permutations?
Precious and stolid figurines like Staffordshire dogs, brass monkey bookends,
and Royal Doulton damsels certainly influence the basic template for Hasbro
ponies, Mego aliens, McFarlane mutants, and kenner droids in their mutual
devotion to luxuriously recreated icons of beauty and style.
Focusing solely on brand and merchandising affinities, Marx toy sol-
diers, Harland baseball stars, Aurora Monsters, Playskool Weebles, Plasticville
folks, Schylling Army Men, goofy nutty Mads, and the many alt and ur-
figures of avant-garde design celebrated in cult magazines like Outre, Hi-
Fructose, and Juxtapoz all push the action figure to and fro in its evolutionary
Finally, looking forward into the future of figures and fans, how do we
evaluate virtual action figures like Skylanders, Angry birds Telepods, or Dis-
ney Xfinity characters whose presence unlocks spreadable agency in both lit-
eral and digital worlds? Here, on the outskirts of toyland and at the cutting
edges of contemporary playtime, the boundaries and beliefs surrounding
what figures action and how become quite beautifully strange. Where within
the churning tides of commercial culture do music boxes, mechanical banks,
matchstick men, and Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars figures all find com-
mon idiom and interest? in effect, McLuhan’s prophecies have come to pass.
As the plaything becomes the game piece, the medium and its message fuse
in terms of both industrial design and multimodal bricolage.

X. Jedis on Ice
At the sight of action figures in a green light,
even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

More than any other use or occupation, the strange habit of grading,
preserving, and re-commodifying an already commercial product speaks to
a variety of bizarre behaviors. even bordieu and Jameson themselves might
balk at the fidgety dynamics of those who securitize the minuscule flaws of
not just the miniatures themselves, but their actual packages, boxes, and
excelsior. While the general public may scoff at the sad stereotype of Toy
Story 2’s dorky, cheese puff-snarffing big Al and his failed venture into inter-
national toy trafficking, there is a sustained urge towards procuring and pro-
tecting toys from any chance of actual use. even more oddly, manufacturers
have long designed action figure packaging as permanent prisons that dra-
160 Articulating the Action Figure

matically block their figures in dynamic freeze frames of action and interest.
Such frozen dramas seem to refute or resist actual removal of the packaging
proscenium itself. As a result, whole basements, entertainment centers, and
condominiums are lined with Mint-in-Package figures, playsets, and char-
acters frozen forever in medias res, unable to complete the swish of their light
sabers or deliver the impending kryptonite punch. in such cases, the action
figure’s illusion of cultural and commercial value may become its most insid-
ious and debilitating bait. Such blister packs, backing cards, and cellophane
windows remain everlastingly, dauntlessly present, “protecting” supposed
investments in memorial moments of media spectacle and precarious delu-
sions of potential profit. Perhaps the most perverse example relates to Lego
collectors who purchase high end sets that they never plan to build, open, or
even appreciate beyond the fairly mundane graphics on the box itself.
All neurosemic networks, iconic inquiries, and acephalic abjection aside,
this single element of action figure culture disturbs and dismantles more than
most. it is, strangely, the exact experiential opposite of the weird world of
masturbatory figure abuse and defilement, yet the systematic suffocating,
constricting, and specialized scrutiny of small, simple objects of desire seems
even more ruthlessly cold, dehumanizing, and parasitic.

XI. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying

He rode over connecticut
in a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
in that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For action figures.

The action figure constantly lobbies for the enhancement of its own abil-
ities and the expansion of its own world. it is nearly always a magnet for fur-
ther purchases, possessions, and playspaces. Packages include tantalizing
catalogues and checklists describing companion characters, arch enemies,
and most exciting of all, and an extensive trousseau of clothes, gear, acces-
sories, vehicles, and, to Lucy Van Pelt’s delight, even real estate. Acquiring a
single action figure is a somewhat daunting commitment to potentially end-
less up-keep, exploratory expeditions, and perpetual investments of space,
storage, and organization.
Some of the most incredible backdrops, playsets, and companion vehi-
cles have become legendary products, treasured by children and coveted by
Thirteen Ways, Part Two (Yezbick) 161

collectors. These include Mego’s Superman Fortress of Solitude playset and

Wonder Woman’s invisible Jet; kenner’s Empire Strikes Back imperial AT-AT
technosaurus, and most famously of all, the enormous G.i. Joe U.S.S. Flagg
aircraft carrier. Retailing for $90 in 1985, this over-sized floating fortress
spans an incredible 7 feet, 6 inches and now auctions for as much as $1000
if complete. The U.S.S. Flagg includes several smaller vehicles, possesses its
own sound system, and a working missile launch. based closely on the nimitz
class carrier, it also represents the apotheosis of playset poetics, featuring
realistic details of aerospace design and fairly standard military proxemics
that are then extrapolated to fantastic extremes.
The same methodology drives every major incarnation of the batmobile
and the Millennium Falcon as well as lesser entries like big Jim’s Sport camper
and barbie’s convertible. Other vehicle and playset designs are less technically
accurate and more whimsical extensions of the mother franchise’s signature
tone, as in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Toilet Taxi and Sludge Mobile,
Filmation’s Ghostbuters Playset, or My Little Pony’s equestria Girls DJ Pon-3
Rainbow Rocks convertible coupe. Some rare examples, like the Robin Drag-
ster from the Batman: the Animated Series line were actually compromised
by industrial accidents related to their manufacture, while others like kenner’s
notoriously rickety Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer, have developed decades of
scorn and displeasure across generations.
More importantly, the expanding narrative world of action figures sug-
gests their intense, prolonged grip on the domestic spaces, birthday celebra-
tions, holiday gifts, and general daily routines of children, families, and
couples. Where once the christmas tree and Menorah candles were flanked
by Lionel trains and well-appointed doll houses, the more costly accou-
trements relating to particular action figure lines now tend to take their
places. baudrillard defines the action figure’s new role as an arbiter of hyper-
real commerce vis a vis individuality, family, and community: “The hyper-
market centralizes and redistributes a whole region and population…. People
go there to find and to select objects-responses to all the questions they may
ask themselves; or, rather, they themselves come in response to the functional
and directed questions that the objects constitute” (75). in other words, the
action figure—though personal and profound in and of itself—always beck-
ons for more accumulation of itself.

XII. Boxing Day

The netflix is streaming.
The action figure must be flying.
162 Articulating the Action Figure

We could scorn the media-sponsored action figure for compromising

the mythic and artistic integrity of media myths. Most famously, there is the
tale of Star Wars’ George Lucas’ “tendency to change the series based on mer-
chandise and revenue,” even to the point where “the popularity of a single
figure spared the life of ” Han Solo, as The Empire Strikes Back was rewritten
to encourage stronger toy sales (White 102). As any student of Hollywood
merchandising knows, Lucas’ decision would hardly stand as “the last time
this would happen,” and rampant proliferation of action figure tie-ins belies
simple market analysis or critical praxis. The spiraling number of batman-
related series alone deserves its own book-length study, as do the endlessly
fun and complex debates involving the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lego
mini-figures, and Funko Pops. This line of reasoning might seem appropriate,
and perhaps even necessary. but i would rather tell you a story.
Some months ago, i was invited to a toy estate auction just outside of
St. Louis. The deceased collector had been a successful business man and
father who had assembled some 10,000 separate toy trucks, dolls, figures,
games, and assorted bric-a-brac to adorn his spacious condo over his more
than 40 years of travel and travail. This early morning auction, the first of
three that would take place over the next several months, was devoted to Dis-
ney related paraphernalia.
Amidst most of the midcentury Disneyfied claptrap, somehow, there
appeared an enormous box containing an unopened Star Wars Return of the
Jedi imperial Shuttle. i had seen this strangely oversized piece a few times
before and always found it rather underwhelming as Star Wars vehicles go.
even as a child, i had found it big, dumb, and flat without wonder or wicked-
ness. now, packed away in its Mint-in-box sarcophagus, it even seemed a tad
pathetic—like a big dull bug trapped in some uninteresting amber, never to
charm a child or even soothe the cravings of a collector as it probably could.
i settled in to watch the proceedings, wondering if even a single elder
gent or doll dealer would notice or care. Most were well beyond Star Wars
age and were probably more prone to get excited over the Jetsons or James
bond. As i suspected the starting bid quickly dropped from $200 to $35. For
a split second, i actually contemplated raising my lethargic paddle, but then
it happened.
One of the youngish bankers who had been more or less comatose on
his cell phone all morning suddenly animated like a puppy on junk. Then
there were two of him, rival Stormtroopers alive with zealous fanboy zeal
and hurling their bidding cards in the air in nearly syncopated fury. The
entire room watched quizzically. no other item had commanded such fervor.
Around $275, the price began to stabilize but before the show was over, the
final bid settled in on $365 with a 12 percent buyer’s premium added. A few
rare lots had gone for more, but none were as vividly or vivaciously won.
Thirteen Ways, Part Two (Yezbick) 163

What’s more, the winner was nearly apoplectic. Fists in the air, he cheered at
his triumph and hugged his new $300 cardboard box with the pure passion
of a war wife welcoming home her conquering soldier. The loser, by contrast,
crunched sluggishly against his cheap folding chair, arms draped to the floor
like an Ambien-stuffed orangutan.
That night, i decided to digitally unwind a little. i monitor a particularly
intense Facebook group devoted to very serious Star Wars collectors with
ridiculously deep pockets. As i scrolled absentmindedly down my Star Wars
feed, my thumb and breath stopped in stunned mutual surprise. There, in a
hugely rendered lay-out of some 25 luxuriant glamour shots sat the same
damned transport box i had seen that morning. The posting read something
like: “My prize for sitting through nearly 4 hours of dumbass Disney toys.
Only $410!!!!! never opened! My precious!” Once again, i was glad for Mr.
T and his onanistic dance of mad collectible carnality, and apparently so was
the rest of the Face-planet. Under his salacious Star Wars porno-spread, sat
an astonishing series of kudos, congratulations, huzzahs, and exaltations.
Many “Liked” and smily-bro’ed. Several slapped hands and bumped fists.
Greetings and well wishes appear in at least six different languages and three
separate alphabets and at least one third of the commentators extolled and
lamented that they would have jealously paid double or more for the same
virginal Sith-schlepper.
in a rented hotel conference room clogged with thousands of toys,
around 100 people, and one child (one!), the most astonishing purchase of
the day was less than 50 years old, had been mass produced in tandem with
a few almost negligible continuity-connecting scenes from a massive media
franchise, and was completely impossible to play with, appreciate, or even
touch. it was quite clear from his post that our brave banker had no intention
of ever freeing his flying machine or that any of his fellow bricoleurs would
want him to.
Where then do we first each engage with such spreadable, sticky alle-
giance? This well-funded Star Wars fan was far too young to recall the open-
ing weekend of the 1983 trilogy installment as well as i or most of the other
buyers in the room. in fact, he may not even have been born yet, so Star Wars
and its treasures had come to him in other ways. He certainly couldn’t recall
the tsunami of ads for kenner figures, ships, and playsets that were so urgently
inserted into my childhood TV habits. For whatever reason, the persistent
pleroma of participation in and homage to the myths of Lucas, Star Wars,
and perhaps even Disney linked him to me, and every other older sod in the
backroom of a budget hotel, and even to my daughter as well. She loved her
toy simply because it made music when it moved. He loved his because it
never ever would. Hers was a beaten remnant of 1950s gender coding. His
was a pristine fossil of postmodern industrial fantasy. both he and she are
164 Articulating the Action Figure

generations apart and will almost certainly never meet again, but their mutual
dreams are formed, patented, and solicited by the same corporate conglom-
erate of pleasure and profit. in my case also, considering my fondness for
Disney myths, Star Wars vehicles, and Marvel goblins, the neutrosemic circuit
grows and ripples with connection and concern. Our various passions, lusts,
and enthusiasms had more or less brought the three of us together to a fas-
cinating degree, though we each heard very different music emanating from
evocative objects invariably connected to the same corporate umbrella of
conglomerated joy.

XIII. Thomas and the Trainheimer

it was evening all afternoon.
it was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The action figures sat
in the cedar-limbs.

When my daughter was three, her favorite Thomas the Tank Engine train
was the lovely brio emily, which she ran back and forth on its wooden track.
emily ran a “special” loaded with Sodor Honey, an aquarium car housing a
very comfy shark, and a few “troublesome trucks” for good ballast. emily
had long been a family favorite, both as a toy and a somewhat sassy addition
to Rev. Awdry’s timeless Sodor Railway series of children’s books, which pro-
vided the foundation for the bbc Thomas the Tank phenomenon and its
ever-expanding line of brio, and then Fischer Price/Mattel wooden and plastic
Trackmaster toys. emily herself, like so many of Awdry’s personified steamers,
was based on an actual locomotive, in this case the Great northern Railway’s
majestic no. 1 4–2–2.
While not traditional action figures, the Thomas line of “really useful
engines” and their peers, accessory sheds, roundhouses, and play sets, and
their expanded franchise of films, TV series, song anthologies, touring road
shows, and related entourage were certainly developed and marketed as effec-
tively as any barbie, Joe, Turtle, or Spawn series. in fact, most children, and
certainly ours, would associate Thomas, James, Henry, emily, and their fellow
steamers with Raphael and Donatello, or Han and chewie, before the more
lifeless vehicles of Tonka, Tootsie, Hot Wheels, and Matchbox. Once more,
the figured action toy’s miniaturized personality becomes a key component
in our private bricolage, speaking more to charisma, character, and continu-
ities than Hemies and horsepower.
Watching my daughter play, i marveled at how closely and intimately
Thirteen Ways, Part Two (Yezbick) 165

she blocked out emily’s movements, how thoroughly she engaged and
empathized with the engine’s purpose and persona, and how much she pro-
jected her own spunky, endearing personality onto the playset spread out
before her. Then i watched my wife watching our daughter and i realized
something else. Our children had not discovered Thomas and his friends on
their own. They had inherited Sodor and all of its bustling britannic wonder.
My father-in-law, a retired professor of transportation and environmental
studies, had been what his family kindly dubbed a “Trainheimer,” one of
those locomotive enthusiasts with an uncanny knowledge of and endless
appreciation for all data relating to trains and railways across the globe. His
dissertation had focused on trains. He wrote, lectured, and spoke tirelessly
of their value and relevance. He had lobbied to restore the tiny illinois central
depot in his small town and had been instrumental in transforming it, after
decades of dedication and labor, into the chatham Railroad Historical
Museum. His offices were crammed with trainheimering materials and his
eyes glowed with the warmth of crossing signals whenever he had the oppor-
tunity to “talk train” with friends, family, and other unsuspecting victims.
For all this love and fascination, he had never had a real trainset as a
child and as soon as it seemed like he would safely receive tenured “Grand-
father status,” he had asked us both if he could lavish our progeny with the
railroadiana he never got to savor as a boy. We acquired Rev. Awdry’s books
early in our son’s infancy and, while both children were still too young to
walk, he and i were busy constructing the Lionel train table of his dreams in
our soggy limestone basement. ever the thrifty environmentalist, it mattered
that every vintage piece was upcycled. We spent months building our chil-
dren’s futures out of the past, polishing up rusted track, detailing long lethar-
gic engines, and rewiring ancient transformers into resurrected surges of
humming power and light. Grandpa choo-choo was always infinitely proud
of the circuitous figure 8 layout we devised out of broken crossings, second
hand cabooses, and makeshift buildings. even the legs and table top were
repurposed from old moldering kitchen cabinets. before long, lights, sounds,
smoke, and speed delighted our wide-eyed progeny and friends, neighbors,
and family all came from great distances to admire the spectacles he would
concoct for his grandchildren.
Yet, this bold and brilliant show was not his greatest gift to our young
ones. Grandpa’s real triumph was the upstairs, un-electrified Thomas table
which he loved just as much, but more subtly and personally than his leg-
endary Lionel opus. Here, on our own St. Louis-bound isle of Sodor, in the
late evening hours after our children had been dragged savagely to sleep, i
would catch glimpses of Grandpa choo-choo bending stiffly over the table
and arranging the brio trains into elaborate combinations of dozens and
dozens of cars, spiraling through and around sidings, tunnels, crossings, and
166 Articulating the Action Figure

bridges. This was not silent, serious work. He talked to the trains as he
assigned them jobs and duties, explaining why each special had to get its
coal, eggs, or oil to its appointed destination before his grandchildren would
awake in the morning. He knew every name from the stories he had read the
children and the stop motion bbc episodes i also sometimes caught him
watching on his own.
Unlike most Thomas lovers, he also knew the names of the original
tanks and diesels from which each character was transmuted through Awdry’s
tender imagination. if he saw me watching, he would give me brief annota-
tions and talking points on the wonderful synergy between the legendary
engines of history and their current commodified mythologies. in every case,
he cradled the figure closely and carefully, as i have seen so many children,
collectors, and fans do with their own favorite miniatures, glowing with
appreciation, contentment, and love.
Finally, then, can we deny that brio’s Thomas cars are not action figures?
They are neither humanoid nor articulated, and yet they brim with the same
playable, collectable candor and capacious potential for joy and discovery as
every other superhero, winged pony, or snippy droid. Perhaps action figures
remain, like Stevens’ blackbirds, an ultimately subjective category of evocative
object that can certainly absorb or subsume the properties of coded texts,
licensed products, dogmatic pleroma, or iconic franchises. if so, they are still,
as we have seen, remarkably conflicted, generally ubiquitous, and terribly
undervalued by scholars and aca/fans alike. beyond theory, identity, envi-
ronment or economy, however, they remain as familiar and resilient and end-
lessly affable as our own friends, families, and fantasies.

Conclusions: Final Articulations

We might finally diagnose the powers of the action figure through binary
contrasts. it is, as we have seen, both poetic and pointless. it is adamantly
interactive but sculpturally still. it is made poignantly iconic, yet potentially
idolatrous. it encompasses both spirit and dead matter, and it is as innocent
and instructive as it is depraved and debilitating. We are intensely individu-
alistic in our allegiance and attraction to the myths it may embody, but also
inescapably enslaved to the economic, political, and environmental fallout
of our own commitments and collections. Although the action figure, as play-
thing, ornament, fetish, or investment, may seem to obliterate benjamin’s
aesthetic aura, it also magnifies, explodes, and expands that potency across
“the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects,” and
“by exploring commonplace milieu under the ingenious guidance” of the
pre-established genres, languages, worlds, and communities it introduces
Thirteen Ways, Part Two (Yezbick) 167

(benjamin 236). benjamin hints at this empowering, “spreadable” phenom-

enon when he notes that “process reproduction can bring about those aspects
of the original that are unattainable” otherwise (220). Here again, the Goblin’s
grin, the wookee’s bulging ammo sack, the silly steamers of Sodor, and the
monolithic box of imperial menace all show us something of the action fig-
ure’s grasp on our separate psyches as well as our communal frameworks of
knowledge, faith, and fun.

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Andrew Tolch of

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“i was always Wonder Woman”
An Interview with
IAmElemental’s Julie Kerwin

Julie kerwin is the founder and ceO of iAmelemental, an independent

action figure company with an empowering, feminist message. These action
figures provide girls with role models and examples of virtue in 4- and 6.5-
inch scale. At the time of this writing, Wave 1 of iAmelemental action figures
has been released to wide acclaim, and Wave 2 is forthcoming. Given the
success of these figures, which began as a kickstarter campaign, i wanted to
interview Ms. kerwin to get a behind-the-scenes look at a new phenomenon:
third-party, independent action figure lines. With the onset of 3-D printing
and crowdfunding, iAmelemental may well be at the forefront of a movement
that reshapes the action figure industry. Here is what i learned.
Jonathan Alexandratos: So I figured we could just start with your own his-
tory with action figures. Were action figures something that you were playing
with in your own childhood or did you learn about them later?
Julie Kerwin: As far as my childhood goes, i did have action figures. We
were not a barbie household, and i do think that may have been by design. but
we were really huge into Playmobil. i don’t know how old Playmobil would
have been at the time, but i can tell you i don’t remember seeing a lot of Play-
mobil at other people’s homes. i had the boat, and a male and a female action
figure, and a dolphin, and i guess they were some kind of aquatic scientists
and those were very, very big for me for some reason. My brother and i were
also superhero fans, so i was always Wonder Woman, and he was always bat-
man or Spider Man, and our action figures built on that. And then of course
there was Star Wars. We were the first generation that saw the whole concept
of the action figure as movie tie-in. George Lucas made a lot of money off me.

“I was always Wonder Woman” (Alexandratos) 171

Alexandratos: And did you get the sense that women were underrepresented
in these toys, even at that young age?
Kerwin: That was not something i was aware of as a child. in fact, this
whole notion of the gendering of toys hasn’t gone up in a graph that goes
straight up; it’s more of a wave. So i was a child of the ’70s and i was a child
who was right at the cusp of this whole Ms.-Magazine-Marlo-Thomas gen-
eration, so my friends and i were very empowered. We were being raised by
mothers who were telling us that we were equal to boys in every way and we
could do whatever we wanted, so maybe that’s why i didn’t have barbies. My
brother and i did not have gendered toys—we were playing with all the same
things. Princess Leia, even though historically they’ve said she undersold,
was a presence in my house. So i don’t think i was giving any thought to the
idea that there was underrepresentation of female action figures in my house-
hold because i was being told very different messages then the ones that i’m
combating right now. i always say that at the end of the day it’s not even
about barbie, it’s about the culture that we grow up in. none of us live in a
bubble. We’re absorbing the messaging of the society in which we live. The
society i was growing up in was very different than the society my children
are growing up in. So when i was looking to change the conversation of the
hypersexualization of the female action figure, i was actually channeling my
10-year-old self. i wasn’t being exposed to it in that way, back then.
Alexandratos: Speaking of Barbie: Barbie’s kind of an interesting case. Some
said Barbie is great because at least there’s female representation. The other
side saying, “Yeah, but let’s look at the roles she’s given.” As you grew out of
childhood, did your experience with action figures and your views on toys
like Barbie continue to develop, or did you pursue other interests?
Kerwin: i was a voracious reader, so i was digesting most of my super-
hero empowerment on the written page and in film. i did not start to really
embrace the world of action figures until i became a mother of two boys.
That is when my real introduction to that world happened. even though i
saw the original Star Wars in theatres, it wasn’t until my son started collecting
the action figures that i really got to know the characters. We were buying
action figures by the basketful. it was all from the perspective of being a
parent and watching my child play. i have every single Harry Potter figure,
Star Wars, we still have lots of Playmobil. We have a lot of those unarticulated
knights figurines. My younger son was obsessed with The Hobbit, so we have
lots of figures from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. My love of the action
figure really didn’t happen until i became a parent.
Alexandratos: Let’s talk a little bit more about that. As a parent, how did
you see the world of action figures transform from when you were a child to
now, when your boys are growing up?
172 Articulating the Action Figure

Kerwin: Really what happened was that my boys had best friends who
were girls when they were little. So my realization that young women were
being underserved by the action figure industry didn’t happen until i found
that there was a lack of appropriate girl action figures for my sons’ friends
who were little girls. My little one would go off to play with his female friend,
and she would bring her sister along. When the three of them would go off
and play, invariably, at some point in the day, he would be the knight, and
they would be princesses, and he would be saving them. but then at my house,
they would engage in very different play, because i didn’t have princess cos-
tumes at my house, and so they would end up wearing armor and being
knights and fighting right alongside him. Or we have lots of Harry Potter
robes and wands, and so they would end up being wizards and, again, fighting
alongside him. it wasn’t so much that girls didn’t want to play this way; it was
that they were being given toys that did not promote that type of play. it was
a cool combination of things, not just the action figures, that really started
to inform my perspective. So you say, “Okay, i want to have some action fig-
ures on hand so these young girls could play with action figures when they
come over.” That’s when we had the conversation that the female action figures
being made were not being made as a children’s toy, and that they were hyper-
sexualized in a way that’s not appropriate to put in the hands of the 4- or 5-
year-old. So with iAmelemental, the conversation was really two-fold, because
on the one hand we were challenging this idea that it was acceptable to pro-
duce a female superhero that had boobs bigger than her head, or a waist that
clearly had no ribs above it, or she couldn’t sit with her legs together, so her
legs just splayed out. And then on the other hand we had a question. it was
a larger, cultural question which was: “Where are the female action figures
that appeal across all ages?” in 2012, there really were no female action figures
that were similar in both sculpt and stature to the iconic figures of Spider
Man or batman. We were living in a time in our culture where Spider Man
appealed to a boy of four and a man of 40. There was no sense that you out-
grew a male action hero. There was something being created in the toy realm
that you could present an action figure to a 4-year-old boy and that same toy
would appeal to a 40-year-old man, but there was no equivalent for female
heroes. You couldn’t give the Wonder Woman to a 4-year-old girl once you
discovered that it wasn’t really appropriate from a sexualized point of view.
even in the Wonder Woman mythology: Wonder Woman as a myth has a
role in society, but Wonder Woman as a physical action figure was not some-
thing that was appealing to toy companies. That is where iAmelemental was
born. it was born in the absence of age-transcendent action figures of female
heroes. it was born out of the idea that female representation in action figures
has to go beyond sales data. There’s a story behind male characters that’s not
working for women.
“I was always Wonder Woman” (Alexandratos) 173

Alexandratos: In my head, I made up this story that IAmElemental was this

spontaneous idea, perhaps born on a dark and stormy night. You’re alone in
your house and you’re upset at the fact that there are no action figures of
female heroes that you can give to your sons’ friends. So you basically work
through the night, tearing away at sketches and notes, and then: dawn breaks.
And when the sun rises, you have developed the great idea that is IAmEle-
mental. Was the formation of IAmElemental basically this type of overnight
sensation, or was it the product of many months of development and editing?
Kerwin: You know as funny as your story is, it’s true! but Jonathan, let’s
not kid ourselves: the only way i could have that moment is because of the
stew of experiences in my life. As strange as it may sound to someone who’s
worked at Hasbro or Mattel for 20 years, so much of this was born out of just
being a parent and observing my children, and being a parent of boys. i’ve
always been a huge consumer of pop culture, so i’ve been watching all these
movies. i’m a voracious reader, and so i’ve been reading all these texts on
child development. And i was watching my children, through the act of play,
work through certain developmental skills. That literature is much more
available. it gets at exactly what we’re trying to represent through action fig-
ures. So i had lots of examples. All this was stirring in what i call the soup.
So it allowed me to have this seemingly spontaneously born idea, but it wasn’t
spontaneously born. it was the result of years and years of learning and obser-

Alexandratos: It sounds like you more or less had an entire Research & Devel-
opment Department in your brain and in your house. What strikes me about
that is it’s a cool statement on our century, where a person can have those
experiences and then independently translate them into a physical product,
because there are abilities for third parties to create action figures. I mean,
that’s new, isn’t it?
Kerwin: Yes, i think that’s what’s so remarkable about my experience. i
could have had the same idea 10 years ago and it would have gone nowhere.
i happened to be living in the right moment. i call the internet a Genie in a
bottle. it democratized all ideas, not just the corporate ones. We also have
crowdfunding which also kind of created this world in which it’s not just
acceptable but encouraged that you can have an idea, test your hypothesis,
and bring it to market. You could never do that ten years ago. Ten years ago
i would have just been a mom who had an idea, and it would’ve been like,
“Okay it’s a shame, somebody should do this.” And because of the time in
which we live i was able to do it. And that really is why companies like
iAmelemental are able to change the conversation and push the needle for-
ward in a way that big companies have had to respond to it. it would have
never happened a decade ago.
174 Articulating the Action Figure

Alexandratos: Not to switch gears too abruptly, but there is another side to
this conversation. Let’s talk about the factories producing our action figures.
I’m interested in the relationship between U.S. toy makers and the manufac-
turers in China who produce the toys that we consume. The Chinese toy-
making workforce is 80–90 percent female. I’m curious if IAmElemental is a
company or wants to be a company that pays attention to the female experi-
ence in those factories, which can often be quite bad.
Kerwin: it would be too big a challenge for me, alone, to revolutionize
chinese factories. What we have done is we have been very careful in vetting
our factory and choosing our factory. i will tell you that we had two factories
in the running. One was a female-owned and operated factory. We loved her!
She was lovely and i would have liked to have worked with her. At the end
of the day, though, i wasn’t picking her; i was picking the experience i was
going to have with the factory. So we ended up not going with her; we went
with a second factory. That factory owner had been incredibly responsive
and detailed in his emails to us throughout the process. As someone who
had never done this before, we’re quick studies and we know what we don’t
know. So our best partnerships are with people and companies that not only
fulfill our needs but also educate us and show us how to be better clients. So
we went with the male- owned factory because of his willingness to educate
us and his carefulness. now we were also very lucky because he had come to
us fully vetted. The wonderful thing about the kickstarter experience is that
there’s a real sense of collaboration and paying it forward. There’s a company
called Ruminate, and they make an engineering product for girls. it’s a woman-
owned company from alums of Stanford’s graduate program. They used this
factory, and had vetted it very well. One of the founders of Ruminate had essen-
tially been living at the factory because she had flown out to china and had
spent an extensive amount of time with the owner and being on the factory
floor. So we lucked out. Obviously, there are so many factories in china. Since
the kickstarter campaign, too, i’ve become friendly with a guy who works as
a middle man between the chinese factories and U.S. companies. He has worked
in the factories. So he offered this service where he offers to vet factories for
U.S. companies because finding the best factory is like finding a needle in the
haystack. i don’t underestimate how lucky we were to get this vetted factory
on the first go-around. We are very comfortable with the fact that our factory
owner treats us with a high level of respect and kindness and that he extends
that to his employees. i’ve had representatives go to the factory, they’ve taken
pictures and reported back, and i have every confidence that everyone, male
or female, is being well-treated. That is something that’s important.

Alexandratos: This is great. This is almost reminiscent of some stories I’ve

read out of the fashion industry: women CEOs of clothing companies becoming
“I was always Wonder Woman” (Alexandratos) 175

so upset by the working conditions in overseas garment factories that they go

out of their way to select a factory that they know will treat its employees
humanely. It’s great we can have this conversation. So, thinking about IAmEle-
mental in the future: where do you see the company going after Wave 1?
Kerwin: i will tell you this: while the concept of iAmelemental did
emerge fully formed from my head like Athena out of the head of zeus, we
spent almost 18 months in development before kickstarter. So right now we
have the second wave coming out, and we are designing the 6.5-inch core
Power for that wave. (each series has a collection of 4-inch figures and one
6.5-inch core Power figure that is a larger, more accessorized version of one
of the smaller toys.) And then we roll into series three which is Justice. We
use a real-life female hero for each series. For Series One we used Joan of
Arc, for Series Two we used Hypatia, and we know which muse we’d like to
use for Series 3 now. i cannot reveal it yet. Part of the goal is to reinvent the
muses each time. So the new muse will have a whole new look and a whole
new concept. And Series 4 has also been planned. So we have these outlines,
and it’s just a matter of growing our brand awareness and increasing sales to
the point where we are able to keep doing this. You know, i’m having the
time of my life. Seriously. i design action figures for a living. How cool is
that? And with these action figures you can go as shallow or as deep as you
want. You can buy them just because they look like kick-ass figures. You can
buy them and really embrace the message. Or you can buy them and learn.
every single design element has a reason. creativity has a crossbow to ref-
erence Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt, because we’re saying that you hunt
down ideas in order to be creative. everything has a reason behind it. And
that’s so much fun. but, i am a privately-owned, privately-held start up, so i
do need to market these in order to stay alive and do everything that i hope
to do. iAmelemental was created through a process that is the reverse of the
way action figures are usually created. Action figures usually start with a
backstory, and then form physically after that. We were creating an action
figure without a backstory. We came under some criticism from the collector
community because they thought this was lazy. but we did this intentionally.
We were making a statement about the fact that there were very few oppor-
tunities for girls to create stories with a female protagonist who is the one
saving the day. So we created an empowering concept for girls where they
were the storytellers. While we were in development, we also outlined ways
to create content around these characters. but of course we are very protective
around our mission and our concept. We are a mission-based company who
embeds a mission statement in our action figures, and we want to do that
right. i would love to be in a position someday where people are talking about
iAmelemental in the same breath as Wonder Woman, but right now that’s
our struggle.
176 Articulating the Action Figure

Alexandratos: To me, the new DC Super Hero Girls line is all IAmElemental,
you know? It’s like Mattel picked up an IAmElemental action figure and spun
off DC Super Hero Girls.
Kerwin: Oh absolutely Dc Super Hero Girls would not exist but for
iAmelemental. iAmelemental proved there was a market for female-driven
action figures and i don’t think you have to even question that.
Alexandratos: I’m curious about bodies. Do you think that in the future
you’ll see IAmElemental explore different body types for women?
Kerwin: That’s a good question. never say never. i can’t wait until i have
enough funding to embrace that flexibility in terms of body types. but in the
mean time we created an action figure with a healthy hip-to-breast ratio. We
wanted her to be a strong, healthy female. We wanted her to have breasts so
she’d be identifiably female, but we also wanted her to have a waist and not
have a hypersexualized rear. but, you know, we cannot be everything. So you
have your diversity checklist and you go down the list. i’m really proud that
there’s a lot we can check off. For instance, even though we have a real-life
muse for each series, from the first week of creation we decided that the “skin”
would always be bright colors that do not match any human skin tone because
we did not want to attribute a particular virtue to just one ethnicity. So we
tried to take many specific steps to ensure that our action figures represent
all women. but we can’t do everything. not at first. Molds are expensive, and
we just don’t have the flexibility right now to do different body types. We’re
proud of what we’ve done at this stage. i just spoke with a representative from
Mattel, and even they admitted that creating new body types is a huge finan-
cial risk for them. You need to create new body types and new clothing acces-
sories. They’ve been able to make a boat load of money for decades creating
one type of barbie and sets of clothing that would all fit that one type. They’re
in a much better position to take those risks than i am, but these are consid-
erations i have will have to make, too.
Alexandratos: The thesis of this book is that action figures are texts. We can
read figures the same way we read a movie or a book. Do you think there is
enough there, in action figures, to, say, teach a class where action figures are
our texts?
Kerwin: Absolutely! The medium is the message. i subscribe to Marshall
McLuhan’s idea about this. We are a mission-based company embedding mes-
sages in our toys, so i am 100 percent in your fanclub for believing that there’s
storytelling and messaging behind every action figure that you put in your
hand. but that takes us to a new level, too. We can talk about implicit mes-
saging as well, and that is part of what iAmelemental is designed to do, as
well. So, yes, there are stories in toys, but there are also messages that are
being internalized, that we’re not even aware of. You can talk about the explicit
“I was always Wonder Woman” (Alexandratos) 177

and implicit messaging that comes through in an action figure. Anyone who
tells you these messages don’t exist doesn’t watch kids play. Our experiences
culturally inform our learning.
Alexandratos: Of course I have a million more questions because I’m such
a huge fan of yours and of IAmElemental, but I also want to be respectful of
time constraints. Thank you so much for giving me a piece of your time, and
the IAmElemental story. I think you are where action figures are headed next,
and that provides a perfect note to end this book on.
Kerwin: My pleasure! Thank you!
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About the Contributors

Jonathan Alexandratos teaches at Queensborough Community College in New

York City. He is a playwright and action figure scholar. Both his creative and aca-
demic work function to elevate public awareness of action figures and their many
uses. He co-runs Page 23, the academic literary conference attached to Denver
Comic Con.
Tracy L. Bealer teaches literature and composition at Borough of Manhattan Com-
munity College. She specializes in the 20th- and 21st-century American novel with
a particular interest in pop culture and genre fiction. She is a program track manager
of the Page 23 literary conference at Denver Comic Con.
Christopher Bell is an assistant professor of communication at the University of
Colorado–Colorado Springs. He specializes in the study of popular culture, focusing
on the ways in which race, class and gender intersect in different forms of media.
His primary research areas are young adult culture, particularly dystopian young
adult literature and comic books.
Keith Corson is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at
Rhodes College. He is the author of Trying to Get Over and is conducting research
for books on French filmmaker Francis Veber and the intersection between racial
performance, basketball and hip-hop in les banlieues of Paris.
Thomas G. Endres is a professor of communication studies and head of the School
of Communication at the University of Northern Colorado. In addition to more
than 30 published articles, proceedings, and book chapters, he is the author and
photographer of the 2002 book Sturgis Stories.
Geoff Klock is an associate professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community
College. He is the author of How to Read Superhero Comics and Why; Imaginary
Biographies; and The Future of Comics, The Future of Men.
Kimberly A. Owczarski is an associate professor of media industries in the Depart-
ment of Film, Television and Digital Media at Texas Christian University. Her work
has appeared in Spectator, Journal of Film and Video and Quarterly Review of Film
and Video as well as several anthologies.

180 About the Contributors

J. Richard Stevens is an associate professor in media studies at the University of

Colorado–Boulder. He is the author of Captain America, Masculinity, and Violence
and is working on his second book about Hasbro, Marvel and the rise of hyper-
commercial media franchising.
Cathy Thomas is a Ph.D. student in literature at the University of California–Santa
Cruz where she focuses on the culture and writing of the Caribbean and of comic
books. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Colorado–Boulder.
Daniel F. Yezbick is a professor of English and media studies at Wildwood Com-
munity College where he teaches comics, film studies, interdisciplinary humanities
and writing courses. His essays on world comics have appeared in a variety of

#wheresblackwidow 8–9 Hasbro 18, 39–57, 58–70

#wheresrey 8–9 He-Man 21, 71–84, 155
Action Figure Digest 33 Heimat 23–25
A.C.T.I.O.N. FORCE 31 Homies 23
Activision 137 Hot Toys 23, 157
Ahern, Joe 31, 33–34, 38 Hot Wheels 38

Baartman, Saarjtie “Sara” 110 IAmElemental 10, 170–177

Barbie 7, 18, 28, 38, 75, 82, 104, 125–126, 155– Ideal 28–29
Barthes, Roland 66–67 Jem and the Holograms 72
Bataille, George 19–20 Jenkins, Henry 6, 15, 18
Batman 37, 161
Baudelaire, Charles 100, 104 Kader Toy Factory 8
Benjamin, Walter 65–66 Kane, Gil 29
Butler, Judith 5 Kenner 25, 48
Kickstarter 9, 22
Call of Duty 147 Kim Possible 36
Campbell, Joseph 45–46
Captain Action 28–38, 155 Lego 21, 25, 60, 82, 85–98, 138, 160; The Lego
Chang, Leslie 8 Movie 88–89, 92–94, 96
Children’s Television Act 83 Lord of the Rings 18
Cooke, Darwyn 25
Cosby, Bill 77 Margolis, Eric 5
Cosplay 67 Marvel (Comics) 39, 43–44; Marvel Legends
7; Secret Wars 159
DC Super Hero Girls 23 Mattel 28, 60, 71–84, 99–119, 141–142, 155
De Beauvoir, Simone 6 Mego 16, 22, 159, 161
Derrida, Jacques 7 McFarlane (Toys) 17, 19, 22, 157, 159
McLuhan, Marshall 23, 176
E.T. (video game) 73–74 Mohanty, Chandra Talpade 8
Monster High 99–119, 120, 126–129, 131
Filmation 74, 76 Moonstone (Comics) 38
Frost, Robert 16 Moore, Alan 25
My Little Pony 9, 58–70, 81; Bronies 59–70;
Gabriel 18 My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic 59–70
Galoob 14, 22; Galoob’s Micromachines 14
G.I. Joe 1, 7–8, 14, 18, 25, 30, 39–57, 81–95, NECA 17, 22, 158
125, 129, 141, 155–157 Nintendo 82
Godwin, Victoria 6
Parker Brothers 25
Halo 141 Piaget, Jean 13
Hama, Larry 44–45, 49, 51–52 Playmates 18, 24

182 Index

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) 153 Super Powers 24–25

Project MC2 120, 129–134 Supergirl 14

Rainbow Brite 78–79 Teen Titans 36

Remco 25 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 14, 24, 88, 161
Ross, Alex 25 Toy Biz 7, 18–19
Toy Story 85, 88–98
Santa’s Workshop 8 Toys R Us 33–34, 37
She-Ra 71–84; Princess of Power 72 Transformers 7, 81, 88, 95; Transformers
Shooter, Jim 29 Energon 7
Skylanders 135–151, 159
Star Trek 18 Wagner-Ott, Anna 5
Star Wars 8, 14, 20, 22, 48, 73, 88, 95, 137, 162 Wordsworth, William 85–98
Stevens, Wallace 15–16