by Jonathan Alexandratos
With the recent buzz around the Django Unchained action figures, we can see the power of a seemingly benign hunk of molded plastic to stir significant social debate. The purpose of this post, however, is not to explore questions of race in action figures, as the Django debate does, but to look at gender issues.
Here, via three examples, I argue that the female form is dangerously mis- or underrepresented in action figure lines geared toward the Ages 3-and-Up male demographic. This threat manifests in the fact that female bodies are being mass-produced to fit certain unfair social conventions, and is magnified by the fact that, for many young consumers of these figures, said artificial women are the first they will touch beyond the family members around them.
This argument is certainly made with full awareness of the fact that action figure manufacturers are tied, to some extent, to their source material; however, I don’t think this excuses them when they skew certain lines not just masculine but macho. It’s also not reason enough to discredit discussion of the social relevance of action figures.
In 1986, Filmation created an animated kids’ TV series based on the Ghostbusters franchise. In 1989, Kenner produced an action figure of the series’ strongest female character, Janine. At the start of the series, Janine was hardly ever frightened by the mysterious goings-on that the Ghostbusters tracked. However, as the series went on, executives scaled back Janine to make her “softer,” thinking that her tough image was a bad role model for girls.
They even went so far as to round the cat eye rims of her glasses, thinking the former looked too harsh. The action figure, then, exemplified this change, rather than the earlier,stronger Janine. On top of this, Janinehad a feature where, if one wound her torso up and pushed a button on her lower back, her lower half (assuming one was grasping the top half) would spin rapidly, causing her cloth skirt to fly up. None of the male figures had any sort of fabric clothing, and certainly none of them were capable of a feature so sexually derogatory.
Circa 1998, about a decade after Screamin’ Janine, Toy Biz produced a line of action figures based on Marvel’s “Famous Covers.” While female figures were produced in a disproportionately fewer quantity than the men, Toy Biz did manage to make an action figure of Spider-Man’s generous Aunt May – and make her available only by mail-away.
They based the Aunt May figure on a Spider-Man story in which she becomes, temporarily, the antagonist. Thus, of all Aunt May’s protagonistic storylines, Toy Biz chose her most vicious look to produce. Earlier prototypes of the figure suggest that she initially was to feature a warm, loving expression, more typical of the comic, but was later changed. Moreover, for the body of this septuagenarian, Toy Biz used the same body that was sculpted for the Storm X-Men action figure – a woman about half Aunt May’s age.
Combine the absence of female characters, Aunt May’s crone-like appearance, and a body that would teach very unrealistic expectations to young consumers, and we see a line of action figures that embodies the major problems with gender in the toy market.
In 2004, Hasbro produced a line of Transformers action figures based on the then-popular Transformers Energon animated series. Arcee was the only “female” figure to be produced, warranting quotation marks around the word “female,” as I’d question to what extent a transforming motorcycle has a sex.
The figure, upon first glance, seems to present little issue – it’s a fair if not great representation of the character on the source TV show. But, there are two features of Arcee worthy of discussion: first, the toy was the lone “female” amidst a sea of “male” Transformers, prompting Toy Fare magazine to note, upon the figure’s release, that collectors ought to buy Arcee action figures because, on top of there not being as many of them, female action figures often get left on the shelves, with the male figures purchased right away.
I don’t know if the same still applies, but this disparity leads one to speculate that there has been some disconnect in the way gender is represented and explained to children . There’s a suggestion that toys branded for boys replicate the so-called “Alpha Male,” and any female action figure in such a line is one not to be taken seriously.
But to return to Arcee’s “femininity,” for a moment: since robots, as earlier stated, are essentially sex-less, creators of action figures and TV shows that use robot characters have to establish sex in a different way. The TV shows have voices that help, but how is it done in an action figure? In the case of Arcee, she was given high-heeled boots (sculpted on) and pink highlights to denote femininity.
The “male” Transformers, though, had no such superficial features – it was simply assumed that they were male, based on the lack of stereotypical “female” features (high heels, pink highlights). And that’s why Arcee makes this list: it is socially unfair that “male” robot figures ought to simply be assumed to be male, whereas the “female” characters must be molded with certain “feminine,” surface accessories and clothing items to mark their sex. Here, though, the problem isn’t that action figures create this problem, it’s that they tend to reinforce it, often without discussion.
Which is the crux of my argument: it isn’t that examples can’t be found of action figures doing the opposite, of supporting gender equality (especially in more modern, post-Arcee examples), but that those that don’t are often allowed into the hands of children (and adults) with nothing even resembling intellectual discussion or context. Indeed, let’s highlight the action figures that represent gender well, but let us also ensure that those good examples do not justify a lack of scrutiny for those that support false constructs of the masculine, feminine, or trans.
We wouldn’t allow the same in our films or our literature, and it shouldn’t be permitted in our action figures, either.