Recently I gave a talk at Denver Comic Con about the global lack of action figures representing female characters. On my panel were two other scholars, and two real experts: a pair of girls age 8-to-10. My talk kicked off the panel, and was titled “How to Make an Action Figure,” which was ultimately meant to suggest that the exclusion of women has become, unfortunately, central to the production of action figures, and that that needs to be acknowledged as much as, if not more than, the types of joints or paints used in the physical manufacture of the toys.
(Full disclosure: I co-run Denver Comic Con’s literary conference, Page 23, and believe wholeheartedly in the Con’s mission to promote education and literacy.)
I was roughly eight minutes in and had discussed how women characters have been historically excluded from action figure production (a number of those cases have been pointed out on this blog). I had pointed out that the industry also excludes women by ignoring its Chinese factory workforce, which is 80-90% women workers, who endure physically and emotionally arduous conditions on a daily basis. I was about to get to my thesis, which was that Eastern and Western feminisms (picture the difference between a female factory co-worker in China helping a female colleague produce more product versus a Twitter campaign in the U.S.) may need to further understand one another in order to affect meaningful change.
It was then that a hand shot up in the front row. “I’m sorry but we’re going to hold questions until the end,” I said. The hand was attached to an older white male who, I assume, had his teenage-to-early-20-year-old daughter with him. She was horrified. He was not. At minute ten, the hand went up again and out came a sentence: “I’m sorry I just have to say something!”
Of course. Of course he had to say something.
“I thought this was going to be a talk on making action figures,” he said.
I told him that it was. And that, surprise! Feminism needs to be a key ingredient in that process. I sped this rebuttal along, knowing that someone who clearly felt that one can uncouple the products one consumes from the people who slave to make them doesn’t deserve a second of my time. But he wouldn’t let up.
Once I replied, he said, “So the last ten minutes have been about…NOTHING!”
Here, I don’t remember exactly what I said. I know that I told him that I was sorry to learn that he felt the voices of marginalized women that are the foundation of the toy industry responsible for that marginalization were “nothing.” I saw the bulk of the audience nodding along with what I was saying. He was alone. That was refreshing.
I took a very brief millisecond, there, to wonder exactly who this man was. I’d wonder this more in the days following. Was he a toy industry guy? He certainly sounded like one. While there are some high-ranking men (the industry is sadly still male-dominated) in the toy industry who embrace social responsibility as a tenet of their companies, many “Toy Men” brush it off. That’s due to a number of factors, but a lot of it has to do with their jobs.
According to Eric Clark in his book The Real Toy Story, most so-called Toy Men aren’t Toy Men at all. They’re men who once sold soap, or rubber, or car parts, and could just as easily go back to doing that. Of course they’re not going to consider feminism as important to their industry. It isn’t as though they had conversations about the lack of female representation in automobile tires. For them, a toy is like any other product, and the only goal of that product is to sell. A discussion of anything else is, as this gentlemen pointed out to me, “nothing.”
Of course, this heckler could have been anyone. He could have been someone who randomly wandered into a panel. He could have been an action figure collector. He could have been looking for the bathroom and got lost. Who knows.
Part of me is glad he showed up, though. He showed me, and all of us, what, exactly, we’re fighting. He proved why talks like this need to exist. He demonstrated, through his rude interruption, that there are still men out there who will simply not accept that feminism and social discourse play a crucial role in the production of action figures. He is the person who denies, the person who makes a product, the person who might as well be making soap.
Later in the day, I went on to talk to Trina Robbins about this incident. She’s perhaps the most important living voice in comics, a writer of numerous underground comix and many issues of Wonder Woman from the 1980s onward. I told her that this guy, the heckler, stuck around for the rest of the talk and then stormed out. “Yeah,” she said as if she’d seen it a million times, “They do that.”
Part of me hopes he went home and got into a fight with his daughter, who seemed to know that the action figure industry is one that has erased her body. That part of me hopes she changed his mind, that he saw that to ignore feminism is to ignore his daughter.
The other part of me doesn’t care what happens to him. That part is filled with a mixture of questions and guilt. It asks myself, “Is this what women experience?” “Do women get shouted down like this all the time?” “Would this guy have been more vocal if I had been a woman?” And of course I feel guilty for having those questions because I start to think: how dare I? How dare I go down a trail of thought that equates my one, relatively harmless interaction with what women have to endure every day?
Action figures are my experience, but the day-to-day lives of women are not, and if I forget that, then I’m no better than the guy who heckled me. I have no resolution to this conflict, and if any women who live this experience can show me where I’m going wrong, I’ll be incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn.
As for the rest of the panel, the other two presenters were brilliant, and the girls stole the show, as they should. They played with their DC Super Hero Girls action figures onstage, and I hope they someday call the shots at Mattel or Hasbro, never having to worry about a world in which they are “nothing.”