What One Heckler Told Me About Feminism and Action Figures

by | June 28, 2016
filed under Pop Culture

DC superhero girls action figures

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.”

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  • Carl Pietrantonio

    If I went to a talk entitled “How to make an action figure”, I would expect to know how the plastic is heated, injected into molds, how they color or paint the figures, etc. . Maybe the title of the talk was a bit misleading and he was unhappy about that.

    • GreyLadyBast

      Poor widdle baby. My heart, it bleeds, just for him (and you).

      • Carl Pietrantonio

        Very constructive.

        • Heather T

          Yeah – it was a little pre-emptive.

        • GreyLadyBast

          Yes, because sticking up for some poor spoiled nitwit who can’t stand to have his preferences not be catered to is SO deserving of being taken seriously.

      • Heather T

        He’s all yours, @GreyLadyBast:disqus

    • Heather T

      “Maybe the title of the talk was a bit misleading and he was unhappy about that.”

      Such speculations cross over into “mind-reading” (of which feminists are often falsely accused), especially when the speaker has already CLEARLY and VOCALLY demonstrated their dismissiveness and contempt for someone/something which has “failed” to prioritize and meet their own expectations.

      • Carl Pietrantonio

        Was you there? Sometimes a rose is just a rose. Be open minded.

        • Heather T

          “Be open minded.”

          I’ll advise the same – to you, and to the heckler. From time to time, open-minded people wander into the “wrong” lecture, and let themselves learn something new anyway. It’s been known to happen.

          • Carl Pietrantonio

            I am. However, I urge you to again read the first part of this article as well with an open eye. Look at the first quote of the guy in the audience. He specifically asks… “I thought this was going to be a talk on making action figures,” This to me, with the specific phrasing as related by the above writer indicates that the guy wanted to know about how the figures were made, i.e; the manufacturing process. Not something far more esoteric than I believe the lecturer meant from the phrasing of the title,. But some folks have such an agenda that even a suggestion that someone might have thought something different is some kind of political agenda. In other words, the guy wanted to know something *completely different* than what was being talked about. If he was unhappy about a poorly titled lecture/talk, I do not blame him.

            When a talk about manufactured items is titled, “How to Make an Action Figure,”, well, I certainly would expect it to be exactly what it says. Same as “How a house is built” or How a Chevy truck is built” or “How to make Angel Food cake”

            But to each their own. Some folks have a chip on their shoulder about this kind of shit and there is no reasonable discussion. Y’all have a nice day.

          • Heather T

            And I urge **you** (AND the heckler) to LISTEN when a woman says something like, ““I’m sorry but we’re going to hold questions until the end,” – rather than continuing to not only disrupt the lecture, but force his entitlement to disrespect the boundaries that have already been set. This is not rocket surgery.

          • Heather T

            ” I do not blame him.”

            Empathizing with the feelings of others, and evaluating the in/appropriateness of how they choose to **act** on those feelings, are two completely different things.

          • Heather T

            Re: “Reasonable discussion”:

            1. Listen
            2. No mind reading permitted.
            3. Points deducted for flouncing off in a huff because you didn’t get your way.

          • Esquilax

            So say you do go to a talk titled “how a chevy truck is built”: would you find discussion on the design sensibilities of chevy trucks, the thought processes that go into making them and the culture in which they’re built- essentially, the reasons chevy trucks are built the way they are- to be wildly irrelevant to that topic?

          • Rick Stevens

            “How to Make an Action Figure”. This was not the title of the panel.

          • Rick Stevens

            “How to Make an Action Figure”. This was not the title of the panel. And it was clearly listed under the education programming section of DCC.

    • Amorette

      I a am a super feminist and have been all my life but I have to agree. If I went to a lecture that sounded like it was going to explain how to build a bookcase, I’d want to see a bookcase being built. Not a discussion of responsible forestry. I think the title of the lecture was bait and switch.

      • Carl Pietrantonio

        Jeez, I am glad someone can read things as written and not read into them. Thanx. Watching now to see if you get slammed on for having a non-approved reaction to all of this.

        • Esquilax

          I see you’re using a strange definition of “reading things as written,” to avoid having to say “read things with the same self-serving literalism I did, in order to excuse bad behavior.”

        • Kayti Sullivan

          A non approved reaction. Interesting.

          • Heather T

            Equally interesting: “Slammed”

            Even if opposing critique were equivalent to physical violence, everyone engaging in it here pretty much has the kid gloves on.

            And @Carl? Maybe the chips on people’s shoulders wouldn’t bother you so much if you stopped going out of your way to knock them off.

        • Rick Stevens

          Yeah, he didn’t “read things as written.” By definition, that is not what happened. You seem to be saying you have some agreement that he “read things as [you] received,” which is the opposite of what those words mean. As written. ;-)

      • Heather T

        Many things go into the “making” of an action figure – and creating each one’s individual core identity and presentation are an integral part of that process; and…if nothing else, this information is helpful for toy manufacturers looking to expand their market. And… it is not unreasonable to inform us of the ways in which we unknowingly contribute to suffering and harm through our mere entertainments – and perhaps begin to explore better ways to build them – from the ground up. You don’t have to be a “super feminist” (who sews your capes? I’m looking for a new cape person) to care about issues that ultimately affect the rest of our global family.

      • Rick Stevens

        Yeah, I think this gentleman was new to Denver Comic Con, didn’t understand the education section of the programming guide, and wasn’t familiar with the culture of the event. And that happens. I can understand confusion, if an outsider wandered into an insider space and didn’t read closely.

        That doesn’t explain the repeated disruptions.

        I am often sitting through lectures in which someone says something I don’t agree with or don’t like. I don’t think I have ever once stopped the speaker. And if I ever did raise my hand and have the speaker respond “We’re holding all questions until the Q&A section of the panel” I cannot fathom shouting down the speaker to get my word in edge-wise and THEN walking out before the Q&A section began.

    • Xexyz

      Which may be a reasonable response had the man been attending the IAPD Plastics Expo. Except he was at the Denver Comic Con, so it was obvious that the discussion was going to be based around the “what” and not the “how”.

    • Usernameyouspecified

      Alexandratos said *his talk* was called “How to Make an Action Figure”, not the panel. In fact, the *panel’s* title was “Points of Articulation: A Panel on the Manufacture and Collectability of Action Figures”. The description, which one would presumably read before attending, concludes with, “This panel seeks to examine some of the forces involved in the production, the transmission/delivery and the collection practices of toys.” Not a word about “how they color the figures”. In conclusion: dude was rude.

      • Heather T

        Maybe he went in there “looking for something to get mad about”.

    • And not everything being presented is going to be centered around white dudes. So maybe he could tough it out and learn a bit more about the world beyond.

  • AmeliaEve

    Everyone else in the room seemed perfectly comfortable with the subject of the discussion. If this one man was so disappointed with the turn it took, he always had the opportunity to vote with his feet. Not every session at a conference turns out the way I expected. Grownups with manners can usually handle that disappointment for an hour out of their lives.

  • OtherBecky

    You said your experiences led you to wonder whether women get shouted down like this all the time. The answer to that is an emphatic yes, except that we don’t usually get the social support of the rest of the room nodding along. I have ways of shutting it down fast when it’s one of my students. (The fact that some of my male students feel comfortable doing this when they know their grade has a “participation and professionalism” component both perplexes me and makes me wonder whether they think letters of recommendation grow on trees.) Other situations are a lot more difficult — the balancing act between standing up for myself and still making a good impression that leaves other people willing to work with me is a tricky one.

    The men like this one are from the same mold as the ones who decry “identity politics” and hold themselves up as perfectly objective. My opinion on some subject or interaction or event is discounted because my experiences make me biased and emotional. Their lack of experience with same makes them rational and impartial. This is how you get people who legitimately believe that white people are the best arbiters of what is or is not racism, that men can best identify sexism, that straight people get to define homophobia and cis people get to define transphobia, and on and on.

    • yawn3419

      Wow – thank you for sharing that. Seriously – that comment is illuminating, and it helps me better understand an experience outside my own.

  • kiplagat1

    Powerful piece! Thank you for sharing!