Gender Focus welcomes guest contributor Jonathan Alexandratos! Jonathan Alexandratos is a playwright living in New York City. He is a professor at Plaza College and Queensborough Community College, and is a co-founder of the non-profit playwrights’ lab Playsmiths.
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.