The new Ghostbusters action figures are revolutionizing toy store shelves

by | May 25, 2016
filed under Pop Culture

Ghostbusters: Abby (Melissa McCarthy), Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Patty (Leslie Jones) in an image from the trailer

Ghostbusters: Abby (Melissa McCarthy), Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Patty (Leslie Jones) in an image from the trailer

First off, this is not about the Ghostbusters reboot. It’s not out yet. I haven’t seen it. All I will say is I’m a little bit obsessed with watching the trailers. I’m rooting for this movie, but I don’t know if it’ll be “good.”  However, part of me doesn’t really care if it’ll be good or not. Part of me says that the movie already is good.

Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters has done what no other movie – definitely no other movie in recent memory – could do: generate a wave of all-female action figures, tied to a big-budget film, that is widely available in mainstream toy stores.

If you’re familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then you know the struggles fans have gone through to get a Black Widow, Nebula, Jubilee, or Gamora action figure. You’ve read Shane Black’s article about how the villain in Iron Man 3 was going to be a woman until executives felt that toys of a female antagonist wouldn’t sell. If you’re a Star Wars fan, then you’ve probably searched, in vain, for a little plastic Rey, and searched more, even more in vain, for a Force Awakens Leia toy. In other words, you know how hard it is to find female action figures in toy stores.

This isn’t a problem with the new Ghostbusters. I swung by my local Toys R Us last weekend and found an endcap (technical term for a collection of product featured at the ends of aisles) full of Ghostbusters women. Every character was in stock: Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig), and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). Buy them all, and you can build Rowan the ghost, as each figure comes with a combinable piece of him. I left with a Holtzmann.

Photo of the new Ghostbusters action figures

Even more encouraging, these figures, produced by Mattel, accurately preserve the body types of Yates, Holtzmann, Gilbert, and Tolan. Yates’ toy is more full-figured than Gilbert’s, but neither appears unrealistically large or small. Simply put, they look human.

I don’t know how many people can appreciate how rare this is. When action figures for the film Jurassic Park came out (1993, by Kenner), Dennis Nedry shrunk when he was translated into plastic. The character went from Wayne Knight’s larger size to a buff action figure slightly reminiscent of Patrick Warburton from his Seinfeld days.

The action figure industry has almost as much of a problem representing body types as it does gender. Mattel’s new Ghostbusters figures get it right on both counts. But what these figures include is just as important as what, or who, they exclude.  Not on toy shelves is Chris Hemsworth, who plays Kevin, the Ghostbusters’ secretary. He doesn’t have an action figure. This turns on its head the all-too-common practice of putting male characters out first, and waiting to insert female characters into the second wave of figures, if at all.

Kevin might get an action figure at some point, but I’m not waiting for one. Hemsworth has plenty of representation in the myriad Thor figures Hasbro keeps churning out. It’s time that an action figure line’s first wave featured a collection of all-female characters. Feig’s Ghostbusters set up this possibility, and I’m glad to see Mattel doing right by that.

Screamin' Janine action figure

Screamin’ Janine action figure

When I got home last Saturday with my little plastic Jillian Holtzmann, I stood her next to my Screamin’ Janine Melnitz action figure, released by Kenner in the ‘90s, and just thought for a while. Screamin’ Janine’s action feature was a cloth skirt that flew up when you spun her legs around.  Her eyeglasses were rounded out – no longer the pointy cat eyes – because Kenner executives decided she should look less authoritative.

Next to that woman, robbed of her agency and dignity in plastic, was Holtzmann, an action figure that I had no problem tracking down, who wears the same accessories that Bill Murray did in the original films, and whose points of articulation (18 moveable joints, compared to Melnitz’s 5, plus the twirling waist) equaled male figures of that size in other lines. How far we’ve come.

Hopefully, the new Ghostbusters figures will disprove everything toy companies believe about women action figures: that they don’t sell, that boys or men won’t want them, that they’re secondary. Maybe then, in a few years, we won’t have to fight to get hold of a Black Widow, or a Rey, or a General Leia. Maybe some would say I’m being too optimistic, but I hope not. I believe that a female representation revolution is coming in the action figure industry, and, if that’s true, then Mattel’s Ghostbusters have fired the first shot.

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