Are Action Figures Dolls? Is Wonder Woman Barbie an Action Figure?
When Hasbro first released G.I. Joe, the company scrupulously avoided any use of the word "doll" to describe their real American hero. After all, Joe wasn't a doll. Dolls have horsies and houses and suburban domestic accoutrements. Joe was a soldier! Joe was a fighting man! Joe was...
...an action figure!
That didn't stop legions of mothers from calling their sons' new toys dolls, of course. Moms are smart. They know stuff. To moms, Joe was a doll who just happened to have a rifle and dogtags. If you were a kid, you just ignored this. Joe was an action figure. And if Mom called Joe a doll, well, Mom also had trouble keeping your friends' names straight. An action figure is an action figure is an action figure.
And so the debate has raged for decades. Some of the latest toys to straddle the line between dolls and action figures are the 9-inch Star Trek figures. While some may say that their plastic bodies and cloth uniforms make them dolls, I disagree. The difference lies in my own definition of action figures:
"Action figures depict characters who can blow stuff up, or who consort with those who do."
Simple, isn't it? Thus: 9-inch Captain Kirk comes with a phaser, and can blow stuff up. He is an action figure. Barbie cannot blow stuff up. She is a doll. The 12-inch animated Superman figure has heat vision and super-strength. Therefore, he is an action figure. A Lois Lane would actually, under my definition, be an action figure, since she's married to Superman, he of the aforementioned heat vision and super-strength. On the other hand, if Lois were released individually, that is, not as part of a Superman line, that toy could then properly be described as a doll.
Still, like the proscription against splitting infinitives, the recent resurgence of action figures clad in cloth costumes may send the distinction between dolls and action figures the way of the dodo and the Susan B. Anthony dollar. And I'll admit to being mystified by it. Perhaps I'm committing action figure blasphemy here, but the appeal of cloth-clad action figures escapes me. I simply don't see why anyone needs a Spider-Man or a Captain Sisko or a Joker in a cloth costume. To me, all that does is destroy the wonderful fantasy world of comics. Thank you, I know that Spider-Man's costume would have wrinkles and seams in real life; I don't need to see those wrinkles and seams on a cloth costume or see the giant velcro flap that keeps his mask attached to his costume. I know wearing glasses and combing your hair differently isn't much of a disguise, too, and come to think of it, I didn't need that wretched Lois & Clark show to point that out to me, either.
I'll take a smaller, all-plastic figure any day. My animated Batman villains look just like they do on the cartoon, because they're made of plastic. We don't need no stinkin' cloth here. Cloth would destroy the elegant lines of the figures and their meticulous recreation of the series' look. And all-plastic figures are sturdier, too. If I drop a 5-inch Wolverine, nothing's going to happen. If I drop a 9-inch Wolverine, his costume could rip, and then I'd have to ask my girlfriend to sew it for me.
To be fair, Trek figures are a somewhat different lot than their superheroic counterparts; after all, we know they characters are supposed to be wearing uniforms, not second skins. But I'll still take the five-inch Trek figures. They take me back to the days of my youth, when G.I. Joe figures were 3 3/4-inches tall and made entirely of plastic. There was no way anyone would ever call those puppies "dolls."
Chris and I must use our dolls - I mean, action figures - for different purposes. The truth is that in my youth I owned an eight-inch G.I. Joe-type dude called Action Jackson, but that was only because he was the right height to be a boyfriend for an eight-inch fashion doll named Dawn which has not been made in about 25 years. (Yes, I am ashamed of having owned a fashion doll, and can only hope that this is mitigated by the fact that I also owned The Sunshine Family, the granola alternative to Barbie.)
My well-articulated Action Jackson was created by Mego, the same company that made the original Star Trek action figures. I still own the bridge crew, though they're not worth any money because I took them all out of their plastic bubbles to put them in a diorama using pussy willow seeds as Tribbles...which, I might add, look a lot more realistic than the blue plastic phasers and tricorders which came with the dolls, I mean action figures. I bet none of the scratchbuilders around here ever thought about improvised tribbles or ways to construct a miniature Vulcan IDIC necklace, let alone a hideous green wraparound for Kirk.
My sons work hard to have "action figures." While my own Hercules and Xena stand sedately on a shelf with their weapons arranged non-threateningly in holsters, my older son's Hercules and Xena swords get waved at my younger son even when Herc and Xena are not present themselves to hold the weapons. Tough guys, right? But if I get Hercules to hold the little blue wine glass that comes with Guinan from TNG, he doesn't look so tough even if I pretend that the wine is poisoned with hind's blood. So is Hercules an action figure? Is Guinan? Or Deanna Troi in the purple catsuit? Nay, I say, though she's not really a doll either. I'm perfectly happy with my little plastic Troi to sit on the Enterprise bridge set, but you can't put a 5" Troi in a Barbie negligee.
Stop laughing, I'm kidding - the only 9" action figures I own who actually wear Barbie clothes are Chakotay and Janeway, tastefully dressed in Dream Date Ken's tuxedo and one of the more expensive Barbie wedding gowns. They look mahhhvelous, though they don't look terribly threatening, commanding or professional. But then again, Seven of Nine's catsuit doesn't either, and would look equally silly made of cloth on a 9" figure (which I am sure some people bought specifically to take the clothes OFF) or in the welded plastic of a 5" figure. Barbie of Borg is a doll, no matter what she's made of or how much stuff she can blow up with her little plastic devices.
I would like a "doll" who comes with interesting scientific and literary materials, who can defend herself when necessary without a gun, who has a realistic body, and who talks about the environment and music and the internet when you pull the little string at the back of her neck. Though my "action figures" have always come with boring weapons, I keep them nicely dressed and out of trouble. For instance, my Mego Classic Trek crew once borrowed the tea set from my Sunshine Family (who have the same model bodies as Mattel's Space: 1999 action figures). They re-enacted the dinner scene from "Is There In Truth No Beauty?" with Miranda played by Glenda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz (also made by Mego, with the same model body as Uhura).
Surely Glenda is not an action figure, despite having been made by an action figure company in the mold of an action figure -- and even though she comes with a magic wand, which presumably confers the ability to blow things up. Glenda is a doll. Therefore Uhura is a doll. Therefore Kirk is a doll. Therefore Action Jackson is a doll. Therefore, G.I. Joe is a doll. Men just need to deal with it.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.