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Continuum
Journal of Media & Cultural Studies
ISSN: 1030-4312 (Print) 1469-3666 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccon20
Fully articulated: The rise of the action figure and
the changing face of ‘children’s’ entertainment
Jason Bainbridge
To cite this article: Jason Bainbridge (2010) Fully articulated: The rise of the action
figure and the changing face of ‘children’s’ entertainment, Continuum, 24:6, 829-842, DOI:
10.1080/10304312.2010.510592
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2010.510592
Published online: 01 Dec 2010.
Submit your article to this journal
Article views: 1370
Citing articles: 4 View citing articles
Fully articulated: The rise of the action figure and the changing face of
‘children’s’ entertainment
Jason Bainbridge*
Faculty of Higher Education, Swinburne University of Technology, Lilydale, Victoria, Australia
The action figure is a relatively recent invention, a product of the 1960s, urbanization
and a gendered re-inscription of girls’ dolls, making them suitable for masculine
consumption and play. Yet despite the importance of the action figure in popular
culture, both as a million dollar entertainment industry in their own right and as the
basis for media convergence and filmic adaptation (as most recently confirmed with
the box-office success of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen [2009] and G.I. Joe: The
Rise of Cobra [2009]), the action figure has rarely been analysed as a media text. This
paper will engage in such an analysis, exploring the history and importance of the
action figure in the broader socio-cultural context through a series of case studies of the
key properties: G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe and Transformers. It will examine
how narratives born of canny marketing decisions gave rise to some of the earliest
examples of transmedia storytelling, how fandom supported such products well beyond
their (quite literal) shelf-lives and how the cultural value of action figures has altered so
that they are now desirable items for the adult collector as well as being playthings for
children. In this way, I argue that the action figure is both symptomatic of modern
commodity culture and indicative of the trends in media convergence.
The story of toys is the story of everything … if some bearded archeologist [sic ] of the year 3000
wants to know what life was all about in the 20th century, all he has to do is dig up a toy box.
James May, qtd in May (2009, 6)
Someday, I’m gonna be ’xactly like you, ’til then I know just what I’ll do: Barbie, beautiful
Barbie, I’ll make believe that I’m you.
Television jingle, from debut Barbie advertisement, 1959,
qtd in D’Amato (2009, 120)
GI Joe, GI Joe, fighting man from head to toe!
On the land, on the sea, in the air!
Television jingle, from G.I. Joe advertisement, 1964, qtd in Walsh (2005, 199)
Introduction
Prior to its release in 2009, the Disney/Pixar cartoon Up (Disney/Pixar, 2009) attracted
media attention for the lukewarm response it received from merchandizers and toy
manufacturers concerned by the lack of ‘commercial attractiveness’ of its main character,
the curmudgeonly 78-year-old widower Carl Frederiksen (voiced by Ed Asner; see Barnes
ISSN 1030-4312 print/ISSN 1469-3666 online
q 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2010.510592
http://www.informaworld.com
*Email: jbainbridge@groupwise.swin.edu.au
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies
Vol. 24, No. 6, December 2010, 829–842
2009; Jamieson 2009; Snyder 2009). Amongst those canvassed for an opinion, Richard
Greenfield of Pali Research said that ‘we doubt younger boys will be that excited by the
main character’, one anonymous buyer for a leading toy retailer was quoted as saying ‘the
film doesn’t sound like much of a goer’ in terms of generating the product licences and
spin-off products that typically accompany such a release (Jamieson 2009) and Wal-Mart,
Target and Thinkway Toys all passed on carrying/producing Up toys (Barnes 2009).1 On
the other side of the debate Professor Isabelle Szmigin of the Birmingham Business School
suggested that Up represented the ‘classic battle between creativity and commercialism’,
while Hamish Pringle, director general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising,
noted that ageism was a major factor behind the investors’ cool response (Jamieson 2009).
Up went on to enjoy both critical and popular success, becoming the first animated film
to open the Cannes Film Festival, the second animated film to be nominated for Best
Picture at the Academy Awards and the recipient of the Best Animated Picture Award for
2009. But the questions raised over Up’s ‘commercial attractiveness’ highlight the
changing nature of children’s entertainment, particularly the increased emphases on
merchandizing, franchise development and the ‘toyetic’ potential of properties (their
ability to generate attendant toy lines). Indeed, we can recast concerns over Carl
Frederiksen’s ‘attractiveness’ as a lead character as being concerns over his ability to
function as a plush toy or, more significantly for this paper, as an action figure. When
having an ‘action’ and a ‘figure’ is so important to children’s entertainment, when ‘toys
and the entertainment industry have become two sides of the same coin’ (Clark 2007, 212)
what place is there for a 78-year-old protagonist and how did it come to be this way?2
This paper focuses on children’s entertainment and, more particularly, the sociocultural role of the action figure as media text, as carrier of meaning in this culture. Such an
approach should not be that surprising for, as Vera Zago notes, ‘Playing is a method of
communication of the impossible and/or the wants of the person playing’ (Zago 2001,
146); action figures are therefore the tools of communication, one of the ways in which
children make meaning and express desires (Sutton-Smith 1986). Furthermore, as James
May, commentator and creator of the documentary series James May’s Toy Stories,
describes it: ‘Toys … [are] a mirror of the technological developments and social
aspirations of their eras … [and unlike] Art Deco furniture or portrait painting; they were
intended for children, so they indicate how we thought the future would turn out’ (May
2009, 6).
By analysing action figures as media texts I want to move beyond the prosaic gender
distinctions made between ‘boys’ toys’ and ‘girls’ toys’ to explore how the evolution of
the action figure from G.I. Joe, through Masters of the Universe, to the Transformers
prefigured (pun intended) the transmedia storytelling and prosumer culture currently
enabled by digital media (as identified by Jenkins 2006). In this way, this paper argues that
the ‘action figure’ functions as a metaphor for children’s entertainment, both symptomatic
of modern commodity culture and indicative of the current trends in media convergence.
Barbie
The appellation ‘action figure’ contains two equally important parts – an action and a
figure – and it was the ‘figure’ that came first, with the launch of Barbie at the 1959 New
York Toy Fair. As Tim Walsh notes: ‘pre-Barbie … most dolls were babies or children.
Toy makers believed that a girl played with dolls so that she could pretend to be a mother.
Barbie changed all that … [as] Barbie possessed something no other doll had: A figure’
(Walsh 2005, 130). Standing at 111=2 inches, her decidedly adult feminine frame
830 J. Bainbridge
accentuated by a strapless black-and-white bathing suit, open-toed black heels, lipstick,
eyeliner, earrings and hair in a grown-up style, the idea for Barbie came from the adult
paper dolls Mattel founder Elliot Handler’s wife Ruth saw her daughter playing with
(instead of baby dolls).3
Barbie’s adult figure meant that she offered liminal pleasures, simultaneously a
plaything and companion for young girls (as a doll) while also providing ‘first experiences
with fashion, the eye-opening possibilities of role-play, the delight of imagining one’s
grown-up self’ (D’Amato 2009, 7) (as an adult). As Ruth Handler herself described it:
‘Barbie would make it fun and easy for young minds to envision adult achievements’ (qtd
in D’Amato 2009, 8) – though often in a far more transgressive fashion than the
manufacturers and designers originally envisaged (see Rand 1995; Gussin Paley 1984, 11).
Barbie therefore provided what Lynn Spigel would term a ‘dissolution of age categories’,
in part started by the children’s television programs of the 1950s, like Howdy Doody and
Winky Dink and You that were similarly ‘filled with liminal characters, characters that
existed somewhere in between child and adult’ (Spigel 1998, 123 –4).
Barbie also emerged during an important shift in the wider culture, from a culture of
production, with its demands of discipline and regimentation, towards a culture of
consumption, with its expectations of a ‘fun morality’ where ‘fun has tended to become
obligatory’ (Wolfenstein 1998, 199), motivated largely by the expansion of the
marketplace and growing suburban affluence.4 This ushered in a paradigm of
permissiveness, perhaps best embodied in the work of Dr Spock (see Strickland and
Ambrose 1985), where play became a central element of children’s culture and children’s
culture as a whole was reframed as that ‘sphere’ Henry Giroux describes as being ‘where
entertainment, advocacy and pleasure meet to construct conceptions of what it means to
be a child occupying a combination of gender, racial and class positions in society’
(Giroux 1996, 89; emphasis added). In bringing together conspicuous consumption with
fun (every occupation, encounter and adventure Barbie has is accompanied by that
trademark smile) Barbie personified the changes in culture at the time and pointed towards
the increasing importance of ‘entertainment’ and ‘pleasure’ as aspects of children’s
culture.
But while Barbie (and later her boyfriend Ken) provided adult ‘figures’ for children’s
play they still remained very much ‘dolls’, essentially passive receptacles of the fantasies
of the children who played with them, to be dressed and undressed, posed and
manipulated. It would not be until 1963, and the introduction of G.I. Joe, that for the first
time the toy not only had the figure of an adult but was also articulated and therefore
capable of performing like one. The only other male adult toy at the time, Ken, didn’t need
to be fully articulated.5 But G.I. Joe needed to be capable of kneeling, sitting in jeeps,
posing with weapons and, most basically, being able to stand on his own, something no
Barbie or Ken doll could do. Through his 21 moveable parts, Joe brought ‘action’ to the
children’s toy in a way that had never been seen before, becoming the first socially
accepted ‘doll’ for boys and creating a whole new category of ‘boys’ toys’ that, by 2000,
was accounting for 6.92% of non-video game toy sales (Berk et al. 2000, 5 –6).6
G.I. Joe
G.I. Joe was first conceived as a media tie-in when in March 1962 Stan Weston came to toy
company Hasbro (then called Hassenfeld Brothers) Creative Director of Product
Development Don Levine with the idea of a ‘movable soldier’ based on the upcoming
television program The Lieutenant, starring Gary Lockwood. Weston thought it could be
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 831
accessory based like rival Mattel’s Barbie and (according to varying reports) claimed to
have got the idea from designing licensed products for Ideal and Aurora based on
Universal Monsters and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., conversations with designer Larry
Reiner and observing boys secretly playing with Mattel Dolls (see Walsh 2005, 196;
Santelmo 2001, 22 –5; Miller 1998; Michlig 1998).
Given his own background as a veteran of the Korean War, Levine liked the idea but
feared tying it to a television program that was not only aimed at adults but also vulnerable
to cancellation. It was February 1963 before he was convinced; from the very beginning,
Larry Reiner had argued that the soldier needed to be poseable (Walsh 2005, 196) and a
chance encounter with a sculptor’s wooden mannequin in the display window of Arthur
Brown’s art supply store gave Levine the basic design template for a ball-jointed soldier
doll with moveable parts (Santelmo 2001, 23). The connection to The Lieutenant was
dropped in favour of an open-end concept that was accessory based, a moveable military
doll for boys founded on the classic ‘razor/razor-blade’ approach put forward by Mattel’s
co-founder Elliot Handler: ‘You buy the razor (the Joe doll), then you’ve got to buy a lot of
blades (the uniforms, the equipment, the vehicles)’ (Levine qtd in Santelmo 2001, 29).
Merrill Hassenfeld loved the concept and offered Stan Weston a choice of either a lump
sum of $75,000 up front or a 1% royalty on the G.I. Joe toy line. Weston negotiated the
figure up to $100,000 and took it, missing out on millions in royalties (Clark 2007, 57 – 8;
Walsh 2005, 202).
Importantly, Hassenfeld did not want the line marketed as ‘a doll for boys’ so quickly
set out to demarcate the line as being based around action. Each toy was referred to as a
‘movable fighting man’ (Walsh 2005, 197) and the line was given a single name, G.I. Joe,
inspired in part by the Robert Mitchum film The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), referring to
‘Government Issue Joe’, the generic term for the common everyman soldier, a name that
had previously been licensed for comics and candy bars but not toys (Santelmo 2001, 26).
G.I. Joe ‘America’s Moveable Fighting Man’ debuted in 1964 as four action figures,
each reflecting a branch of the US armed forces – Army, Navy, Marines and Air Forces.
The 111=2 inch (29 cm, 1/6 scale) Caucasian figure had 21 key moveable parts, came in a
variety of hair and eye colours and sported a very manly right cheek scar and, more
bizarrely, a thumbnail on the wrong side of the thumb, both of which were protective
measures against patent infringement for, as Levine put it: ‘There was no other way to
trademark the human body’ (Santelmo 2001, 24).7 Joe was an instant sell-out across the
nation, buoyed by television advertising (the first of which won an award for best toy
commercial and identified Joe both as ‘TV’s new hero’ and more importantly, a ‘male
action figure’) (Sweet and Wecker 2005, 52), extensive in-store displays and, by
December 1964, a fan club of over 150,000 (Santelmo 2001, 31).8
The subsequent development of G.I. Joe across the decades is a mirror of the times, a
virtual map of the cultural zeitgeist. In 1965 the first African American Joe appeared and –
in addition to the uniform and equipment sets – the first in-scale vehicle, a Jeep. The Joe
name was now a concept, licensed out across a range of merchandize and the first
international licence was given to Palitoy, an English firm that would release G.I. Joe
under the name Action Man, the name under which Joe would appear in Australia
throughout the 1970s and 1980s.9
Keeping pace with the times, 1966’s Special Forces Fighter Green Beret Joe was
modelled after the American soldiers in the Vietnam War, while the second Joe vehicle
was a space capsule modelled after John Glenn’s. But ironically, both items pointed to the
problems that would come to plague the Joe line. Levine had feared linking Joe to a
cancelled television series, but he hadn’t counted on the damage growing dissatisfaction
832 J. Bainbridge
with American involvement in the Vietnam War would have on the toy. By the end of
1966 over 184,000 US troops were in Asia and the war was being lost in the lounge rooms
of America. Parent’s Groups picketed the Toy Fair of ’66 with banners reading ‘Toy Fair
or War Fare?’ (Walsh 2005, 199) and Federal Commissions started questioning Hasbro’s
television advertising. The ‘action figure’ had been linked to the wrong type of action.
There were also additional challenges from rival toy manufacturers, including Marx’s
Best of the West line (commencing 1965), Mattel’s space-based Matt Mason (in 1967),
and Joe’s own creator Stan Weston who had used his $100,000 from the sale of the G.I. Joe
concept to establish his own licensing company, representing DC (then National
Periodical Publications) Comics, Marvel Comics and Kings Features. He presented Ideal
Toys (one of Hasbro’s competitors) with their own answer to Joe – Captain Action
(originally Captain Magic), a 12 inch action figure that, through costumes and accessories,
could assume the identity of a variety of superheroes (from Superman through Captain
America, the Phantom and the Green Hornet) all of whom were not so coincidentally
represented by Weston’s own Leisure Concepts. Captain Action went on the market in
1966 and Joe’s sales started plummeting.
In 1969, Joe responded by changing from being a military man to an Adventurer,
leading an ‘Adventure Team’ (1970), capturing pygmy gorillas and searching for white
tigers. But having lost his uniqueness as a military man throughout the 1970s Joe’s action
was largely replaced by reaction to the latest trends; at the height of the kung-fu craze (in
1974) he acquired a Kung-Fu grip, in response to The Six-Million-Dollar-Man (both the
series and the Kenner toy line, commencing in 1975) he briefly became bionic – Major
Mike Powers, the Atomic Man – and by 1976, when Mego was dominating the toy
industry with its World’s Greatest Superhero line (1972 –1978) (another success from
Joe’s creator, Stan Weston), Joe had become a fully fledged superhero fighting alien
Neanderthals named ‘Intruders: Strong Men from Another World’ alongside Bulletman,
the Human Bullet; he was a long way from the Second World War.
It was the Arabian oil crisis and the OPEC oil embargo of 1976 which threatened to
finally kill Joe, the prohibitive cost of petroleum forcing the price of raw plastic ever
higher, resulting in the entire line shrinking to 8 1=2 inches to briefly become the sciencefiction-oriented Super Joe/Super Adventure Team. But Joe’s embrace of science fiction
had come too late and by 1978 Joe was a casualty of the greatest action figure success yet
seen – Star Wars. Kenner’s 1977 Star Wars range impacted on the toy industry in a
number of ways. It suggested a new format for boys’ toys – the 3 3=4 inch action figure that
could be used in scale playsets and vehicles and, because of its cheaper price point, made it
possible for children to collect the entire range. Perhaps more importantly it also
confirmed the importance of action figures as part of a multimedia approach to
merchandizing; reportedly 300 million Star Wars units were sold between 1980 and 1983,
though ‘never again would an action figure line come close to those sales numbers’ (Walsh
2005, 200).
It took two attempts to convince Hasbro’s then president, Stephen Hassenfeld, that G.I.
Joe could be relaunched in the Star Wars format (Santelmo 2001, 96) but it was the tagline
‘A Real American Hero!’ which finally sold him on the concept. So in 1982, in the window
between the release of Star Wars instalments The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the
Jedi, G.I. Joe was reborn. Joe was no longer an individual but an entire line of 3 3=4 inch
figures – a futuristic elite army unit that, unlike other quasi-military lines, could never be
accused of racism because it was fighting a home-grown terrorist organization, Cobra,
made up of disgruntled Europeans (like Destro), corrupt American businessmen (like
Cobra Commander and Tomax and Xamot) and even an Australian mercenary (Major
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 833
Bludd).10 Furthermore, the smaller size meant the line could include many vehicles and
playsets impossible at an 111=2 size (including the notorious 7 foot aircraft carrier the USS
Flagg), while the swivel-arm battle grip meant they remained just as poseable, as capable
of ‘action’, as their taller antecedents.
Looking at Star Wars’ success, Hasbro put forward a marketing plan that was to
become an industry standard, ‘a model for non-film properties to survive in other
mediums’ (Irving 2006, 15). As writer Larry Hama describes it:
[Hasbro] wanted an angle on being able to advertise it [G.I. Joe], which is how the Marvel
[comics] connection came in … There were only a few seconds of animation you could have
in a toy commercial, and you had to show the toy, so people wouldn’t get totally deluded …
[Hasbro’s] Bob Prupish realized that a comic book was protected under the first amendment
and there couldn’t be restrictions based on how you advertised for a publication. (Hama, qtd in
Irving 2006, 15– 16)
Hasbro’s strategy was this: they went to Marvel comics to create a G.I. Joe comic book,
develop the characters and storylines around these action figures and they would provide
fully animated commercials for the comics which would also advertise the toys (and
later this became an animated series in its own right, commencing in 1983) (Clark 2007,
215 –16).
G.I. Joe therefore became the centre of a transmedia narrative over a decade before
Henry Jenkins coined the term (Jenkins 2003, 2006). Hama remained the writer for the
increasingly Dickensian G.I. Joe comics for 155 issues, balancing character development,
back stories and the introduction of dozens of new figures and toys from June 1982 until
December 1994. The original G.I. Joe (now named Joe Colton) even returned to the fold in
May 1989 (issue no. 86) to celebrate the heroes’ 25th anniversary. Like the Joes of decades
earlier, this iteration of G.I. Joe reflected the times: the Cold War of the 1980s and the
whole Reagan era of excess – both the massive spending on military projects like ‘Star
Wars’ (which informed G.I. Joe’s discretionary budgets) and the ‘greed is good’ corporate
ethos (which underwrote Cobra). In some cases characters from the comic, like Patty
Hearst Cobra villainess the Baroness, became figures. In other instances characters from
other media (like wrestler Sgt Slaughter, sports star the Fridge and the video game Street
Fighter series) were co-opted into joining Joe’s ranks. Even Rocky Balboa (from the
Rocky movies) was briefly mooted (Bellomo 2009).
Hama would also go on to create the ‘military dossier’ file cards (referred to as Combat
Command File Cards) that appeared on the back of the action figure’s packaging; from the
image and speciality of each figure Hama would provide a codename, birthplace and twoparagraph biography. Importantly, Hama noted:
it has to be read on two levels … A ten-year-old kid has to be able to read it and think it’s
absolutely straight [but] there should be a joke in there for the adult. One of the factors that
helped sell G.I. Joe [figures] was that the salesmen who sold it to retailers used the dossiers as
a selling point. (Hama, qtd in Irving 2006, 18)
So even at this early stage, G.I. Joe, the children’s entertainment, was encouraging adult
consumption too.
The relaunch was an enormous success. Joe enjoyed sales of $51 million in 1982 and
that number had grown to nearly $185 million by 1986 (Walsh 2005, 201). By 1988/1989 a
Hasbro survey estimated that ‘two out of every three boys between the ages of five and
eleven owned at least one G.I. Joe figure’ (Santelmo 2001, 137). ‘Action’ now extended
from over 500 figures and accessory packs to almost 250 vehicles and playsets, including
the increasingly complex (and expensive) Cobra Terror Dome (with Firebat experimental
834 J. Bainbridge
fast-attack jet, 1986) and Defiant: Space Vehicle Launch Complex (1987). And Hama saw
the transmedia aspects of Joe’s relaunch as being key to the line’s success:
the intellectual property of a toy is not a widget. It’s not a product bobbing down a conveyer
belt where bored drones paint on eyes and insert o-rings [the internal mechanism that holds the
3 3=4 inch Joe figures together]. It’s the little bit of information that triggers the internal fantasy
machine to fill in the holes, gloss over the mold lines, forgive the compromises for the realities
of manufacturing – and creates that wholly personal ‘state of play’ wherein universes are
born. (Qtd in his Foreword to Bellomo 2009, 4)
Interestingly, Stephen Kline views such intertextual webs as restrictive on children’s
imagination and ‘state of play’, replacing production and imagination with re-enactments
and rehearsals, where childhood remains ‘a condition defined by powerlessness and
dependence upon the adult community’s directives and guidance’ (Kline 1993, 44).11 But
such a denunciation seems to ignore the possibilities implicit in play itself, as a space for
contestation, contradiction and critical reading, ‘hegemonic incorporation and moments of
resistance’ (Jenkins 1998b, 28), where items of consumption can become items of
production for exploring sexuality (Rand 1995), autonomy (Rotundo 1993) and storytelling
(Jenkins 2006, 145). As Rand reminds us, the very ‘opaqueness of artifacts of consumption’
leads to an ‘impossibility of judging how and what cultural products signify by looking at
the artifacts apart from the consumers and the (partial) context that they can provide’ (Rand
1995, 146). Indeed, Henry Jenkins explicitly imbues the action figure with the qualities of
digital culture when he notes that ‘action figures provided this generation with some of their
earliest avatars, encouraging them to assume the role of a Jedi Knight or an intergalactic
bounty hunter, enabling them to physically manipulate the characters to construct their own
stories’ (Jenkins 2006, 147). More importantly, Kline’s criticisms of these marketed
intertexts ignores the more practical consideration that few families can afford entire toy
lines; more often children’s play will be made up of different toys from different lines,
combining pieces of narrative to create something new.12 Arguably, then, the ‘action’ of the
action figure moves from the action of consumption towards a (nascent) action of
prosumption (where consumption fuels production), wherein children use the figures and
their narratives as resources for their own creativity and exploration.
Masters of the Universe
As the action figure evolves so too does the expectation of ‘action’ inherent in the name,
bringing us to the next major evolutionary step in the action figure – the Masters of the
Universe line (hereinafter MOTU). While Hasbro’s rival Mattel had a successful car line
(Hot Wheels) and doll line (Barbie) they had no action figure lines to compete with G.I.
Joe. Like G.I. Joe, MOTU action figures developed as a media tie-in, a licence Mattel had
acquired for Conan the Barbarian (Universal, 1982) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. But
deciding that the movie was too violent and sexual for their target audience, Mattel took
the lead barbarian character, gave him a blond Prince Valiant style haircut and placed him
in a science fiction/sword-and-sorcery world. According to toy designer Roger Sweet, he
was given the name ‘He-Man’ as it was generic enough to fit into any context (Sweet and
Wecker 2005, 24).
MOTU incorporated two important design elements of the Joe line and developed
both. The first was the continuing addition of special action features to the central figure;
G.I. Joe featured talking figures as early as 1967/1968, adding lifelike hair (in 1970), a
kung fu grip (in 1974) and eagle eyes (moving eyes, in 1976). MOTU took this further,
offering 5 1=2 inch figures that incorporated a unique action for each character (including,
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 835
for example, battle-damage figures with spring-loaded cylinders in their chests, swivel
battle-action waist ‘power punches’, extending limbs and firing missiles, amongst others).
Moreover the basic design of the figures connoted ‘action’ far more than the Joes; at 5 1=2
inches they towered over their rivals, bent-limbed and ready to punch and each sporting a
‘hypervirile, hypermuscular body’ (Sweet and Wecker 2005, 81). As Sweet says: ‘He
[Man] pushed the boundaries of the male physique just as Barbie had pushed the
boundaries of the female form. He was unbelievable, but at the same time, he was
somehow possible’ (85).
Secondly, MOTU made use of Joe’s marketing strategies, once again building a
transmedia narrative out of a web of intertexts; each figure included a booklet (later a
comic) providing narrative detail on both the characters and their world (later identified as
Eternia). More significantly, Mattel made the most of an FCC (Federal Communications
Commission) ruling in 1983 that lifted a number of restrictions on children’s television
programming – including a 1969 law prohibiting television series based on children’s
toys. Mattel and Filmation Associates animation studio put together 65 half-hour animated
episodes based on the toy line. Lack of interest from the major networks resulted in
Filmation syndicating it, trading the animated segments for a portion of the airtime. Local
stations got to keep their revenue. This meant that in effect Mattel gained a weekly, 30-
minute commercial for their toy line directed at their target audience (Berk et al. 2000,
176; Sweet and Wecker 2005, 123 – 4).
MOTU was a massive success, rumoured to have brought in sales of $1.2 billion,
earning $400 million in just three years (Sweet and Wecker 2005, 147); on average 11
figures were sold to every boy between the ages of five and ten in America (Pecora 1998,
69). It created a marketing template that would be cloned (with less success) by subsequent
toy lines like the Thundercats, Silverhawks and Mattel’s own Super Powers, among others.
Two made-for-TV movies, a spin-off series and toy line (She-Ra: Princess of Power) and a
live-action movie, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (Golan-Globus, 1987),
followed.
Transformers
All of these developments were refined in Hasbro’s second major toy line, Transformers,
which represented not just the final stage in the evolution of the action figure – a figure
whose action is to turn into another toy entirely – but also a major change in the
transmedia strategies used to market them.13 Transformers were very much children of
convergence culture and more particularly one of Hasbro’s international licensing deals
for G.I. Joe to Japanese toy company Takara in 1970. When Combat Joe didn’t take off
with the Japanese consumers he was subsequently retooled as Henshin Cyborg (until
1974) and then shrunk to the 31=2 inch Microman. By 1980 the line had evolved again, into
Diaclone, a line of robots and vehicles with inch-tall action figures that fitted into cockpits
and by 1982 the CosmoContak Lamborghini was transforming into a robot figure,
launching a Diaclone sub-line, inventively called Car Robots, of cars and trucks that
transformed into robots and gave rise to the later Real and Robo line (1983) comprising
jets, trains, insects, dinosaurs and construction vehicles. Ultimately, Microman developed
into the Microchange line with normal household items like cassettes, a microscope, a
cassette player and a gun that all converted into robots.14
A Hasbro representative attending the 1983 Tokyo Toy Fair discovered these
transforming figures and presented them to Hasbro’s head of R&D, George Dunzy – who
suggested using the Microchange and Diaclone figures to create one toy line for the West.
836 J. Bainbridge
The Griffen Bacall ad agency in the employ of Hasbro (who had previously created the
‘Real American Hero!’ tagline for the 1982 relaunch of G.I. Joe) also created the concept
that brought the Microchange and Diaclone toy lines together with the line creative
director, Jay Bacall, dubbing the range Transformers. Two taglines were created – ‘More
than meets the eye’ and ‘Robots in Disguise’ – and certain cosmetic changes were made,
replacing many of the metal parts with plastic and recolouring the heroic leaders Optimus
Prime (and later Ultra Magnus) a patriotic red, white and blue (Clark 2007, 213 –14).
Once again, Hasbro went to Marvel to employ the three-pronged marketing scheme
that had worked so well with the G.I. Joe relaunch: toy line, comics and animation. As they
did with the Joes, Marvel provided the robots with personalities, storylines, a comic
(commencing with a cover date of September 1984) and a cartoon (commencing 17
September 1984). Like Larry Hama it would be a Marvel editor and writer, Bob
Budiansky, who provided the storyline of Autobots and Decepticons – and the rivalry
between Optimus Prime and Megatron – that is still so familiar today. It would be a later
writer, Simon Furman, famous on the UK edition of the comic and transferring over to the
American version with Transformers no. 61 (mid-December 1989) that would be most
linked to the Transformers, using the theatrically released Transformers: The Movie
(Marvel/Sunbow/Toei, 1986) to provide an epic sweep to the story, commencing with
Optimus Prime’s death, Megatron’s transformation into the meglomaniacal Gavlatron and
a mythology linking the Transformers to order and chaos as personified by the space gods
Primus and Unicron (voiced by Orson Welles). Under Furman, then, Transformers’
intertexts were not just an exercise in world building but the building bocks of a rich and
complex modern mythology breaking them away from their role as ‘toy as object. Now it
was defined characters in a preplotted scenario’ (Clark 2007, 214).
It is this 1986 film that also provides perhaps the best single example of how canny
marketing decisions can give rise to complex transmedia narratives, for the narrative of
this 1986 film literally killed off characters from the 1984 and 1985 toy lines as these toys
were being phased out of retail assortments in favour of all-new characters. In this way the
death of Optimus Prime serves as perhaps the perfect blend of creativity and commerce,
simultaneously dramatic and providing momentum to the narrative, while encouraging
children to seek out toys of the (possible) new Autobot leaders (Ultra Magnus and
Rodimus Prime).15
Like G.I. Joe and the MOTU before them the Transformers become a series of
‘intertextual commodities’ (David Marshall qtd in Jenkins 2006, 287) leading to countless
convergent media spin-offs, from Japanese-American cartoons, to Canadian animation
(Beast Wars), to British comics; theirs is a story that has been repeated, taken apart, rebuilt
and repeated again for generations of fans for over 25 years. Indeed, its longevity and
complexity becomes a source of pride, as in this caption that appears on the packaging for
the 25th Anniversary re-release of the original Optimus Prime figure:
In 1984, the Transformers robots stormed into televisions, comic shops, and toy aisles
worldwide, and changed forever how we thought about action figures. It created a craze that
has lasted for a quarter of a century, through dozens of permutations. Our world was expanded
beyond the mundane fantasies of action heroes and fashion idols to include an endless
universe populated by unstoppable metal giants, vicious alien tyrants, and monstrous planeteaters from the beginning of time. From then on, we lived in a world that was More than Meets
the Eye!
As Clark describes it ‘Toys have become part of kid culture, coveted for reasons divorced
from play’ (Clark 2007, 212).
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 837
In this way, the action figure itself becomes a metaphor for the active (if resolutely
gendered) child, a wanting, desiring child that is ‘an active participant in that process of
defining their identit[y]’ (Jenkins 1998b, 2). Following Jean Piaget (see Konner 1991),
Zago argues that ‘children translate images and sounds from their mental imagination to
the physical with skits and productions they perform with their action figures’ (Zago 2001,
146). As the child matures, action figures become the tools of prosumption, building
blocks to construct new narratives and fantasies. Here, too, the ‘action’ of the ‘action
figure’ comes to refer more broadly to the momentum that transforms the toy itself into an
‘intertextual commodity’ (a central part of world-building), then collectible and then
object of desire, that point at which children’s entertainment and adult entertainment
become virtually indistinguishable.
Conclusion
Of course, the possibility for children’s entertainment to become part of adult culture has
always been present. After all, the word toy itself originally referred to small accurate
reproductions of everyday objects, as much miniatures for adults as playthings for children
(Jaffe 2006). Barbie’s design was itself based on a sexy souvenir for adult men, the Lilli
doll, ‘a pornographic caricature’ modelled after the German comic strip floozy and gold
digger in Bild Zeitung (Walsh 2005, 130). Most recently the art toy movement (urban vinyl
or designer toys) coming out of Japan in the late 1990s, confirmed the long-held suspicion
that toys could be thought of as art forms in their own right. This was the ‘action’ of action
figures given form as art toys embodied the
do-it-yourself philosophy of an independent music scene, an international community of
artists and companies turned action-figure design into a means to create affordable 3D art
[meaning that] scores of artists from various subculture art genres – graffiti art, underground
comics, skateboard graphics, illustration, contemporary ‘low brow’ art – have taken the
opportunity to transform their art into beautiful vinyl sculpture. (STRANGEco 2005, n. pag.)
As Jim Crawford of STRANGEco asks: ‘are they toys? Are they art? Does there have to be
a distinction? (STRANGEco, n. pag.). Here toys have helped break down the barriers
between high and low culture, confirming the action figure’s ability to act as tool of
prosumption rather than simply consumption.
Adult consumers have also shaped the direction of each of the toy lines discussed
herein. While the G.I. Joe toy line ended in 1994, it was a return to the 111=2 size in a series
of commemorative figures – that included Buzz Aldrin, Colin Powell and even George
Washington (Walsh 2005, 202) – that returned G.I. Joe to toy shelves and confirmed the
enormous adult market for the figures. At the time of writing, Hasbro continues to produce
G.I. Joes in both 3 3=4 inch and 11 1=2 inch sizes celebrating both the line’s 40th anniversary
and supporting the G.I. Joe live-action movie (2009, see below). Adult interest means the
product range has grown to include higher-end adult collectibles and statues, from both
Hasbro and Sideshow Toys and exclusives for G.I. Joe conventions. A live-action film GI
Joe: Rise of Cobra (Paramount, 2009) enjoyed worldwide box-office takings of
$302,139,942 (boxofficemojo.com), with plans for a sequel.
MOTU, ending in 199016 and following an unsuccessful relaunch in 2002, tapped into
the adult collector market commencing with a line of statues (based on unproduced toy
moulds). At the time of writing, they exist as a new series of figures branded as ‘For Adult
Collectors’ and sold exclusively online through MattyCollector.Com, a division of Mattel.
The figures frequently sell out within hours and fans are allowed to vote on which
characters they would like to see as action figures. Rumours persist around Grayskull, a
838 J. Bainbridge
(new) live-action He-Man film, with a script by Justin Marks being widely circulated on
blogs and fan sites.
Transformers really only ended in the United States in 1989. They continued to be
marketed internationally and were relaunched as ‘Generation Two’ in the States (along
with the rest of the world) in 1993, swiftly followed by Transformers: Beast Wars in 1996
and continuing uninterrupted up until the present day, supported by a selection of high-end
statues and collectibles, the Transformers Collector’s Club (www.transformersclub.com)
and comic-books, together with attendant toy lines for the live-action Transformers
(DreamWorks Paramount, 2007) and new cartoon series (Transformers Animated). In
2009 the live-action film Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (DreamWorks
Paramount) had worldwide box-office takings of $836,297,228 (boxofficemojo.com), and
a third instalment is planned.
Through their transmedia narratives and intertextual character developments, these toy
lines have generated an adult interest which, as the years passed and the target audience
developed both nostalgia and independent income, have increased their shelf life to the
point that their cultural value is now readily measurable in the number of fansites, eBay
sales, conventions, DVD releases, exclusives and high-end collectible lines devoted to
them. As Clark notes: ‘in the two decades since Transformers was born, the tie between
toys and entertainment and total marketing has grown ever more solid … Now it’s really
just one business’ (Clark 2007, 220 qtg Brown).
But just as action figures prefigured the trend towards convergence culture engendered
by digital technology so too has digital technology prolonged the life of the action figure
through digital special effects, digital technologies and digital recording. ‘Toy-led
programming … has become part of mainstream marketing’ (Clark 2007, 220) and
through movie franchises like G.I. Joe and Transformers made the action figure an integral
part of children’s entertainment for the foreseeable future.
So whether as ‘frail thread connecting us to the joy of childhood’ (May 2009, 8), ‘art
show’ (Robinson and Karp 2007), ‘lifestyle entertainment’ (Clark 2007), collectible or
investment item, the action figure has become a point of intersection for adult pleasures
and childish fantasies, structured narratives and free-ranging play, material culture and
digital culture – and through this breaking down of barriers, arguably become one of the
most potent (if overlooked) symbols of media convergence.
Acknowledgements
The author wishes to thank Alexandrea Kranz, Carolyn Beasley and the anonymous referees of
Continuum for their feedback on this article.
Notes
1. Indeed, Jamieson notes that previous Disney/Pixar films have earned hundreds of millions of
dollars for Disney through merchandizing deals, stating that more than 25 million Buzz
Lightyear dolls have been sold worldwide since Toy Story (Disney/Pixar 1995) debuted
(Jamieson 2009).
2. It is worth noting that another reason for the initially hostile industry response of the toy
manufacturers to the film might arguably be the presumption that animated films are always and
inevitably produced for children, despite the fact that this is not and has not always been the case
(particularly in Japan, for example, or in the early years of Warner Brothers). In contrast, Pixar
was always conceived as being involved in experimental animation, as suitable for an adult as
much as a child audience. This industry reaction might then be part of the fallout from Pixar’s
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 839
alliance with Disney, which may have led to the presumption that all subsequent Pixar films
would be produced for children, in line with the Disney ethos.
3. The Handlers’ daughter’s name was Barbara; Barbie was named after her. For more detail on the
creation and development of Barbie see Lord (2004).
4. Thomas Doherty (1988) provides an overview of the rise of teenage consumer culture in this
period.
5. At the time of writing (2010), a fully articulated Ken doll has been released as part of Barbie’s
Fashionista line. The reason behind this additional articulation was so he could be posed on the
catwalk.
6. However, interestingly it appears to be a rival toy company, Gilbert’s 12 inch James Bond doll,
that first sported the words ‘action figure’ on the box (1965/1966), repeated in its subsequent
Man from U.N.C.L.E. line. Zago suggests that the concept for the action figure
may have started in 1920, when the editors of Playthings magazine suggested that toys
should be made in the likeness of American heroes such as George Washington,
Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as based upon such roles as the
soldier, businessman, actor, hunter, and western settler. (Zago 2001, 144)
7. This proved prescient when a few years later Hasbro successfully sued Mego’s Fighting Yank,
forcing it to be taken off the market when it was revealed to have the reverse thumbnail as part of
its design.
8. Hasbro was behind the first ever televised toy ad, for Mr Potato Head, in 1952 (Clark 2007, 219).
9. The internationalization of G.I. Joe actually commenced with the toy’s manufacture. As
Santelmo describes it: ‘the figures themselves could be manufactured and assembled here in the
United States (at Hassenfeld’s Pawtucket, Rhode Island factory)’ but the ‘detailed handiwork on
the uniforms and equipment’ was carried out in Hong Kong and Tokyo (Santelmo 2001, 26 – 7).
10. This stands in sharp distinction to Norlund’s (2006) view of the presentation of Cobra and its
members as an ‘othered’ or ‘religious’ organization.
11. For other articles on the commercialization of contemporary children’s culture see Kline (1989);
Englehart (1987).
12. A key theorist here is Richard Schechner (1985) whose theories of performance are often
applied to play, similar in the way they’re ‘assembled out of bits of actual experience, fantasies,
historical research, and past performance’ (Schechner 1985, 52).
13. This idea of action, converting the figure into another toy entirely, seems a good place to
conclude the evolution of the action figure. However, it could be argued that the ‘action’
component of the ‘action figure’ has since been subordinated to the ‘figure’. See, for example,
the Spawn range of figures from McFarlane (originally Todd) Toys (commencing 1994), which
brought a greater amount of craft and detail to the action figure (together with marketing to
adults) that increasingly became an industry standard but, over subsequent ranges, occurred at
the expense of poseability and articulation; toys became little pieces of art with more emphasis
given to the look of the ‘figure’ than its ‘action’. This is echoed in more recent figure lines from
toy companies NECA, Mezco and Art Asylum. See also Toy Biz’s Marvel Legends line
(commencing 2002 and briefly continued by Hasbro in 2007) where individual ‘actions’ were
abandoned in favour of packaging figures with pieces of a larger ‘figure’, the idea being that you
would need to collect an entire wave of figures in order to be able to build the larger one. The
recent Star Wars Droid Factory assortments (from Hasbro) and the DC Legendary Heroes range
(from Mattel) similarly package figures with parts of a droid or additional figure, respectively.
14. For more detail on the history of the Transformers toy line see Transformers wiki (http://tfwiki.
net), Transformers.com (http://www.transformers.com) and Transformers Toys (http://www.
transformerstoysonline.com). TakaraTomy’s Official Transformers website provides information on the original Japanese lines (http://www.takaratomy.co.jp/products/TF) while the
commentary on the Transformers: The Movie Special Edition (Madman Entertainment, 2008)
provides an all-inclusive overview.
15. In truth, it wasn’t that successful. According to the DVD commentary, children were reportedly
distressed when Optimus Prime (not to mention another half dozen characters) was killed,
leading to Prime later returning in two episodes of the cartoon series. A similar plan to kill Duke
in the G.I. Joe movie (released straight to video) was quashed as a result.
16. This date includes MOTU’s failed relaunch as a ‘slimmed down’, purely science-fiction-based
line – He-Man – in 1989.
840 J. Bainbridge
Notes on contributor
Jason Bainbridge is Senior Lecturer and Discipline Head of Media at Swinburne University of
Technology. He has published across a diverse range of subjects including representations of law in
popular culture, chequebook journalism, news cultures and Japanese popular culture and is co-author
of the textbook Media and Journalism: New Approaches to Theory and Practice (OUP, 2009).
His favourite action figure is Baron Karza from Mego’s Micronauts series (1977).
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