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Review of Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on Toys and Their Messages

By Kevin Cooley
Alexandratos, Jonathan, ed. Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on Toys and Their Messages. McFarland, 2017.

Bernard Loomis, the Vice President of the Kenner toy company from 1970-1984, had some choice words for Steven Spielberg as the director fleshed out the Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the mid-70s. Make it more “toyetic,” Loomis said, a term he defined as “the property of being expressible in playable figures and hardware” (Rebel Scum). Shortly thereafter, Loomis would acquire the rights to produce toys for the Star Wars franchise, launching a lucrative merchandising campaign and establishing toyetic film as it exists today.

Jonathan Alexandratos’ Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on the Toys and Their Messages acknowledges this greedy history of the action figure, defined very broadly here as “any artifact manufactured for the expressed purpose of representing a cultural or pop cultural character in tangible, inanimate form,” and its partner-in-crime, the toyetic production. And yet, Alexandratos’ project spies a potentiality nested in the pessimism of market-friendly toys and the films that promote them. Articulating the Action Figure’s greatest strength is in its simultaneous willingness to consider the action figure as a “toyetic,” mercenary instrument of mass-producer profit-mongers and as a radical vessel of potentiality through which children might play out contradictions to the values of the corporations that made the figures (6). The collection (and Alexandratos’ arrangement of it) permits these contrasting takes on the action figure to co-exist. They are not treated as fundamentally incompatible truths, but as different poses that the articulable joints of the action figure (or, more appropriately, the figure of the action figure) allow it to strike.

Keith Corson’s “Selling Girl Power in the 1980s” in particular embodies the dissonant status of the toyetic production as both disabling and enabling the toy’s political potential. Corson parses the tangled histories of the toy line devoted to the She-Ra character and She-Ra: Princess of Power, its animated tie-in project, lingering on the probably unintentional feminisms knotted up in Mattel’s transmedially inventive product placement. Corson notes that even though Mattel was “marketing toys to girls and assuring parents that the line was gender specific,” the company was still “asking girls to engage in the same type of playing as boys” by purchasing She-Ra toys. Weighing readings of She-Ra as both “unconscious foregrounding on the part of Mattel and Filmation of third-wave feminism” and “nothing more than a corporate profit scheme devoid of any sincere social agenda” against one another, Corson bypasses this ambiguity by refocusing on the lived experience of the show’s fans. He reminds us that “for a generation of women who grew up searching for images of strong and independent characters, She-Ra was much more than a pawn used to sell plastic figures” (83).

Corson manages to articulate the rhetorical performance of the She-Ra franchise without overwriting its gluttonous goals or falling back on tired assumptions about its merit based on its industrial origins. Consequently, his process exemplifies Articulating the Action Figure’s work at its finest. Other entries in the collection tip these scales in somewhat clumsy moves toward the unconditional exaltation of action figures as not alternatives to, but candidates for, the canon. Geoff Klock’s “Toy Story, the Lego Movie, and the Wordsworthian Imagination” casts the figure of the animated toyetic production as an inheritor of the Romantic spirit: an unlikely recipient of Wordsworth’s call to his future “second selves” in “Michael: A Pastoral Poem.” Klock’s archive of references (which networks everything from Stephen King novels to Marvel films to Harry Potter) are selected with the care of a child digging through a toy chest for the right playthings for the afternoon. And yet, like the imagined scenarios that would emerge from that toy chest, the result is an intriguing, if difficult to follow, performance of play. At times, though, Klock’s reading treats toyetic narratives as works rather than texts, straying into schmaltz about their grand artistic potential: he claims, for instance, that Toy Story and The Lego Movie are “able to use the tools of commerce and junk culture…to make great art, art in conversation with Wordsworth” (96).

Klock isn’t alone in using poetically charged and outdated value-judgements to (try to) bolster the academic standing of action figures. Daniel Yezbick’s two-part piece “Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Action Figure” makes the odd claim that “like poetry itself, the action figure is all at once trash, trivia, toy, totem, token and trace of numerous interlocking frameworks of media, mercantilism, and imagination” (15). Yezbick tries to perform the claim as he makes it. Alliteration and assonance abound weed-like in every other sentence, his thirteen methods are numbered as such “in honor of…[Wallace] Steven’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’” and each of these methods begins with a short, action-figure related poem. An excess of poetic flourish and structural bravado ultimately chokes out the rather brilliant steps this essay takes toward articulating a manifesto of the academy’s responsibility to the action figure. Alexandratos claims that one of the goals of the volume is to “pave some of the path for a course in which students read not Moby Dick or Bleak House...but the 1982 Hasbro Snake Eyes action figure…,” or in other words, that action figures might seek legitimacy at the academy (10). Yezbick’s essay attempts to lay out what this might look like as he lists off the different critical lenses and ideological concerns we might bring to the study of toys. These categories include (what I would call) affect, actancy, production circumstances, and articulated gender and race. But the essay’s excessive stylization lacks the direction it would need to accomplish its own goals—it aims to be campy, but overshoots toward cryptic. Yezbick’s stylization confounds the establishment of an apparatus of terminology for “action figure studies,” as Alexandratos calls it (10). Instead of a creative term that denotes the action figure’s capacity to complicate the subject-object dichotomy, for example, Yezbick gives us a section with the unhelpfully arcane name “I Am Curious Yakface.” And rather than crystallizing a terminology of race and toy-play that other scholars might inherit, Yezbick titles his section on race “Guess Who’s Coming to Castle Greyskull?” Undoubtedly, there is a hypothetical version of this essay that uses an experimental and playful style as an alternate avenue toward a theory of toys and play. But it is not the version that appears in Articulating the Action Figure. Clever as they may be, Yezbick’s slick references and layered puns fail to move beyond their own cleverness; they do not perform the field-formative work that Alexandratos positions Yezbick’s essay to.

At times, the positionality of the essayists themselves as fans (or as folks who engage with action figures outside the antiseptic space of academica) bring a refreshing lived-ness to their analysis. Christopher Bell’s “All Dolled Up: Monster High, MC2, and ‘Action’ Figures” illustrates the afterlife of his daughter’s binge of Project MC2as it is embodied in play. Bell’s young daughter “spent entire days after watching Project MC2 actively engaging in ‘spy activities’ all over our house” like “sneaking along walls, tumbling, decoding ‘secret messages,’ and building ‘spy traps’” (130). Bell emphasizes the immediacy of the text as not just an object to be watched or examined critically, but as a media form that litters the living room floor or streams on the TV draws out the affective experience of play. In doing so, Bell can better articulate the real daily consequences of rethinking play. While Yezbick’s creative essay stumbles over style, it also visualizes the unusual advantages that embracing one’s fandom (rather than erasing it like a traditional literary scholar) can bestow onto a researcher. Yezbick’s thorough anecdotes—ranging from his recollection of the haunting aura of the Green Goblin’s grin during his first memorable action figure purchase to the story of a grandfather with a meticulous obsession with the materials of trains and its enactment in Thomas the Tank Engine—enshrine the politics of toy-play into every act of play and in all walks of life. These hands-on examples culminate with Alexandratos’ insightful interview with Julie Kerwin, the founder of girl-empowering toyline IAmElemental, who models what a conscientious production of children’s toys might look like.

Just as often, however, participation in fandom, collecting, and the insider details of play manifest as a serious detriments to this project’s praxis, not to mention its hopes of a more clearly articulated field devoted to the study of action figures. Kimberly A. Owczarski’s “Toys with brains: Skylanders and the Growth of the Toys to Life Market,” for example, begins at the exciting juncture of toys and videogames, positing and plotting out an overlapping space between the two media objects. The otherwise informative essay’s conclusion gradually flounders, however, into a set of financial predictions about the market value of the Skylanders franchise. Readers who are initially promised a treatise on Skylanders’ revolutionary marriage of videogames and physical toys are instead offered the underwhelming consolation prize of raw financial data.

On a much more severe level, Thomas G. Endres’ “The (Re)Resurrection of Captain Action: Will Justice be Done?” illustrates the potentially insidious effects of writing scholarship as a fan and a fan alone. The piece chronicles the legacy of the “Captain Action” action figure, a nondescript white male superhero hero with “a bit of a James Bond countenance” (31). Captain Action was designed to be a white bread superhero so that its creators could peddle costumes of Marvel, DC, and King Features Syndicate characters for the vaguely-defined (but decidedly white and male) toy. The essay’s titular “justice” is not an indictment of the product for casting the visage of Pierce Brosnan (and not Idris Elba) as a universally applicable everyman. Horrifically enough, this “justice” references a debt Endres thinks the franchise owed its aging fans: the 2012 reboot (and not rethinking) of the toy. The essay is oblivious to contemporary conversations on the praxis of marginalized bodies represented in popular media. When Endres notes that “while some may argue that such diversification [not of inclusion of marginalized communities, but of the silly creation of ‘Captain Action Cat’] broadens the appeal and client base of the trademark, others might claim that these forays take away from the original and water down and diminish the integrity of the brand,” he fails to make room for many of the most important categories of readers and thinkers. The most prominent of these categories would be those readers who are not invested in the story of a long-dead action figure franchise for reasons of fetishistic fandom, but for the action figure’s political and ideological ramifications. For all the ink that Endres spills about the difficulty of re-dressing Captain Action’s body and fiddling with its removable hands, it is disturbing that he does not comment on the perversity of rejuvenating a white, chiseled, brown-haired male as the generic template of a hero in the new millennium. One might try to wave away these critiques with variations of “it was a different time” if only Endres were not talking about the 2012 re-release. Endres repeatedly stresses his position as a fan of the product, and he writes in the second person as if we readers share that enthusiasm. But he offers us little incentive to get on board. Undoubtedly, there is a project or two to be written on the Captain Action doll. Those supposed projects are best left to thinkers working with gender and race who would, I would have previously thought it should go without saying, see the permanent discontinuation of this doll as “justice.” Endres closes his essay by calling the overwhelmingly obscure Captain Action character “new to some” but “nostalgic to most,” and therein betrays who does and who does not count as a subject by his essay’s reckoning (38). Students who encounter this book at the academy deserve better than this essay—especially in our current political atmosphere.

Those encountering Articulating the Action Figure beyond their student life may find the theoretical framework of the volume somewhat sparse. I’m not typically fond of reviews whose major critique is “why didn’t this author use the theorists I like?”—it is a critique that cannot ever be addressed without building Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel.” But Articulating the ActionFigure isolates a large network of scholarship on the consideration of things, and this scholarship of things paved over the obstacles that would have previously made the action figure’s reception at the academy impossible. Alexandratos’ collection passes up the chance to make good on object-oriented ontology, thing theory, feminist new materialism, and posthumanism at large, all for the wafery promise of unfettered access to the texts themselves: the toys. Perhaps some readers will be glad to have avoided the inevitable highbrow puns that a collection with the word “articulating” in its title could’ve engendered in conversation with posthumanism. Even so, these prominent camps concerned with the liveliness of objects certainly would’ve bolstered the work of each essay in this collection. Leaving the posthuman at the bottom of the toybox is an omission that puts a damper on the playdate.

And yet, posthumanism aside, there are definitely entries in Articulating the Action Figure that play a skillful matchmaker for toys and critical theory. Tracy L. Bealer’s “The Same Aisle: The Intersection of Resistance and Discipline in Brony Fandom, or, Friendship is Mythological” undoubtedly stands out as the jewel of the collection in this regard. The “aisle” of Bealer’s title is the toy store aisle that is simultaneously occupied by the young female target audience of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and “Bronies,” the surprisingly prevalent subculture of the show’s many adult male fans. For Bealer, the shared toy aisle is a site where the deconstruction of strict gendered toy marketing is dismantled, where “by buying Friendship is Magic merchandise, Bronies resist the strict enforcement of binary gender categories through marketing” (64). Tackling the common phobic caricature of Bronies as deviant basement-dwellers, Bealer inverts and retools this barbed stereotype. She argues that “Bronies do twist and deviate from the mandate that men should be anything and everything girls are not” (68). Her sparkling re-reading of Brony culture never infringes, though, on the progressive work that the show and toyline perform with its target demographic: young girls. Wielding Roland Barthes’ ideas on mythology and signification like a jackhammer, Bealer eviscerates the mythological bedrock of the original toy franchise, which banks on the supposedly natural feminization of ponies. For Bealer, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic “drains the ponies (and the figures) both of their role as enforcers and perpetuators of normative feminine identity” and “refills them with progressive models of girlhood” (66-67).

With the presence of theoretically brilliant essays like Bealer’s in mind, it would be fair enough to read those other chapters in Articulating the Action Figure with little theoretical charisma as entry points into the conversation for students. Perhaps if the bulk of its essays are not weighted down by an excess of critical theory, the volume can better serve as an ideal companion for a high school or undergraduate classroom, or as a bridge toward a more multidisciplinary consideration of texts. I am using the collection for my “Writing about Toys” seminar in fall of 2018—though some essays will certainly serve as productive think-pieces and others as Aesopian warnings about compositional pitfalls. Readers hoping to augment their own scholarly work, though, might find Articulating the Action Figure to be more of a stop in their research journey than a destination. Even so, the collection certainly makes important moves toward a more democratic scope of concern in the texts we spend our very limited time analyzing.


Works Cited

Alexandratos, Jonathan, ed. Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on Toys and Their Messages. McFarland, 2017.

Loomis, Bernard. “An Interview with Bernard Loomis - former president of Kenner.” Rebel Scum, archives through Archive.org, http://web.archive.org/web/20011224073422/http://www.rebelscum.com/loomis.asp.

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