Action Figure

Jason Bainbridge

Research output: A Conference proceeding or a Chapter in BookChapterpeer-review


THE ACTION FIGURE is very much the son of Barbie.

He offers the same liminal pleasures of plaything and companion. He allows children to roleplay-as-an-adult, thanks to a scalable world of vehicles and accessories that are capable of replicating most careers and transforming any space into a warzone, an urban center or an alien world. And, similar to his mother, he is also an important site for articulating copyright and trademark, defining categories that would otherwise appear as liminal as the pleasures he offers. As such, the Action Figure embodies the limits of what his consumers can engage in, policing the boundaries between their imaginations and the IP rights of his creators. But whereas Barbie remains a largely passive receptacle of her consumers’ fantasies—and Ken little more than another accessory for her—the Action Figure announces his point of difference in his name: action. Sure, he may have the same adult figure of a male doll like Ken, but that figure is matched (and his masculinity rigorously underscored) by being articulated and therefore capable of action, of performing as an adult rather than just looking like one.

The first action figure, G.I. Joe, was originally conceived as a licensed toy. In March 1962 Stan Weston came to toymakers the Hassenfeld Brothers’ (later Hasbro) Creative Director of Product Development, Don Levine, with the idea of a “movable soldier” based on the up-coming television program The Lieutenant starring Gary Lockwood. Weston's idea was very much informed by Hasbro's rival, Mattel, and their most popular toy, Barbie. Like Barbie, Weston envisioned his moveable soldier as being similarly accessory-based. Observing boys secretly playing with Ken dolls had convinced him that there was a market for boys’ “dolls.”

Levine, a veteran of the Korean War, liked the idea but worried about linking it to a television program aimed at adults and vulnerable to cancelation. It wouldn't be until February 1963 that he was finally convinced via a chance encounter with a sculptor's wooden mannequin in the display window of Arthur Brown's art supply store. This gave Levine the basic design template for a ball-jointed soldier doll with moveable parts.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationA History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects
EditorsClaudy Op den Kamp, Dan Hunter
Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages8
ISBN (Electronic)9781108325806
ISBN (Print)9781108420013
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2019
Externally publishedYes


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