Toys and Grrls: Comparing Figures in the Merchandising of Television’s Action Heroine – Miranda J. Banks


In 2003, just before the U.K. Toy Fair, toy manufacturing company FEVA secured the rights to license the Totally Spies “action dolls.” [1] This acquisition was a coup for the small English company, which sold out its first run of the figures based on the three teen heroines. That these dolls sold out is clearly in large part due to the popularity of the program, but perhaps part of their success in the highly competitive marketplace was FEVA’s linguistic coup: calling their product an action doll. Simultaneously action figures and dolls, these girls came equipped with multiple clothing options as well as beauty weapons, for example the Evapo Blaster (which can both neutralize opponents and provide two speeds for nail drying) and the Laser Hairdryer. The figures themselves, hardly worth noting for their quality, sold out because the show—and the merchandising strategy for these dolls—struck a chord with its market demographic.

This story points to a phenomenon long seen as unimportant or unprofitable: the rise of the series-inspired female action doll. Considering that the first of these figures appeared in 1965 to very little commercial fanfare, it is clear that the transformation in producers’, merchandisers’, and scholars’ readings of these objects as has taken a great deal of time. But by 1997, the female action hero, and her counterpart, the action figure, were deemed great successes, both for the television and for the toy industries. [2] A press release from Krause Collectables details the success of these new action heroine lines:

Today, the ‘girls’ that used to be brushed aside as ‘sissy’ stuff are now advertised in advance of their release and eagerly anticipated by buyers. Smaller production runs, fine detailing, and good plot lines have made the female action figure a collector’s dream. [3]

But it is not just collectors who are interested in these heroines. In 2000 alone, sales of licensed Powerpuff Girls merchandise exceeded $300 million. [4] While some scholars and collectors have scoffed at these plastic incarnations of televisual heroines, they—and the accessories, marketing, and sales phenomena that surround them—are well worth exploring.

This article offers a detailed analysis of the merchandising of television’s action heroine through one specific type of product: the action doll. The first section explains the reasoning for choosing this particular piece of merchandise to explore: the action doll is a compelling example of embodied engagement with the text and participatory play. By tracing the history of these figures, this article then provides both an historical and an industrial context for these individual objects. By looking at one specific type of product, it is easier to trace the transformations in the toy industry as well as how merchandisers have worked in tandem with the needs of the programs, and the style of heroines, that are presented to viewers. While making some fascinating, and oftentimes unprofitable mistakes along the way, merchandisers, studios, fans, and collectors have together transformed the industry; and, more recently each of these groups have even come to some strange balancing act where the objects being created for programs are becoming more collectable—and profitable—making most everyone a bit more content with the process.

Television scholars have only recently begun to catalogue, and even less often calculate, the interchange between programs and viewers; production studios and fans; and fans and fan merchandise. Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture is particularly useful in theorizing the different forms of fans’ participatory engagement. Jenkins argues that fans of a program reject critical distance from their beloved text by holding an object:

[Poachers] do not observe from the distance (be it physical, emotional, or cognitive); they trespass upon others’ property; they grab it hold onto it; they internalize its meanings and remake these borrowed terms… Proximity seems a necessary precondition for the reworkings and reappropriations de Certeau’s theory suggests. The text is drawn close not so that the fan can be possessed by it but rather so that the fan may more fully possess it. [5]

Though this act of possession of the text, fans make the object (program, toy, text) anew. This act Jenkins refers to as poaching: appropriating materials from the program and (re)working it for their own use. [6] While Jenkins’ own term poaching connotes a theft, it does not follow that fan poaching is necessarily revolutionary. Rather, Jenkins’ approach emphasizes the fluidity of viewer interpretation. Far more important to him is the act of making the material one’s own—of possession and appropriation.

Arguably, at its core, active consumption—through the purchasing of an extratextual object, in this case anything beyond a television set, and perhaps cable—is about possession. While the focus of Textual Poachers is primarily on fan art (fiction, drawings, music, etc.), Jenkins provides an excellent point of entry into a discussion of the power of possessing a merchandised object. Jenkins’ fans reject the accepted critical distance from their program of choice by engaging the text with their bodies through the creation of new objects. But active engagement, as Jenkins clearly explains, need not include creative production of objects; it can exist through the celebration, display, or simple purchasing of a piece of licensed merchandise. Jenkins’ use of Umberto Eco is useful here: “I think that in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only part of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole.” [7] For Eco and for Jenkins, engagement has a physical aspect to it—or, at least, the language that they use to describe engagement is about a physical interaction. It is in part this physicality, this possession of a material object, that leads me to my interest in action figures. The other point of theoretical entry comes through an interest in the embodiment inherent in the anthropomorphized action figure.

In its most lucrative light, merchandising offers a profitable mode of generating program awareness, network branding, and trademark protection, as well as an ancillary revenue source for the licensor, or series producer. Upfront contracts with the licensee as well as guaranteed royalty payments can even offset some production costs. [8] For the licensee, a branded character from a television program suggests a built-in consumer base. It is a known entity on the market. Merchandising licenses, because they are always finite—in terms of time period, geographical scope, or in the types of objects that can be created—are often a worthy gamble for a licensee.

The range of merchandise sold alongside these programs has been wide and, and increasingly lucrative. Most studios w
ait six months to a year before they begin selling series-based products, in order to make sure that the program has a significant following and brand awareness. The first items to appear for any program are inevitably gum, candy, and trading cards, items that are cheap and easy to produce. From there the range of objects varies greatly, but most important, these items are designed to be displayed, rather than, or as well as being, consumed: board games, stickers, coloring books, mugs, greeting cards, collector’s plates, CD-ROMs, video games, and of course, episodes of the series on video or DVD.

The malleability, tangibility, and dimensionality of a toy figure, though, makes it unique among all other objects related to a television program, including the series itself. The humanlike structure of the doll exists within three-dimensional space. T-shirts, lunch-boxes, key-chains, and most important, the program itself only provides a two dimensional image. A figure can be held, possessed, manipulated, or, to return to the words of Umberto Eco, it can, quite literally, be broken, dislocated, unhinged. The possessor of a toy figure can control its movements through space: both its position (on a shelf, on a desk, etc.) and its positioning (through manipulation of the dolls various points of articulation). The player has the ability to impose a level of control and manipulation on the doll.

The body of the doll is completely available for its owner to control, yet this body, with its hard plastic parts, has resilience and a certain strength. In the case of the female action hero doll based on a television character, the pleasure of the fantasy can continue in a tangible way for viewers of the program. Though Ien Ang writes about the pleasure of television, her argument about the role of fantasy proves useful here.

[Fantasy] does not function in place of, but beside, other dimensions of life (social practice, moral or political consciousness). It is a dimension of subjectivity which is a source of pleasure because it puts ‘reality’ in parentheses, because it constructs imaginary solutions for real contradictions… Fiction and fantasy function by making life in the present pleasurable, or at least livable, but this does not by any means exclude radical political activity or consciousness. [9]

While most fans of these programs realize the impossibility of the worlds of these heroines, many fans feel that by bringing figures of these characters into their own personal space becomes celebration of their fandom, but also a playful attempt to channel the character’s attributes (feistiness, girl power, strength) into their daily lives. For fans, the doll is a physical, if miniaturized, embodiment or representation of the heroine herself. While this may be a pleasurable concept for any kind of merchandised object, in the case of television’s action heroine, this playability, possession, control, and virtual embodiment, is particularly rich for theorization. In every one of these programs, there is a primacy given to the heroine’s body. The action doll is a compelling example of the merchandisability and merchandising power of television’s action heroine.

The television heroines in this study are defined by the fact that they use their bodies to fight crime or evil. In this process, these characters are often kicked, bruised, beaten, and even killed. Yet their bodies—and in some cases, their will to live—are so strong that either in a metaphysical way, or quite literally within the narrative, death cannot kill them. Dawn Heinecken discusses this phenomenon in relation to a number of recent programs Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Aeon Flux:

A certain fluidity between life and death is suggested by the frequency with which characters move back and forth between death and life… The undead or reborn bodies retain the memories, identity, and desires of the lived bodies. This concept certainly suggests some kind of openness to metaphysics, that there is something outside of life, in which there will be a continuance of identity though the body. [10]

Heinecken’s observant reflection on this trend provides a number of avenues for discussion. First, it is worth noting that this fluidity between life and death is older than these fairly contemporary programs. Yes, Buffy dies twice, Xena died once, and Aeon Flux, after the second season began dying at the end of every episode. But Heinecken’s list is not complete: Bionic Woman is resuscitated and created anew as a cyborg, Wonder Woman is ‘reborn’ in her second season in an entirely new era, and Steed’s avenging companions, Charlie’s angels, and the Halliwell sisters, are all clearly interchangeable and (seasonally) replaceable. Within the text of these programs, the heroine is malleable, adaptable, transformable. She can die and be reemerge, be re-embodied and still maintain the essence of her selfhood. It is this existence of her character beyond even her own life, that makes the action doll a lively representation of the heroine. Not only can the plastic doll take a great deal of abuse, but at some level, if the character exists beyond the confines of her body, cannot she also exist as this replica of her body? Each doll is the character. And therefore, by creating narratives for this doll, for moving and manipulating the doll, the player, too, can in some way not just control, but become, the heroine. To put this within a Foucauldian context, this body becomes “the locus of domination through which docility is accomplished and subjectivity constituted.” [11] Playing with these dolls, even possession of them, can be seen then, as an act of control and embodiment.

This argument for the power of embodiment and control can, in part, be verified by the importance placed by collectors and owners of these dolls on the importance placed on their verisimilitude and likeness to the televisual heroine. While not necessarily the case for a more imaginative player, the quality of the action doll can make a great deal of difference in the level of a user’s enjoyment of and pleasure playing with the object. It is worth taking a moment here to clarify the differences between a figurine, an action figure, a doll, and an action doll. Figurines, whether die cast from metal or produced in PVC, are immobile renderings of the character. These are designed with the intention that they will be displayed, not played with. Differences between action figures and dolls are far more blurry. Sherrie Inness, in “’It’s a Girl Thing’: Tough Female Action Figures in the Toy Store,” write that “action figures are those that are depicted as physically and mentally tough heroes or anti-heroes.” [12] But this does not take into account the difference between the representational character and the figure itself: one off-the-shelf Buffy may seem be a doll while another looks more like an action figure. But why?

Originally the distinction between action figure and doll was gender-based: action figures are for boys, fashion dolls are for girls. In other words, this was a marketing differentiation, not a manufacturing one. As more toys have appeared on shelves and gender lines have been somewhat blurred at the edges, so too has the line between action figure and doll. For some collectors, the defining differenc
e between the two is what is know as “the foot test.” [13] In other words, whether or not its feet work. If it stands on its own, it’s an action figure; if it can’t, it’s a doll. Other points of differentiation often cited are: rooted (doll) versus plastic (action figure) hair; removable (doll) versus permanent (action figure) clothing; 6” – 11½” figures (doll) versus smaller 6” – 3¾” figures; invisible (dolls) versus visible (action figures) points of articulation; and multi-material (doll) versus entirely plastic bodies with fixed features (action figures). [14] Dolls have embedded playability; action figures are unbreakable, and are designed go into action. While this study defines each toy as either action figure or doll, it is essential to note that the balancing act many of these toys perform is precisely why in many ways they are compelling. Both fashion-forward and action-ready these plastic incarnations of television heroines truly are the original action dolls.

Besides Mattel’s Barbie, there have been very few consistently popular female icons for plastic dolls over the past fifty years. [15] Though figures made from television’s action heroes were rare at first, the uniqueness of their design, their limited production, and the fact that they are strong female characters, have made these early figures, in particular, much desired, and therefore costly, possessions. Owning, displaying, and playing with these items are, somewhat contradictorily, both a form of corporate branding and self-identification. As discussed earlier, merchandising can be a profitable ancillary market for producers and as a secondary form of marketing a series and branding a heroine. While this corporate branding may seem faddish, consumers of these products display their allegiances to these heroines as a method of defining themselves through their interests and hobbies.

This type of self-identification through corporate branding has only become more popular and more available to consumers. During the 1980s, licensed characters from television programs became the predominant figures with which children played and branded themselves. [16] Ellen Seiter argues that consumption provides a certain space for creativity and the possibility of personal expression through the preferences a consumer makes from the vast number the products available. [17] In Sold Separately, Seiter contends that children can find expression by branding themselves with the licensed merchandise from their favorite media outlets. ” By wearing their media preferences on their sleeves and carrying their most prized possessions everywhere they go, children make visible their identifications with those more ephemeral objects of consumer culture—namely films, videos, and television programs”. [18]

Seiter’s reading can extend beyond the realm of child consumers: adults not only buy much of these items for children, but many products are oriented to an adult audience. Like Seiter’s children, adult fans often choose to display their media preferences as well. These items have become particularly popular within certain niche groups—Generation Xers, gay men, young dot-com office workers, in other words adults with disposable income—half-jokingly, but also half-seriously display these figures in public places for their friends or co-workers to enjoy, laugh at, or admire. For some, these dolls can be conversation starters, a sign of their hipness or pop cultural fluency, as an expression of an aspect of their personality, or, like Seiter’s subjects, as a way to project an aspiration of who they wish to be.

With this theoretical framework in mind, a close analysis of the television’s female action doll will offer insight into the transformation of this embodied merchandise from an industrial, and a collector/fan’s perspective. Through this, it will become more clear what role the action doll has played in the celebration and articulation of the body of the action hero, as well how this particular type of merchandise is a compelling model of television’s ancillary business strategies for targeting its audience. By tracing both the types of dolls and the campaigns that surrounded them through a historical lens, one begins to see transformations in studios’ merchandising strategies, as well as in the action dolls themselves.

In 1959, Mattel Inc. produced its first Barbie doll; five years later, Hassenfield Brothers, Inc. (later Hasbro, Inc.) launched its G.I. Joe Action Soldiers, a fairly well articulated set of action figures. Both dolls were enormous sellers, and both offered additional accessories that could be purchased separately. The first action doll from a television series appeared in 1965, one year after G.I. Joe. The Honey West doll was an eleven and a half-inch hard plastic figure with a soft vinyl head, rooted blonde hair in a short bob, and a black fabric catsuit. Exceptionally tall and skinny, with rounded hips and a tiny waist, the doll looked much more like Barbie than like Ann Francis, the show’s lead actor. For this doll, the allure was not in consuming the body of Ann Francis, rather it was playing dress-up or acting out detective scenarios as a young, beautiful blonde. Ultimately, it was only the accessories that strongly linked the doll to her on-air counterpart: she had a wardrobe that included a gold gown as well as a karate suit. The plastic Honey, much like her television double, was a compelling example of an incredibly feminine heroine. She was always prepared for both fashion-related and work-related emergencies: her plastic accessories included items such as handcuff bracelets, a garter belt gas mask, a trick compact, a model’s bag, a clutch dimple purse with pearl button, a telescope lens necklace, teargas earrings, and a telephone purse. [19]

Appearing one year later were both the Emma Peel doll from The Avengers and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. doll. Manufactured by Fairlite, the Emma Peel figure sold exclusively in the United Kingdom. She was 10” tall, far closer to Barbie in stature than G.I Joe, and she came with three different clothing changes. While Mrs. Peel the character was both fashionable and a worthy opponent to any adversary, Mrs. Peel the doll was really only a clothes horse. The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. doll was an eleven-inch cream-colored figurine that looked nothing like Stephanie Powers, but provided a great number of accessories that virtually made up for her too-short hair, her molded-on leotard, and her cap-less knees. Much like the Honey West doll, this doll had little to offer in its design; here the focus was on her forty accessories, including four wigs, a derringer, a pistol, four pairs of glasses, a grenade bracelet, a black and white checked garter holster with baby blue gun, three hats, and a hat box. Both of these dolls used the body of the action heroine as a clothes model. [20] But considering Mary Rogers argument that the ac
cessories “are often the very artifices deemed essential for appearing to be a successful woman.”—it is possible that April Dancer the doll (but arguably the television character as well) was really only interesting because of her accessories which bridged the gap between work and play. [21]

Soon after the television program started its run in 1974, a Police Woman doll appeared on the market. Produced by Horsman Inc., this eight-inch figure’s appearance followed in the model of her predecessors, offering little of the allure of Angie Dickinson’s star power in its generic look. The Pepper doll looked significantly younger than the actor it was supposed to represent. “Adult” dolls, like Barbie, were all youthful in their appearance; and perhaps toy manufacturers assumed that a doll that looked forty would not sell as well as a younger looking doll. Would little girls want to play with a heroine that looked like her mother? Merchandisers thought no, and rather than have Dickinson’s likeness on the box, instead there was a animated, generic policewoman. Unfortunately, if not unsurprisingly, the Police Woman doll did not sell well. Elizabeth J. Stephan, editor of Toy Shop’s Action Figure Price Guide offers her opinion on the state of action heroine dolls at the time. “In those early years, female action figures gathered dust sitting on toy shelves… They couldn’t compete with Mattel’s Barbie doll, and boys didn’t want to introduce girls into their adventures.” [22] Yet in the late 1970s, the female hero doll came into her own as a doll, and as a desirable commodity.

The late 1970s were a boom time for the female action hero, and for her action figure counterpart. Action dolls for Bionic Woman, Isis, Charlie’s Angels, and Wonder Woman all reached the market, and the thousands of fans who were hungry for well-made figures. A major cultural icon of the era, and an epic turning point for these figures was the Bionic Woman doll. The Bionic Woman doll allowed its owners to live out the fantasy many fans had of playing with the character, Jamie Summers, and becoming intimate with her bionic body. What this doll offered was a variety of different levels of elaborate play, and the opportunity to live out the fantasy of being bionic. This twelve-inch doll released by Kenner Products in 1976 dressed in the track top, jeans, and white sneakers that Jamie wears in the opening credits to the program. By picking this outfit, Kenner inferred that this doll was equivalent to the woman on television; and that each play session with the doll could begin just like the program and become its own unique self-created episode.

This action doll provided not only room for fantasy and encouraged play related to the program. But this revolution in the costuming of the doll was only the beginning: her body provided numerous points of access into the world of the program and the fantasy of being a superhero. This figure was created to allow access to the inner workings of a bionic body. Here, a player can not only create scenarios with Jamie, but she can dissect, operate on, and repair her cybernetics. The action doll’s clothing was designed to make access to these features simpler: players need not remove Jamie’s pants to check her legs, special jeans offered an easy access opening to her robotic legs.

Just as the series increasingly feminized Jamie in an attempt to bring in a wider demographic, the Bionic Woman action figure was increasingly fitted with more feminine outfits. She was losing her action-oriented edge—and so was her plastic counterpart. Kenner released an entire line of clothes for this new Bionic Woman, each of which included its own pair of plastic shoes. These outfits, with names like “Peach Dream,” “Lunch Date,” “Elegant Lady,” and “Party Pants,” and not only hid Jamie’s robot parts, but, once on, offered little flexibility to then access her bionic parts or imagine her in action sequences. Likewise, the contents of Jamie’s new “Mission Purse” were more feminine than heroic: money, identification, credit cards, a mission assignment, a brush, a cosmetic case and hand mirror, two maps, a decoder, and snapshots of her costars. Still, though, the Bionic Woman doll, along with her numerous accessories, offered the most comprehensive world of consumable products so that players could experience—through the miniaturized body of heroine—the world of the program.

Action heroines were becoming increasingly popular with toy manufacturers in the late 1970s, and the range of possible miniature heroines expanded. Action dolls attached to children’s programming were extremely popular, as well. Batgirl, from the program Batman, appeared again, and an action doll based on the character on Isis appeared as part of Mego Corporation’s “World’s Greatest Super Heroes” collection. The Isis figure looked much like a repaint of Mego’s Wonder Woman doll with an enormous head of hair, and her figure was, like all of the other action heroine dolls, impossibly thin and long-legged. Again, the focus was on fashion, but in keeping with the show’s narrative, Isis wore a ancient Egyptian-inspired headband, necklace, belt, and bracelets, strappy plastic sandals, and as most collectors fondly remember, she was one of the only dolls who wore underwear. Though she may be, as the program—and the figure’s box—say a “dedicated foe of evil, defender of the weak, champion of truth and justice,” Isis had no knees and was still a girl’s doll, panties and all.

The success of the television program Charlie’s Angels led to Hasbro’s decision to license miniatures of the Angels. Unfortunately though, the eight and a half-inch posable dolls with rooted hair could never really live up to the aura surrounding the women themselves. While the actors were usually dressed in hip contemporary clothing—or barely any clothing at all—these dolls featured the angels in white baggy, v-neck jumpsuits and scarves. Interesting, as well, their clothes covered far more of their bodies than the outfits that they were designed to imitate. Low cut tops were raised. Precisely what made the characters appealing on the show was not available in the doll: these figures were neither fashionable nor sexy. To make matters worse, while their torsos twisted, their swiveling hips provided little action-oriented movement, therefore disappointing those expecting to play with an action figure. Considering these design missteps, it is easy to see how Hasbro lost heavily on its licensing deal to make Charlie’s Angels dolls.

The only consistently successful action doll has been Wonder Woman. Over the years a number of different toy manufacturers have produced versions of Wonder Woman—including Ideal Inc., Mego, Toy Biz Inc., Kenner, and Mattel. Ideal released the first Wonder Woman doll in 1967 under the collection, “Super Queens.” Mego’s second Wonder Woman release in 1978 focuses on the television version and offered an second outfit for her alter ego, Yeoman Diana Prince. Wonder Woman continued to be sold in various shapes and sizes, and as collectables store owner David Sinkler notes, Wonder Woman is unique in her popularity within virtually every demographic: for women, she represents a strong heroine, for young heterosexual men, a fantasy, and for drag queens, an Amazon to be emulated. [23] In each case, her body offers a source of pleasure; and somehow as an icon
she is grand enough to be both honest heroine and camp queen.

Wonder Woman is the supreme icon of merchandisable heroic femininity, a model of the aggressive use of other media outlets as research and design for merchandisable products: here was a television program that helped sell a comic book and a doll. Skirting a 1969 prohibition that banned the creation of television programs on toy products, Wonder Woman the television show was based on a comic book, not just on a doll. The potential for financial profit was extremely compelling for toy manufacturers, television producers, publishers, and game manufacturers. If they can all work together: a pre-tested product that already has a strong fan base is a safer option than an unknown, un-branded character. [24]

In the early 1980s, and then again in the 1990s, two significant changes in the toy industry transformed the way that product licensing worked. U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s lifting of the 1969 prohibition on the creation of programs based on licensed toys led to dramatic changes in the relationship between the television and toy merchandising industries. This deregulation of children’s television and advertising led to a profound surge in the number of toys licensed from television programs, and programs created from licensed toys. [25] What Wonder Woman had gotten away with by default was now a tactic available to all toy manufacturers, producers, and publishers. The result of this deregulation was increased advertising on children’s programming, and significantly more cross-marketing tactics, such as programs based on toy brand lines. The lines between a program and its commercial sponsors began to blur. In Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Culture in the Age of TV Marketing, Steven Kline argues that the 1980s were a critical time in the evolution of merchandising strategies for television studios and toy manufacturers, and their collaboration proved extremely profitable.

By the late 1980s, 70 per cent of gross toy sales consisted of ‘promotional toys’—those plastic replicas of television characters with which children simulate the contours of the universe ‘as seen on television.’ [26]

The result was a generation of children who learned that expressing their fandom was tied to the ownership of licensed merchandise. These marketing synergies has led to greater allegiances—and profits—for corporations willing and able to work across media. [27] This type of aggressive merchandising has continued for television series since the 1980s to be an essential part of selling television, in particular series that are popular with a niche market, such as those starring action heroines.

Television studios have become so savvy in recent years that they now have licensing, merchandising, or consumer products divisions within their own studios. The profitability of many of these products are two-fold: selling a doll, a lunchbox, a T-shirt, a mug, a breakfast cereal, bed sheets, or a mobile phone cover not only brings in revenue, but it also becomes a continual form of advertising for the program. [28] Any merchandise displaying a logo or offering an image of a character might be seen by other viewers (who might buy merchandise themselves) or potential viewers (who might be tempted into watching the program). And in the case of dolls, action figures, and figurines if the products are well made, meaning if they offer a strong likeness of the character, or they inspire the imagination of the person playing with the doll, not only viewers, but collectors (a more dedicated, and therefore more lucrative consumer group), will begin to show interest. With a popular line, it is the casual fan who will spend money on what merchandisers call impulse-buy purchases in its initial retail sale. But collectors buy products both initially, as well as in the after-market (at toy shows, conventions, and specialty shops). It is these collectors whom merchandisers have come to acknowledge as a key consumer base worth catering to, or at least considering the interests of, in the manufacturing process. [29]

By the mid-1990s, Hollywood, and in particular, television studios had become key partners for the toy industry, and their product merchandising and character branding tactics became increasingly sophisticated. [30] The toy industry even coined a new term for the products of this partnership, “entertoyment.” [31] An article in The Wall Street Journal during this period reported that nearly half of retail sales of toys in the U.S. are licensed products based on films and television programs. [32] Those products deemed “toyetic” lends itself to this cross-advertising process. [33] Working from an original image, though, comes with its costs: all of the action dolls sold as part of a line must look like the actors who portray the characters; working from an animated original is much easier. [34] Planning ancillary tie-ins for these pre-packaged characters regularly now include products as wide-reaching as video games, toys, fast food giveaways, DVDs, clothing, and books.

One of the first television programs staring an action heroine to break through to both audiences and consumers was The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Programs such as The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Sailor Moon, both of which originated in Japan, provided the impetus for a number of profound changes in the industry. In the early 1990s, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were both the number one rated show for children, garnering a 40 percent female audience to a type of children’s program that traditionally skewed male. [35] As well, action figures from the program became the top selling toy line in the United States at their release in the Fall of 1993. [36] Licensed products featuring the Rangers were the best selling toys in the United States in 1994 and 1995, as well. [37] A reporter from The New York Post who covered the New York Toy Fair, the major trade show for the Toy Manufacturers of America declared 1995 “the year of the girl.” [38] Studios and toy manufacturers took notice, and quickly worked to take advantage of this new phenomenon. The trade journal The Licensing Letter reported that five girls’ action adventure properties—all with licensing agreements—were all scheduled for the 1995 fall television season, and
that dolls created from these characters would capitalized on a “unfilled niche,” the action figure for girls. [39] While this was a significant move toward creating action figures for girls, there was some back-up to their plan by making sure that the dolls were still “girl-friendly”; the manufacturers said that while these toys were action figures, they also “seem[ed] to stress attributes traditionally associated with girls’ toys, such as hair-play, over action.” [40] As marketing consultant Syd Good argued at the time, “the more kids see girls or women in these roles and getting equal billing with the guys, slowly but surely, it will be just as appropriate to have female action figures.” [41] Over the next ten years, the number increased exponentially.

One of the first action dolls to ride the coattails of the Power Rangers’ success was the Xena: Warrior Princess action doll series. After a few rough starts the Xena line became popular, and profitable. The first Xena doll released was part of the Hercules television program’s line of action figures, and while fans of the series were eager to purchase the doll, collectors disliked the figure because they thought the semblance was uninspired. Xena looked too masculine. Even the actor, Lucy Lawless, was shocked and quite humored at the absurdity of this apparent model of her body: “It looks like they put my head on a He-Man’s body! It’s got these enormously muscular arms. They could shave a few bloody cubic inches off that dolly!” [42] Rumors among collectors said that the figure was actually a She-Hulk doll that the manufacturer had repainted and sold as Xena. [43] While manufacturers would not verify this story, there is a good possibility she is correct. The Mego toy company uses interchangeable bodies for its dolls, which cuts down on their production costs, as well as minimizes their exposure to a licensing failure. If a doll does not sell out, the company could simply change the doll’s head and costume. This strange denial of the body as a unique type within the world of action figures seems a contradiction. These character’s bodies are often what makes them heroic, but for toy manufacturers, the bottom line comes before the body.

But for Xena fans, the desire to own a doll in her image was so great, that the line increased. “Xena II” still looked quite muscular—with sculpted thighs, and exposed joint articulations that only added to her tough physique.Toy Biz Inc., a company that has perhaps the most advanced knowledge of the power of entertoyment, created this second version of Xena, which quickly sold out. [44] Deluxe editions soon appeared, as well as a six-inch series. The twelve-inch Xena even made her way into Seventeen magazine, and was praised not only for her toughness as a character, but she also garnered an A+ in fashion. Seventeen’s panel of action figure panel of lay-judges exclaimed: “Love her strappy Greco-Roman go-go boots, and the arm cuffs are all about style.” [45] The six-inch series offered a new take on the meaning of action figure: each doll was not only well-articulated, but also could execute her own elaborate action: “Cradle of Hope” Xena spins down her “pillar of power,” and the “Sins of the Past” Xena draws her sword from its scabbard at the touch of a button on her back. This performing action figure was a new breakthrough in a consumer’s ability to control the body of the character. Here was a doll that not only could be played with, but who would perform for her owner in private.

Action figures from Buffy the Vampire Slayer have proved extremely popular with fans—not only are there a number of Buffy dolls, but most of her cohorts, as well as her enemies, have been miniaturized. The first series released by Moore Action Collectables, Inc. was quite well made, with articulated joints and appropriate accessories: a crossbow, a dagger, two stakes, as well as a logo base. Though her legs were considerably long for a youth, the Buffy doll did still look girlish, like the character, with her youthful face, small chest, and small hips. The “Buffy II” dolls had fifteen points of articulation, and provided bigger, fully-sculpted bases for the dolls that placed them in a cemetery scene, as well as a full series of weapons. Unlike many dolls, Buffy’s face seemed to hold a natural expression of both seriousness and sweetness; and her costumes were not only authentic to the character, but actually quite fashionable. Soon clay and pewter statues of Buffy appeared on the market as well.

While the Power Rangers, and subsequently Xena and Buffy, set the precedent for competitive sales success in the 1990s, the greatest success in merchandising of the female action hero is the story of the merchandising of The Powerpuff Girls. Unlike all of the other characters mentioned, the Powerpuff girls are the only animated heroines whose bodies, to begin with, are not natural. The Powerpuff girls—as they are all triplets and therefore have the same physique—have eyes as big as their legs, and bodies that merge into their heads without any need for a neck. For these girls, the individual nature of their bodies is unimportant: fans pick their favorites according to the girl’s different personalities, or color schemes. While the Buffy doll was a step forward in girlishness, the Powerpuff dolls show how little girls’ prepubescent bodies can be financially attractive. These dolls’ physiques have nothing to do with realism, sexuality, or femininity (besides their skirts): instead, Powerpuffs are all about character.

The manufacturing and marketing of the Cartoon Network brand, headed by The Powerpuff Girls, has been a global success story for its parent corporation AOL Time Warner. [46] In 2000 alone, sales of licensed Powerpuff Girls merchandise were in excess of $300 million: making it perhaps one of the most toyetic programs of the past decade. [47] The show is popular with three demographics—boys, girls, and adults. As Mike Flaherty in Entertainment Weekly points out,

All such demo[graphic]-busting hipness aside, though, the show’s prospects of becoming a full-blown phenom may lie in its merchandising. Indeed, with the exception of a girl named Barbie, Powerpuff has become the hot franchise for the young female market. [48]

Even though the show is popular with both sexes, the branded merchandise for the program is gendered female. [49] With this in mind, it is not a surprise to see that though there are dozens of variations in types of
dolls, none of them fall directly under the category of action figure: most Powerpuffs are made of hard, unbendable plastic with no movable parts, or they are plush dolls. Still there is difficulty defining the marketability and the merchandisibility of action dolls. In Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture, Sherrie Inness dismisses the significance of dolls, and in particular, action figures with a footnote.

The role of economics in determining the gender of action figures is huge. Toy manufacturers want to make money. They figure that girls do not play with action figures. They also assume that boys do not want to play with female action figures, so manufacturers only put one female in a group of seven. Toy stores, too, want to make money. For the reasons just mentioned, they determine that female action figures will not sell; therefore, stores do not stock them. [50]

But the reality is that while the heroine changes, so too does the quality of the toys made in her image, and this in turn has increased the numbers of interested consumers. DeWayne Booker, senior vice president of marketing for Trendmasters, the licensers of Powerpuff Girl merchandise dispels Inness’ theory: “There’s that old [saying] that girls will buy boy figures but boys won’t buy girl figures…. But both genders love these characters.” [51] So even a product that is gendered female is still being bought by men and for boys.

Perhaps part of the Powerpuff appeal is that with very few exceptions, these dolls look exactly like their animated counterparts. Without the need for artistic translation of an actual body—much like Wonder Woman—the object is as much the heroine as her televisual presence. Joy Van Fuqua argues that with The Powerpuff Girls, “the commercial text and product lines work to construct a seamless loop of reception and consumption.” [52] This is perfect synergy between program and product.

Along with the flood of action heroines on television in the late 1990s and early 2000s, came a flood of merchandising opportunities. An action doll based on Valerie Irons, Pamela Anderson’s character, from V.I.P. came with a series of costume changes, each with a colored handgun to match. A series of dolls were offered for James Cameron’s Dark Angel series by Art Asylum. To many fans’ dismay, the six-inch action doll does not look anything like the series’ star, Jessica Alba. Much like her predecessors, though, her accessories (a motorcycle with revving back wheels and head lamp) are far more compelling selling points. State of the Art Toys released a six-inch series of beautifully sculpted and articulated figures from the series Charmed action dolls that are both action-ready and attractive: with flowing hair and dressed in tight-fitting clothes, they are placed in casual contrapossto positions. Each figure comes with one part of the play-set to create the attic where the Halliwell sisters perform much of their magic, thereby encouraging consumers to collect the entire series.

The a six-inch Sidney Bristow action figure was unveiled at the 2004 San Diego Comic-Con: both its attributes and its missteps make the figure, as well as the other figures in the Alias series, worthy of analysis. This first Sidney doll wears a plain grey suit, making the doll completely shapeless. The face is expressionless, she carries a gun in her hand, and the hip and knee articulations are visible. Without any of the fashionable flair of her television counterpart, this figure is all action. The second Sidney figure to be released offers entirely different pleasures: this 7½-inch miniature bust cold-cast figurine is an excellent replica of Gardner wearing Sydney’s “Rocker girl disguise” sets her in contrapossto positioning while cutting off the figure at the thighs. Unable to move, this figure priced at $45 is for display purposes only. A third series of Alias action dolls is reportedly in production—this time attempting to provide a balance between the two, a true action doll—fully articulated and available with either “classic red hair” or “fashion black hair.” [53]

With the great increase in sales of dolls based on contemporary female action heroes, there has been a boost in both toy manufacturers’ and collectors’ interest in past heroines. As the interest in new heroines increases, collectors have realized the significance of these few early versions of action heroine dolls, and accordingly the prices of these early heroines are becoming increasingly expensive. In 1990, a Honey West doll might have cost $75, now the doll could cost as much as $2,000. [54] While toy manufacturers still realize that their bread-and-butter demographic are children, they are aware of the increasing number of adults are buying for themselves. Spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America, Diane Cardinale tries to downplay their attempts to lure in collectors: “Toy makers are hip to the fact that a sizable chunk of their market is made up of the shaving set. But mostly they don’t make toys with adults in mind—grown-ups just appropriate stuff meant for kids.” [55] Yet in reality, a number of recent action dolls based on past television heroines seem to be made solely for adults and collectors. Living Toyz, Inc. recently released an Electra Woman doll (from the program Electra Woman and Dyna Girl) that came packaged in front of a card with a picture of an old fashioned television set, clearly luring a different sector of consumers back in television time, appealing to their past fascinations with a superheroine of yesteryear. Even though a few episodes of the program were released on video in 2002, most viewers are old fans reminiscing and collecting; neither the videos nor the action dolls are being promoted enough to be considered anything more than an adult collector’s novelty item. At the UK Toy Fair in 2003—the same event where the Totally Spies action dolls premiered—Product Enterprises unveiled a series posable action figures based on Emma Peel and John Steed from The Avengers. Selling for £ 40 British pounds these figures had forty points of articulation, as well as fabric clothing. Designed for the “die-hard fan” of a program that premiered almost forty years ago—these figures are not child’s play.

There has been compelling research in the field on children’s consumer practices as well as on fan activity. But the importance of the choices adult consumers of these programs, the characters, and often the dolls created in their image deserves more attention. Compelling scholarship exists on the important role of female consumers in the design of television programming and advertising, but there is more to explore about viewer’s consumption of the ideal female body as it is presented on television. Corporate branding through merchandising sells the series, the studio, and the action doll.

A t-shirt or a keychain may sell a brand, but a tangible, tactile figure can be a catalyst for fantasy. Just as television’s action heroine has transformed over the past forty years, so have the dolls created in her image. As toy makers and television studios have become m
ore savvy about consumers, these dolls have improved in their design and their authenticity to the characters they portray. The celebration of and fascination with body of the action heroine has not only taken place on screen and through viewership, but also in the purchasing choices of interested fans. The action doll offers a material example of the selling of the female action hero to her audiences. Here, she is made concrete (or, more likely plastic, resin, PVC, or pewter); she can be grasped in the palm of a fan’s hand and given a place of honor—on a shelf, a desk, a counter, or even a toy box. When physically possessed and manipulated by a fan, the object provides the player with a sense of power. It is through control and ownership of this doubled body that a player can truly engage with the heroine, and even become her. This type of active, tactile engagement with a television heroine reinforces primacy of the heroine’s body for the selling of a series.

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ENDNOTES