On my desk are several action figures, ranging from the heroic (Superman) to the historic (Alexander the Great) to even the academic (Freud). But as long as I’ve owned them, these action figures have remained actionless: I do not make Superman fly, or Alexander conquer, or Freud psychoanalyze. Rather, I leave them standing, in the same pose, in the same place, in the same spatial relationship to all of the other items left static on my desk.
And yet, in their own way, they’re still acting. Any toy can be played with, just as any rarity can be collected, but what makes action figures special is their ability to shape, and reveal, the nature of their owners.
The origin story of the action figure goes like this: One day in the early 1960s, Don Levine, then the vice president and director of marketing at Hasbro, walked by an art store and saw a wooden artist’s mannequin in the window display—and had an epiphany that would dramatically alter the landscape of toys in the U.S. In 1964, Hasbro shipped the first action figure, G.I. Joe.
At the time, Hasbro rival Mattel had already succeeded in marketing the massively popular Barbie dolls to girls; a doll geared towards boys seemed like a niche waiting to be filled. Instead of a doll, however, Hasbro developed what it called a “movable fighting man,” a figurine built on the cultural understanding of war as an experience that turned boys into men.
G.I. Joe—which debuted early in the Vietnam War, when popular support for the war was still high—was an immediate success, making Hasbro nearly $17 million in its first year. But as that support waned over the next several years, so too did G.I. Joe sales. In the 1970s, he was relaunched with a beard, a “Kung-Fu grip,” and a backstory that recast his symbolism. Once representative of the geopolitical quagmire of war, G.I. Joe was now all about fantastical “adventure” removed from reality.