It all started when I went searching the web for action figure vs. doll. You see, I have two articulated (and therefore posable) plastic figures of adult humans with removable and exchangeable clothing (and accessories) — yes, I will (sort of) explain, eventually, how a man of my age and station comes to have such things — and objects of this sort are called either dolls (like Barbie) or action figures (like G.I. Joe), according to whether females (mostly girls) or males (mostly boys) play with them, respectively (which means that since the figures function as, among other things, potent models for adult gender roles, dolls of this sort are themselves mostly female, while the corresponding action figures are mostly male).
The crucial factor in the distinction is then not objectively in the figures, but in the function they serve in our culture — a state of affairs that you can find all over the place, as scholars of categorization and the vocabulary that accompanies it have pointed out many times. Objective properties of referents are far from irrelevant, but the functions of those referents play a major role as well, sometimes a deciding role.
Back to the figures. The neat “dolls are for girls, action figures are for boys” split turns out to fail in both directions. The figures I have are meant for use by males (and are themselves male) but are called dolls, while (I discovered in my web searches) there’s a whole universe of figures that are meant for use by females (and are themselves largely female) but are called action figures. On the one hand we have Billy dolls, on the other figma figures. (I didn’t expect these objects or their names to be familiar to you, because each is embedded in a (sub)culture that is not mainstream North American/Western European.)
Before I go on to the figures themselves, some extended comments on the vocabulary, in particular as it appears in the OED, starting with the noun-noun compound action figure. From the OED draft addition of March 2006 under action:
action figure n. (a) Art a depiction of a figure in motion; (b) orig. N. Amer. a toy figure with movable parts, usually representing a fictional or generic character associated with adventurous or heroic action (cf. Action Man n. at Compounds 1).
(Note the careful choice of non-gendered character here, which also doesn’t distinguish between clearly human and merely humanoid characters.)
Below I give all the cites in the OED entry, tagged as either (a) or (b) senses; (b) is the relevant sense here.
[(a)] 1920 Waterloo ( Iowa ) Times-Tribune 11 Jan. 18/4 Third grade boys and girls are greatly interested in making *action figures in their art work this week representing out of door sports.
[(b)] 1956 Oshkosh ( Wisconsin ) Daily Northwestern 12 Nov. 14 (advt.) Lido Frontier Action Figures..20 pieces that move and turn. Cowboys, Indians, horses and fence sections.
[(a)] 1989 Amer. Jrnl. Archaeol. 93 68/1 That Kritios and Nesiotes were noted for their action figures is also no reason to discount a link with the quiet Kritios boy: at least one of their six signed bases on the Acropolis supported a figure..standing at rest.
[(b)] 2002 ‘H. HILL’ Flight from Deathrow xxxiii. 188 Of course, there would be the usual tie-ins: action figures, trading cards, a real-life film version of the cartoons, a musical and hopefully an ice show.
Action figure starts as a term invented for commercial purposes, there being no already-existing conventionalized expression for these referents in ordinary English, but it proved so useful that it quickly became an everyday expression. The Wikipedia story:
The term “action figure” was first coined by Hasbro in 1964, to market their G.I. Joe figure to boys who wouldn’t play with dolls.
Blame it on G.I. Joe, then.
The OED’s earlier 1956 cite, above, isn’t entirely indisputable, since Frontier Action Figure can be parsed as either as
[Frontier Action] [Figure], or as
[Frontier] [Action Figure]
Both have figure used as at least a commercial term for a species of toy, covering both dolls and action figures; it’s not clear whether this commercial, semi-technical, usage is limited to those that have movable parts (where do toy soldiers, Indians, etc. stand?), though it does seem clear that it’s limited to human or humanoid representations (teddy bears, etc. are out, even if they’re in military costume).
We can see here some hint of a folk taxonomy in the domain of playthings, with toys, games, figures, and stuffed animals as subcategories (where do those trading cards in the 2002 cite above come in?), and with dolls and action figures as subcategories under figures. Not all of the taxa have established ordinary-language labels, the folk taxonomy might not align entirely with the semi-technical taxonomy adopted in commercial contexts — in some contexts in commercial law, action figures are a species of doll (see the passage below from the OED draft addition of 1993 under Action Man), though most speakers would, I think, reject that use of doll in everyday language), and there is probably considerable variation in the taxonomies and the vocabulary, variation being the norm in such matters.
Action Man, a proprietary name for a type of male doll in combat dress; hence used attrib. to designate clothing, etc., characteristic of the doll or the soldier it represents …
1966 Trade Marks Jrnl. 3 Aug. 1130/2 Palitoy *Action Man… Dolls in the form of men, incorporating means of performing movements.
[Digression. The noun figure as the ordinary-language label for the folk taxon is dubious. The taxon itself seems pretty clear — people do think of dolls and action figures as constituting some sort of larger category, clearly distinct from many other sorts of toys — but I don’t think they use unmodified figure to refer to this category, which is an unlabeled taxon in ordinary language. Would it really work if you go into a toy store and say, “I’m looking for a figure for my little girl’s birthday”? Or even “a toy figure”?
OED2 has no citations for unmodified figure in this sense, only for it in the sense ‘artificial representation of the human form’, where the cites go back to Middle English, when figure was borrowed into English from French (where it came from Latin, where it’s related to a verb meaning ‘to form, mold, feign’, from which English got feign, fiction, and figment; sometimes the OED is just a delight).]
[Further digression, since someone is sure to ask about it. The noun figurine, transparently built on figure, refers to things totally out of the plaything domain. OED2 glosses it as ‘a small carved or sculpted figure’, with cites from 1854 and 1883. I’m not sure whether sculpted covers figurines molded in ceramic, glass, metal, or plastic, but figurine certainly takes them in. In any case, a wood carving of the G.I. Joe character — no doubt there are such things — would not count as an action figure, or as a doll.
What the gloss crucially misses, however, is a reference to the customary function of figurines, as opposed to toy figures: toy figures are intended for play, figurines for display. So a small wood carving of the G.I. Joe character created to serve, like a lead soldier, as a plaything isn’t a figurine.]
As for doll, OED2 (after tracking the common noun back to the proper name Doll, a pet name from Dorothy — yes, “a Dorothy doll” is etymologically redundant, though why anyone should care about such things I can’t fathom) glosses it as
an image of a human being (commonly of a child or lady) used as a plaything; a girl’s toy-baby
with cites from the 18th century on. Heavy doses of femininity here. Note that the first part of this gloss would allow action figures to count as dolls.
And finally OED2 on toy (of obscure etymology):
A material object for children or others to play with (often an imitation of some familiar object); a plaything; also, something contrived for amusement rather than for practical use …
(distinguishing toys from tools, for instance, by their customary functions), with cites from 1586 on, including
1881 STEVENSON Virg. Puerisque, Child’s Play (1905) 157 Lead soldiers, dolls, all toys, in short, are in the same category.
Notice that lead soldiers and dolls are listed separately, and both are classified as toys.
I mention toy because of a 2003 legal decision, in Toy Biz v. United States, in the Court of International Trade, where the court ruled that, for the purpose of tariffs, some action figures are legally toys, but not dolls; according to this ruling, doll refers to human figures, while toy takes in nonhuman figures (plus, of course, toys that aren’t figures). At dispute were Toy Biz’s action figures, in particular its X-Men and Fantastic Four figures, which the court decided were nonhuman. As is so often the case, the use of terms in legal contexts can diverge far from their use in ordinary language. It’s entertaining, though, to see a court investigating the status of fictional beings as human or not.
So much for the background on some conceptual distinctions and vocabulary in the domain where dolls and action figures play. Restricting ourselves to the doll/action figure distinction, what’s at issue is in part objective properties of the material objects in question
whether they represent a human being;
if so, what kind of person they represent: a male or a female, a child or woman vs. some other person;
and whether they have movable parts
and in part their customary function in the culture: given that they are intended for play vs. some other purpose,
whether they are intended for play by females or by males.
Also relevant are objective, culturally determined, properties of a represented human being:
a fictional person or a generic type of person, vs. a “real” person;
a heroic or adventurous person vs. a less vivid person.
These criteria can, of course, be at odds with one another, with different resolutions made, and even conventionalized, in different cultural contexts.
Xena Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are (fictional) females, but, unlike Barbie and Polly Pocket, they are both heroic and adventurous (don’t mess with Xena or Buffy!), and, unlike Polly Pocket and Raggedy Ann, their figures are articulated. Picture of the Buffy figure, at the ready to vanquish blood-suckers:
So, even though both the Xena and Buffy figures are marketed to girls and women, they are marketed as “action figures”, not “dolls”.
Which brings us to Billy dolls vs. figma figures.
The Billy dolls are articulated — only at the shoulders and hips, but they are articulated, so you can pose them — and they are certainly male (indeed, they are “anatomically correct” — actually, hung like horses, hyperbolically — heavily muscled, super-macho guys, in Gay Macho costumes), and they are are marketed to males, in fact to adult men (most people would judge Leather, Army, Sailor, Cowboy, or San Francisco Billy to be an unsuitable birthday present for a boy who wanted an action figure to keep his G.I. Joe company). Gay men, needless to say. Which is how I come to have two figures from the Billy line (from Totem International).
The white, blue-eyed, blond Billy came out (as a proud gay doll) in 1997 — not the first gay doll, but certainly the best-known — and was quickly followed by his Puerto Rican lover Carlos and their African American friend Tyson. Leatherman/Leather/Master Billy:
Note the armband worn on his left (indicating he’s a top), the astounding abs, and the perky nipples. His dick is not shown here, in deference to the anti-pornography policies of Apple (where my image files for the web are stored) and WordPress, but take my word for it, it hangs, soft, halfway to his knees and is as thick as his wrists, so it’s definitely hypermasculine, indeed superhuman.
I skipped Billy when the dolls came out and moved right to Carlos and Tyson. Here’s a shot of Army Tyson about to stick it to Leather Carlos (who’s wearing his armband on the right) in their favorite hang-out, the Gay Media and Culture section of my bookshelves (they’re going at it in front of, among other books, Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays in Popular Culture):
(Photo by Ned Deily. There are more, but they’re all too explicit to show here.)
Reasoning from first principles, you’d think that the Billy figures would all be called “action figures”, and Totem could easily have gone that route. Instead, calling them “dolls” both distances them from the straight world and defiantly, mockingly, embraces the feminine connotations of doll while asserting hypermasculinity.
The figma (figures) (produced by a firm called Max Factory) are something entirely else. To start with, they’re Japanese, part of a culture zone that includes anime. In fact, figma are mostly female and mostly based on anime characters; the male figures have the feminized appearance of boys and men in anime, so it’s not surprising that one of the (relatively few) Western “real” characters to get a figma is Michael Jackson. The figures also seem to appeal primarily to girls. But they are very highly articulated and are played with by posing them, rather than treating them as babies or pets. So in English translation they are called “action figures”, not “dolls”.
I came across figma by stumbling onto the Billy Herrington figure in a search for things Billy. Herrington (blue-brown, 6′ 11″, 7″ cut, in the language of the gay personals) was familiar to me as an actor in porn flicks. I have Body Shop (set in a garage) and Playing with Fire 2 (set in a firehouse), and there’s also Tales from the Foxhole and Lords of the Lockerroom and a number of others; I single these four out because they are so clearly located in “high-masculinity” (testosterone-soaked, male-only, working-class) settings. Herrington himself is one of the Truly Huge — meaning physically huge all around, not necessarily having a gigantic dick. (I have an essay on the Truly Huge that I might post soon.)
Here he is in a posed shot for Conquered, where he’s a gladiator (I can’t show you him actually at work, but this photo is well supplied with phallic imagery, so you’ll get the point):
All his muscles are big, really big, and he has killer abs. And of course perky nipples. (Nevertheless, even this still photo is inclined to make me giggle, so I’ve never tried to watch the film. In my view, gay ‘stume porn is pretty much impossible to pull off. Incessant snickering gets in the way of happy endings.)
How, you ask, did a hypermasculine gay pornstar end up with a figma? Well, it’s one of those accidents of cultural history. One of his workout videos — in his new career, having retired from the porn biz — was posted on a Japanese video sharing site and then (under the name Aniki ‘big brother’) he became an “internet meme” (as his Wikipedia entry puts it) throughout East Asia when thousands of mash-up parody videos were distributed. (The ways of popular culture are often unfathomable.) Then came several figma, starting with this one:
It’s highly articulated and anatomically correct, down to capturing the real Herrington’s massive thighs accurately. The hands and feet (and, apparently, the penis) are detachable, and can be replaced by alternative parts (cue “Detachable Penis” again), so you can have him extend an index finger suggestively to his mouth.
So figma Billy Herrington joins figma Michael Jackson and a pack of big-eyed Japanese girls, all of them “action figures”. The real Billy Herrington has good-naturedly rolled with these developments, even visiting Japan, where he is reported to have said that he is flattered and humbled by his fans’ creativity.