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What’s the difference between dolls and action figures?

The word “doll” is weirdly fraught for a very straightforward concept: defines a doll as “a small figure representing a baby or other human being, especially for use as a child’s toy.” Which is to say that while not every doll is an action figure, every action figure is, by definition, a doll.

Goldie is ready for action!

Goldie is ready for action!

But while I was reading about a new truck-and-action-figure playset from Learning Resources, I found myself wondering: what makes a doll an action figure, or not?

You wouldn’t think that the origin of the phrase “action figure” would be this obvious and on-the-nose, but it’s true:  Hasbro coined the phrase to market the earliest G.I. Joe figures to boys who considered dolls to be a “girl’s toy.” Today, an “action figure” is considered to be any poseable doll marketed to boys.

Beyond the fact that action figures are “for boys,” nobody really seems to completely agree on what makes them what they are. Blogger Chris Galdieri contends that “”Action figures depict characters who can blow stuff up, or who consort with those who do.”” However, in the same blog, Michelle Erica Green notes that her Glinda the Good Witch toy, made by famous collectible action figure manufacturer Mego, is distinctly for girls, presumably can blow up items with her magic wand, and could easily be called either an action figure or a doll.

gi joe action figure

This vintage G.I. Joe has a superb hipster beard.

Play patterns with dolls versus action figures also overlap considerably. On the Straight Dope messageboards, one poster reminisced about using his Star Wars action figures for play scenarios that were not particularly action-oriented: “But my action figure play was less violent and more social or intellectual. For example, my Luke, Leia, and Han (pre relatedness revelation) figures had a three way wedding under the auspice of a tree stump.”

Nor does the way girls play with dolls necessary fit into the typical realm of brushing their hair (or rocking baby dolls to sleep): for instance, this little girl loved exploring the Moon with her Barbie doll. And at one point during The Barbie Project, blogger Melissa Atkins Wardy’s daughter staged a giant brawl among her Barbies!

Action figures tend to have molded, non-removable hair and clothing, but that’s not universal either: I had a She-Ra action figure, made by the same manufacturer and in the same series as He-Man, with styleable hair. And the original G.I. Joe’s clothing was removable. Collectors will also claim that an action figure is defined by it’s poseability, but Barbie, the ultimate example of a girl’s doll, is poseable too.

The Goldieblox Action Figure released last year also straddles the categories: the company marketing says that Goldie is “more than just a doll,” since the doll’s design emphasizes action over fashion. But along with her articulated shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees, Goldie has a huge mane of blonde hair that can be styled, and immediately recalls the look of Barbie.

The conventional wisdom, dating back to the intro of G.I. Joe, is that the category of “action figures” is a necessary one because boys refuse to play with dolls if they’re called dolls. Let’s set aside the notion that playing with dolls has anything to do with gender identity for a minute and jump right into the nostalgia: remember this guy?

(If you’re another child of the ‘80s, you definitely have that theme song stuck in your head now just like I do…)

A quick survey of my friends indicates that several of them had one, which means that a doll marketed to boys sold just fine. Which is to say: the only thing you have to do to get boys to play with dolls is make sure that they feel that they have permission to do so.

My conclusion, at the end of my research, is that the action figure is in the eye of the beholder, whether the person naming it is a child, a parent, or a marketing professional. But there are so many ways to view the issue – let us know what you think in the comments!

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