This past weekend, my friend Hilary Estell and I sat down and played with action figures…
When I was a little girl, action figures weren’t really a part of the toy scene. For girls, the closest we came were various sizes of fashion dolls. There were the large ones like Barbie and her gang. There were smaller ones, but these were much less common. And, big or small, the story inherent in their design was that a girl’s quest was how to look pretty.
Boys had it better. G.I. Joe might have really weird joints, but he also had a wide variety of cool accessories. If you weren’t into playing war, there was a line of slightly smaller, very muscular figures who were explorers and adventurers. I seem to recall they had names like Big Jim, Jeff, and Josh, but it’s been a long time and I’m not sure if these were the names we gave them.
If boys didn’t want to play with these larger figures, because they were too much like dolls, boys had options. Most prominent were those green “army men” figures or, sometimes, if you were lucky, Western figures of the same sort. These belonged to a world in which females did not exist. Later, about the point when I was starting to babysit, more detailed smaller figures began showing up, both for boys and for girls. The girls were more or less miniature Barbie types. The boy figures were the predecessors of today’s ubiquitous action figure.
On the whole, today’s action figures are predominantly male, sending the message that while girls might want to have fun, if their sort of fun is kicking butt and taking names, they’d better be prepared to do so in primarily male company. Oh… and while having enormous breasts and wearing costumes meant to show off lots of leg.
Back to me and Hilary. Some months ago, Hilary came across a Kickstarter campaign for a company that wanted to make a line of action figures for girls called I Am Elemental. She was immediately impressed and, despite the fact that she is a college student who works part-time to cover the bills, she decided to back them with her hard-earned barista bucks. Oh… Hilary has no children, nor any immediate plans for children. Despite the fact that we’re a couple decades apart in age, she hadn’t found all that much of a change in the sort of action toys available for girls and really wanted to see that change.
(The Kickstarter campaign can still be found on-line and it’s damn impressive. If I’d heard about it, I would have definitely done my part.)
The campaign earned its funding and now the first seven figures have been released. Unlike male superheroes, who usually get their powers from without (radioactive spider bite, science experiment gone wrong) or are born into them (god in modern dress, born on another planet) or are granted them by a third party (SHAZAM!), the I Am Elemental superheroes get their powers from within. The first line is Courage and includes Bravery, Energy, Honesty, Industry, Enthusiasm, Persistence, and Fear.
Yes. You read that right. Fear. And, no, Fear is not the token villain. As the very cool booklet that comes with the set states: “Fear is not the enemy. It is a compass, pointing you to the areas where you need to grow. S. Pavlina.”
Fear’s super power, by the way, is the ability to stop you in your tracks. Yeah… That’s incredibly true. Been there. Met that.
A second line, based around Wisdom, is planned. I find myself fascinated as I speculate about what qualities the designers will choose.
Before I go on, I’ve got to comment on how fantastically these figures are constructed. They have numerous flexible joints but, unlike the fancy ball-jointed dolls I’ve seen, where the joints are meant to be concealed by clothing, the joints are not in the least grotesque.
The figures stand easily, encouraging lots of elaborate poses. There’s none of that “hop, hop, hop” we were restricted to by Barbie and friends. Now that I think about it, that seems a lot like Chinese foot-binding. Honestly has wings, but they snap off easily, so if Industry needs to fly, well, she can…
Although the figures are definitely female – and feminine – there are none of the enormous breasts and overt sexuality found in so many action figures depicting female characters. They have distinct hairstyles, but their facial expressions are neutral. I really liked this because, even as a kid I found the omnipresent smile on so many girl dolls frustrated my ability to imagine a good story around them. As I’ve said in other contexts, the heart of a story is conflict. It’s really hard to imagine conflict with someone who never stops smiling…
Speaking of story, another really cool thing about these figures is that they do not come with an elaborate pre-designed backstory. They invite the creation of stories. As Hilary and I moved the seven figures around on the table, I found myself wondering what would happen if Fear and Honesty teamed up. Would Persistence and Industry be natural allies, or would they bicker?
As we examined the I Am Elemental action figures, I asked Hilary what sort of stories she likes to read. I’m going to save her answer for next week, because her answer got me thinking about a bunch of things… One thing I’m sure of, though, the ladies behind I Am Elemental absolutely understand what girls want!