Guys Toys and “Girls” Dolls — Gary Cross on Consumed Nostalgia

Chewbacca, Consumed Nostalgia

Star Wars was a boys’ peer-group fantasy, continually changing, as did the boys (mostly), who quickly entered and left the target age group. Unlike the westerns, whose stock characters and plots were shared by multiple generations of American males, Star Wars belonged primarily to the kids of that time.”—Gary Cross

As the Star Wars franchise ramps up for the new movie and what will surely be a new bonanza in action figures and merchandise, we turn to Gary Cross’s Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism. In the following excerpt from the book, Cross examines the history of action figures and their gendered nature:

At the beginning of the 1960s, novelty toys and dolls for both boys and girls were dominated by diverse action figures, led by G.I. Joe and the long but forever changing Barbie fashion dolls. Although Hasbro’s G.I. Joe appeared first in 1964 as a miniature of the real soldier that most American boys expected to grow up to become (in an era of general military conscription), by the mid­1970s the Joes had become fantasy figures that changed continu­ously (first in the 1970s to “Adventure Teams,” abandoning military themes during the unpopular Vietnam War, and then to miniature “Super Joes,” science-fiction action figures in 1976).

G.I. Joe’s transformation was followed by a generation of action figures, beginning with the miniatures and props of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy (1977–1983). Even more than the sci-fi play of the 1930s, Star Wars was a boys’ peer-group fantasy, continually changing, as did the boys (mostly), who quickly entered and left the target age group. Unlike the westerns, whose stock characters and plots were shared by multiple generations of American males, Star Wars belonged primarily to the kids of that time.

The action figure was not only a peer-driven kids’ obsession, but it emerged from the quintessential ephemerality of a movie series. Though seen repeatedly by millions of children, the Star Wars mov­ies were set in a particular time—a media moment in the fast capi­talism of modern entertainment (that could be repeated in rere­leases in theaters and on TV as well as on VCR/DVD copies), not a socioeconomic era. This was even truer of a new spate of TV action cartoons that, like Star Wars, spun off action figures and play sets: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and the Transformers appeared in 1983, followed by the Dino Riders and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1988. It is toys like these, taken from the media moments of a generation ago, that draw the Gen-Xers to today’s toy shows. Tomorrow’s shows will be different. Fathers and sons may strive for shared obsessions … but the narrow duration of the media moment of each fad limits cross-generational sharing.

The girl’s story after 1960 differed in many ways. In 1959, Ruth Handler of Mattel introduced a doll in Barbie that has dominated girls’ play worlds over the past half-century far more thoroughly than did G.I. Joe. Handler found that when she abandoned moth­ers’ memories of their own dolls and images of the ideal child, she could appeal directly to the modern girl’s fantasy of freedom and fun. Barbie liberated the girl’s play from maternal standards and introduced her to the wider world of peer consumerism.16 Bar­bie continually changed her wardrobe, furnishings, vehicles, and “friends,” resulting in a rich array of novelty for successive gen­erations of girls. All this created an endless demand for Mattel’s Barbie products, taking the doll line (as tentatively practiced in the Patsy dolls of the 1920s) to new heights of fast-capitalism sophisti­cation. Even when she faced competition from Jem/Jerrica, Bratz, and the American Girl collection, these doll lines too (eventually) imitated the Barbie model.

These toys and dolls continuously changed and thus marked time. Though many to an adult’s eyes seem similar, to the eight­year-old boy in 1990, the Turtles were cool and the He-Man of six or seven years earlier was dumb. Of course, the Lincoln logs and baby dolls of the early twentieth century survived for years. The Fort Apache play set, Louis Marx’s soldier and Indian set, was sold in Sears’s catalogs from 1953 to 1977. But these long-lasting play­things seldom inspire collectors. They don’t identify any particular individual or any particular point in time because they crossed the years unchanged. Modern nostalgia segments the past because the rapidly changing world of toys has separated six-year-olds from eight-year-olds repeatedly since the 1960s.

The increasingly speedy turnover of kids’ stuff, thanks to the emergence of fast capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century and the continued divisions between girls’ and boys’ play(things), has had a long-term effect. A generation or more after first appear­ing in American toy boxes, these playthings divided collectors of childhood memories and even made them disdainful of one another. Moreover, in recent years … the impulse has shifted from recollecting material memories of childhood in middle age to never abandoning that culture from childhood on. All this makes the worlds of both doll and toy collecting simi­lar, but, still, differences remain.

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