Genealogical Criticism | The Action Figure: The role of gender in toy development

A battle is raging among toys and it is not between little green soldiers. It is between toy companies, consumers, and how gender stereotyping is playing a role in shaping how children develop through play. Walk into any modern toy store and a clear divide is apparent. On one side you will find a sea of pink with princess dresses and baby dolls floating through it while on the other you will encounter the erupting sounds of toy trucks and Nerf guns. This divide, though, didn’t happen overnight. For centuries children have been given gender specific toys to prepare them for their adult-life roles. Young girls were given dolls to encourage domestication and motherhood while construction sets and tools encouraged a trade for boys. As designers we need to ask ourselves what impact gender specific toys have on children and how that will influence future toy development.

Before we look at the toy we have to consider the society that created it. Some of the earliest gender-oriented toys date as far back as ancient Greece. Even then, children were being groomed for what societies expectations were for them. Plato wrote, “He who is good at anything as a man must practice that thing from early childhood, in play as well as in earnest.”1 The idea of play serving as a function to what will precede it was the cultural standard. This process was also cyclical. Children would imitate their parents. Daughters would help with household chores because that is what their mother did and boys would play fight because that was their father’s role.2

Some might argue that children inherently gravitate towards gender-specific toys; that, somehow, we are hardwired to play a certain way. A study done by psychologist Kim Wallen showed that rhesus monkeys would favor gender-specific toys early in life before having been socialized. Another study showed correlations between 3-and 4-month old boys testosterone levels and the amount of time they spent looking at male-typical toys.3 Regardless of what makes us want to play with a toy society has already predetermined what toy we will choose. These toys are made to resemble our future responsibilities.

Tombs of young girls contained dolls made from wood, bone, ebony, ivory and terracotta. Miniature carts resembling chariots have been found in boy’s tombs. Girls were also expected to give up their dolls the night before their marriage dedicating them to various goddesses such as Artemis and Aphrodite. Boys were expected to hand over their toys once they reached puberty as a sign of entering adulthood4. A common element that is found in girl toys as opposed to boys is hair. A wooden paddle doll dating around 1750BC features mud beads strung from its head.5 To this day little girls will spend an exorbitant amount of time brushing and styling their dolls hair.

This gender-oriented play wasn’t just an ancient practice; it has been evident through time, as recently as the development of the action figure, G.I. Joe. The anti-doll. Stanley Weston created this toy in 1964 and promptly took it to Hassenfeld Brothers (later renamed Hasbro).6 Weston believed that boys secretly played with dolls and therefore should have their own. His love for toy soldiers translated into the military themed toy we have today. The development of G.I. Joe was sparked by the popularity of Mattel’s Barbie. Barbie was the first teenage doll. The creator, Ruth Handler , modeled her after a German tabloid comic strip character named Lili, who, in doll form was sold to men in bars as male pets.7

These two toys highlighted the gender differences that were already apparent in society at the time. In 1964 there was a tension building between America and North Vietnam that would escalate into the Vietnam War.8 In similar fashion to young Greek boys witnessing their fathers go into battle so were young American boys at the time. This only fueled the acceptance of G.I. Joe.

Weston recruited a military friend to ensure the accuracy of the accessories accompanying G.I. Joe such as the ten-inch bazooka and machine guns.9 He was called the “poseable action figure for boys,” because unlike other dolls he was built with 21 patented movable parts allowing him to grip his weaponry for more life-like war-play.10 This new term “action figure” stuck, it quickly became taboo to refer to G.I. Joe as a doll. The new nomenclature solidified the difference between girl and boy toys. It was the theoretical line in the sand.

The exaggerated physiques of both Barbie and G.I. Joe also highlighted these differences. Society’s standard for boys is to be strong, athletic, tough and for girls to be pretty, kept and happy. When G.I. Joe was first released there were four versions representing all the branches of the military. Each one shared the same All-American masculine characteristics such as a strong jawline, large torso and a strategically placed scar on his right cheek. This scar allowed Hasbro to copyright the toy, otherwise the human figure itself cannot be copyrighted.11 Barbie on the other hand is thin and curvy with body dimensions that are realistically impossible. A human would need a neck twice as long and six inches smaller as well as a waist too small to hold all the necessary organs.12

Unlike the ancient Greek toys that were handcrafted out of bones and terracotta Barbie and GI Joe were made out of plastic. The first plastic doll was introduced after World War II and came from East Germany. Plastic allowed for these toys to be more durable while being mass-produced.13

You might consider these gender specific toys harmless and acceptable because that is how it has always been but with the development of the action figure and the ability to mass-produce product we need to ask ourselves if we are perpetuating these stereotypes. Are we boxing children in to a predetermined fate, homemaker or economic provider? What do toys really offer children? What is their purpose? If it is to entertain while increasing cognitive skills we might be doing children a disservice. A 2005 study done by Blakemore and Centers found that neutral and masculine toys encouraged better spatial, scientific and intellectual skills, than feminine toys.14 Also, by discouraging boys from playing with toys such as kitchen sets are they less likely  to show interest in performing a domestic task when they are older thus perpetuating gender roles?

G.I. Joe might be a great role model when it comes to being the all-American hero but when the majority of the action figures accessories are weapons such as bazookas and rifles the potential for encouraging aggression exists. A new movement for gender-neutral toys is growing and as designers, finding the balance of what might be too deeply engrained to change and what will enhance a child’s learning experience will be key. Even G.I. Joe had a change of heart in the 197o’s when war was being protested. He became less of a soldier and more of an adventurer.15 Children are heavily influenced by what is around them, especially at a young age. Boys will most likely still want to play rough and reach for the toy soldier before the baby doll but we need to be conscious of these differences and ensure we are offering toys that encourage learning and using the imagination while being careful not to silo them into an archaic expectation set by society.


1 Alison Schmauch, 2004, “Topic: The Role of Children’s Games.”

2 Jaime Marie Layne, “The Enculturative Function.”

3 Natalie Wolchover, “Gender and Toys.”

4 Jaime Marie Layne, “The Enculturative Function.”

5 “Painted wooden paddle doll.”

6 Tom Engelhardt. “The Secret History of G.I. Joe.”

7 Tom Engelhardt. “The Secret History of G.I. Joe.”

8 “Plastic Doll.”

9 Tom Engelhardt. “The Secret History of G.I. Joe.”

10 Tom Engelhardt. “The Secret History of G.I. Joe.”

11 Joey Paur. “Week of Coolest Toys Ever.”

12 Nina Golgowski. “Bones so frail

13 “Milestones: 1961-1968.”

14 Michaela Jayne. “How Toys Impact.”

15 Tom Engelhardt. “The Secret History of G.I. Joe.”


Alison Schmauch. 2004. “Topic: The Role of Children’s Games in Ancient Greece.” Hood Museum of Art Dartmouth College.

Jaime Marie Layne. “The Enculturative Function of Toys and Games in Ancient Greece and Rome.” (Masters thesis, 2008)

Natalie Wolchover, “Gender and Toys: Monkey Study Suggests Hormonal Basis For Children’s Toy Preferences.” Huffington Post. August 24, 2012. Accessed February 13th, 2014.

Tom Engelhardt. “The Secret History of G.I. Joe, Barbie, Joe, Darth Vadar and making war in children’s culture.” The Nation. August 13, 2013. Accessed February 17th, 2014.

U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. “Milestones: 1961-1968.” Accessed on February 17th, 2014.

Joey Paur. “Week of Coolest Toys Ever: Original 1964 G.I. Joe Action Figures.” 2011. Accessed on February 18th, 2014.

Nina Golgowski. “Bones so frail it would be impossible to walk and room for only half a liver: Shocking research reveals what life would be like if a REAL woman had a Barbie’s body.” MailOnline. April 13, 2013. Accessed on February 18th, 2013.

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