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By John Denning
September 30, 2006
President Bush's Action Figure
Political action figures have become a recurring phenomenon in modern life. As we continue to grow as a post-literate society centered on the moving picture, icons take on greater influence as our attention spans demand more information packed into shorter sequences. Toys like action figures can act as idols, reinforcing political positions with how they are presented, the same way political cartoons use caricatures and metaphor to make a point. One political cartoon of Roosevelt in 1902 is even said to be the inspiration for the famous teddy bear. Caricatures appeared in toys as far back as 1965 with The Spoofing Caricatures by Marx Toys, which included such colorful characters as Gen. Eric von Strudel and Lieut. Sake-Sake. In hindsight, these figures appear as crude stereotypes, but that doesn't stop the spontaneous creation of toys reflecting immediate political climates.
During Vietnam, G.I. Joe shifted its focus away from soldiers due to the unpopular nature of the war. These days, toys and pop culture are drawn into the propaganda. "Ayatollah Assahola" t-shirts are a famous 80's fad, summing up a conditioned public sentiment in the most juvenile way possible. Gorbachev boxing dolls were sold side-by-side with boxing nuns. The Saddam Hussein "Beast of Baghdad 'You Do' Voo Doo Doll" that encouraged you to "stick it to him" has been replaced by the "Bin Laden Stress Doll" that comes complete with bleeding bullet wounds. Meanwhile, George W. Bush gets his own 12-inch figure and flight suit based on the famous advertisement the same way McFarlane Spawn figures are based on different covers of the Spawn comic.
The earlier political toys served as kitsch, novelty items that fell under one of the lesser used definitions for toys, "something that serves for or as if for diversion, rather than for serious practical use." By making toys of our political boogiemen, we bring the complexity of world politics into the black-and-white realm of a child's mentality. Saddam Hussein is the bad guy pure and simple, a mindset we reinforce over and over every time we stick a needle in his eye. Today we have even more options for affirming our political alliances while venting our hostility towards political rivals. Chew toys featuring the likenesses of Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, and Michael Moore are available from politicalpettoys.com, one each for pets of every political persuasion.
But as suggested at the beginning of this article, political toys don't just demonize our enemies, they also idolize our heroes. In 2000, Hasbro made a John F. Kennedy figure based on his military service in the South Pacific and the stories of his courage and leadership in the ramming of his PT-109. John F. Kennedy is the largest icon in American politics alongside George Washington and Uncle Sam, both of whom also have action figures. By placing Kennedy in military garb (just as was done with George Washington), Hasbro is making a marketing decision, since there is a large collector base for historically accurate military figures. Meanwhile, their legend as military heroes is firmly entrenched into a collector's mind.
This connection is not lost on other military figures, as the George W. Bush action figure with flight suit clearly promotes an image of a military commander despite his never having served in active combat duty. This image is further promoted by several figures made by herobuilders.com such as George "make no mistake about it" Bush in Kevlar vest and anti-terrorist squad gear, who can be purchased with an Osama doll to fight. Once again, a large-scale conflict is boiled down to a simplified image of man-to-man combat. If this isn't a direct enough example of turning political figures into heroic icons, there is always herobuilder's superhero president action figure.
This isn't an article attempting to advocate one political position or another, but simply to call attention to the part toys have begun to play in politics and to hope that the reader will consider the effects something as innocuous as a toy can have. We look back as early as twenty years ago and see the Ayatollah merchandise as laughable because while at the time he was made into America's greatest enemy, now he is a mere footnote in history and the t-shirts were a joke that got old. For the most part, political action figures are more humorous than anything, but they do play a part in our lives, whether we keep the figure on our desk as a buddy, or dangle him from a string noose for catharsis. One hopes that adults are aware enough to continually reevaluate their political allegiances based upon personal ethics and not a sense of obligation to an individual or party, but what about the children who play with these political toys?
It doesn't happen everywhere, but sometimes American children are given Osama and Bush dolls to play with, instilling them with a sense of "Us vs. Them" mentality towards the Middle East at an early age. This can encourage an ethnic or racial hatred because they are too young to understand the difference between radical religious sects and the rest of Islam. Meanwhile, according to CBS News, back in December 2002, toys featuring Osama bin Laden complete with jeep and bodyguards, were the most popular toy in Karachi during Ramadan, just as Tickle Me Elmo was in America during Christmas in 1996. Once again you have children being raised to hate each other and embrace their parents' political beliefs long before they understand the consequence.
If we want to reach peace with other nations, there's a lot more work to be done than simply monitoring what toys we give our children. It's never too early to start, however, and if you're ever considering giving your child a political toy, give him or her a G.I. Joe instead. Those characters fight for justice and freedom in a fictional setting, allowing their conflicts to remain abstract while still promoting moral and ethical behavior in its own right. After that, we might have some hope that our kids will consider the right thing to do rather than the popular opinion of the time.