Below is a compiled response to a posting over at SocImages about Barbie and G.I.Joe. In it, gwen outlines an argument made by Attfield that Barbie and G.I.Joe imbues into these two product lines what society feels is proper about male and female roles. Female roles = dressing up and modeling fashion; being passive. Male roles = posable; being active.
Okay... the argument is a good outline, but what does Attfield say about all those StarWars and He-Man "action figures" that were manufactured in the early 1980s, at the same time as GIJoe? For those of you not familiar with theme, the StarWars and He-Man figures were as "posable" as Barbie - although some of the He-Man figures did have the ability to turn at the waist, or do "special action moves". The StarWars figures of the 1980s were the same scale as the GIJoe figures of the time, and the He-Man figures were larger.
I would argue that the He-Man toys were marketed primarily to boys, and would argue that the StarWars figures were similarly marketed primarily to boys (although I'm less certain on this point). If you take these two points as generally true, then GIJoe could actually be an anomaly: marketing itself as being able to be in "action" whereas all the other figures of the time (up until quite recently) were walking around with as much flexibility as a Legomen.
All I can say to the point of Barbie vs. GIJoe is that as a boy in the early-mid 1980s, I preferred GIJoe over Barbie, not because GIJoe was more "action-posable" but because "Barbie was for girls." (Also, GIJoes were not referred to as "dolls," as in "Barbie-dolls" or "Cabbage Patch dolls", etc.) I probably would have felt the same way about an "action-figure" Barbie, because I definitely didn't buy the Scarlett or The Baroness, because to my 8-year-old boy's mind, these action figures were "girly." (Yes, but we generally do grow up.)
Similarly, although I liked the StarWars movies, and had collections of many StarWars-related things (as many kids did back then), I had only two or three figures, and these were given to me by others, and weren't my choice for purchase. I thought of them as being inferior to the GIJoes, because they didn't have elbow and knee joints and couldn't have backpacks put on them (which GIJoe figures could do). I didn't like the He-Man figures for similar reasons, but also because they were too "comical" for my tastes (to me, the more human-proportioned GIJoe figures were more interesting), stood funny (like they were perpetually bow-legged), and were just too big (you couldn't fit three or four of them in your pocket, like you could with GIJoes).
You say that Attfield asserts that, “while doll lines aimed at boys include “bad” characters that serve as the enemies of the protagonists, those marketed to girls, such as Barbie, have yet to include “bad” characters. There’s no evil Barbie who tries to steal Ken away.”
Just out of curiosity, who were the nemeses of ActionMan? I’ve looked around and couldn’t find any… True, the 1980s GIJoe fought against Cobra, He-Man fought against Skeletor, the Thundercats againt MumRa, etc. But I can’t figure out who was ActionMan’s nemesis/es.
Also, as another person in the comments points out , there were some girls’-doll lines that did have antagonists. Even if these antagonisms were based on (what some of us might now consider) shallow motivations, they do provide “bad girls” as antagonists. Quite likely, though, this wasn’t part of the general trend in girls’ dolls, but I’m not familiar with it. Of course, the lack of a designated “enemy” doesn’t preclude the creation of one, and just because Mattel didn’t make any doll be the one to try and take Ken away from Barbie doesn’t mean that girls didn’t/don’t play with their dolls with this in mind.
One could indeed make the argument that boys’ toys – with their definite “antagonist” groups – limit the breadth of scenarios that can be told between figures; something underlying the reason why, when SnakeEyes switched sides from Cobra to GIJoe, it was AWESOME! I mean who would have even thought that a “bad guy” could even think of doing such a thing? “Bad guys are bad guys. They fight against the good guys. GIJoe are the good guys and don’t work with the bad guys.” See how limiting the storylines are when one forces the presence of always-antagonistic forces?