My wife and I were recently visiting with my family, and in the course of conversation the respective childhoods of my little brother and I came up. Mom reminisced how my little brother enjoyed playing dress-up and role-playing, while I liked playing with toy trucks and action figures (anecdotal evidence of how gender is a fluid social construct and not innately biological: my little brother grew up to develop the more classically masculine traits despite enjoying stereotypically feminine childhood play). She recounted how I would get upset if somebody called my G.I. Joes, Ninja Turtles, and Transformers “dolls.” I reminded her that there is indeed a difference.
While we didn’t get into it at the time, there really is a difference between action figures and dolls. Action figures are conceptualized to approximate physical conflict. Their design is typically fantastical in nature, with an exaggerated militaristic aesthetic akin to science-fiction, fantasy, and superhero media. Dolls usually approximate social and cultural interactions, with a more realistic design drawing inspiration from real-world communities and domestic norms. If we accept the fact that toys are narrative media much like books or films (and I submit that they are, as the characters depicted usually have their own unique backstories and the toys themselves are used to create and/or recreate narratives), then action figures tend to tell stories that deal more with warfare, crime, or martial competition while dolls tell stories of household dynamics, the pursuit of an education and career, and social communities.
Of course, this is only an examination of the context in which the toys are designed and marketed; it is no way intended to be a support of the archaic and silly idea that action figures are for boys and dolls are for girls. Gender doesn’t enter the equation, nor should it, as children should be allowed and encouraged to pursue the narratives which appeal to them most, and thus the implements used to create and tell them. It’s only sensible that a girl with aspirations to join the military would be more attracted to G.I. Joe and a boy with an interest in fashion design would want to play with Barbie.
Beyond the artificial constraints of gender, however, toys are interactive narrative media and thus it is ultimately up to the person playing with them to determine the stories they tell. If a girl is given a Bratz doll and she decides that the fashion-forward socialite persona of the character is just a front for their role as a highly-trained assassin employed by an off-the-books blacks ops government agency, that’s perfectly acceptable–just as there’s no problem with a boy deciding that Batman and Captain America have fallen in love, gotten married, and adopted Diego from Dora the Explorer as their son. Toys are removed from any pre-existing canon and exist in their own alternate universe the moment they are removed from their package. Thus every story told through them is valid.
So while there may be a conceptual difference between action figures and dolls, that doesn’t mean that they should be seen as a sort of “separate but equal” accommodation, given that their use is defined exclusively by the child playing with them. Thus, such distinction should only matter to enthusiasts, collectors, and certain academics, not to parents and children, except to match a child with their preferred interactive content. After all, when there exists action figures that are designed primarily for display in the toy aisle at big box retailers (such as the Star Wars Black Series and Marvel Legends 6-inch line) and toy collecting continues to be a hobby indulged by adults, even the traditional boundaries of age appropriateness start to break down. This is fine by me, given that I’ve been stuck in an existential crisis of wanting to balance the freedom of adulthood with rejecting the responsibilities of my current age and recapture the joy and wonder of my childhood for the past several years and have bought toys of various kinds, from a big bin of LEGOs to a Hot Toys Boba Fett figure (it’s a premium collectible for adults, thus totally justifying the price tag).
Toys are wonderful things that unlock a child’s imaginative potential and allow for them to explore concepts and experiences beyond their current capabilities. While it’s important to understand how toys are designed in order to relate to their intended audience better, what really matters is whether or not a child is having fun with them. So while there may be a difference between action figures and dolls, that doesn’t mean that they should be restrained by artificial social barriers. Just let kids have fun.