Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Top 10 Female Action Figures of the 80s

I felt a bit like an outsider, because my peers certainly didn't share my opinions, but as a kid, I loved the female action figures. They were rare, they were something different, and most importantly, they were usually extremely pretty. I guess I was a victim of... biology.

Looking back at these toys now, as an adult toy collector, I realize three things: The female action figures were severely  under-represented, to the point where it's actually offensive. Secondly, the toy makers struggled to translate the characters' beauty from cartoons and movies. And lastly, I realize that I still absolutely love these action figures. So much that I want to share a list of the ten best female action figures of the 80s. Skip a lot of paragraphs for the list, or simply read on! Either way, click in to read more, and leave a comment if you feel like it. Agree, disagree, how would your list look like?

Kids today have it all too easy. They see a fairly respectable amount of female characters being turned into good action figures. And by good, I mean that the character itself is well written or otherwise described, or that the action figure is of a certain quality.

There are several reasons for this, the first and foremost is that action figures no longer are bought exclusively by kids. Their parents - the generation that grew up with all the great action figures - will have a slightly different approach to buying toys for their kids than the parents of the 80s. The adult collectors are also more visible and vocal, all though a solid minority when it comes to actual sales. Another reason is the attention given to female characters in various franchises. Sure, there's still a focus audience for the various franchises and toy lines, but it's less obvious than it used to be. In franchises obviously intended for boys, you still have mostly male characters, and in franchises that clearly are meant for girls - well, you don't see too many male characters. Contemporary franchises like Lego Ninjago or Monster High are good examples of this. You'll see the same in re-imagined 80s lines like G.I. Joe or My Little Pony.

In the more universal franchises, female and male characters are usually treated equal. Well, more equal than what I can remember from my childhood. A good example is the recent Young Justice cartoon, which has a very diverse gallery of characters. The Harry Potter series also has a couple of good - heroic as well as villainous female characters. All these different universes have had decent action figures, if you use the term in the broadest sense. I would personally call both the Monster High dolls and the Lego Minifigures action figures, but I guess not everyone would agree.

The recent superhero toy lines have had a solid amount of women, and some of them aren't even ridiculously sexualized! What comes to mind, among many different toy lines, are the DC Direct and Marvel Legends figures. They tend to either have an extreme amount of articulation and a rich assortment of accessories, or they'll have a kick ass attention to detail through fantastic sculpt and paint.

In essence, kids today (or their parents) can easily get good female action figures.  We weren't that lucky.
First of all, female representatives within the main cast of cartoons and movies back in the 80s was pathetic (like the sole female character in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Transformers the Movie).  And the few we had didn't necessarily translate into good action figures (like almost all women from the vintage Star Wars and G.I. Joe line). But there were some standout examples of good female action figures during the 80s, more than enough for me to compile a list. I have focused exclusively on heroic characters, because I'm saving the villains for a slightly different list. This of course excludes strong candidates like Evil Lyn from Masters of the Universe and The Baroness and Zartana from G.I. Joe.

Again, like most of my lists, this is highly subjective and personal But I still think many will agree with at least a few of the entries. I try to look beyond the characterization and background history of these women, and focus on the action figure alone, in which design, accessories, sculpt, packaging, articulation are important elements. But it's no secret that a strong character will make an otherwise mediocre action figure a lot more attractive.

 10 - Lady Jaye - G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (Hasbro, 1985)

My personal favorite toy line actually saw quite a few female characters. Purposefully spread out over the yearly line-up of figures, from 1982 up until 1993, we were treated to seven female action figures. Lady Jaye was part of the incredibly strong 1985 line-up. Not only did this year see some of the greatest vehicles in toy history (Mauler, USS Flagg), it also included some of the best figures the line would produce: Snow Serpent, Crimson Guard, Eel, Dusty and Snake Eyes.

I like Lady Jaye mainly for two reasons. First of all - and I know this is controversial - I like her face sculpt. Keep in mind that the first two heroic  female action figures in this toy line were awful. The faces of Scarlett and Cover Girl barely resemble humans, let alone the beautiful women they were in the comics and cartoon. 

Lady Jaye, on the other hand, actually looks feminine. A slender face with subtle make up. Her hair is made of that rubbery plastic, and I remember being fascinated by almost any figure that had different types of plastic. The second reason I like Lady Jaye is that she's such a cool character. She can easily hold her own against the enemies. She's absolutely no nonsense, and certainly no damsel in distress, and I feel that the action figure reflects this. Just look at her, she's not dressed in purple or orange. She's tactical green! She also came with an impressive spear gun, backpack and camera (to document her victories in the battlefield). The sculpt has features that strengthen her apparent abilities, like the revolver and knife strapped to her legs. All in all, this is a solid military action figure, that just happened to also be a woman. I appreciate that.

9 - Corporal Pilot Chase - Captain Power (Mattel, 1987)

Admittedly, I know little about the Captain Power cartoon, and I only have a couple of the figures, one of them being Corporal Pilot Chase. When compared to a contemporary line like G.I. Joe, Mattel's attempt at making 3 3/4 inch toys was underwhelming. The concept is too far out there, the characters lacked personality and solid background stories, and the toys were just not at all up to the standards we'd grown accustomed to from Hasbro. 

Captain Power was a 1987 phenomenon, yet the figures had half a dozen less points of articulation than a 1983 G.I. Joe. The plastic and construction was of lesser quality, making the toys wear down or break faster than you'd expect from Mattel's fierce competition. The accessories were flimsy and few. 

All this aside, as an action figure isolated from its own and other franchises, Corporal Pilot Chase isn't a bad toy. What really impresses me, and the reason I actually own a carded sample, is the gorgeous portrait on the card. There's something about that intense, yet relaxed stare of Cpl. Pilot Chase. She's pretty, yet determined. Stylized, but just realistic enough. The figure has that almost metalized body suit, a cool headset, and the overall look and feel to the figure is just neat. Quasi-futuristic, borderline silly.. Sure. But that could be said about almost every action figure toy line.

8 - She-Ra, Princess of Power (Mattel, 1985)

Ideally, She-Ra should be higher, because she's a tremendous character from one of the best cartoons of the 80s. The reason I have her as low as #8 is because the toy line was intended for girls, and it is debatable whether they are action figures or dolls. It should be obvious what I classify her as, since she's on my list, but within the toy line, She-Ra wasn't unique or anything special. They were all presented in their pink and pearl white glory, with rooted hair and hairbrushes for accessories. The toys were simply a bit too stereotypically girly for my taste, almost in contrast to the occasionally universally cool cartoon. Keep in mind, I loved the girls in the various toy lines, but I was still a boy. I didn't love toys for girls. 

That being said, She-Ra has many qualities that I really appreciate in an action figure. The different kinds of materials blend well together. Rooted hair, cloth details on her outfit, and of course the solid plastic on the body. She has a cute face, and a well composed outfit. The accessories are a bit weird, like the face mask and the axe/comb. Luckily she also came with a great sword - the Sword of Protection, which of course granted her the power to transform from Adora to She-Ra.

7 - April O'Neil - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Playmates, 1990)

I didn't mind TMNT, but I never collected it. What comes to my mind when I think about this toy line, is the overall sillyness and crazy character designs. If you  ever come across a collection of vintage TMNT, I advise you to wonder at the wacky selection of weird warriors. In fact, the four protagonists are by far the most "realistic" characters in the toy line - and that's saying a lot, as they are quite literally heroes in a half shell. Well, the most realistic of them all is actually the token heroic female character, April O'Neil. 

I like this toy for mostly the same reasons I like Lady Jaye of the G.I. Joe team. She's neutral looking, dressed for action, not necessarily for looking good (like so many other entries to this list). The articulation is poor, and the pre-posed stance make it even worse. But there is something iconic about April O'Neil. It must be the yellow jumpsuit. 

6 - Poncho Leia - Return of the Jedi (Kenner, 1984)

I believe it's important to expose kids to strong female characters as early as possible. We should learn that girls aren't fragile, pink creatures that constantly need our help, like the stereotypical damsel in distress. It's fun to sometimes pretend they are. But in more ways than I like to admit, they are tougher than guys. 

The first time Han Solo and Luke Skywalker meet Princess Leia, she's exactly that. She looks fragile, vulnerable, clad in innocent white. She's being held captive, and is most certainly in distress. She then continues to take mock the guys that rescued her, take the lead for their escape, and greatly participate in the following destruction of the  Death Star. Strong, female character. Already I'm sold.

Isolated from the character, Poncho Leia, as it's called by collectors, is still a truly great action figure. It has few, but incredibly effective accessories in the hat, blaster, and camouflaged poncho. What it lacks in articulation, the figure more than makes up for it with a amazingly cute face sculpt. Poncho Leia also had nice card art, featuring an actual image of Carrie Fisher in costume from Return of the Jedi.

5 - Teela - Masters of the Universe (Mattel, 1982)

Teela is more than just a cute girl in a white one piece bathing suit, and far more versatile than a just the token female who needed to be saved by He-Man. Of course, in the cartoon, she had this role in the cartoon on occasion, but so did Man-At-Arms, Battle Cat, and several other capable Masters. And just as often, Teela wound up saving He-Man, or at the very least Prince Adam.  She could kick ass, and even more importantly, she had opinions. 

But this is on topic of the action figure, which is actually kind of cool. She has a doll-like face, and looks very young. But I would have no problem with her being a teenager. Are we certain when girls are fit to do battle on the planet Eternia? Because it's clear she's going in to battle. Not only does she sport protective wrist bracers, she also came with a snake armor and a battle staff. The snake headpiece actually an impressive and original piece of accessory, making Teela look far more like a sorceress (like her mother?), than a simple soldier. The equipment suddenly makes the character a lot more interesting. What is Teela really capable of? What are her powers? She was rarely seen with this equipment in the cartoon, which definitely makes me prefer the toy version over the cartoon one.

4 - Cheetara - Thundercats (Ljn, 1985)

There's the aspect of biology here, I won't deny it. I was strangely attracted to Cheetara as a kid. Show me a boy that wasn't. But there's no reason for me to point out the obvious. What isn't obvious is that Cheetara is a great action figure. Sure, for its time, it wasn't a masterpiece when it came to articulation. But there's a certain aesthetic quality with the Cheetara action figure that seems to be completely overshadowed by the idea of a sexy cat girl in spandex. 

First of all, let me lead your eyes to the color combination. This wasn't anything new, in fact the entire line up of Thundercats - as well as several other toy lines at that time featured characters with very specific color palettes. But the yellow, red and orange just works for Cheetara. The colors are not obtrusive, like we saw on a couple of the MOTU characters, but neatly - and fairly logically placed on her outfit.  The black spots and logo making a subtle, yet significant contrast. And it's interesting to see that Cheetara was so proud of her black markings that she chose to expose her chest and right arm to the world. I really like this detail.

Another feature of Cheetara, that we also saw on several other female action figures, was that she greatly differs from the male characters. Both in size and in body shape. That may not come as a surprise, but the difference between - let's say Panthro (left), and Cheetara is far greater than between Duke and Scarlett of the G.I. Joe toy line. Yet, and this is important, both Pantro and Cheetara both feel like they belong in the same universe, and the same toy line. That's good toy making.

Cheetara also came with a pointless action feature, forcing her arms to be in a static pose - keeping her safely outside the top 3.

3 - Serena - Dino Riders (Tyco, 1989)

First of all, Tyco's Dino Riders is a brutally underrated toy line. Secondly, and more relevant to this top 10 list: accessories can make an otherwise ordinary action figure stand out among the crowd. We saw this over and over with the G.I. Joe line, where the accessories were numerous and creative. Just skim through the top 100 list for a few examples. 

But where can the line be drawn for what we can count as an accessory? I think it's possible, in certain contexts, to count the vehicle as an accessory. Again with the G.I Joe line, Zartan, Serpentor, Zanzibar, Destro, Sgt. Slaughter all came with small vehicles that easily could be counted as accessories. But is there a size limit to this? I mean, the G.I. Joe figure Payload may be cool on his own (enough to land him a spot within my top 5), but if we also count the massive Defiant Space Shuttle as an accessory, then Payload suddenly is the greatest action figure ever made. This theory is debatable, specially as the characters in the G.I. Joe line already were strong enough to be sold separately. But in a toy line where the characters are bland and rather anonymous by default, maybe you could count their vehicles as part of the whole that makes the action figure? 

For the sake of this list, I'll count Dino Riders' Serena as the action figure, and her vehicle as the accessories. Because if the Defiant was massive, then Dino Riders' Brontosaurus was monumental! 

Part of the second series and oddly enough the least realisticof the Dino Riders dinosaurs, the Brontosaurus is one of the biggest toys/playsets ever released. Serena alone is nothing special, all though if you've handled the Dino Riders toys, you know she's a sturdy, albeit tiny piece of plastic. But along with her "accessory", the mighty Brontosaurus, Serena is easily one of the best female action figures ever made.

2 - Sorceress - Masters of the Universe (Mattel, 1987)

It's extremely important to have good female characters, even in a toy line mainly aimed towards boys. Now, Masters of the Universe was obviously a lot more popular among girls than many other toy lines - which was the reason Mattel started making She-Ra. But even in toy lines that was exclusively bought and collected by boys, there was room for the women. And that's a good thing, not necessarily for diversity, but for the sake of showing kids at an early age that women and men can contribute to the same cause. The sad thing is that in many cases, in toy lines strictly meant for one gender, the token woman or man is made into a stereotype. 

This was not the case with The Sorceress, or any of the other female characters in the Masters of the Universe toy line. We saw Teela being tougher than most of the heroic warriors, and Evil Lyn certainly being smarter and more evil than 90% of Skeletors minions. The Sorceress may be fragile and tender in many ways, but that was a big part of the character. In other ways, she was extremely powerful. Was she not the Guardian of the Secrets of Castle Grayskull?

I notice something interesting: Most of the figures on this list have "girly" colors, in white, red, light blue. But none of them are pink. The Sorceress is probably the one with the most stereotypical girly color palette. And that's one of the things I really like about her. The colors are just gorgeous, and along with the feather design and bird cap, the Sorceress comes off as delicate and beautiful. Sorceress came with a staff, and wings that could pop out, to give her the iconic pose. As a member of the amazing 1987 line-up of the Masters of the Universe toy line, The Sorceress is my definition of "pretty", and in every way a memorable action figure. It says a lot when Mattycollector just couldn't satisfy fans expectations when they made The Sorceress into a Classics figure, because the original was damn near flawless.

1 - Jinx - G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (Hasbro, 1987)

Jinx made her way into the top 20 of G.I. Joe figures for a reason, as she's by far the best female action figure in the line. What I wrote then still stands: There's something fragile and cute about Jinx, yet dangerous and deadly. Just like it should be. She has painted red nails, and tiny shoes. Yet she carries two swords and a spear.
A favorite from my childhood, not just for the dragon emblem highlighting that she has boobs, but because it's a damn good action figure! Lots of weapons, a backpack that can store the swords, great details, striking red color to make her stand out among the others, and of course that amazing quality we were used to with the G.I. Joe toy line. Easily my favorite female action figure from the 80s, because this one - more so than all the others - didn't make a huge issue over the fact that it was a woman, but highlighted it in the best way possible. 

Agree, disagree, additions to the list? Leave a comment below!


GIJigsaw said...

Awesome list. Just discovered your blog. Loving it. Plenty of reading material for me to catch up.

I feel the same about the female action figures. I started a small project a few years ago to catalog and build an online encyclopedia of all female action figures. It is not a small project. Anyway it is at www.curvesnguns.com.

Also have been posting dioramas on my blog www.gijigsaw,blogspot.com.

Anyway - back to reading Toys and Bacon. I like how the Castle Greyskull review got placed right into the club sandwich article. Well played.

Jon said...

Hey jigsaw. Thanks for feedback. I will check out your work.

eclectic action figures said...

Thank you for this great list. Good fun. I have purchased Corporal Pilot because of it. As a kid in the 80's i had a few female figs. Sure there was not a lot of choice. The Poncho Leia was defo one of the best, but my fav was the Bespin one. Teela was for me awesome, i still have it!! i did not have any female Joes except for Zaranna. But the best female action figure of the 80's for me will always be Wonder Woman from the Super Powers line. I surely did play with her (also still have it!). So there those would me my choices. Great work!

Jon said...

Thanks for comment. The super powers line had some great figures. Bespin Leia and Zarana would definetely be good choices.

madhu said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

I'm a boy, and I loved girls' toys. Gender marketing is nonsense.

Lacy L. Bundy said...

This list is great, I have contacted most of the toys on the list, and evoke memories of my youth.