Cultural Studies and Green Plastic Army Men

When I was a kid, you could buy a bag of plastic army men in any toy store for less than two bucks. In each bag there were 15 to 20 olive drab, well-armed infantry men. There was the guy lobbing a hand grenade, the guy with the bazooka, the walkie-talkie guy, and the guy with a Thompson sub machine gun casually held in one arm, while with his other he was motioning for his buddies to “Attack!” And if you looked closely, you could even see his rolled-up sleeves, ammo belts and muscle-rippling physique.

The toy soldiers of my boyhood were tiny movie stills, each a dynamic pose representing the grunting, sweating male persona at war. Army men from earlier times—say from the Victorian or Edwardian eras—were wooden drones in shakos, uniformly at attention or marching in lockstep on parade ground. It is tempting to say that this change in toy fashion came about because of TV shows like Combat, or movies like The Longest Day with John Wayne. It’s tempting to argue that after the advent of motion pictures and TV, toy soldiers could no longer be sold as identical automatons lined up for show or slaughter.

Instead, they had to be Jim Brown getting shot as he ran toward the half track in The Dirty Dozen, or Steve McQueen trying to jump the fence into Switzerland on a stolen Nazi motorcycle. Individualized motion, bravado, and aggression had become valorized in film and on TV, and even in $1.99 bags of army men. The cultural criticism practically writes itself. You might even drag in something about how Vietnam was a television war, and how the media reified the innate violent individualism of American culture.

So with only a bag of army men and a graduate education in cultural or media studies, you could do a whole dissertation on this idea, which might be fun even if it were complete nonsense. In the end, the altered poses of army men in the second half of the 20th Century had more to do with the inherent properties of plastic than patriarchy, media, or male aggression. Army men became “action figures” because plastic injection technology allowed it. Where 19th century toy makers had to hand-paint details (which upped their labor costs), modern manufacturers could mass produce cheap, highly detailed figurines in dozens of pre-molded poses.

For those of us in the humanities, it’s worth remembering that a reductive answer is not always wrong for being reductive. As Freud would no doubt agree, it’s often intriguing and diverting to spot phallic symbols, but we should try to remember that a gun barrel’s shape ultimately has more to do with ballistic science than reproductive science.


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