The day after Aron Eisenberg died, I found myself looking at his action figure. Well, his character’s action figure, to be precise.
After losing to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open a couple of years ago, tennis star Serena Williams said, “As much as I would like to be a robot, I am not. I try to. But, you know, I do the best that I can.”
The implication is that if Williams were a robot, she would be a perfect, match-winning machine. A consequence of being human is our inherent fallibility. How many Western narratives are built on this very premise of robotic perfection and efficiency? The Terminator can, well, “terminate” with such precision because the T-800 is a cyborg from the future. Marvel’s Ultron is a superpowered threat because of the cutting-edge technology that goes into creating the villain. Ava’s advanced programming in Ex Machina makes us recognize that, of course, the A.I.’s cunning can outwit a human. And let’s not even talk about the menacing efficiency of the security robots in Chopping Mall! Point is: if we’re looking for reference material to support the thesis that “technology is scary,” there’s plenty at our fingertips.
I am about to type a sentence I have never before been able to type. I am non-binary. I am non-binary, and my fandom provided me with so much of what I needed to experiment with my gender and arrive at that conclusion. So I’m writing this article as a way to not only explain the link between geek cosplay and culture and gender non-conformity, but also as a way of reaching out with my story, in hopes others might identify, even in some small way.
Okay, this needs a little context. When I was a kid, I had no idea what the term “non-binary” meant. But that’s not saying much. I was a kid! I barely knew what “deodorant” meant. I did know that I was expected to be, or become, a “man,” and that term seemed quite rigidly defined. A lot of it would come to feel very performative, and also quite narrow: you wore sportsball stuff and played a sport, you had access to these aisles in a clothing or toy store, but don’t be caught dead outside of those; you walked, talked, and sat a certain way. I failed at pretty much all of that, and still do, happily.
As the great philosophers Aqua once said in their song “Barbie Girl,” “Imagination, life is your creation.” In other words: toys, by being actors on the stage of imagination, can help birth a new reality. While this “creation,” and the life within it, may never leave the realm of the mind, movies offer one arena in which toys can interact, literally and metaphorically, with a greater mythology and have actual, in-universe consequences. Furthermore, because toys can exist both in-narrative and in the hands of viewers, these objects provide a unique opportunity for a story to transcend the screen and extend into the audience’s reality—perhaps even taking with them a bit of the source material’s mythos. And there’s no clearer example of this than one of the single most popular sources of both film and toys in popular culture: the Star Wars franchise.
Star Wars has had a ubiquitous presence in toy aisles for years, and much has been said about the cultural impact of wave after wave of Star Wars action figures, vehicles, and role play toys. But what about the significant presence of the toys we see in the Star Wars universe itself? Let’s consider a sampling of the toys present in the Star Wars films so far—in doing so, I think we’ll find that Star Wars toys mean as much to Star Wars characters as they do to us here in the real world.
Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye argued that where you are is as important as who you are. Just as one affects their environment, people are, in turn, affected by those same surroundings. The Romantic poets located this exchange in nature, turning their work toward subjects ruminating on not only their own individuality, but the natural world in which that rumination occurred. It is therefore only logical, in the highly commercial, Capitalist late 20th and early 21st Century United States, that this symbiosis of person and place can be housed, at least for some, in the malls and chain stores freckled across the American landscape.
For me, this was Toys “R” Us. It has been a permanent fixture throughout my 32 years, just as it’s been for the lives of many of my Millennial peers. In light of last week’s announcement that the chain will be going out of business, much is being reported about the people who made, and ultimately eroded, this place—but there’s much more to be said about the place that made the people. The Toys “R” Us Kids. Those for whom the place precedes the person.
In Episode 9 of After Trek, the roundtable talk show that airs after Star Trek: Discovery, Executive Producer Aaron Harberts said, “Everything we do on Star Trek comes out of character, and also as much as we can ground in science, so, shameless plug: get [the real-life mycelium expert and scientist] Paul Stamets’ book Mycelium Running. Give it a read…[it] will give you very, very good hints as to what’s going to happen.” So I did.
I bought the book, which is essentially a textbook for growing and interacting with mycelium and mushrooms, and I read it. I’d say I read it so you don’t have to, but the truth is: it’s a brilliant work of science, and everyone should give it a shot, especially if you’re a layperson like me. In addition to learning how to grow mushrooms from my one-bedroom New York City apartment (which I am enthusiastically now doing, by the way), I also learned a ton about Star Trek: Discovery’s past, present, and possible future.
You know the drill: a blockbuster sci-fi movie is about to drop. Anticipation mounts. Then, suddenly, stores are hit with a flurry of promotional “stuff.” A significant chunk of said “stuff” are toys. Those toys then lease a spot on a shelf next to other toys promoting a range of media, from that hit film from 25 years ago, now fertile ground for nostalgia, to that re-released comic book from the 1980s, to that TV show you glimpsed this morning.
Observing these rows of little plastic bodies, it is easy to think of them as purely representational. The toys’ sole job is to give buyers a tangible duplicate of an otherwise intangible character. This take-home hero then can become many things to its beholder: avatar, memento, plaything, gift, declaration of love. You fully accept, without even giving it a second thought, that the role of the company that made the toy you just purchased acted simply as a go-between. All the toymaker did was mold your favorite character into plastic. However, this idea of the toy company’s passive role in the process of pop culture consumption is deeply flawed. Toy companies do not just represent meaningful pop culture texts, but fundamentally change them by creating a new text unto itself—the toy—which translates, evaluates, and omits moments and characters from the property it claims to be promoting.
Funko’s recently-announced Jurassic Park line of Funko Pop!s provides an excellent case study that illustrates this.
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