At What People Get Angry At
Monte Williams is not an anxious, hand-wringing political correctness conformist… except when it comes to his toy collection.
Thanks to the author bio in The Plot Against America—which, according to said bio, “received the Society of American Historians Award for ‘the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004’”—I know that novelist Philip Roth has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal of Arts, the Gold Medal in Fiction, the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
And now Philip Roth has inspired a post on a weblog about toy photography. How many Pulitzer winners can say that?
I like to swap body parts and accessories from one action figure to another so that I can create new characters. (Should my wife ever leave me, that’s the line I’ll use to introduce myself to women). This customizing process involves many decisions, particularly when the time comes to bestow upon a custom action figure a new name and personality. This can be a delicate procedure for a culturally sensitive and evolved toy enthusiast. Consider, please:
Last year, I combined the body of a female G.I. Joe action figure (Baroness) with the head of a Bellatrix LeStrange figure from the U.K.-exclusive Harry Potter series. I replaced Bellatrix’s hair with a Cobra Commander helmet, and since I happened to be reading Ayn Rand’s Anthem with my English 11 students at the time, it occurred to me that the resulting figure looks like the type of person who would celebrate the ego with a fierce sort of uncompromising pride and stubbornness. She looks, in other words, like a caricature of an Ayn Rand character—or an Ayn Rand fan. Naturally, I decided to call her Anthem.
That gimpish-looking fellow on a chain seemed at first to nicely compliment the rather overt and fetishistic dominatrix vibe of the Baroness body sculpt, but then I decided that if said vibe is already overt, then my decision to add to it just reduces the Anthem figure to a clumsy and obvious joke. More relevant to the self-important musings of this post, I also felt that giving a potentially strong female character such an obvious tie to sexuality was unnecessarily reductive.
On the other hand, it would be foolish to indulge such sensitivity to an extent that it results in a knee-jerk overreaction; one needn’t shy away from sexuality—or even simple sexiness—completely. Recall Jello Biafra’s bitter anecdote from “Where Do You Draw The Line?”, an old Dead Kennedys track: “The Party Line says no, feminists can’t wear fishnets”. (Later, Biafra sings, “You wanna help stop war? Well, we reject your application / You crack too many jokes and you eat meat”.)
Still, to narrow the focus of a female character to nothing but her beauty smacks of the same sort of imaginative drought that led to such African American superhero names as Black Lightning, Black Racer, Black Ice and Black Vulcan.
Here, for example, is Badlands, an original character and custom Sigma 6 action figure my buddy Bill created:
I will write at length about Badlands in a future post—no need to thank me—but for now I’ll just note that I don’t feel comfortable painting my action figures, so when I put together a bearded adventurer of my own in an attempt to emulate Bill’s Badlands character, I kept the Badlands name and learned to live with the fact that he is suddenly a redhead:
Later, when I placed a Scarlett head atop a Lady Jaye body, I decided that the resulting character could be the sister of Badlands.
I sometimes wondered whether this was no less diminishing than casting her as so-and-so’s girlfriend, but I recently received the Big Bad Toy Store-exclusive Bull figure, and after a quick study of his pale skin tone and red beard, I cheerfully opted to make him the brother of Badlands, and so, for now at least, I needn’t lose further sleep over the histrionic gender politics of my toy collection.
Alas, I couldn’t decide what to call this brave, noble sister. As Bill was responsible for Badlands in the first place, I sought his counsel, and his suggestion is a clever one: Paradise. It makes for a fun contrast with Badlands, and it sounds like a plausible codename. Still, it felt too easy to name the brother after rugged, uninviting landscapes and the sister after beautiful settings, so instead I dubbed the figure Tree Frog, a name that strikes me as both fun and suitably gender-neutral, if also perhaps a bit tomboyish—I try not to ponder the extent to which the tomboy is no less a trope than the sexpot; one has to draw the line somewhere.
Eventually, an obvious fact struck me: just as it’s silly to define every female character by her relative hotness, it’s also silly to make them all identically, self-consciously feminist in name and personality. In a wild fit of overcompensation at this revelation, I created a character who calls herself a “post-irony, post-feminism arsonist”:
She’s an explosives expert, so what’s her codename? Blow-Up Doll, of course.
I’d like to address one more female figure I’ve customized and turned into an original character:
Her name is Amber Dextrous. She consists of the underwhelming Rise of Cobra Baroness body, topped off with the Paris Pursuit Baroness head. I replaced the long, flowing locks with a plastic wig accessory from the Rise of Cobra Rex “Doctor” Lewis figure, then substituted mechanical attachments from the Battle Android Trooper for her hands.
The only thing left to fix was her thighs. While I am a critic of the stick figure aesthetic to which Western women are forced to aspire, there are limits to the extent to which one can challenge that unachievable standard through the medium of action figures, added to which one is unlikely to strike a blow more clever or effective than the Body Shop Barbie doll:
But really, my desire to fix the thighs on my Amber Dextrous figure had nothing much to do with female body image concerns. I just think those Rise of Cobra Baroness thighs are ugly; the gaps between the legs and the lower abdomen are distracting, at best, and you’ll notice that I utilized a pose that obscures the thigh gap.
It will surprise no one when I gently assert that there isn’t much to choose from, where thick female action figure thighs are concerned. Consequently, when I opted to perform thigh replacement surgery on Amber Dextrous, I had to utilize the legs of a male action figure—Snake Eyes, to be exact. As a result, Amber Dextrous is somewhat short and squat, and also more voluptuous. Put another way, the Rise of Cobra Baroness body looks more feminine with boy legs than it did when it had girl legs.
I said at the start that Philip Roth inspired this unlikely essay. In fact, the title of this post is taken from a scene in Roth’s The Plot Against America, wherein a nurse explains to a young boy that his cousin, who has lost a leg in World War II, is the angriest wounded soldier she has ever known. The boy asks, “Angry at what?” and the nurse replies, “At what people get angry at—at how things turn out.”
I had to put the book down for a moment when I reached this passage. The nurse’s words struck me as not merely poetic, but also somehow quietly devastating.
And then I thought, “Say, I should write an essay about the stupid gender politics of my customized G.I. Joe dolls. I can call it ‘At What People Get Angry At’.”
On behalf of Philip Roth, then:
Take that, Wallace Stegner.