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Ready for Action

Action figures have gotten bigger and more muscular over the last 25 years. In a straightforward bit of research, Baghurst et.al. (2006) measured changes in the relative sizes of action figures that have been in production for more than 25 years (G.I. Joe, Batman, Hulk, Spiderman, and Superman). Their data are summarized in the table below. Given that research on the effects of media and male body image is relatively young, it is unclear what effects these bulked-up and unrealistically proportioned toys will have. We can guess that some will be inspired to attain the muscular ideal and that others will develop higher levels of body dissatisfaction.  

Wayne Hooke

G.I. Joe Photo: H.P.Holland, 2006

ResearchBlogging.orgBAGHURST, T., HOLLANDER, D., NARDELLA, B., & HAFF, G. (2006). Change in sociocultural ideal male physique: An examination of past and present action figures Body Image, 3 (1), 87-91 DOI: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2005.11.001

Categories: Media Influence
  1. Alan Millar
    August 12, 2009 at 4:11 am

    Very interesting. I’ve noticed that American hero TV cartoons are starting to grotesquely distort male characters. Tiny heads, enormous chests, tiny waists, huge thighs. So I’m not surprised that the chest and thighs came in at .01.

    What particularly intrigued me is that it seems to be going in opposite directions from adult mens’ ideas of bodily perfection (Brad Pit in Troy?) in which men are muscled but lithe – not great hulks.

    Why are small boys being sold on the idea that bulk is desirable?

  2. August 12, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Hi Alan,

    It does look as if our images of super heroes are more massive (you can see examples in the the Wikipedia entry for Batman). My guess is that body builders set the standard for this. Body builders are more massive and defined now than 25 years ago.

    Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t be surprised if men were more aware of women’s preferences while boys were even more caught-up in the bigger is better mentality. I remember being fascinated with the first bulked-up action figure I saw as a child – contemporary boys may be similar. I suspect toy manufacturers have done some research on what makes action figures appealing to boys.


  3. Alan Millar
    August 13, 2009 at 1:00 am

    So presumably the cartoon producers are basing this all on ratings? Boys like chimp-shaped men, so cartoon makers give them chimp-men?

    • whooke
      August 13, 2009 at 9:12 am

      I can’t really speak to the cartoonists’ motivations in any authoritative way. I can guess that they are drawing superheroes’ bodies to the standard of professional bodybuilders, more or less. This standard has changed. Take a look at the 1953 Mr. Universe contenders (http://seanconneryonline.com/sean094.jpg) – yes, that’s Sean Connery 4th from the left. Now compare the 2008 Mr. Universe: http://www.flickr.com/photos/king_mostafa/2947898586/. As you can see, there are big differences.

      Action figure manufacturers are probably getting consumer feedback during the design of their products – I don’t know what else they’re considering.

      One last technical point, chimp-like is not an accurate characterization of these body representations: check out some of the musculo-skeletal differences between chimps and humans in this the side-by-side illustration (http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/marathon_man/).


  1. August 11, 2009 at 4:32 pm

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