MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

Here’s an odd little rant:

I’m a pretty severe Type 1 nerd. I don’t just collect comic books, I obsess about all kinds of weird stuff, from cartoons to detective movies to video games to toys. It’s a strange relationship with late capitalism, I’ll freely admit; I think normal people play FIFA or Call of Duty and watch The Big Bang Theory and have fuller social lives than I do. There are days I like to think of my own tastes as more sophisticated and self-aware than the people who crochet wool Hulkbuster armor to go to San Diego Comic Con, but they’re not, really. They’re reflexive, and those reflexes have to do with growing up during a period when advertisements during children’s television programming had been aggressively deregulated by Ronald Reagan’s head of the FCC, and a host of other environmental factors I’m probably not in close enough touch with my own psyche to identify, except generalized loneliness, which is apparent even to me.

But among a bunch of the weird artifacts of being a kid I still enjoy, even as I grow out of a lot of the superhero stories I loved and sell back issues to buy actual art that I put on the walls and so on, are Transformers toys. I don’t care about the cartoon, I throw away the comics that come as inserts in the packages, but I really enjoy and find soothing the act of turning a little plastic robot into a little plastic car or airplane or tank or bug.

As with most things I’ve liked for a long time, I will, if provoked, deliver a multi-point seminar on Transformers toys: how in the early 1980’s they were several loosely-related lines of Japanese transforming robots bought by a single holding company called Takara and distributed in the US under names dreamed up to give them a unifying story by the then-editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Jim Shooter; how they’ve changed in the past 10 years or so to uniform scales and price points and are largely marketed to men my age; how shortly after the Transformers movie – the first one, which is arguably a pretty fun popcorn flick – the company that makes and distributes the toys in the US, Hasbro, was so flush with cash that it vastly overspent on design and production and even the modest $15 Deluxe-class figures from that era, as opposed to the larger Voyager, Leader, and two-foot-tall Titan class figures that came later, are bizarrely complex and troubling little works of art crafted to release the maximum number of whatever weird sub-endorphin is also associated with finishing a puzzle or assembling an Ikea bookshelf. Fans whose interest runs even deeper than my own know the names of the top designers and have strong opinions on who is the best.

One extremely weird feature of Transformers toys – and I mean nonsensical, not merely unique to the rules of this already eccentric world – is that there are maybe two female characters in this whole universe of intellectual property. Two: Arcee and Blackarachnia (I know. Never mind). A few more have been added but those are the two with personality.

The company, as it has aged, has more or less embraced the thirtysomething nerdity of its customer base and allows third-party fan-run companies to produce accessories and limited runs of finnicky and crazily specific action figures and parts of action figures; it also makes a breathtakingly expensive line of “Masterpiece”-class toys totally inappropriate for children, which closely resemble the cartoon TV show versions of both robot and vehicle modes by virtue of brain-destroyingly complicated transformational procedures that combine interlocking series of hidden panels and joints adjusted to the decamicron like a puzzle box from a Hellraiser movie. So the toymaker is very much in touch with its consumers and those consumers are few enough in number – but associated with the high-grossing film appendage of the product – that their various ideas are considered carefully.

As with most people devoted to mechanical engineering, one salient feature of Transformers fandom is lack of internal drama. Recently, at the end of that flush period – the company had to negotiate less favorable terms with Disney on two of its biggest licenses, Star Wars and Marvel, and its other film projects like Battleship and the second GI Joe movie failed abysmally, so it probably won’t do this again – Hasbro held a poll to “create” a new character from a bunch of preset options: what should its new Transformer look and act like? Should the character be secretive? Grumpy? Wild? A motorcycle? Orange? A girl? And the fans spoke, and they said, “We would like a girl Transformer, please,” and then they gave her a bunch of other characteristics: she’s a telepath from the city of Kaon, with a sword, who turns into a jet, and is valiant. Her name is Windblade.

The toy itself is a little plastic marvel, which is why I have one, and I mean, they’re all fucking robots, man, if they contribute to anyone’s romantic fantasy life that’s not on Hasbro, but Windblade is curvy and pointy where Starscream and Drift are boxy and paneled, and is kind of wearing high heels in a nontraditional way, and her face is a stylized feminine face. She has a big-ass sword and a scabbard that clip seamlessly into her sci-fi jet mode and looks like a miniature samurai warrior, in the way most of the really cool Transformers do.

The funny thing here is that there was no outcry about her. Nerds get a richly deserved bad rap for taking collective action when some poor author or artist trying desperately to stay interested in a job working in the corporate IP salt mines creatively misgenders or racebends a character from whatever transnational entertainment combine’s “classic” period is being celebrated this week, and for engaging in that action with a vigor that could change the world if it was deployed in the service of a political candidate. I think a lot of their fury has to do with the way those companies emphasize nonsensical continuity over decades of stories by thousands of writers and artists to prevent fans from following the people who actually create the work from company to company or, God forbid, medium to medium, but there’s no getting around how much of it is down to the basic shittiness of men to women. I honestly didn’t even know there WERE women Transformers fans until I bought Windblade at Toys R Us. She was part of a small, all-female “wave” of toys (Transformers is a brand, Combiner Wars or Titans Return is the line for, say, fiscal year ‘15-’16, Wave Four ships in June and is all helicopters or trucks); when I went to the checkout counter I made small talk and the clerk said she, too, had gotten Windblade as soon as she could and said proudly that she’d made sure to snap up the Arcee from the same wave. She barely managed it, even working at the store – they just didn’t make that many of them, because action figures are considered “boys’ toys” where dolls are considered the corresponding “girls’ toys.”

There’s a lot of reinforced historical sexism in the toy industry, as people briefly discovered and then rapidly forgot when Disney mandated underproduction of Rey action figures for the Star Wars movie, even though Rey was the film’s protagonist. The thesis was that boys wouldn’t buy them because boys don’t like girls, and girls wouldn’t buy them because girls don’t like action figures, which are notions that are basically correct because they’re enforced from an extremely young age by toy manufacturers. So Hasbro slowly admitting that the categories are arbitrary is a larger win than it may at first appear to be.

I found that several of the young women who worked at the comic book store near my office had largish collections; then I found whole websites devoted to female transformers that had been there all along. I just hadn’t been looking for them. 

I suppose my point here is that in the same way that you don’t have to have a swastika tattoo to contribute to structural racism, you don’t have to be a rapist to contribute to institutionalized misogyny. In tiny ways, every day, men and women make easy choices to simply not consider women just this one time. Maybe it’s because we just have such a deep personal connection to Ghostbusters or because we love The O’Reilly Factor even though the guy who runs Fox News is probably kind of a scumbag; I’m not saying the reasons aren’t good, I’m saying they’re not good enough.

This is not a call to go campaigning against individual bad actors. For one thing, it’s not up to any of us to personally decide who those bad actors are beyond personal preference, which, as I say above, is reflexive to a large degree and unrelated to any but the broadest notions of quality (see files under: Goonies, The; Hook; and Land Before Time, The). Instead, it’s a tentative request to quiet down about needs that aren’t vital and personal. Were we to ask only for what we need, we might find ourselves talking less often, and we might hear other people asking for what they need, which might surprise us. We might also be ashamed to hear people asking to be represented just this once in places where we hadn’t even seen them being excluded, and rather than shout out their needs as we understand them, we might finally be quiet enough for them to be heard. 

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