Following a gut instinct, Bernie Loomis, then president of Kenner Toys, took a big gamble in 1976 that would end up with tremendous ramifications for the design and mentality of boys' toys. Confronted with a confusing script replete with aliens, robots, and futuristic technologies, Loomis made a decision that many perceived as a huge risk. He secured the rights for Kenner to produce toys for George Lucas' upcoming film, Star Wars. For a reader of today, this action does not seem like a risk at all, but rather an extremely wise investment; however, before assuming this notion, one needs to look at the precedents and facts that existed when Loomis took his gamble.
In 1976, the science fiction genre was not a particularly lucrative field for any product, whether it be a movie, a book, or a toy. While Star Trek was experiencing a posthumous period of fan growth, other science fiction venues were not as well received. A stereotype of the nerdy, obsessive adolescent boy still permeated sci-fi. Lucas himself had experienced a great many obstacles in trying to get a studio to produce his screenplay, and even he did not foresee his space epic being a blockbuster. Rather, he thought Star Wars would perform satisfactorily at the box office. In addition to this science fiction stigma, Bernie Loomis bucked the trend in the toy industry. Most toy companies favored rights to television shows since television series would provide a constant marketing tool that could aid a toy through a couple years. With movies, the film would come and go, leaving the toy about a year to perform successfully in the market. Loomis even acknowlegded that "[he] assumed the movies would come and go quickly-and that [Kenner] would do the toys the following year without any movie there to help [them]" (Sansweet 62). Nonetheless, he had a great interest in the script and thought Star Wars would transfer well into toy form.
With the exclusive toy rights to Star Wars, Kenner set about designing a few toys. In the design phase, Loomis made the key decision which would forever change the toy industry. At an early meeting, in discussing the line of dolls Kenner would produce, Loomis realized that Star Wars would definitely be a vehicle dependent line. Therefore, it would be cost prohibitive to produce spaceships scaled to a twelve inch doll. Up to this point, Kenner had worked mainly in the twelve inch doll form established by GI Joe, but change clearly was in order. At that moment, Loomis held his fingers apart and asked, "how about that big" (Sansweet 63)? The resulting measurement yielded three and three quarter inches, the size Kenner would use for its hero figure, Luke Skywalker.
With this 3-3/4" design, Kenner completely deviated from the doll size standard and paved the way for affordable ships and playsets that would complement the small figures. When Twentieth-Century Fox finally released the film, the high demand for Star Wars products soared and exceeded Kenner's expectations by a long shot. In an effort to meet the demands of the public, Loomis packaged what he called an early bird kit, a sealed promise certificate for the first four figures, and sold it during the 1978 Christmas season. Kids everywhere craved the toys. Kenner found that at its $1.96 price point, kids and collectors alike bought as many of the figures as they could. With this new size, the figures were much more affordable, so consumers could purchase several figures rather than one doll, as had been the case of GI Joe and other lines.
While Kenner enjoyed tremendous success with its action figure line, it still did not fully realize the impact of these figures. In 1978, the company decided to release a line of traditional, twelve inch dolls of the Star Wars characters. The resulting stagnant sales brought about the demise of the doll line and sent the signal home to Kenner that the market favored the new action figures and had no place for the doll design. By the end of the Star Wars line's run in 1985, it included 111 different action figures and numerous vehicles for the figures. Kenner had dominated the toy industry for eight years and had produced 250 million action figures (Sansweet 63-71). Clearly, Kenner's design and creation of the 3-3/4" action figure inadvertently affected the entire boys' toy industry.
Not only did the Star Wars action figure change the manufacture of boys' toys, it also altered the play patterns and cultural associations between the child and the toy. With GI Joe, the focus had been on the one or two dolls filling numerous roles. The doll relied on himself and his ability to solve every problem, thereby embodying the notion of the heroic individual. Even the doll's design and purchase price seemed geared to promoting and reiterating this individualism. With Star Wars, this image of the white, male loner capable of handling any situation shifted to that of a hero dependent upon others for ultimate success.
Admittedly, the hero of Star Wars comes to the viewer in the form of a white male. Yet this white male, Luke Skywalker, relies upon other people and devices in order to establish his identity as a hero. "His filmic identity and self-realization are defined by the two contexts in which he operates: the looses coalition of misfits, adventurers, political idealists, robots, and aliens marshalled against the evil Empire; and the ever-present technologies on which survival depends in that hostile galaxy" (Fleming 96). The Star Wars toys provide the perfect window into viewing this symbiotic relationship between the hero and others.
With the action figure Luke, children surrounded him with other characters who helped establish Luke's identity. In a circle of toys that included a political leader (Princess Leia), a loner pilot (Han Solo), a wise mentor (Ben Kenobi), a farmboy hero (Luke), two robots (R2-D2, C-3PO), and an alien other (Chewbacca), children had before them a virtual text in which the identity of each toy played a key role with the others in forming a larger narrative. To a child's mind, Luke needed Ben as a teacher while Han needed Chewbacca. The droids needed each other, and the Princess was a necessary element in bringing the group together. As Fleming notes, "children were being offered a set of questions about the white male hero's relationship with furry dwarfs, hairy giants, intelligent machines, and a human community of various colors and creed" (Fleming 100). With the toy figures, children subconsciously carried out this relationship established by the movie in which the hero works with others and needs others, not as supplements but as complements, in order to achieve success and contextually fill his role as the hero in the larger narrative.
Like the diverse assembly of characters, the unique technology of the Star Wars universe played a major role in conveying the story and establishing the identities of various characters. Virtually all of the characters used the various technologies, yet these technologies appeared not as dominators, but as tools that "[furnished] resources with which identity [sorted] out problems" (Fleming 101). Recognizing the importance of the Star Wars technology, Kenner created its ships and playsets with accuracy in mind, adding cannons and compartments and even including the chess board in the toy version of the Millennium Falcon. However, Kenner's numerous features did not confine children to re-enacting scenes from the film, but instead created what Fleming terms "open narratives." The features Kenner included allowed kids to transcend the plot of the movie and implement new scenarios for their toy figures. This development of the toys with an open narrative in mind completely changed the way kids had played with toys up to that point (Fleming 104). Besides changing the toy industry, the Kenner toy line definitely had important ramifications for child/toy interaction. With the Star Wars toys, kids accepted group working and diversity, and, as a result of the designers shifting the focus of the toy from plot re-enactment to play possibilities, kids interacted with toy culture in a new, more imaginative manner.
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