What Defines an Action Figure?

Action Figures, Dolls or Figurines -- Which Is It?

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It's one of the most hotly debated issues among action figure collectors: What is and what isn't an action figure?

Every collector has been faced with someone who's not in the know calling their action figures "figurines" — or worse, "dolls." This labeling issue stems from the fact that nobody has ever taken the time to define exactly what an action figure is. We have a vague idea that an action figure is a small, plastic character designed for re-enactment play by children.

It can be posed and accessories can be placed in its hands, but the same can be said of Barbie dolls. Most collectors will emphatically cry out that Barbie is not an action figure.

This article will try to define action figures, but it's important to understand that this definition isn't written in stone. It's subject to debate and further discussion. This isn't a black-and-white categorization. There are many gray areas.

The first step in defining an action figure is to look at one beside its closest cousins: figurines and dolls. All three can fall under the broad category of "figures," but we should see how they are related and where one ends and the other begins if we define all three. 

Figurines

Figurines are often small, sculpted and painted representations of personified characters like superheroes or movie characters. They have no moving parts.

  • Posing Ability: None
  • Size: From extremely miniature (6mm model train figures) up to approximately 6 inches. Anything larger is generally considered a "statue."
  • Other features: Figurines are often molded permanently on a base to help them stand, like plastic green Army men. 

Action Figures 

Action figures must possess a certain amount of posing ability, often referred to as "points of articulation." These figures will have moving parts that can be manipulated into various poses.

They often come with interchangeable accessories such as weapons or snap-on backpacks.

  • Posing Ability: Most collectors agree that an action figure should possess no less than three points of articulation — at a minimum, the head, and both arms move. 

  • Size: From approximately 3 inches up to 11 inches.

  • Other features: Most action figures are built entirely of molded plastic, including their clothing and accessories. Some will occasionally come with one piece of cloth clothing, such as a robe or cape. 

Dolls

Dolls are almost always much larger than figurines and action figures.They often come with clothing that can be removed. They should also possess a certain amount of posing ability, but the emphasis on this is often second to the realism of the sculpts and accessories.

  • Posing Ability: Depending on the line of the doll, posing ability is less important than display aesthetics.

  • Size: Usually 12 inches or larger.

  • Other features: Dolls often have clothing that can be removed down to the figure's "skin." They will possibly have other interchangeable outfits that can be purchased separately. Accessories such as weapons and other hand-held gear are also abundant and highly prized by doll collectors.

    The Gray Areas

    There is no fine line dividing each of these three categories so it's therefore left to personal opinion. What one collector may call a "figurine," another collector will call an "action figure." Let's look at some of the possible gray areas within each category.

    • Figurines: Occasionally, you might come across a figure that is mostly static, yet its head may turn from side to side. For the most part, this figure would still be considered a figurine because one or two points of articulation do not significantly add to the "action" aspect of the figure.

      Also, some figurines may come with a single accessory that snaps onto the hand, or perhaps a cloth cape that can be removed. But like the single point of articulation previously mentioned, this doesn't necessarily raise the figure to the status of "action figure."

    • Action Figures: Some action figures can be quite large, up to 11 inches or more. But an action figure that's larger than 11 inches does not become a doll by default unless the majority of its clothing can be completely removed. For example, the classic Shogun Warriors of the 1970s stood at a whopping 24 inches, but they were completely made of molded plastic and were designed to be played with more than displayed.

      Alternately, some action figures may be smaller than 3 inches, such as the Yoda action figure from Kenner's Empire Strikes Back line. It possessed 5 points of articulation, however, as well as a cloth robe and two molded plastic accessories. Despite its similarities to both figurines and dolls, it is ultimately an action figure.

    • Dolls: Dolls can be smaller than 12 inches, but as long as they still have clothing that can be completely removed and if it's clear that the figure was meant to be displayed rather than played with, it can be considered a doll.

      One of the most popular figures in the world is the classic G.I. Joe figure of the 1960s and 1970s. It is often referred to as both an action figure and a doll. The original figures stood at around 12 inches and had completely removable clothing that could be switched out for other outfits. By our definition, this is a doll, but due to its obvious design as a toy, it was clear that it was meant to be played with. Therefore, it could also be considered an action figure. Ironically, G.I. Joe is the reason for the term "action figure" — Hasbro executives were worried that boys wouldn't play with a "doll" and therefore gave the figure the new term.

    Which Should You Collect?

    There's no reason not to collect all three if that's what you want to see on your shelves. In fact, most collectors have a few figurines and dolls in their collection and display them all together because of these gray areas in definition. In the end, it's all about what makes you happy as a collector.