Friday, September 30, 2011

"Mandals:" Action Figure Sandals 1

Ken’s has been Barbie’s faithful consort for fifty years, but action figures often make better romantic leads in our doll stories.  They have a wider variety of face molds, their bodies are buff and more pose- able than most Kens, and they exude an aura of risk and adventure that can be hard for a girl to resist.  Unfortunately getting them out of their fatigues and into togs that are suitable for taking a lady out can be a challenge.  Their shoulders are often too broad to fit into Ken’s Italian cut dinner jackets and even when they can borrow civilian shirts and pants, their feet are too big to squeeze into Ken’s shoes.  My ladies got tired of their dates tromping on their toes in combat boots whenever they went out dancing so here is the first in a series of tutorials on making action figure sandals.  This is a more casual style but very easy to make.  Your action figures and their “dogs” will thank you.

À Bientôt

Friday, September 23, 2011

To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals

In March I attended the wedding of a friend’s daughter.  (You know you are getting up there when your friends have children who are old enough to marry).  I was struck by the generation gap in hairstyles.  Many of the mature women who had come of age in the sixties and seventies were still wearing their hair in short naturals.  Most of the women under 35 had perms or weaves.  I remember so vividly the cultural and political significance that “going natural” had in those days that it was strange to realize today’s generation sees those hairstyles as a passé fashion. 

The main reason I started making Afro, braided, and dreadlock wigs for dolls is to show young black girls and women that  “Your hair is Celebration in the world!” So in the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, my second wig tutorial is dedicated “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals – Never to Look a Hot Comb in the Teeth.” 

Here is a link to the full text of the poem.

À Bientôt

Friday, September 16, 2011

St. Regis Lace

Nakoma Tarbell models St. Regis lace.

    In my doll world, every bride wants lingerie made of St. Regis lace in her trousseau.  Students at the St. Regis School in Akwasasne (Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation) have been making this delicate lace, prized for its beauty, durability, and the spiritual blessings it confers on connubial relations for over 150 years.  French Jesuits named the mission and church they established among the Kanien'kehá:ka in the mid-18th century after Saint Jean-François Régis because of his admiration for the indigenous people of Canada.  St. Regis lived in France from 1597 to 1640.  He traveled long distances over harsh terrain in order to preach the Gospel, but he never had the chance to preach to the people of the Six Nations.  He did, however, establish a charitable organization known as the Confraternities of the Blessed Sacrament as well as several hostels for reformed prostitutes.  He also set young women up as lace makers so that they could earn an income while remaining in their villages rather than succumbing to the vices and temptations of the city.  As a result he is known as the patron saint of lace making.

    Lace is an open work fabric made from threads that are looped, twisted, or braided to other threads.   While the craft of lace making dates back to ancient times, true lace, woven independently from a backing fabric, did not appear until the late 15th or early 16th centuries.  Lace making is a painstaking process that requires mathematical precision.  It can take an hour to produce one square-inch of lace.  As a result, fine, hand-made lace was very expensive.  Wealthy women would have their maids temporarily stitch lace collars and cuffs to their garments for wear.  Afterwards the maids would carefully remove the pieces and store them in locked coffers along with milady’s jewels.  Pieces of hand-made lace were handed down through generations as heirlooms.  

    While Catholic missionaries did spread the craft of lace making to other indigenous peoples of North America, I do not know if the Sisters of Saint Anne who established the original St. Regis Village School taught lace making to their students.  Since Blessed Marie-Anne Blondin did not found the order until 1850, lace making would not have been a profitable trade.  Machine lace never matched the quality and inventiveness of the hand-made product, but lace-making machines were perfected in the early nineteenth century, which put lace in reach of many more consumers.  It also put tremendous pressure on women who had practiced lace making as a cottage industry.  Wages for piecework fell so low that some families employed children as young as three to boost production and St. Regis surely wept in heaven to see that other lace makers reverted to part-time prostitution to make ends meet.

    Fortunately, in our time there is a growing appreciation for handcrafted goods.  The fictional St. Regis School in my doll world has organized a social business that sells traditional handcrafted lace items on eBay and Etsy.  The women’s collective that operates the lace making business awards college scholarships to promising young people of the Mohawk Nation.  Nakoma Tarbell, recipient of one of these St. Regis awards, is currently studying Forestry Engineering at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada.  She keeps her 2000 updated Barbie body toned by playing varsity lacrosse and she has graciously agreed to serve as the fit model for the first Limbé Dolls tutorial on making flexi-lace lingerie:

As langiappe, this video shows how bobbin lace is made:

À Bientôt

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Birthday Girl

    I must have been twelve or thirteen when I got one of the best birthday presents ever.  My father took me to a hobby craft store and gave me one dollar to spend for every year old I was.  The best part was looking at everything in the store and taking my time to decide on the items I would buy.  I remember one of my purchases was a mold for making 1:12 scale bathroom fixtures from plaster of paris.  At the time I was building a small village of doll houses for my Borrowers and they greatly appreciated having indoor plumbing.

    By squeezing the grocery money for about three weeks and combining it with a gift card from a friend, this weekend I got to re-live that best ever birthday.  Here I am with all my loot. 

I’ll be using these things to develop more tutorials so I’m not even sorry that I didn’t buy any of the dolls on my wish list!  Now I’m off to go skating with my family, another birthday tradition.

À Bientôt

Friday, September 9, 2011

Honoring an Ancestor

   According to oral history in my mother’s family, one of our ancestors bought his freedom by hiring his time as a cobbler.  After Emancipation, his descendants worked primarily as farm laborers, but his shoe-making skills remained in the family for over 100 years.  When my mother was growing up in the 1940s, she had a pair of oxfords that she did her best to wear out because she wanted a pair of patent leather mary janes instead.  Unfortunately, every time she thought the hated shoes were beyond repair her grandfather would show up and fix them.

    I didn’t have the opportunity to directly observe elders practicing this craft, but shoe-making must be in the blood because in high school, I started making footwear from original patterns.  Someone had given us a book of vinyl wallpaper samples and I made all kinds of accessories from them including tote bags, hats, and this wallet:

I also used the pages with flocked arabesque designs to make slippers for all my school friends as Christmas presents.  That same season I was cast as a Hora dancer in our annual Christmas concert.  We were all supposed to wear tall black boots but I didn’t own any and since my parents refused to buy them for me, I decided to make them myself.  I bought some polyvinyl “leather,” cut out pieces of plastic carpet runner for the soles, and got my father to cut the heels out of blocks of wood.  The end result was rather crude but they served well enough as a stage costume and held up through the rigors of the dance.

    I haven’t made any human sized shoes in over thirty years but in honor of my cobbler ancestor I am proud to present the first in a series of tutorial videos on making 1:6 scale shoes for dolls:

À Bientôt

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I’ve Got a Tough Mission for You: Selling War Toys to Pacifist Parents

    In the early 1960s, the success of Mattel’s Barbie convinced the toy manufacturer, Hasbro (then known as Hassenfeld Brothers) that there could be a similar niche in the toy market for a boy’s toy that had a variety of outfits, accessories, and play sets but they needed to avoid any suggestion that it was a doll.

This early commercial uses the official U.S. Army song with new lyrics “G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, fighting man from head to toe…” to unmistakably position the “action figure” as a boy’s toy, but Habro also needed to quiet parents’ discomfort with buying a “war toy.”  Thus, the commercial begins with a clip of G.I. Joe splashing down in his space capsule, aligning the character with the popular space program.  No sane mother would allow her sons to let their astronaut toys splash down in an open tank of water in the middle of the den, but the commercial is not concerned with convincing viewers that the action on screen is real.  Instead it seeks to engage viewers in the fantasy adventures they can act out with the action figure for advertisers had figured out long before that one of the easiest ways to sell a product to parents is to create a desire for the product in children who would then pester the adults to make the purchase. 

    This commercial therefore shows two boys enjoying the “new world of fun with G.I. Joe Air Force” and then uses a standard hard-sell technique designed to make viewers who don’t have the products feel inadequate: “Is your GI Joe ready for duty aboard a carrier? … Is he equipped with the new firefighter’s set, special heat suit, hood, accessory belt, and fire extinguisher?  Is he ready to go into space with the new astronaut capsule and space suit?”  The deck commander presumably uses his signal paddles and helmet with earphones to help aircraft land safely while firefighters routinely risk their lives to save those in danger.  None of the three sets includes a gun so while Hasbro presented their action figure in thoroughly masculine pursuits, he is devoted to the preservation of life.  There was nothing in this commercial to associate G.I. Joe with war and killing.

    As public opposition to the Vietnam War increased, however, Hasbro had to dissociate G.I. Joe even further from warfare.  From 1970-1976 Hasbro featured G.I. Joe action figures as members of an Adventure Team focused on scientific exploration and thrilling missions.  This commercial for the “Mobile Support Vehicle” used much more sophisticated narrative techniques to engage viewers in the adventure and induce them to purchase the product.  The commercial opens on an outdoor setting, presumably a suburban backyard.  “Here is the G.I. Joe mobile support vehicle and your Joe is in the driver’s seat,” intones the narrator as a boy’s hand places Joe in the seat.  “Today’s mission, a radio active satellite is down and must be found,” says the narrator, introducing a compelling human vs. technology conflict which avoids any hint of a human adversary. “Quickly you activate the radar scope and search lights and launch the aerial camera.”  Using the second person “you” allows viewers to imagine themselves inside the story as the boy’s hands activate the special features of the mobile support vehicle.  “No time to lose.  So you move Joe out in the scout car” the narrator continues, still using the second person to make the viewer identify with the story.  “Will Joe get there in time?” asks the narrator, invoking limited time as a classic device for increasing dramatic tension.  “Create your own adventures with the GI Joe mobile support vehicle.”  The narrator leaves the viewer with the option of deciding the outcome for himself, knowing that most viewers would want to act out their own adventure with the featured product in their possession, rather than as a figment of their imaginations. 

    Although the boys featured in this commercial and in most G.I. Joe commercials of this era were white (Mego’s Action Jackson commercials and Mattel’s Major Matt Mason commercials seem to have been more conscientious about including African American boys), my brother had no problem seeing his Joe in the driver’s seat of the Mobile Support Vehicle.  He did indeed receive this toy for Christmas and it yielded hours of absorbing play despite the fact that it did not come with any guns.

    By 1975, the fantastical worlds of science fiction and comic book heroes were exerting marked influence on the market for action figures.  Hasbro lost the bid to license the Six Million Dollar Man character from the eponymous television show based on the novel, Cyborg by Martin Caidin.  So the company resorted instead to a 1940s comic book superhero that had lapsed into the public domain – Bulletman. 

This commercial opens on an outdoor scene with the Bulletman action figure streaking across the screen on a rope.  The theme song celebrates “Bulletman the human bullet!”  Then the narrator invites the viewer to “Imagine the silver cup (a sewing thimble) and their mission is to break through the fortress (a stack of twigs) and recapture the cup!”  Bulletman’s shiny helmet recalls the armored knights of the round table and the quest to recover a silver chalice is certainly an archetypal Arthurian adventure.  Of course the streamlined head penetrating a guarded enclosure invokes an even more primal archetype, but we didn’t see that when we were kids. :-)

    Truth in advertising regulations kept toy manufacturers from using stop motion animation in their commercials so for those who make videos with play scale dolls and action figures today, these vintage ads are excellent examples of how skillful puppetry, dramatic stories, and imaginative use of outdoor sets can lead viewers to willingly suspend disbelief and enter into a miniature fantasy world.

    Here is a partial listing of vintage G.I. Joe commercials on You Tube with special thanks to Frodovader and Blueflamechevelle for uploading so many of them to their channels:

Adventure Team
Adventure Team Talking Commander commercial

Adventure Team

Adventure Team Headquarters

Adventure Team Action Packs
This is an Australian commercial in black and white.  Kenbrite sold the action packs advertised in Australia.  

Training Tower

Sandstorm Survival, Secret Mission to Spy Island, Devil of the Deep:  3 of 50 adventures

Adventure Team Sets

Kung Fu Grip
GI Joe with Kung Fu Grip

Helicopter commercial

Mobile support vehicle

Archaeological Exploration
The secret of the mummy’s tomb

Search for the stolen idol

Mike Power:  Atomic Man

Super Joe (bad sound)
There is a black boy in this commercial.  He lifts Super Joe to demonstrate the helicopter.

 À Bientôt

Monday, September 5, 2011

Little Play Soldiers

Little white crosses and their rows are so long. How will it end if you don't know it's wrong?

Little play soldiers never know why, we love them and kiss them and then send them to die.  – “Little Play Soldiers” by Martin Cooper
    A few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I walked into my local Toys R Us and was shocked to find that the G.I. Joes and war toys had displaced the Barbies from the front of the store.  When I watched the Twin Towers fall on TV that fateful morning, I knew that our country would plunge into war and I mentally reviewed the list of men I loved to see if any were eligible for the draft.  When I got to campus later that day, some of my young male students were fighting mad and ready to enlist and avenge our country’s honor on the spot, but I grew up in the era when young men were burning their draft cards and anti-war protests frequently impeded the drive to my Saturday morning ballet class in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle so it was hard for me to stomach this sudden turn to jingoism.

    One day when I was about five years old, (circa 1967 or ’68), my parents solemnly gathered up the arsenal of toy guns we had accumulated in our short lives including the cap gun and the shiny, pearl handled pistols that came with our Sears and Roebuck cowgirl and cowboy costumes and confiscated them all.  In addition to the increasing groundswell of protest against the Vietnam War, they may have been influenced by a growing movement among American parents to stop the proliferation of war toys. 

    According to the entry on “War Toys” in Culture Wars: an Encyclopedia of Issues, Voices, and Viewpoints Parents for Responsibility in the Toy Industry made their debut in 1964.  One of their first actions was staging a protest at the American Toy Fair in New York City against violent toys such as Hasbro’s newly released GI Joe action figure.  Two years later, a group of mothers demonstrated at the toy fair dressed in Mary Poppins costumes with the slogan “Toy Fair or Warfare” emblazoned on their black umbrellas.  Similarly, “the Children’s Peace Union, founded by a fifth grader, demonstrated in front of a department store on Fifth Avenue in New York City carrying signs that read, ‘War Toys Kill Minds’ and ‘Constructive Toys, Not Destructive Toys.’ (Culture Wars)”  Then in 1969, another parents’ group – Parents Against the Encouragement of Violence” staged a protest at the Toy Fair. 

    Swathmore College Peace Collection holds the records of the Public Action Coalition on Toys, a non-profit consumer group organized by Ralph Nader’s staff,   “to encourage the development of safe and sensible quality toys, and to discourage the production of toys that injured, exploited, or limited a child's growth, safety, or welfare.”  The Public Action Coalition on Toys united an impressive roster of groups “that wanted to lobby the toy trade to make more socially responsible decisions regarding their products” including:

Action for Children's Television, Association on American Indian Affairs, Citizen Action Group, Council on Interracial Books for Children, Gray Panthers Network, National Black Feminist Organization, National Organization for Women, National Society for the Prevention of Blindness, Parents for Responsibility in the Toy Industry, Public Interest Research Groups (of Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina), Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Women Strike for Peace, Women's Action Alliance, and Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

    The “Historical Background” on Swathmore’s collection of PACT documents notes that the member organizations “believed that toys were not merely playthings, but held an important role in advancing the social, emotional, physical and intellectual development of children, and that adults must make certain that toys were safe, non-racist, non-sexist, non-violent, and imaginative.”  In the face of such widespread opposition, Sears stopped offering war toys in their catalog, which was a major blow to manufacturers of these items.  Hasbro was forced to shift the focus of their “action figure” to adventure and scientific exploration.

    My brother had one of the original “moveable fighting man” Joes.  He must have gotten it between 1967 and 1969.  I don’t know exactly what accessories he came with because my brother was not as meticulous as I was about keeping up with these things.  Still, I remember this Joe had a blue shirt and a midshipman’s cap.  I don’t know if he came with the rubber wet suit or if our parents bought that separately, but in the beginning he also had a scuba outfit which had a strong odor and was very difficult to put on.  I don’t know if this Joe had any guns or not. 

    In 1971, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law a prohibition on the manufacture or sale of “torture toys” which included toy bombs and grenades (Culture Wars).  The following year, a group of Vietnam veterans joined Parents for Responsibility in the Toy Industry in protesting war toys at the American Toy Fair and by 1978, GI Joe temporarily disappeared from the market in the face of competition from Kenner’s 4” Star Wars figures.  American parents apparently did not object to light sabers from “long ago in a galaxy far away” as violent weapons.

    Growing up my brother had two other Joes from the Adventure Team era -- the bearded talking commander and the clean-shaven African American with “lifelike hair.”  I don’t remember if they had guns or not but if they did, they didn’t make as big of an impression on me as the other, adventure related accessories and play sets.  I asked for the Sea Wolf submarine even though it was a “boy’s toy” and very much enjoyed submerging it in the bathtub and in a large outdoor fish tank on my grandparents’ property in the country.

Here is a clip of the Kingston Trio's 1964 release in case you don't remember this quintessential anti-war song:

À Bientôt

Friday, September 2, 2011

Action Figure Dreadlocks

Creating natural hairstyles for my Rasta Ann and Andy dolls was so satisfying that I started wondering if I could do the same thing for my play scale dolls and action figures.  I had made a few hard cap wigs for my dolls when I was in high school, but soon I hit on the idea of attaching the hair to a "stocking cap."  My wardrobe department now holds over 200 natural hairstyle wigs in a wide variety of styles and colors. 

At this time the labor cost of producing these wigs relative to the price the market will bear means it is not cost effective to offer them for sale.  Instead I am sharing the technique so that viewers can make them for their own dolls and action figures.  I hope you will enjoy “Action Figure Dreadlocks.” 

Watch for Baba Knapp and the Knapp family in future wig-making tutorials.

À Bientôt