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Lights, Camera, Action Man

It was announced last month that the little man is finally getting the big screen treatment. The director of the last two Muppet films is making an Action Man action movie.

But it seems that moneysupermarket.com have beaten him to it, producing this blockbuster which has been airing on UK television.

In it a regiment of Action Men in various butch outfits and manly accessories break into some very camp dance moves, to the strains of CeCe Peniston’s gay club hit ‘Finally’. For the big finish, some of them strip down to their moulded plastic briefs while the rest of the guys hoof it.

It’s very Village People, darling.

‘Epic Action Man’ represents a continuity with Moneysupermarket’s previous offerings which have ostentatiously fucked about with conventional masculinity – such as ‘Epic Strut’ in which a man who is apparently a male office worker from the waist up and a big-bootied woman in heels from the waist down (a kind of gender-fuck Centaur – or a binary non-binary) shakes his be-denimed money-maker around town.

Can we fix it?

The sequel, ‘Epic Squads‘, saw ‘Dave’ up the ante and lead a squad of similarly split-dressed apparently male office workers in a flaming dance-off with a group of builders with some really devastating moves.

And then the ante was upped again last year in ads which starred those famous 80s TV icons of boyish excitement He-Man and Skeletor, perhaps the best one being a parody of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey famous end-of-movie dance to ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My life’ from the ultimate 80s chick-flick, ‘Dirty Dancing’. (And yes, Skeletor gives good Grey.)

So, having gayed up He-Man and got him to drop his big sword it was probably inevitable that they would turn Action Man into a club queen.

I’m not sure that Moneysupermarket has any other aim in these ads other than to grab our attention with something a bit shocking and giggly as we inhale our gluten-free ready meal. And it’s easiest and safest nowadays to do that with machismo: the images and iconography are very familiar and because they came from a more ‘innocent’ age, or at least less knowing, much of the work of parodying them has already been done by time. (See also Top Gun.)

Though Action Man like He-Man was of course always more than a little bit camp – at least seen in the right light, or by the wrong eyes. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, butchness is such a very difficult pose to keep up. Even when you’re made of 12 inches of moulded plastic. (I’m not if I’m honest really looking forwards to the Action Man movie: I prefer to hold on to the movies he starred in inside my head when I was a kid.)

Action Man – On Land, On Sea & Legs in the Air

Perhaps though the ‘funniest’ thing about Moneysupermarket’s ‘Epic Action Man’ ad and its swishing is that it is actually a case of dolls imitating  real life soldiers. Action Man is here after all just catching up with all those YouTube videos of yer actual live squaddies in some desert locale camping it up to Lady Gaga.

Why Straight Soldiers Can’t Stop Acting Gay on Video

h/t P

Action Man – On Land, On Sea & Legs in the Air

Mark Simpson goes on a top secret mission to the bottom of the garden

I never had an Action Man (G.I. Joe to Americans). He was for sissies. I only garrisoned my bedroom with tiny non-moving, non-camp Airfix soldiers I’d painted myself. Naturally, this didn’t stop me playing endlessly with the famous male doll when I visited my mates. My best chum had the Eagle Eye Action Man with working combat hang-glider – which is why he was my best mate. When he finally realised my real affections lay not with him but his 12-inch piece of moulded plastic, he dumped me in a fit of understandable pique.

It was my parents who had planted the suspicion of Action Man’s masculinity in my head and turned me into a closeted Action Manophile: “No, Father Christmas won’t be bringing you one of those dolls, Mark.”

“He’s not a doll!! He’s a soldier!!”

Of course, they were entirely correct in their concerns. Despite his butch trademarked name and rugged camouflaged gear, he was clearly Passive Man, as was betrayed by the advertising copy that shrieked at you to: “Move him into action positions!” Action Man: on land, on sea, and legs in the air.

My parents, though, were being more practical than prejudiced. They knew that once he entered our house, he’d take over. They knew this because my older sister had had a Barbie doll, made by the same company that made Action Man. The dolls themselves were a loss-leader – it was the apparently infinite outfits and accessories they demanded that were the real agenda and the real money-spinner.

NG Taylor, author of ‘Action Man: on land, at sea, and in the air’ obviously had less cautious parents. Or several paper rounds. Splendidly pictured on the back of his book in a forest setting with moustache and camouflaged shirt, peering through field binoculars, he has been collecting Action Man since 1966. He has kept in impeccable, quartermasterly condition almost every outfit and accessory ever produced for the little plastic man. Hence perhaps the mention of his wife in the introduction.

Even if you have never understood the appeal of Action Man, this book will make you fall in love with him faster than Action Man would take to strip down a Stirling submachine and reassemble it – if he actually had any fingers. Taylor has photographed him in more than a hundred different outfits, all in “real-life situations”, from “frozen Alps to tropical seashores and jungles”. That this probably means from his backyard in January to Skegness in August only makes the tableaux all the more fetching.

Perhaps because, unlike Jean Paul Gaultier, I think that the only men who look good in a kilt are Scottish football fans and trained killers, my personal favourites are the breathtaking photos of AM sporting the Argyll and Sutherland Highlander full dress uniform. Photographed on a craggy moor, or perhaps atop a rockery in Taylor’s local park, Action Man with his tasselled sporran and polished tunic buttons is a vision of pint-sized, manly pride and gorgeousness that I defy anyone to not be moved by.

The photos themselves with their saturated colour, grass and stones a bit too big, buttons, stitching and zips a little outsize, are subtly evocative of the innocence of childhood. But while the glorious outfits are the main objects of attention, it is Action Man who is the star. This book proves him to be an incredibly versatile actor, one who puts most of today’s Hollywood males to shame. The Tommy pictured in brown battledress is a Cockney sparrer who might cook you up a brew while whistling Colonel Bogey. The German Stormtrooper’s chin and jaw is Germanic and brutal beneath his square helmet, his eyes those of a merciless Aryan killer. The easygoing Action Sailor snapped by the sea in adorable blue denim bell-bottoms and shirt with cap is about to cadge a fag or a pint and tell you a dirty joke. The French Foreign Legionnaire in his white képi and cobalt blue great coat has a haunted look about the eyes that makes you want to buy him a Pernod or three.

In fact, AM’s face is exactly the same in all these pictures. It’s moulded plastic, after all. And yet, magically, his face seems to take on an entirely different aspect, character and romance according to the angle at which it is photographed, the outfit, the nationality and the background.

No doubt this is down to Taylor’s skill, and also the fantasies we – or is it just me? – project on to the different togs. But I also think this fetish has a life of its own. I’m convinced that AM’s face actually moves when you’re not looking: that pouty mouth with the jutting lower lip, those brooding eyes gazing forward to the world of masculine adventure which is never coming. He must have practised it in the mirror when we were all asleep.

Butchness may require paralysis of the facial muscles, but it’s a very calculated kind of paralysis all the same.

(Independent on Sunday, 14 March 2004)

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