5 Questions With > Prof. Henry Jenkins

One thing I’ve always wanted to do with PGPoA is discuss not just the latest toys or the machinations of various toy companies, but also the nature of of our hobby and, in particular, the way the toys regularly intersect with media since the days of the “half-hour commercials” in the 1980s. And so it’s with great pleasure that I present this interview with Prof. Henry Jenkins. If you’ve never heard of Professor Jenkins, I think it’s your duty as a geek to become familiar with his work.

Real Name: Henry Jenkins
Specialty: Educator
Base of Operations: henryjenkins.org
History: Henry Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He arrived at USC in Fall 2009 after spending the past decade as the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of twelve books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. His newest books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. He is currently co-authoring a book on “spreadable media” with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. He has written for Technology Review, Computer Games, Salon, and The Huffington Post.

1.) An easy one first: what were your own favorite toys as a kid? Did you have any action figures?

I think you could say that I was raised on the cusp of the era of action figures. Many of my favorite toys were extensions of media properties that mattered to me. For example, I love, to death, a rubber King Louie figure which was produced to coincide with the release of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. I had many stuffed figures who embodied cartoon characters or cereal box icons — some of which had pull cords which activated phonograph recordings hidden in their bellies. I had a series of small plastic figurines which embodied key characters from the Hanna-Barbara cartoons, and a company called Soakie distributed bubble bath in plastic cases designed to look like popular characters as well. We collected these and used them to block out little plays.

I had G.I. Joes and a series of space toys which reflected the public awareness of NASA’s moon mission in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I often wrote stories which reflected ideas that emerged from my free play with some of these figures and those stories constituted much of my first extended writing. And then, there were Viewmasters and Colorforms, both of which also represented the extension of media franchises into the space of my childhood imagination.

The term “action figure” was not yet in popular usage but if by action figure, we mean a physical embodiment of a character drawn from popular fiction which can function as a vehicle for playing out fantasies or which becomes an element in a collection, then the toys I engaged in more or less the same kinds of play as the generation that grew up with action figures. And of course, even where we didn’t have the toys, we performed the scenarios from superhero comics, cartoon series, and films like The Wizard of Oz in our backyards and in our tree houses. Of course, the idea that children play roles drawn from popular fiction has a much longer history — we can see for example Meg in Little Women playing scenes from Pilgrim’s Progress and Anne of Green Gables performing scenes from King Arthur.

2.) It’s been observed among fans of toys and toy-related media that certain figures who look cool but don’t get much character development in the primary media–such as Boba Fett or Darth Maul of Star Wars, Scareglow of Masters of the Universe, or Snake Eyes of G.I. Joe (who got very little screen time in the original cartoon)–often end up being surprisingly popular among toy collectors, earning the title “fan favorite.” Why do you think this happens?

One of my students — Geoff Long — talks about “negative capability” — the idea that works of fiction create loose ends which prick our imagination. In some ways, we can think of those loose ends as excesses — the richly detailed action figure whose potential stretches well beyond the figure’s deployment in the actual media franchise — but they are also gaps — parts of the story or the world which have been left for consumers to explore. These elements are what inspire a great deal of fan fiction, say, since they point to spaces where we can add our own thinking to the unfolding of the larger franchise. They also represent places where fan filmmakers enter into the process. We can see our childhood play with action figures as the first step down that path — towards the appropriation and remixing of media content as a way of expressing our own fantasies about the fictional universes that matter to us. We can see it as something like the folk process playing out on our bedroom floors.

This may well be what we mean when we think of something as a “fan favorite.” Fandom reflects a particular structure of desire — one which is as much about frustration over unfulfilled promises as it is about fascination with the material provided. What’s interesting is that these responses are not personal or idiosyncratic. Boba Fett seems to have captured the imagination of a generation which stretches well beyond his role in Star Wars. The same might be said of Admiral Ackbar or Hammerhead, two other SW action figures, who have extended the visibility of minor characters. Not surprisingly as this generation that grew up playing with action figures become amateur and professional filmmakers, we’ve seen the rise of a genre of action-figure animation of YouTube, and in many cases, those figures you cherished as children become much bigger presences there than they were in the original films.

Jonathan Gray has a good discussion of how the Star Wars toys changed our perception of the films in his recent book Show Sold Separately.

3.) Most toy-based media, especially in the 1980s, is ultimately designed and expected to sell toys, and does so even at the cost of the story. For instance, a new character might be introduced or a new vehicle shown when its appearance doesn’t really serve the story at all and might even distract from it. However, nowadays most toy-based properties, whether they’re enjoyed by children (Ben 10) or nostalgic adults (Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man), seem to offer a much higher quality of writing and attention in their comics, shows and movies, while the toy-pitching aspect is more subtle (though definitely still there). What changed?

First, I am not sure the situation was ever as severe as critics have suggested. Both producers and audiences have had to learn the aesthetic value of a new mode of storytelling which doesn’t remain within a single medium but extends outward — including into the physical space of our everyday life. Those toy-centered series in the 1980s show many traits which we now associate with some of the best works on television — the need to generate multiple characters to support toy lines also resulted in an ensemble structure which is very much what critics liked about The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, or Lost, to cite a few examples; the result was also the focus on a world rather than a single plot line, again something we value in contemporary science fiction and fantasy films. The idea of extension is part of what I call transmedia storytelling, which is very much a buzz word in the media industry at the moment, and we are seeing these story principles move from cartoons or genre series into a broader range of genres.

If there’s been a change, it is because storytellers have really started to embrace this concept of an expanded canvas, of creating rich worlds which can support many characters and stories. And if we appreciate it more fully now, it is because critics and audiences alike have developed a vocabulary for talking about what works and what doesn’t work about media extensions. I recently offered on my blog an overview of some of the core aesthetic principles that have emerged around these kinds of stories — among them, the notion of immersion and extracability.

In immersion, we are drawn into the space of the fiction — we can see the return of 3d or the rise of Imax as great examples of practices designed to promote immersion. In extractability, we take elements of the fictional world back into our everyday lives — and we can see the action figure market as a prime example of Hollywood selling to us the raw materials we can use for our own play and storytelling (and with them come implicit invitations for us to remix and appropriate the content and for us to use it as resources for making sense of our everyday lives.)

4.) Have action figures themselves have moved beyond being mere collectibles or kids’ playthings into being a legitimate form of transmedia storytelling? I’m thinking in particular of the little biographies that can be found on the back of the packaging, and even the accessories that come with the figure.

Yes — to some degree. As media franchises embrace the values of world building, then action figures and accessories often become ways of fleshing out the details of those worlds. Not every aspect of the world can be explored within any given text. Derek Johnson has been arguing that contemporary media franchises are “overdesigned,” that is, part of what gives them their immediacy is a sense of rich background details. If the selection of these details are coherent, they make the fictional world more convincing and engaging. It feels like a real location, one where there is more going on than can be told in a single story.

Action figures and toys can be ways of focusing our attention on some of those secondary figures and background details. We are encouraged to read the narrative from a different point of view. We are invited to pay attention to things which the camera never brought into focus for us. Once we have internalized these details through the free play of our imagination and through the collector’s close scrutiny of the material object, we go back and see something different when we watch the film again. It is like shining a flashlight on a different corner in the room — we see things that were previously hidden in plain sight. I do think this makes a valuable contribution to the experience of the story — if it is done well.

We are starting to see new kinds of storytellers, who grew up in the age of action figures, who take seriously what these extractable elements can contribute to our appreciation of the story and I think we will see more. I don’t think this potential has been fully realized, but I do get the sense that people in Hollywood and the toy industry are developing a better understanding of what toys can add to our immersion into the fictional world.

5.) In his book “Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing,” Stephen Kline suggests that the cartoons based on the popular toylines of the 1980s (Transformers, He-Man, etc.), rather than inspiring the imagination of children who played with the toys, may have instead limited or circumscribed it with pre-defined characters, conflicts and stories. What do you think of this idea? Do you think there’s a significant difference in the experiences of children who played with nameless G.I. Joes in the 1960s versus those who played with the cartoon-based “Real American Hero” toys of the 1980s?

Nah! Action figures and other toys are evocative. They enlarge rather than constrain our imagination. They allow us to get our hands on the central myths and icons of our culture. They are sold to us with an implicit invitation to assume the role of author in a text. And they come with the potential to communicate our ideas easily with our playmates and co-creators. They allow us to have a shared fantasy where we can quickly pick up fictional roles, where we can embraced shared roles, and where we can build upon existing plotlines, but we can take those resources anywhere our imagination allows us.

As members of a culture, we often rely on shared resources as the raw materials from which we construct our own personal mythologies. We are drawn at different moments in our lives to different characters and situations which are part of the larger cultural reservoir because they give shape and form to our urges, our desires and fantasies, our frustrations and our anxieties. Each of us selects a different range of these icons as meaningful to our particular situations, but because we select from the same menu, we have shared reference points which facilitate play and conversation with others in our culture. Through our personal and shared play, we give depth and nuance to those icons. They become ours. We feel a sense of ownership over them — justly so since no two versions of Admiral Ackbar or Boba Fett turn out to be precisely the same. What Kline sees as constraints on our imaginations are what I am seeing as facilitating the exchange of meaning and the sharing of fantasies with others within our culture.

Comments now closed (18)

  • excellent "get" poe. that dude has some interesting ideas about how the world of toys works. i particularly liked geoff's idea of "negative capability," i think that's an idea we all recognize is at play. every action figure fan, or toy fan in general, has his or her catch point that draws their attention to an underutilized or underdeveloped charcter or item… those are often the points that observers are most drawn too.

  • Great Poest! I think toys are like a palette with which we can choose while painting a picture. I suppose cartoon-based play could be compared to color by number, they give you the outline and suggested colors with which to color in, but perhaps instead of coloring something red you'll choose purple instead.

    Part of the fun of playing with action figures was the interplay between lines, taking He-Man and GI Joe or TMNT and Batman. I think the point that Prof. Jenkins mentioned, the history of children drawing their play stories from fiction is important. I think children are just as content to draw up their own stories as they are to use existing ones. Action figures from cartoon-based toy lines I think help facilitate play and imagination. Two kids who are complete strangers can get together, but it doesn't matter, if they both watch TMNT or Transformers they can instantly form a connection and play with a shared bond.

  • This was great, Poe, thank you. As an adult collector and fiction writer (not to mention USC graduate), I feel that Prof. Jenkins is spot-on. His responses were thoughtful without being pretentious, full of the anxiety that a lot of cultural critics suffer from who feel some sort of primary responsibility to legitimize a pop medium. And your prompts were perfectly pointed to let him effortlessly explore the material with you. This is probably my favorite thing I've seen on the site since I began reading, Poe. Kudos. More, please.

  • Very nifty interview, and I’ve heard that “negative capability” bit before, just never with that name attached.

    Will you next get an interview with a psycologist to explain the habits of the adult collectors?

    Never mind; I don’t want to know what deep-seeded impulses compel me to collect MOC.

  • I too would be interested in some sort of psychological profile of the adult collector. Why it is that we do what we do! Are we trying to re-capture our child, or have some of us never let go?

  • @Andrew: Are you getting your MA in Communications? I've got my BA in Communication Studies, and I'm sort of at a point in my life where I'm trying to decide if I want to continue my education. I took all different courses for the major, Interpersonal Comm, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Radio Production, but I guess as child of a pop culture generation Mass Media always intrigued me the most. I think it’d be awesome conduct research and publish findings.

  • Eep, my graduate school and professional worlds are colliding, Poe! :)

    Henry’s an even greater a guy in person that he is in words. He’ll be back in Cambridge this April for our department’s 10th anniversary party, so be sure to catch him at the Communications Forum on April 15: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/

  • I'm lucky enough to be have taken a class from Prof. Jenkins at USC. The nicest and most informative prof I have ever had. Might I suggest an interview with Prof. Jonathon Gray? His new book is quite excellent. Thank you Poe!

    @PrfkTear–have you considered a Media Studies/Cultural Studies program? Come to USC and study with Prof. Jenkins!

  • I suppose this will sound like faint praise, but this was perhaps the most inspired piece of action figure commentary I have ever read.

  • The only thing my tiny brain could understand was when he said "Nah!"

    I think this is pretty much what I read, "Blah, blah, blah, Nah! Blah, blah, blah, Immersion, Blah, Blah, Negative Capability."

    Actually I enjoyed the interview while I was reading it, but afterward I was like, "Huh?" What did that dude say again? I know he was talking about playing with toys and he shoved a lot of hi-falutin' concepts in there, but I don't remember what they were. I didn't go to Harvard like you Poe…

    So my favorite part was when he said "Nah!" It made me feel like he was a regular dude and not some sort of ivory tower academic who gets paid to think about things like action figures and TV shows.

    Oh yeah, and you should definitely bring him back to talk about Immersion and Extraction a little more, because it was definitely starting to turn me on…

  • Great interview!! I am just getting back to all of my old sites after my computer crash, I've missed so much!