Why Are the 'Django Unchained' Action Figures Offensive?

Quentin Tarantino made a movie about slavery that is bloody, audacious, revisionist, and exploitative -- typical Tarantino, in other words. In conjunction with the film, several of its characters are now available in collectible doll form. That includes a few of the slave characters, which means that if you buy one of them, you are, in a sense, "buying" a "slave."

I believe it is that latter fact that has got some of the Internet's fainting couches working overtime this week. Karu F. Daniels wrote indignantly about the dolls -- I'm sorry, "action figures" -- at The Daily Beast, yet only the headline ("Django Unchained: Selling Slaves As Action Figures") specifies what, exactly, Daniels' objection is. The story itself takes it as a given that of course "Django Unchained" action figures are offensive, without saying why. Now somebody is calling for a boycott (the dolls are $27-$55 apiece, so I doubt a boycott will be necessary to keep people from buying them), and news outlets are picking up the Daily Beast story right and left.

So let me ask: Why is this offensive? More specifically, if you're OK with "Django Unchained" existing as a movie -- a form of entertainment, for which admission is charged and from which profits are derived -- why wouldn't you be OK with there being merchandise related to the movie? It's inconsistent to oppose one but not the other. It's not like the box says, "BUY A SLAVE! TRADE WITH YOUR FRIENDS! START OUR OWN PLANTATION!" Six figures from the movie are available in doll form (here they are at Amazon), including slaves Django, Broomhilda and Stephen, and non-slaves Schultz, Candie and Butch. The slave characters are not identified as such. There's nothing slave-y about the dolls or the packaging. The only way you know they're slaves is if you know the movie. They're movie dolls, like the ones you can buy (or, more often, not buy) for a thousand other movies.

Django Unchained

Now, I understand that for people who are already upset about "Django Unchained" (and that includes The Daily Beast), this is merely another insult. Anything Tarantino does in relation to his offensive film will be viewed as also offensive. That's logical. The people I'm curious about are the ones in the "I liked the movie but this is wrong" camp. Examples of this position are here, here, here, and all over Twitter (search "django dolls").

Again I ask: If the movie isn't a disgusting attempt to cash in on America's shameful legacy of slavery, why are the toys?

Some of the ire stems from a misunderstanding of the whole "action figure" market. A writer at NewsOne thinks these are "slave master and slaves [sic] toys for children to play with." They're not, of course. Nobody's going to "play with" these toys. If anyone buys them, it will be adults, and they won't play with them, they'll pose them and display them on their shelves next to their other incongruous tchotchkes, like the Albert Einstein action figure and Corky St. Clair's "My Dinner with Andre" playset. Part of the appeal here is to make you think, "Toys from an R-rated movie?? That's hilarious! It runs contrary to my expectations of toys and movie tie-ins and thus appeals to my sense of irony!"

And that, I suspect, is why Tarantino wanted to license these dolls. They reflect his fondness for kitsch, pop culture and the things he experienced in his youth, like big posable action figures. The National Entertainment Collectibles Association, which makes the dolls, said as much in the press release: "It just wouldn't be Quentin Tarantino if there wasn't some love for the '70s involved." NECA also sells action figures related to the Rambo, "Evil Dead," "Alien" and "Predator" movies, all presumably geared toward the same adults-who-like-children's-things who would buy "Django Unchained" dolls. (For what it's worth, the "Django" dolls are marked "ages 17 and up.")

In that Daily Beast article, Daniels quotes "noted black film critic Tim Gordon" as saying, "There were a lot of things that were done for 'Django' that would've never been done for 'Inglourious Basterds.' Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope, which hopes to organize a boycott, made a similar statement: "Tarantino and [Harvey] Weinstein didn't have action figures for their movie 'Inglorious Basterds' because they know the Jewish community would never allow it." But in fact there were "Inglourious Basterds" action figures, including one for Nazi Col. Hans Landa. If there was a similar outcry about selling Nazi toys to children so they could reenact the Nazi atrocities at home and make light of the horrors of the Holocaust, I missed it.

When you get right down to it, the whole controversy -- which may or may not have existed before The Daily Beast made it into one; the dolls were announced last fall and have been on sale since before Christmas -- is a capsulized version of what's controversial about Tarantino in general. He has always walked the line between exploitation and celebration, between decrying the filthiness of something and wallowing in it. Slavery was brutal and deplorable, yet "Django Unchained" -- clearly an anti-slavery film -- is brutal and entertaining. The only way these dolls are in poor taste is if the movie is, too. If you liked the film but are put off by the action figures, you might need to reexamine your feelings about the film.