While nostalgia for cartoon characters such as Batman, Chewbacca, and Buzz Lightyear helped originate the line, Funko Pops! collectibles have expanded to incorporate likenesses of real, unmasked human beings.
The intersection of nostalgia and capturing physiognomy in vinyl brings us to a collection of four popular Funko Pop! figures, representing one of the oldest pop culture “classics” crafted into this modern collectible: The Golden Girls.
New and old fans alike have clamored for these figurines which, given that the original television series was an adult-oriented primetime sitcom from 1985-1992, would never have had its own merchandise at the time it aired.
Arguably, The Golden Girls enchants its fans due to its unique feature of four independent women over 50, whose complex personalities didn’t perish just because their marriages did. So what does it mean to distill the dynamic characters of Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia into shelf-stable caricatures? One word: archetypes.
Deborah Macey has written extensively about female foursome archetypes in The Golden Girls, which essentially boil down to Blanche being a sex object, Rose being a naïve child, Sophia being a wise mother, and Dorothy being an “iron maiden” — or, in other words, a woman with strong convictions and strong opinions, a feminist.
Examining the original Golden Girls Funko Pops! figurines, it’s obvious that Blanche’s sexuality comes through not only in her hands-on-the-hips pose and her bright red outfit, but as the only Golden Girls character with lips (which, of course, are also bright red). Sophia’s signature accessories — her glasses in “old lady gray” and her bamboo purse — do the easy work of synecdoche. Rose’s innocence is represented sufficiently with the blank stare of the unadorned Funko Pop! itself. Dorothy, as our beacon of feminism and iron maiden, is represented by crossed arms, angry eyebrows, and a scowl.
Ahem. Let’s talk about this.
Dorothy, portrayed by veteran actress Bea Arthur, is arguably the most well-rounded character in The Golden Girls and therefore the most difficult to extract telltale characteristics from. Her character is, indeed, often bitter and sarcastic, but also empathetic and insightful, strong-willed and equitable, nuanced and grateful. It’s also worth pointing out that the biting lines her character became known for are often A. laugh-out-loud-funny, and B. said in response to a demeaning comment, so therefore warranted.
As a simplistic figurine, however, she needs a defining attribute — not necessarily to portray her Funko Pop! as recognizable, but to make it more intriguing and interesting, and therefore more exciting and collectible.
This grimace and closed-off stance, however inadvertently, perpetuates the trope that an informed feminist woman is angry, unfun, and unfunny. (Implying that Bea Arthur, a multiply-decorated stage and screen comedienne, is unfunny is an inference with which to take umbrage.) As Barbara Tomlinson has said, this trope is “designed to delegitimize feminist argument even before the argument begins.”
As popular culture acts as a democratic force, helping to challenge hegemonic structures such as patriarchal values, the cultural representation of a fan-favorite character matters. Reducing Bea Arthur’s Dorothy to curmudgeonly tendencies paints with too broad a brush and significantly undermines the character’s complex perspective on life so adored by fans to this day.
Indeed, the reason Bea Arthur decided to leave The Golden Girls after seven seasons was in part due to jokes made about her appearance, implying that Dorothy — and therefore Bea — was big and ugly and mannish. The whole affair smacks of the infantilizing whine, “feminists can’t take a joke.”
Caricature has proved “something of a nuisance to philosophers and psychologists bent on analyzing pictorial representation,” says David Perkins, given that caricature is positioned in opposition to “realistic” representation. A “realistic” portrayal of a well-rounded fictional character would represent their well-roundedness. A caricature can only choose one or two elements to exaggerate at the expense of all others, particularly so as to differentiate the character from others in the fellowship of the collectible set.
The irony is, of course, that the reductionist nature of Funko Pops! caricature can end up disappointing the very fan base the Funko community is beholden to.
In the attached media, review the characters of The Golden Girls alongside their Funko Pops!, additional Funko Pop! collectibles that have been deemed disappointing in terms of representing their characters, and a “softer” representation of Dorothy without her signature Funko Pop! Scowl.
Macey, Deborah Ann. (2008). Ancient archetypes in modern media: A comparative analysis of "Golden Girls", "Living Single", and "Sex and the City". University of Oregon. https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/8583
Perkins, David. (1975). A Definition of Caricature and Caricature and Recognition. Studies in Visual Communication, Vol. 2, Issue 1. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1013&context=svc
Sfeir, Ghada. (2014). Critical Pedagogy Through Popular Culture. Education Matters: The Journal of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 2 No. 2.
Tomlinson, Barbara. (2010). Feminism and Affect at the Scene of Argument: Beyond the Trope of the Angry Feminist. Temple University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt14bt79q