Are action figures Dolls?

Are Action Figures Dolls? What’s the difference?

Action Figures vs Dolls, what’s the difference? Are action figures dolls? If not, then what sets them apart? We look at definitions, marketing, movement ability and more to find an answer.

Action Figures vs Dolls

To determine the difference between dolls and action figures it’s important that we first define them both. The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following definitions:

Doll: a small-scale figure of a human being used especially as a child’s plaything.

Action Figure: a small-scale figure (as of a superhero) used especially as a toy.

By definition alone we can see that action figures and dolls are not the same thing. Action figures tend to primarily come in superhero form such as Marvel action figures or Star Wars figures. Dolls on the other hand typically come in the form of a regular human being to be used as a plaything.

When Action Figures were invented

The popularity of dolls soared in 1959 when Barbie was invented. The dolls were targeted primarily at young girls and went onto make billions of dollars as one of the most popular toys of all time.

A man named Stan Weston noticed this and tried to emulate Barbie’s success for the under-served male market. His invention? A movable toy soldier that came with accessories like guns and military uniforms. Weston approached toy manufacturer Hasbro with his idea who offered him two options.

  • $50,000 and a 1% royalty fee OR
  • One off payment of $100,000

Unfortunately for Weston, he choose the latter. Meaning he missed out on somewhere in the region of $50,000,000 (fifty million dollars) over the future products lifetime.

Hasbro went on to use the idea in 1964 by releasing G.I. Joe and alongside it, coined the term “action figure” as a way to differentiate it as a toy for boys. And thus, the action figure was born.


The 1950’s and 1960’s was a very different time in the toy market for boys and girls. Today, a lot of toys are seen as gender neutral. Back then though, this was definitely not the case.

Barbie dolls were marketed solely towards young girls, and in later years, action figures were marketed towards boys. The toy companies themselves invented the terms specifically to differentiate the two. The thinking being that boys would not want to play with dolls as it was seen as a “girl thing”.

So while all words are made up, the term “action figure” was made up specifically to serve a marketing purpose for a toy company.

Movement ability

Action figures are typically more moveable than dolls. They have more moveable parts to allow them to simulate eh…action. Action figures will usually have adjustable wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, feet, neck and waist. Although it must be mentioned that this not always the case. There are always exceptions to the rule.

Dolls on the other hand typically have less moveable parts. That is because the purpose of a doll is not as action focused.


Now that we’ve covered all the differences between the two, it’s time for evaluation.

Action Figures are:

  • Typically in the form of superheroes
  • Have more moveable joints
  • Historically marketed more towards boys
  • The term “action figure” was invented in 1964 by Hasbro to sell G.I. Joe toys to boys

On the other hand, dolls are:

  • Historically marketed towards girls
  • Have less moveable joints
  • Typically based on regular people

So there you have it. Although they are very similar, action figures are not dolls. The two terms describe toys with different features and purposes ever since action figures were introduced by Hasbro back in 1964.