Oh wow, I have been a neglectful blogger lately! Apologies for going AWOL unexpectedly – a combination of work stuff and family gatherings has kept me out of the best mental space to write anything of significance. Hopefully I’ll be easing back into it over the next few days, and making the best of what remains of Second Hand September.
To start, I’m sharing this essay I posted to Tumblr several months ago, continuing my exploration of why geek culture seems to prioritise Owning Stuff over other forms of fan experience.
I can’t say for certain what inspired this essay. A trip to a con where I was dead set on buying some merch but came home disappointed. A number of YouTube videos by anime fans with conspicuous amounts of New In Box Funko figures in the background. Finding some old New In Box figures for sale online and being outraged at the prices being charged. Or all of these things, alongside my preference for having an eclectic collection of merch and hand-crafted geeky stuff all jumbled up together on my mantelpiece.
Either way, it got me thinking about the geeky stuff we buy and what we do with it once we get it home or take it out of the shipping box. Why are so many geeks determined to keep their toys pristine in the boxes, even putting the boxes on display instead of the figures inside?
Two words I’m going to use a lot here are Culture and Commodity.
To begin with, fandom is the Culture. Being in fandom could mean creating content, or writing meta, or running a site, or organising events, or talking to other fans online, or consuming fan-created content, or anything to show you are a Fan of something, including buying merchandise.
Fandom, like any society, develops hierarchies. That happens, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fandom, like other cultures, awards elevated or special status to certain people within the culture – creators, YouTubers, pro-cosplayers, etc.. People who demonstrate that their participation in fandom goes beyond just watching/reading/playing the original content and average-level fan-activity like having a Tumblr/reading fic/wearing a T-shirt can potentially move to the top of that hierarchy.
So being a recognised figure within fan culture awards you a certain status and level of respect.
What happens next is that owning a lot of merch becomes another way to demonstrate you are a higher-level fan. The merch is the Commodity – the thing you can purchase to participate in the Culture. Buying merch doesn’t require creative ability, so anyone with a certain amount of cash can demonstrate their participation in the culture without having to be a creator. So the stage after that becomes ‘owning lots of merch’ = ‘high-level fan’. You aren’t just a casual fan with a couple of T-shirts and an action figure: you are A Collector.
Buying the Commodity (the merch) actually becomes its own Culture. Buying merch becomes a way to participate in fandom. And displaying your possessions, as with non-fan cultures, is a way of displaying your status – if you own lots of stuff, it must be because you are a successful person who has earned enough disposable income to spend on luxuries. So having money and participating in the culture of buying merch affords you high status and respect, which is its own type of commodity.
Please note, here, that I’m not saying any of this is a bad thing. I am observing and describing a thing that happens in fandom and non-fan cultures alike. It’s like having a Shoe Collection or a Record Collection; the process of acquiring and keeping stuff, even if you rarely or even never actually use it, but keep it and gain enjoyment simply from owning it.
Why I bring up the ‘culture’ of displaying Funko Pops in their boxes is because, when action figures first became a thing that people wanted to spend their money on, they were toys meant for children to play with. Back when the concept of a ‘mint-in-box’ action figure became a desirable thing, it was because mint-in-box action figures were actually a rarity. So many of those old Star Wars and Star Trek action figures had been bought for kids to play with, so most of those early figures had been taken out of their boxes and used as they were intended to be used. Mint-in-box figures were scarce because they weren’t meant to be kept in their boxes.
So when geek culture began to become more visible, and action figures became more popular, there was already this idea that you should keep your figures mint-in-box because (a) taking them out of the boxes was what kids did, and the people buying action figures were adults now, and (b) because it gave them potential financial value, and geek culture exists in a society where items with high financial value (or potential value, several decades in the future) are more desirable.
I could go to my local second-hand market and buy He-Man toys or Star Trek toys that are 20-30 years old for less than a pound, because they’re unboxed toys that have been played with. But a mint-in-box He-Man from the ‘80s has financial value precisely because it wasn’t used as intended – because it’s pristine and untouched – and if I took it out of its box it would lose that financial value.
So geek culture has this unwritten law that action figures mint-in-box are more desirable than unboxed, because they have (or may potentially have) financial value.
That’s all well and good if you’re intentionally buying action figures as a financial investment. But are Funko Pops a financial investment? In 50 years’ time, are mint-in-box Pops going to be a rarity? Or will everyone and their grandmother have one because we all followed the unwritten law of not taking them out of their boxes?
If you want a comparison, think about pottery (because that’s another odd niche thing I happen to know about). The old pottery that’s valuable now isn’t the everyday flatware your grandmother used for dinner every day for ten years. It’s the Clarice Cliff Bizarre ware and the Wedgewood Kutani Crane items that had limited releases and are hard to find in good condition. With Wedgewood pottery, Jasperware is very common now and honestly isn’t that attractive as pottery goes – it’s unglazed so has an unpleasant rough feel, and the older stuff isn’t especially valuable or collectable. But Kutani Crane, also by Wedgewood, is highly sought after.
So are your Funko Pops, mint-in-box, going to be that rare and desirable item that experts on the Antiques Roadshow will rave over in 50 years’ time? Or will they be the future equivalent of the floral patterned cups that everyone’s grandparents have in their cupboards?
Again, I don’t mean this as a criticism of Funko collectors. I have a few myself. And if keeping yours mint-in-box is your thing, then you do you. It’s not my place to tell anyone else what their fandom experience should be.
The reason I find it odd is because to me, it’s the action figure itself that brings me joy. I have a really eclectic collection of figures from all sorts of fandoms, and I have Funko Pops mixed in with blind-box and gatcha toys and plushies and highly detailed figures and ones I made myself. The two shelves I have (although that will probably expand soon!) are my version of my parents’ shelves of collectable pottery. They are things that make me happy when I look at them because they remind me of the stories I’ve read and watched, and of the fandom experiences I’ve had, whether online or at cons and events.
When I see YouTubers in front of their shelves of mint-in-box Funko Pops, I can’t see the figures. I can’t even see the box labels showing what fandoms they’re from. I just see the packaging. I see the Commodity which became its own Culture.