Poe Ghostal here. The recent kerfuffle over NECA's Django Unchained figures is just the latest in a long line of controversies surrounding little plastic people. Action figures have been causing controversies almost as long as they've been around, so I decided to do a little digging to find some of the more notable examples.
For the purposes of this article, my criteria for a figure being truly "controversial" was that I could track down at least one legitimate news article about someone being upset about a toy. So while legend has it that parents were horrified by Kenner's 1979 Alien figure, I was unable to find any articles on the topic - hence its absence from this list.
Anyway, here are ten of the most notable examples of controversial action figures.
10.) Austin "Danger" Powers (Austin Powers, McFarlane Toys, 1999)
In 1999, McFarlane Toys made a line of action figures based on the first two Austin Powers films. The figures had voice chips. The collectible action figure movement, targeted toward older collectors, was in full swing by this time, so McFarlane developed two variants of the figures: one with fairly innocent voice chips to be sold at kid-oriented stores like Toys 'R' Us and other big box retailers, and others with racier lines for comic shops and other specialty stores. You can see where this is going.
One Georgia mother was rather upset when she and her 11-year-old son were at a Toys 'R' Us when an Austin Powers figure - clad only in underwear and socks with a chest full of "real" hair - inquired, "Do I make you horny, baby?" In a scene straight out of a cheap sitcom, her son began pestering her about the meaning of "horny." The woman filed a complaint to TRU about the matter and went to the media. McFarlane Toys, for its part, claimed that it was a simple mix-up at the warehouse.
It remains unknown whether the figure did, indeed, make the mom horny.
9.) Zartan (G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Hasbro, 1984)
What's that? Fan-favorite G.I. Joe villain Zartan was once controversial? Yes. Just a little. Back in 1984 when Zartan's action figure debuted as part of Hasbro's 3 ¾" G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toyline, each character's packaging featured a "bio card" describing that character. This was a fairly new practice at the time, and in Zartan's case, it caused a little controversy.
Zartan was a master of disguise. This was somewhat ham-handedly linked to a note in his "psychological profile" on his bio card, which stated, "Extreme paranoid schizophrenic. Grows into various multiple personalities to such an extent that the original personality becomes buried and forgotten."
According to a December 1984 article from Canada's Globe and Mail, the Canadian Mental Health Association took exception to Zartan's characterization as a paranoid schizophrenic. CMHA president Robert Martin stated, "For years, we have been trying to fight against the stigmatization and ostracization of the mentally ill. And now this company creates the notion that the mentally ill are alien and enemy creatures, rather than people who need our help and understanding."
The article states that "embarrassed Hasbro officials [...] apologized for using the phrase 'paranoid schizophrenic.'" The "psychological profile" section was removed entirely from the bio in later production runs.
8.) Dexter (Dexter, Bif Bang Pow, 2009)
Bif Bang Pow
Action figures of mass murderers - even fictional mass murderers - are just not something that can come out in toy stores without someone noticing. Or at least, not the first time they show up; nowadays people don't seem to mind all the Freddy and Hannibal Lecter figures.
In 2009, Bif Bang Pow created an action figure based on the main character of Dexter, a TV show about a serial killer who hunts other killers. The news articles from the time referred to a "controversy" that seemed to center entirely on a few people being kind of surprised Dexter action figures were being sold at Toys 'R' Us. No boycotts were proposed (one person filed a complaint to TRU) and the only real commentary seemed to be that, well, maybe the figures should be sold in "more appropriate stores" or something. Given the lackadaisical nature of this "controversy," I guess by 2009 a serial killer action figure just wasn't that shocking.
7.) Talking Freddy Krueger (Matchbox, 1989)
In 1989, Matchbox Toys produced a Freddy Krueger doll. It was one of those pull-the-string dolls clearly intended for children. Guess what? Turns out parents and won't-someone-think-of-the-children types weren't super-excited about talking dolls of kid-killing burn victims. Some urged a boycott of Matchbox products, so after the initial shipments, Matchbox ceased production.
The real tragedy of this story isn't so much that the lame talking Freddy dolls were curtailed, but that the controversy sank another, far-more-awesome monster-themed toy line, Maxx FX. The line was based on the idea of dressing up a regular doll to look like a monster character. Freddy Krueger was produced (of course), but after the controversy Matchbox scotched plans for similar dolls of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Alien(!). For the full story of the promising rise and the bitter fall of Maxx FX, check out this website.
6.) Steve the Tramp (Dick Tracy, Playmates, 1990)
Steve the Tramp is a character from the Dick Tracy newspaper strip. He was first introduced in September 1932 as an abusive Fagin-type who makes Junior, Dick Tracy's future adopted son, steal for him. Six decades later, the character made a brief appearance in the Warren Beatty film.
Playmates Toys, meanwhile, were looking to capitalize on their recent success with their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toyline, which was just beginning to lose a little steam. As part of their Dick Tracy line of toys, Playmates made a figure of Steve the Tramp. The packaging noted that "you'll smell him before you see him" and that he would "use and abuse any young helpless prey he comes across."
Homeless advocacy groups, led by the soon-to-be-famous Reverend Christopher Rose (whose "Warped Toys" lists was an annual source of amusement for collectors in the late 1990s and early 2000s), organized demonstrations outside toy stores until the figure was pulled from shelves (by Kay-Bee toys, at least).
There is no evidence of any complaints about McFarlane Toys' "Todd the Bum" figure, suggesting that toy-related homeless advocacy is arbitrary at best.