When is a doll not a doll?

In a recent post I wrote about my costume dolls I referred to one of them as being more of a figure than a doll. To me a doll is something that you can play with which may or may not have moving joints but  a figure cannot move and is intended for display only. But… a lot of dolls are really only intended for display, think of collectible Barbies in elaborate costumes, Ashton Drake dolls, celebrity dolls like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana and modern porcelain dolls or “reborn” baby dolls. None of those are toys for children so are they dolls, or are they figures? See what I mean?

Dolls or figures. You decide.
Dolls or figures. You decide.

I decided to look online for other views on the subject but what I found were a lot of articles comparing dolls with action figures. That’s another interesting question, is there a difference? Most of the answers I read said things like:

  • Action Figures are for boys
  • Action figures can be customised
  • Action Figures have many points of articulation
  • Action Figures have lots of accessories like weapons and vehicles
  • Dolls are for girls
  • Dolls have few points of articulation
  • Dolls can’t be customised
  • Dolls are made of soft material and stuffed
  • Dolls have pink accessories

However this isn’t necessarily true either.  Modern dolls, especially in the 1:6 scale, are being made with articulated joints. Fashion Royalty, Obitsu and even Barbie have articulated knees, elbows, wrists and sometimes ankles as well as waists. Does that make them action figures? Dolls like Obitsu are intended to be customised and I’m sure girls like doing that as much as boys. They may even like dolls with weapons instead of hair play accessories.

The best article I read and the one that comes closest to my own opinion said that there is no difference between a doll and an action figure but at the same time there are differences. You  can read the article here. See what you think.

My take on it is that action figures and dolls are both toys. A doll can also be a figure if it is not intended for play as can an action figure. Some dolls are very similar to action figures in the way they are constructed.

It really doesn’t matter what you call them as long as you enjoy owning them.

Lady in a sari
Lady in a sari – a figure
Faun dolls made in Hong Kong
Faun dolls made in Hong Kong -are these figures?



  1. It’s all terminology honestly….. Dolls and figures are the same thing. It’s only our perception of their relative “girlieness” that changes the labels, but they are in essence the same.


  2. Very interesting … Personally, I think that action figures are often just dolls with “permission to play” – eg Action Man – clearly a doll!! Haha … Of course, you could say that dolls have more of an emphasis on clothes, but some dolls have molded- on clothes that aren’t really central to their identity anyway (eg the earlier Polly Pockets – yes, they’re too tiny for clothes but what I mean is, we’d still think of them as dolls) and some action figures have extensive wardrobes (Action Man, I’m picking on you again).


    • Agree, I tend to think that the term action figures was created because nobody wanted to admit boys might play with dolls but there is a lot of crossover between action figures, traditional dolls and ornamental figures.


  3. Interesting question. I have to agree with pixiecollections.
    For me, action figures are a set character, often with a lot of molded details.
    Dolls on the other hand, have more freedom. They are more easily changed to become someone new, with different clothes and some imagination.
    Admittedly though, I never grew up with the ‘Action Man’ or ‘GI Joe’, and would happily classify those two as dolls. ^_^


  4. I’m revisiting this question/quandary as I collect both as well as what I am hearing refered to “tourist dolls” from peoples travels that make their way into lots on e-bay from estate sales/whatever.I have picked up some great ones to celebrate my ancestors from Scottland and my non-royal English roots, but penchant for the Royals. I have many celebrity dolls with one similarity ..they were affordable, because they were well loved. I do have some mint items that are still in the box that I’d love to “play with” but are too rare or expensive to replace.I think theres a huge bleed over on what one might call a toy,doll or action figure.I call these things my collectables or well loved play things.I value a ratty old home-made as much as the mint. Hopefully they all have back stories and bring me joy, or I pass them along.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have costume dolls too, national and historical dress. Most are old from childhood, bought from doll shows or eBay because they were cheap or given to me by people who travelled for holidays. We are the same, we love our dolls and action figures and as you know we’d rather play with them unless hey are too fragile or expensive.


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