The new series of The Toys That Made Us debuts on Netflix tomorrow, and one of the four new episodes is about the Transformers. It seems like a good time to look at some aspects of the Transformers brand and history in order to find out if they can truly be considered iconic. That word gets used a lot in the context of the brand within the community, but in a wider context, some of the characters and aspects of the Transformers that are ingrained into our minds do not necessary qualify as iconic to the general public, or even people of a certain generation who were around when Transformers hit the big time.
To be considered iconic in a general sense, within pop culture and outside of the fandom, a Transformers-related thing would have to be recognisable to most of the common populace. It would have to be noteworthy, significant or due some kind of celebration, possibly. Within the fandom, certain events and characters, particular toys and people, can be considered iconic. These things would never break free of the sphere of fandom and be recognisable to non-collectors or non-enthusiasts, so we have to take care in what we consider to be iconic in the broader sense of the word.
So what can be considered iconic? Well, Transformers themselves as a phenomenon and toy line for one. Robots that change from humanoid (or beast) form to everyday objects or vehicles; I think we can agree that this aspect of the brand is genuinely iconic and well known outside the corridors of Transfandom. People will have been exposed to this via the toy line in stores, via the cartoons and especially the relatively recent live action movies directed by Michael Bay. People of a certain generation would have grown up with Transformers toys themselves, or around other children who had them. Their parents’ generation would have been aware of them for the same reason.
Staying at the same level, but assuming a degree of interest and awareness of the brand across generations, we could even argue that the taglines “Robots in disguise” and “More than meets the eye” are things that non-fans would potentially remember and recognise. I would hesitate to extend that awareness to the precise details and construction of the original season 1 Transformers theme tune since I have sung it for people on occasion, people who were otherwise aware of Transformers, and they did not indicate any familiarity with the song. The cartoon wasn’t all that accessible to everyone during the time! However, knowledge of the two factions – Autobots and Decepticons – and even recognition of their respective insignias definitely drifts into the realm of the iconic, in my opinion.
Before we go further, let’s think about how iconic something can truly be if it’s being discussed in the context of certain generations only. I think it remains acceptable, because after all, you can’t always say certain bands aren’t iconic because earlier or much later generations aren’t fans or completely aware of their influence or work. They can be iconic of an era and still worthy of the term, right? Elevating the status of something to full ‘cultural icon’, however, probably requires awareness of it to be far less limited to particular generations of people associated with specific eras.
Does the Autobot leader “Optimus Prime” qualify for that ‘cultural icon’ status? Possibly, but more likely I am influenced in thinking so by the circles of friends and associations therein that I have had growing up and playing with, studying with, working with and living with people of particular generations and backgrounds. When it comes to actual characters of the Transformers universe, awareness of the name and look of the character is more likely to be iconic than any knowledge of actual personality. Sure, most will have heard of Optimus Prime (G1) and know he was a leader, red truck and a heroic robot. They may also have heard of “Megatron” and be aware that once upon a time he was a gun, similarly “Soundwave” the tape player. Those that are remembered for their novel vintage alternate modes may be less obviously iconic since that knowledge is so specific to a certain generation. The “Bumblebee” character (and brand) from the recent Michael Bay-directed live action Transformers movies is probably just as iconic to Transformers as a Megatron or a Soundwave would be, much moreso than his G1 Volkswagen Beetle incarnation.
Going back to the act of changing between modes, the transformation sound itself (the one you’re making right now) could also be considered iconic to Transformers. It was suggested that the spinning faction logos during the cartoon – along with the jingle – could also qualify, but to me that is far too specific to people who had watched the cartoon. I don’t think that’s a wide enough subset of people to allow it to be labelled iconic to Transformers…and yet that’s exactly where the Transformation sound comes from and I have chosen to think of that as iconic to Transformers. Clearly this isn’t a science and is wildly open to interpretation!
In fact, maybe the discussion as a whole should not really be carried out by Transformers fans and enthusiasts; in order to truly gauge what is iconic to Transformers, one should observe conversations between non-collectors, non-enthusiasts and those who are only just aware of the brand and phenomenon at all. Maybe the concept of any aspect of Transformers being iconic to anything beyond the brand itself is just a symptom of our own bias and love for it, although I always like to think that Transformers are iconic to the Eighties, successful children’s toys and cartoons generally.
It will be fascinating to see how the very popular Toys That Made Us show on Netflix affects the Transformers community, media, second-hand toy market, general sentiment and awareness towards the brand. The very fact that it’s a more detail-led, focused look at the toy-line within a specific cultural context and potentially containing new information makes it more interesting to us as Transformers fans, especially when compared to the slightly more detail-light mentions of Transformers on general Eighties or children’s toy retrospectives that regularly popped up on TV some years back. However, it might be this exact detailed look at the toy line which may not interest the wider public, and that’s pretty indicative of the difference between what we as fans consider iconic to Transformers compared to those who are not fans.
All the best