Return Home

Mutant Rights

Thursday, December 22, 2011 - 10:42 AM

Radiolab presents all-new actionable figures Radiolab presents all-new actionable figures (Adam Cole/WNYC)

In this podcast short, a strange twist of legal taxonomy causes a dispute over whether X-MEN action figures are toys or dolls and sparks a court case about what it means to be human.

Reporter Ike Sriskandarajah tells Jad and Robert a story about two international trade lawyers, Sherry Singer and Indie Singh, who noticed something interesting while looking at a book of tariff classifications. "Dolls," which represent human beings, are taxed at almost twice the rate of "toys," which represent something not human - such as robots, monsters, or demons. As soon as they read that, Sherry and Indie saw dollar signs. it just so happened that one of their clients, Marvel Comics, was importing its action figures as dolls. And one set of action figures really piqued Sherry and Indie's interest: The XMEN, normal humans who, at around puberty, start to change in ways that give them strange powers.

So Sherry and Indie went down to the customs office with a bag of XMEN action figures to convince the US government that these mutants are NOT human. That argument eventually became a court case that went on for years. Joe Liebman, former international trade attorney for the US Department of Justice, helps us understand the government's side. And Ike, with help from director and producer Bryan Singer, reflects on the story of the XMEN, and tells us why this case is so poignant for anyone who’s fought to be different without being cast as an outsider.



Bryan Singer


More in:

Comments [61]

Sherlock T. Dickinson

This was a very interesting concept, and another plus to Radiolab for finding an obscenely small event and putting it into a larger concept. From personal experience with reading and the Bioscience program in which I am enrolled, I know how common mutations are in the extremely complex human genome. Every person is infinitesimally different from every other person, but then we are also 99.9% the same as the great apes. So just because these "mutants" have a visible (or able to be noticed) difference, they are not human? Yet the gorilla, orangutan, and chimpanzee are all classified as apes, but the differences in each are astoundingly obvious. If it isn't how similar our DNA is that makes us human, nor how "civilized" we are, how do we classify humanity? These guys did a great job looking into that and expounding upon it. Even the correlation (although they didn't create it on spot) between the X-Men and events of the time period offer questions to be looked at. If having blue skin turns someone from human to monster, then wouldn't having skin that is black also work? Yet we have proved this false, so why is it that Beast was declared a monster? Be it skin color, mental ability, or physical looks, humanity has some questions to answer about itself before it starts questioning the humanity of others. But then, if we have so many problems, maybe they don't want to be human.

Apr. 06 2015 05:13 PM
Gandalf G. Bond from Florida

I thought this podcast was really interesting and funny because this is something that I never would have expected to become a legal issue. I'm surprised that action figures, human or not, would be classified as dolls just because they are so different than most peoples idea of what a doll looks like. I'm sure if you asked most people what an action figure was, they would quickly classify it as a toy and not even think to call it a doll. I personally think this should never have been an issue and that the government is just creating their own definition for what a doll is in an attempt to pull in more money.

Feb. 02 2015 10:39 PM
Upton D. Wilder

The fact that people have time to argue whether XMEN are "dolls" or "toys" is just amazing. Do people really not have anything better to do than sit on a such a meaningless court case for ten plus years? Either way, I found this story very amusing and interesting. I mean who can blame Marvel for wanting to get a little more bang for their buck? This podcast did raise some thought provoking points. The XMEN is simply tale of outsiders. They are not considered human because of their mutant abilities. At one point or another we have all been considered the outsider. But that doesn't make us not human. Where does the line between human and "mutant" begin? I always love listening to these pod casts and the interesting points they bring up.

Feb. 02 2015 08:00 PM
Upton C. Gatsby from Florida

This topic was so interesting mainly because I'm a comic book nerd. I think it is not only interesting but clever that marvel realized this tax code on toys and tried to take advantage of it. It only makes sense that a comic book as socially attentive as the X-Men would turn into a case about what is human. I personally would say that the X-Men are not human and therefore are not dolls. If you are arguing about the genes of a character constituting dolls then you need to take a hard look at where your career in law has led you. It should be a very simple yes or no trial, not a multi year fiasco. I would have said no, they are not human.

Feb. 02 2015 03:27 PM
Arthur B Kells from Florida

Anything that has to do with legal loopholes piques my interest. I love how people argue over things like whether or not X-Men are considered humans or not in the court of law, and they can actually gain money by proving them to be non human. The music in this radiolab was amazing as well. It was comical in its epic tone while the speakers are talking about dolls.

Jan. 12 2015 09:40 PM
Ender J. Hayden from Florida, United States

When I clicked on this podcast, I expected a silly, interesting talk about taxation of dolls and toys. What I got was a in-depth talk about discrimination and categorization. There were many interesting points about X-Men and what is "human." I really enjoyed this podcast and the ideas it brought up. I found it interesting that Marvel would categorize the X-Men as monsters even though in the comics they are doing the exact opposite of that. This podcast was entertaining and really makes you think about society.

Jan. 11 2015 01:42 PM

:D :D :D :D :D !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Incredible! I love it!

Aug. 16 2014 09:41 PM
Borgfest from Austin, TX

This was a fantastic discussion about the risks of arbitrary categorization. Our history of classifying and de-classifying people as humans--whether black, Jewish, or other persecuted peoples--has been fraught with human suffering. Science fiction has long served as a useful, alternate reality for contemplating controversial topics. It's disappointing, but not surprising that the judge so easily stripped the mutants of the Marvel universe of their humanity. Let's hope that this does not set a precedent for real-life humans with mutations, because blue skin is not so far-fetched. If you are fascinated by this topic, you might consider checking out Borgfest, a cyborg pride celebration and expo on human augmentation, enhancement, body modification, and wearable technology.

May. 01 2014 01:37 PM
Whatevergirl from unknown

"technically we're all mutants but for the purposes of this discussion, let's just go with it" No! No we're not! You're an idiot!

Sep. 20 2013 03:32 AM

What about Iron Man?

Jul. 31 2013 12:53 AM

Victoria Salter:

The go-to definition for what makes two organisms the same species is whether or not they can breed. If a mutant human (technically we're all mutants but for the purposes of this discussion, let's just go with it) were to procreate with a non-mutant human, then they are still the same species. If superpowered mutants were to continue to breed only with themselves until such point as they became so different from normal humans that breeding with them became impossible, then they'd be (generally speaking) separate species.

Jun. 24 2013 08:07 PM
Kristin Hogan from Austin, TX


As a comic fan, indy comic creator, AND plush toy creator, this was a DELIGHT for me.

Also, I love you both just a little more for being into the X-Men.

Apr. 26 2013 08:09 PM

Okay, I know this is very late, but I think you're conflating "doll" with "human" here. This is a logical fallacy.

Dolls are only humans.

That doesn't mean that anything that isn't a doll isn't human.

If you drew a Venn diagram of this issue, the circle for dolls would be completely within the circle for humans. That doesn't mean the toy circle couldn't overlap with the human circle. It just can't overlap with the doll circle.

Plus, this is just an issue of money, not humanity or personhood. Do you really want to have to pay about 6% more for your X-Men action figure than you already are?

Dec. 05 2012 01:21 AM
Alpha from Vancouver

Do you have a listing of all the music used in this episode somewhere? I NEED that aria!

Nov. 29 2012 12:12 AM
Victoria Salter

I've always thought of mutants as a slightly different species from humans. They have different genetic structures from humans, and this is one of the reasons why I like them. How could anyone argue that someone who can lift an airplane or absorb other people's enrgy by having skin-to-skin contact with them.
I write regularly and I have this idea for story in which a girl named Eleanor moves to this place called Quanland with her father, who is a scientist who wants to build a lab in the place that is next to it called Arania. Arania is not very civilised so they live in Quanland and he just works in Arania during the day.
Elanor goes off exploring one day and meets the person that her father is trying to disprove the existence of; Sunlight. She then becomes great friends with her and discovers that Sunlight is hiding a secret; she's a mutant.
The two of them fall in love and Sunlight tells Eleanor about how the mutants and the scientists are foresworn enemies due to the fact that some mutants had been experimented on by them and then attacked the scientists. The scientists then told the media about these attacks and this is partly why the mutants have such a bad name. They blame the scientists for all he hatred and fear and so they often fight them.
Eleanor then realises that the lab that her father wants to build will cover over part of the mutants' camp and destroy some of the wildlife in Arania. She tells Sunlight about this and the mutant then goes off to fight the scientists and the builders. She gets sick due to the pollution and, after she has found out about this via the other mutants, Eleanor goes off to find Sunlight.

Nov. 13 2012 11:51 AM

I loved this podcast! Finally, two of my favorite things combined! There needs to be a full podcast on future mutations that the human race my have. P.s. Nightcrawler is the best X-Man.

Jun. 11 2012 10:13 PM
english from reno

thanks for another great little short here, fellas. I see a few people hating in the comments section, but I hink they misunderstand your intent, and the show's philosophical position. tracking how legal language like this is understood/interpreted and used/exploited from these different angles gives us a lot of insight into human values and prejudices, and the instability of the boundaries we draw and try to maintain between what is human and what is not. great work! and thanks again.

Jun. 05 2012 11:51 PM
P. Mina Gayed from New Haven, CT

Jad and Robert -- shame on you both for producing a short that made light of an issue that reflects a deeply seeded ignorance. Maybe the deaf and blind (disfigured, defective, genetic freaks) should fall under the the category of d/evolved human mutants? Maybe you two should sound less impressed when a bankrolled lawyer tells you she studied "microbiology and biochemistry" as an undergrad. And maybe Jad should give back that MacArthur award. Honestly, the flippant tone of this short is appalling. Hugely disappointing.

Jan. 29 2012 03:21 AM
Scott Rosenfeld from Baltimore

Chapter 95 of the US Tariff says there is not tariff on dolls? Was this an old story? What changed?

"503.00.00 Tricycles, scooters, pedal cars and similar wheeled toys;

dolls’ carriages; dolls, other toys; reduced-scale (“scale”)

models and similar recreational models, working or not;

puzzles of all kinds; parts and accessories thereof . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Free 70%

“Children’s products” as defined in 15 U.S.C. § 2052:

Inflatable toy balls, balloons and punchballs,

of rubber:

Labeled or determined by importer as intended

for use by persons:

11 Under 3 years of age . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No.

13 3 to 12 years of age . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No.


Labeled or determined by importer as intended

for use by persons:

71 Under 3 years of age . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . X

73 3 to 12 years of age . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . X

90 Other . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . X"

Jan. 25 2012 04:07 PM
gaymer from Fargo ND

there needs to be an entire show about superheros, and talk more about augmentation, laser eyes and energy blast, super strength, accelerated healing, super speed, mind reading, everything, and how this idea of people being able to do all this stuff ever came to mind, they could talk with stan lee, hes 90, hes been around since the dawn of good comics.

Jan. 24 2012 02:49 PM
Chelsea from Portland

Fascinating stuff. I wonder how this will play out if Marvel should decide to make a doll/toy based on their latest superhero depiction of Tim Tebow?

Jan. 19 2012 03:34 PM
Ed from Columbus, OH

LOVED THIS SHOW! While walking the dog I was laughing out loud and thinking deeply at the same time. Thanks, guys, for doing a nice humorous show. It was a nice one off! Great work!!

Jan. 17 2012 08:13 PM
Mom of Ian from Vancouver, WA

I have only known about Radiolab for about 8 months, and I am soooo hooked! First off, it's great to have so many episodes, literally days worth of material to catch up on, each episode as intriguing as the last.
I even started listening to it with my 13 year old son as well as my 23 year old son, and it has sparked some fascinating conversation for all of us.
You are doing the English speaking world a fantastic service! Thank you for thinking outside of the box, between the circles, and above the norm! -- Mom

Jan. 17 2012 07:47 PM

Putting philosophy aside you would define mutants as a different species based on whether or not they could interbreed with humans. They can, so they are still part of the human species.

Jan. 16 2012 05:10 PM
Arne from Chicago, IL

This was terrible.
Two ladies find a tax loophole, how exciting.
This is not nearly as interesting as the two girls and the balloon incident from one of your earlier shows.
The politics behind why this had to go to court in the first place would have made for a much more interesting and informative show, seeing as how the XMen back-story contributes nothing to the story as a whole. This could have been about any action figure toy. It seems you chose Xmen just for the sound bites.

Jan. 15 2012 03:34 PM

I did feel bad that Marvel chose to say these characters are monsters not human. Some characters take on a life that creators can't really foresee.

Jan. 12 2012 07:53 PM
David from Portland, OR

At the end of the podcast, the trade lawyer's are asked if they had any guilt or regret about the legal outcome to which they answered no ... it would have been "marvelous" if they were then asked, "Do you have young children, nephews, or nieces, who are fans of the X-Men comics, to whom you would tell them what you had done?" ... it would have been very interesting to see their answer and reaction then ...

Jan. 10 2012 05:55 PM
Mary from Wyoming

Man, that gal who read the ending credits sure was rad. <3

Jan. 10 2012 02:37 PM
Ms. Worthington's 9th Grade English Class from Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dear Radiolab,

Today, our class listened to your show on mutant rights. We've been studying civil rights, and this podcast was really interesting and valuable to us. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to hear such an interesting perspective on civil rights!


Ms. Worthington's 9th Grade English Class

Jan. 10 2012 02:15 PM
David Bush from Brasilia, Brazil

Please allow me to submit a poem from the desk of Iron Man:

First they came for Beast,
and I didn't speak out because I had no blue hair.

Then they came for Wolverine,
and I did not speak out beacuse I had no claws.

Then they came for Wasp,
and I did not speak out because I had no insect-like wings.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Jan. 10 2012 10:48 AM
b gold

This piece was kinda scary -- I always thought that the Mutants (via much of the Magneto backstory) was a metaphor for Jews in Nazi holocaust or Japanese in U.S. internment camps.
At what point would the government be able to say: you have blond (red, black, platnum, brown) hair -- you aren't human.
Arguably this ruling is a step towards such distinctions.

Jan. 09 2012 11:22 PM
Michael Patrick

The article mentions that all Marvel characters were ruled as not human. What about Iron Man? He is certainly human in spite of his suit of armor. If we rule that he is not human then wouldn't we have to say the same of a medieval knight figurine or a football player?

And what will happen when DC Comics wants to pay less on tariffs? Superman is an alien, but Batman is definitely human. And the two (as well as countless other characters) are often packaged in containers together. Is a human character who pals around with mutants and aliens considered no longer human?

Jan. 09 2012 04:58 AM

Thanks for another great "short"--the only criticism I have is that I would love to see this issue expanded into a full-length episode!

I majored in women's studies in college, and one of my freshman classes spent quite a bit of time on Barbie and the doll industry. I remember reading some articles on the distinctions in marketing between "dolls" and "action figures," but never saw the completely separate legal aspects of this issue explained in great detail.

Jan. 08 2012 10:47 AM
Human Lib

To quote the original cartoon:


Jan. 06 2012 11:51 PM
Troy from Kentucky

I just listened to Mutant Rights today and immediately texted to donate. I work on another podcast titled, Completely Comics ( where we talk about the deeper topics that present themselves in the comic form and loved that you guys dedicated a whole show (albiet a short) to the topic. We completely love Radio Lab.


Jan. 05 2012 10:10 AM
Robin Green from Kentucky

Reaaly enjoyed this episode, but it could have used a bit more scientific thought. In trying to determine if mutants "represent" humans, one should consider if they are the same species. Mutant characters have human parents, for the most part. Mutants are not reproductively isolated from humans. Professor X had a child with Moira MacTaggert, so humans and mutants produce viable offspring. Unless there is an example of a human/mutant offspring being sterile, it is far more likely that humans and mutants have not become separate species and would not for several generations.

Jan. 04 2012 09:27 PM
Eric Oxford from Berkeley, CA

You know... there are some blue people in the world. There's Paul Karason who used colloidal silver to treat a skin condition and now is blue. And more famously there was the blue Fugate family who lived in the Appalachian Hills of Kentucky. They were blue due to methemoglobinemia, a rare hereditary blood disorder where there is excessive methemoglobin in the blood. I kind of feel like there story could in itself could perhaps make a interesting short.

Jan. 04 2012 11:25 AM
bini from Hitchin, UK

Loving the show guys, keep up the good work and hope my small donation will help in some way.

All the way from Hitchin, UK

Jan. 04 2012 07:47 AM
wendy from Houston

Sorry, I think you guys made this one into more than what it is. These are action figures that depict fantastical characters... and superheroes are not people. Plus this decision should make all fans happy that action figures are NOT dolls.

Jan. 03 2012 08:33 PM

I'd be really curious to know what the verdict would be on Star Trek figures, especially those who might be half-human, or just classified as "humanoid". It would also have been interesting to bring up that one test if something is of a particular species is if they are capable of mating with others of that species and to produce viable offspring.

And after the one woman's comment about Wolverine's eyes not looking right, what about Bratz dolls? This reminds me of a Planet Money episode where they discussed the differences between taxing stuffed animals and blankets, since there are now blankets with stuffed-animal features. In the end, it just goes to show how arbitrary some of the tariff laws are.

Jan. 03 2012 02:51 PM

That guy Ike is like a fiery messiah in the night. Where can we hear more of his work? His velvety baritone licks my ears like a cream-fattened kitten.

Jan. 02 2012 05:31 PM

This may seem paranoid, but these women are laying down precedence for some truly horrible things in the future. It's frightening to consider that because Mattel wants to save money on tariffs, there will be legal precedence for dismissing variations in humanity as not human in the future. As a gay person whose presentation does give me away to some,i feel particularly sensitive to this. I identified so strongly with the Xmen growing up that this is sad and scary. I know it's customs law, but lawyers cull legal precedence from wherever they can.

Jan. 02 2012 04:20 PM
Zeus from California

From 1975-1991, a writer named Chris Claremont took a failing series called The Uncanny X-Men and built it into the Marvel flagship we know today. Much like the television series Star Trek, the X-Men got me thinking about civil rights issues at a rather early age. (Although, initially, I didn't realize that's what was happening.) At any rate, this is primarily why the X-Men made for a better story before it had a lot of commercial success. Cartoons, movies, and merchandise inevitably end up watering down and corrupting the spirit of the story.

Jan. 02 2012 10:52 AM
Henning from Berlin

Hey guys, any chance of supporting you via PayPal?

Jan. 01 2012 11:14 AM
Andrew F

And this is why tariffs are stupid.

Dec. 31 2011 06:16 PM
Arsnof from New Mexico

Easiest way to solve it: are caveman figures taxed as human? Mutants are meant to be further evolved hominids, so if something less evolved would be considered human, mutants should, too.

A figure of Thor or the Watcher, however, is clearly in the god/angel category.

An interesting point, Wolverine wasn't originally a mutant. He was meant to be an actual wolverine turned into a person by the High Evolutionary.

Dec. 31 2011 09:37 AM
Adam from Oakland, CA

There was a similar, albeit less interesting, case in England. Basically, chocolate covered cookies were taxed at a higher rate than chocolate covered cakes, so this company wanted to prove what they were making were miniature cakes, not cookies. Their argument was that cookies get soft when they go stale, whereas cakes get hard. To truly drive their point home, however, they produced a giant, 12-inch version of one of their cookie/cakes to prove that it was indeed a cake. In the end, they proved victorious, and Jaffa Cakes, despite looking like a cookie, are classified as cakes.

Dec. 30 2011 03:26 PM
Dwight from Leiden, Netherlands

i understand that Wolverine and such are classified as non-human but how about Punisher, Tony Stark, Nick Fury and Hawkeye just to name 4... they are even in the stories classified as humans. Even though they are freakin good at what they do they don't have any super-human powers or mutations

Dec. 30 2011 11:33 AM
Robert S. Smith, MD from New Hartford, NY

I thought Patient Zero was lousy. Desperately seeking symmetry made he skip to the end! The all music show was not my cup of tea. That's not why I listen to Radio Lab.

Dec. 30 2011 09:21 AM
Bruce Moyle from Tasmania, Australia

Amazing bit of pop culture history I did not know. Thanks Radiolab!

Dec. 29 2011 07:28 PM
Mona from Pittsburgh

Two of my favorite things in one place (X-Men and Radiolab). I never would have thought that these two things could come together but I am glad that radiolab brought them together. The X-Men Universe and their characters have great depth. Thank you for representing the X-Men universe well and the inner struggle that the characters face. Great job and great story.

Dec. 29 2011 09:26 AM
as from dc

Hey guys,
I donated $10 via SMS as per you request during the podcast.
Before I received the confirmation text from the 3rd pary donation company, I received SPAM text from another company.
Seems fishy (Phishy?!) to me.
I don't think I'll be donating via this route any longer - and maybe you should check your 3rd party donation company and make sure they're not selling all your donators' phone number's for spam.

Dec. 29 2011 07:08 AM
Avi Burstein from NYC

I really enjoyed this short. Thanks so much!

Dec. 29 2011 03:53 AM

This is a great segment. I hadn't heard of the dolls vs. toys issue before...thank you for bringing it to my attention and providing a great back story to boot! Happy Holidays!

Dec. 28 2011 10:52 AM
Larry from Chicago

This is an old but always entertaining issue. I personally got to argue in a moot court hearing with a Court of International Trade judge that both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo action figures were not doll representing humans. My notes and brief are posted here:

Dec. 27 2011 06:36 PM
aaron from JP, MA

this episode about mutant rights made me wonder: what would the debate look like if there wasn't money to be saved? if all else were equal, would mutants be considered human?

Dec. 27 2011 02:20 PM

@Jonathan: How interesting! Thanks for writing in.

Dec. 27 2011 01:57 PM
Jonathan Goldberg from Westwood, NJ

This was a great little ep. It reminds me of the Whale Oil case in New York in the early 1800's. It involved how whale oil was taxed as fish oil so they went to court to prove a whale was not a fish and lost. Luckily it was overturned in appeal.

Dec. 27 2011 01:50 PM
Ken Lyman from Rolla, MO.

I am a contributor, so no ads for money please. RadioLab is one of a kind. It's entertaining but educational. It offers perspectives that are out of the mainstream (that's where I live, it seems) but easy for those dogmatics that may listen by accident. Thank you for your program and I wish you all the best in the future as well as a productive future.

Your loyal listener.

Dec. 27 2011 08:04 AM
Ola from Polnd

I love Radiolab! = ]
More of you in 2012 . = )

Dec. 27 2011 05:51 AM
RICHARD ILOMAKI from Toronto Canada

Glad to be along.

Dec. 26 2011 11:21 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by