GI Joe

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GI Joe

The GI Joe action figure, a plastic doll twelve inches tall and dressed as a military man, was the first action figure and the first exclusively boy's doll, disguised as a war toy. Extremely popular, it was at the same time controversial because of the fighting in Southeast Asia: its introduction by Hassenfeld Brothers in 1964 coincided with the U.S. Congress' passing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which escalated American involvement in Vietnam. Invented by Stanley Weston, GI Joe was inspired by Mattel's Barbie, which made its debut in 1959, but GI Joe was different from Barbie in that it had twenty-one movable joints, enabling it to be configured in various combat poses. In the "razor and razor blade" principle of marketing, GI Joe, like Barbie, was "accessorized"; that is, designed to need additional paraphernalia. "Items sold separately" was the saying which accompanied every advertisement for the dolls.

Although the GI Joe action figure originated during the Cold War, it was nonetheless made in the image of the World War II fighting man. According to Hassenfeld's promotional campaign, the face of GI Joe comprised a composite of the faces of twenty Medal of Honor recipients from the war. American television and cinema were, at the time, frequently glorifying the soldier of the "Good War" in adventure series (Combat, The Lieutenant, and Rat Patrol), docucameo-epics (The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, and In Harm's Way), and big-war films (The Great Escape and Von Ryan's Express). Comic books made the World War II fighter a hero as well, represented by DC Comics' "Sgt. Rock" and Marvel Comics' "Sgt. Fury." America's fascination with the World War II past may have been linked to the uncertainties felt during the Cold War era, as was their fascination with the GI Joe action figure.

A year after its introduction, the GI Joe line was augmented by an action nurse, featuring blonde rooted hair and painted green eyes; and a black soldier heralded as "Action Negro." Neither sold well, and the nurse was discontinued soon thereafter. On the other hand, GI Joe accessories like the plastic jeep and space capsule were very popular. In 1968 the Talking Joe offered combat discourse, eight phrases per action figure, produced by the pull of a color-coded string. Not everything that GI Joe said was celebratory (for example, "Medic, get that stretcher up here" and "Prepare wounded for helicopter pick-up"), although it was certainly less negative than what a real soldier would have said slogging in the mire of Vietnam. When war protests grew more bitter, fighting Joe dolls were converted into the Adventure Team to look for buried treasure or to capture wild animals. The logo worn by the Adventure Team uncannily resembled a peace sign. By 1976, the GI Joe action figure became Super Joe and was reduced in size to eight inches, for cheaper production and to enable the selling of more affordable accessories. Two years later, with Kenner dominating the market with its Star Wars action figures, racking up nearly $100 million in sales, GI Joe was discontinued.

The GI Joe story does not end there, however. Many children wrote Hasbro (Hassenfeld's later name), asking for the toy soldier's return. In the year of Ronald Reagan's first inauguration, GI Joe was reintroduced as "A Real American Hero." Standing at less than four inches tall, a size based on the Star Wars figures, the new GI Joe was the best-selling toy of the 1982 holiday season. This was quite a feat considering that Mattel at the same time introduced its He-Man and Masters of the Universe action figures. The following year, Mattel hired a film company to create a TV cartoon series based on the Masters of the Universe, inspiring Hasbro to do the same for Joe. In 1983 Mattel sold twenty-three million Masters of the Universe figures, and in the following year sales increased to $250 million. In 1984 Tonka entered the competition with its GoBots, and Hasbro responded with its Transformer line featuring "good" Autobots and "evil" Decipticons.

In the meantime, the second wave of GI Joe dolls continued to fill a niche, dealing with new foes such as "Destro" and "Drednoks." In 1986, GI Joe had $185 million in sales. Two years later, Hasbro claimed that two-thirds of American boys between the ages of five and eleven owned GI Joe dolls. What was new was the official narrative offered by the GI Joe animation series (1983-1987, 1989) and the comic book G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982-1994), creating a need for clear enemies. In 1986, the line encompassed all four branches of the American military and was augmented by Japanese, German, Russian, British, French, and Australian fighters. This was in keeping with its World War II theme. Even so, little was suggested by the manufacturer on how boys should play with these figures.

If by the Reagan years it was necessary for a story line to be more explicit, World War II seemed too remote for development. On the other hand, a plot directly focusing on the Cold War was risky during the era of Mikhail Gorbachev. The comic book and animation series created fictional events and a line of enemy soldiers known as Cobra, a group of warriors who sought "to conquer the world for their own evil purposes!" The Gulf War did inspire Hasbro to create a "Duke" figure, a friendly soldier dressed in camouflage fatigues, back at the original twelve inches of height. By alluding to the film actor John Wayne, Duke linked not only World War II (a la Sands of Iwo Jima) with the Cold War (as in The Green Berets), but also the New World Order (represented by the international coalition which opposed Iraq). Among Hasbro's new GI Joe offerings for 1998 was the General Colin Powell doll.

—Roger Chapman

Further Reading:

Cross Gary. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1997.

Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. New York, Basic Books, 1995.

Fraser, Antonia. A History of Toys. Frankfurt-am-Main, Delacorte Press, 1966.

Miller, G. Wayne. Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the Companies That Make Them. New York, Times Books, 1998.

Young, Robert. Action Figures. New York, Dillon Press, 1992.