G.I. Joe is a fictional military character that has become the basis for a series of comic books and action figure toys targeted at young boys, primarily in the United States. The overt masculinity of the figures, coupled with their military theme, has made them acceptable male analogs to girls' dolls, and they were the first action figure-type toy successfully marketed. The name originally referred to a comic strip created by David Breger in 1942, which was published in military newspapers. In this incarnation, it was a generic term used to indicate an average soldier, rather than a name of a specific character. The term was quickly adopted for general use, even becoming the title of a 1945 Oscar-nominated film about the military journalist Ernie Pyle, who covered World War II on the front lines.
In 1964, the Hasbro toy company issued its first series of G.I. Joe action figures. The figures were twelve inches in height, making them smaller than traditional dolls for girls, and were capable of more fully articulated movement. The original series included members of the various branches of the U.S. armed services with individual names, but in later versions a single G.I. Joe was manufactured, making the name apply to both a line of toys as well as the primary figure in that line. G.I. Joe was initially successful, but quickly fell victim to the growing anti-Vietnam sentiment in the United States, making military toys less popular overall. In 1969 the line was rebranded "G.I. Joe Adventurer" and included various action-themed professions (e.g., Adventurer, Aquaman, Astronaut) in place of the older armed services branches. This line also included an African-American G.I. Joe. The first non-Caucasian figure had been produced in 1965, but used the same Caucasian-featured mold as the regular figure in darker plastic.
The toys were articulated at most of their major joints, accomplished through elastic threads connected to an inner frame that held the various limbs together. They were marketed (along the lines of Mattel's Barbie line for girls) with a variety of accessories and vehicles that could be purchased along with the dolls. Unlike Barbie, the variety of alternate clothing choices were never that great; some clothing could be added or changed, but the primary customization was expected to be weaponry or tools. Nonetheless, G.I. Joe's clothing could be removed, and the lack of representative genitalia became an unexpected focus of fascination.
In 1982, the G.I. Joe line was revived in its military profession under the name "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero." This line was reduced in scale to the 3.75 inch-size popularized in the 1970s by the original Star Wars® action figures. This format was much less articulated, making for less realistic movement, and the clothing was usually molded onto the figure. There were also fewer possibilities for accessories; the business model had moved from using a basic figure with accessories to encouraging children to buy multiple pre-dressed and accessorized figures. The model was successful, and G.I. Joe became even more popular than in its earlier format.
The G.I. Joe line has since branched out beyond action figures to include comic books, animated television shows, and other formats. The figures originated as moderately lifelike representations of actual military persons, but over time have become less realistic and more fantastical, transforming into something closer to fictional superheroes. At the same time, their strict version of masculinity has become hyperbolic. The toys have always reflected the attitude toward the military current in the United States, but their attitude toward representative masculinity has become increasingly stylized.
DePriest, Derryl. 1999. The Collectible GI Joe: An Official Guide to his Action-Packed World. Philadelphia: Courage Books.
Michlig, John. 1998. GI Joe: The Complete Story of America's Favorite Man of Action. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Brian D. Holcomb