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Tom Engelhardt, War Games

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The Secret History of G.I. Joe
Barbie, Joe, Darth Vader, and Making War in Children's Culture (Part 1)
By Tom Engelhardt

[The following excerpt, from Tom Engelhardt's book, The End of Victory Culture, is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press.] 

1. The First Coming of G.I. Joe

It was 1964, and in Vietnam thousands of American "advisers" were already offering up their know-how from helicopter seats or gun sights. The United States was just a year short of sending its first large contingent of ground troops there, adolescents who would enter the battle zone dreaming of John Wayne and thinking of enemy-controlled territory as "Indian country." Meanwhile, in that inaugural year of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, a new generation of children began to experience the American war story via the most popular toy warrior ever created.

His name, G.I. -- for "Government Issue" -- Joe was redolent of America's last victorious war and utterly generic. There was no specific figure named Joe, nor did any of the "Joes" have names. "He" came in four types, one for each service, including the Marines. Yet every Joe was, in essence, the same. Since he was a toy of the Great Society with its dreams of inclusion, it only took a year for his manufacturer, Hasbro, to produce a "Negro Joe," and two more to add a she-Joe (a nurse, naturally). Joe initially came with no story, no instructions, and no enemy, because it had not yet occurred to adults (or toy makers) not to trust the child to choose the right enemy to pit against Joe.

In TV ads of the time, Joe was depicted as the most traditional of war toys. Little boys in World War II-style helmets were shown entering battle with a G.I. Joe tank, or fiercely displaying their Joe equipment while a chorus of deep, male voices sang (to the tune of "The Halls of Montezuma"), "G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, Fighting man from head to toe on the land, on the sea, in the air." He was "authentic" with his "ten-inch bazooka that really works," his "beachhead flame thrower," and his "authentically detailed replica" of a U.S. Army Jeep with its own "tripod mounted recoilless rifle" and four "rocket projectiles."

He could take any beach or landing site in style, dressed in "the real thing," ranging from an "Ike" jacket with red scarf to a "beachhead assault fatigue shirt," pants, and field pack. He could chow down with his own mess kit, or bed down in his own "bivouac-pup tent set." And he was a toy giant, too, nearly a foot tall. From the telltale pink scar on his cheek to the testosterone rush of fierce-faced ad boys shouting, "G.I. Joe, take the hill!" he seemed the picture of a manly fighting toy.

Yet Joe, like much else in his era, was hardly what he seemed. Launched the year Lyndon Johnson ran for president as a peace candidate against Barry Goldwater while his administration was secretly planning the large-scale bombing of North Vietnam, Joe, too, was involved in a cover-up. For if Joe was a behemoth of a toy soldier, he was also, though the word was unmentionable, a doll. War play Joe-style was, in fact, largely patterned on and due to a "girl" -- Mattel's Barbie.

The Secret History of Joe

Barbie had arrived on the toy scene in 1958 with a hard expression on her face and her nippleless breasts outthrust, a reminder that she, too, had a secret past. She was a breakthrough, the first "teenage" doll with a "teenage" figure. However, her creator, Ruth Handler, had modeled her not on a teenager but on a German tabloid comic strip "playgirl" named Lili, who, in doll form, was sold not to children but to men "in tobacconists and bars" as an adult male's pet." As Joe was later to hit the beaches, so Barbie took the fashion salons, malt shops, boudoirs, and bedrooms, fully accessorized, and with the same undercurrent of exaggeration. (The bigger the breasts, after all, the better to hang that Barbie Wedding Gown on.)

Joe was the brainstorm of a toy developer named Stanley Weston, who was convinced that boys secretly played with Barbie and deserved their own doll. Having loved toy soldiers as a child, he chose a military theme as the most acceptable for a boy's doll and took his idea to Hassenfeld Brothers (later renamed Hasbro), a toy company then best known for producing Mr. Potato Head.

In those days, everyone in the toy business knew that toy soldiers were three-inch-high, immobile, plastic or lead figures, and the initial response to Joe ranged from doubt to scorn to laughter; but Merrill Hassenfeld, one of the two brothers running the company, called on an old friend, Major General Leonard Holland, head of the Rhode Island National Guard, who offered access to weaponry, uniforms, and gear in order to design a thoroughly accurate military figure. Joe was also given a special "grip," an opposable thumb and forefinger, all the better to grasp those realistic machine guns and bazookas, and he was built with 21 movable parts so that boys could finally put war into motion.

Hassenfeld Brothers confounded the givens of the toy business by selling $16.9 million worth of Joes and equipment in Joe's first year on the market, and after that things only got better. In this way was a warrior Adam created from Eve's plastic rib, a tough guy with his own outfits and accessories, whom you could dress, undress, and take to bed -- or tent down with, anyway. But none of this could be said. It was taboo at Hasbro to call Joe a doll. Instead, the company dubbed him a "poseable action figure for boys," and the name "action figure" stuck to every war-fighting toy to follow. So Barbie and Joe, hard breasts and soft bullets, the exaggerated bombshell and the touchy-feely scar-faced warrior, came to represent the shaky gender stories of America at decade's end, where a secret history of events was slowly sinking to the level of childhood.

For a while, all remained as it seemed. But Joe underwent a slow transformation that Barbie largely escaped (though in the early 1970s, facing the new feminism, her sales did decline). As the Vietnam years wore on, Joe became less and less a soldier. Protest was in the air. As early as 1966, a group of mothers dressed in Mary Poppins outfits picketed the toy industry's yearly trade convention in New York, their umbrellas displaying the slogan, "Toy Fair or Warfare?" Indeed, Sears dropped all military toys from its catalog. According to Tomart's Guide to Action Figure Collectibles, "In the late "60s" [f]earing a possible boycott of their "war-oriented toy,' Hasbro changed Joe's facial appearance and wardrobe. Flocked hair and a beard were added to the figures. Hasbro liquidated strictly military-looking pieces in special sets, and by 1970 the G.I. Joe Adventure Team was created."

Now, Joe was teamed with his first real enemies, but they weren't human. There was the tiger of the "White Tiger Hunt," the "hammerhead stingray" of "Devil of the Deep," the mummy of "Secret of the Mummy's Tomb," and the "black shark" of "Revenge of the Spy Shark," as well as assorted polar bears, octopi, vultures, and a host of natural enemies in toy sets like "Sandstorm Survival." For the first time, in those years of adult confusion, some indication of plot, of what exactly a child should do with these toys, began to be incorporated into titles like "The Search for the Stolen Idol" or "The Capture of the Pygmy Gorilla." Not only was Joe now an adventurer, but his adventure was being crudely outlined on the packaging that accompanied him; and few of these new adventures bore any relationship to the war story into which he had been born.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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