Since its inception in 1964, the G.I. Joe action figure has undergone numerous redesigns which reflect ideological shifts in American social and political culture. Its most dramatic transformation came with the 1996-7 series G.I. Joe Extreme, which endowed its characters with uniforms linking their ultra-muscular bodies to military weapons systems.
While on one level G.I. Joe Extreme may be seen as a toy product designed to entertain boys, on another it can be conceived as a cultural artifact inscribed by a hypermasculine sign system with a considerable iconography – one in which male bonds are mediated and communicated through interaction with machines, specifically artillery hardware and mechanized weapons systems. In the narratives informing the action-figure series – found on packages containing either the figures or accessories, and in the Extreme comic book and animated television series – military technology is represented as an embodied masculinity, an extension of the male soldier (a G.I. Joe character) who operates its systems; conversely, the male soldier can be understood as an extension of the machinery under operation, thereby instigating a crisis in human agency with respect to the moral consequences of war.
In this article I will attempt to decode the gendered messages this toy conveys to adolescent Americans. In the process I will argue that such products help shape a hypermasculine subjectivity which many young males subconsciously adopt in attempts to define themselves as men – a psychological event with troubling social consequences.
A Cold War Icon Goes Steroidal High-Tech
The original G.I. Joe doll was cast in the image of an American soldier of average height and weight. What made him a compelling fighting force were the accessories sold in conjunction with the figure: grenades, scoped rifles, knives, military vehicles, and other weapons. Hasbro, in fact, released seventy-five accessories in twenty-five separate action packs, clearly supporting the message that war was his business. The product proved to be immensely popular, raking in $17 million in the first year and suggesting that G.I. Joe could be located in most American households (Levine and Michlig, 12)
The product has always been influenced by domestic poltical culture (See Hall, 36-9). Early narratives surrounding the product presented G.I. Joe as a fierce Cold War hero, involved in (mostly covert) military operations against the enemies of America–usually the armies of communist regimes. In 1976, the same year Jimmy Carter was elected president, G.I. Joe retreated from military events and immersed in narratives in which he battled monster crocodiles and massive octopuses. His fuzzy beard, more novelty than soldier story, gave him an almost folk-singer-like quality. He remained popular, but not to the extent that Hasbro had expected. When sales did not meet expectations, the disappointed toy company bit the bullet and, in 1978, actually retired the G.I. Joe toyline.
After the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, a new mood captured by the slogan “Peace Through Strength” swept across the country. Hasbro responded by rushing G.I. Joe out of retirement. He returned as a team called Real American Heroes. These new action figures were small (3.75″) but strongly built with molded uniforms which accentuated their muscularity and made earlier Joes appear sveldt by comparison. These new Joes (including characters named Stalker, Flint, and Sergeant Slaughter) also came equipped with extraordinary firepower and vehicles replicating modern army designs. Supported by a popular comic book, Fury Force(published by Marvel), these toys became best-sellers and even surpassed their 12″ predecessors in popularity.
In 1996, Hasbro introduced its G.I. Joe Extreme series to the thriving toy market aimed at boys. The 5″ plastic action heroes had limited articulation and were steroidal in their muscularity. Unlike the stoic expressions of earlier versions of the doll, the Extreme Joes exuded attitude — their faces molded to express a mix of fierce determination and aggressive, heat-of-the-moment intensity. The product line was supported by a comic-book series (published by Dark Horse), an animated television show that ran for 26 episodes, and promotional items such as pinned buttons, hats, license plates, T-shirts, posters, and a toy called the Water Blaster (produced by Larami Ltd, a Hasbro subsidiary), a water gun designed to appear as a semiautomatic machine gun.
The theme of the entire series was not unlike that said to govern American foreign policy: to rid the world of evil – associated here with the obscure terrorist group SKAR, which according to blurbs on the product packages stood for “Soldiers of Kaos, Anarchy, and Ruin.” The Extreme Joes were “hand-picked for their all-out attitudes, toughness, and superior battle skills” in this epic good vs. evil war.
Caught in the crossfire of these powerful ideological forces are young boys between the ages of five and thirteen who, while interacting with the product in seemingly mundane ways, were deluged with powerful messages linking their gender and their bodies to the technology of mass destruction.
The Shaping of a Hypermasculine Subjectivity in Boys
In the late 20th century, new masculine constructs emerged in consumer-based entertainment narratives targeting young males – most significantly, that of the hypermasculine (known in social science circles also as “compensatory masculinity” or “protest masculinity”). Hypermasculinity is associated with high levels of physical aggression, hard muscular body types, and forceful (and frequently antisocial) “dispositions” (Broude 44). J. Pleck, et al, suggest that hypermasculine behavior results from a “masculine ideology” in which boys are conditioned, at a young age, to accept aggression and violence as a natural part of being a man. Their gender identity (knowing that they are male and not female) becomes conflated with their gender role (personality and other traits identified as masculine) which is informed by ideological apparatuses, including toys.
In the United States, especially since the 1980s, boys have been deluged with narratives promoting physical aggression – narratives that media and gender theorist Jackson Katz argues underlie a rising epidemic of violence (especially against women or anybody deemed “weak”). He calls for more critical examination of cultural sites where violent masculinities are produced and legitimated – including comic books and toys – in order to understand more fully the links between the construction of gender and the prevalence of violence in American society (356).
A 1984 McCollum-Spielman Topline Report (Star Power 2: Understanding Kids and their Stars; see Varney, 3) on marketing toy products to children stressed that while girls preferred whimsical, cuddly, gentle fashion figures, boys were attracted to action figures that were masculine, invulnerable, and strong-armed. A decade later, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe Extreme toyline, operating with the logo Extreme Times Calls For Extreme Heroes!, gave boys exactly what the report indicated they wanted – and more. Each character came packaged with signature high-tech weapons that were as intricately designed as the muscular bodies and military attire of the characters themselves. These weapons accompanied the action figure on the front of the package, arranged in the left-side leaf so as to complement, and perhaps complete, the character they served to augment. The portable missiles, semi-automatic machine guns, quick-triggered handguns, and vehicles equipped with high-tech cannons and missile launchers were branded by Hasbro as “Ultra Slam Firepower!”
Decoding the Discourse of Man-Made-Machines
The G.I. Joe Extreme characters have nicknames that connect them with weapons, machinery, and other hard objects: Ballistic, Freight, Iron Claw, Metalhead, Harpoon, and Lieutenant Stone. Brief biographies appear on dog tags pictured on the back sides of packages bearing each action figure. The language constructs desirable masculine traits of coolness, physical ability, and athletic process. In doing so, it draws from the “masculine” discourses of heavy-metal music, martial arts, and contact sports.
“Ballistic,” for example, is the nickname for the team’s expert sharpshooter Albert Salviatti. His precision in sharpshooting is so remarkable that he is not unlike a computer-programmed homing device or heat-seeking missile: he possesses, the bio says, “incredibly honed visual skills to target in on the enemy in unbelievable feats of marksmanship.” Like a machine, Ballistic “stays ultra-cool, never missing a shot when the pressure builds.”
Whereas Ballistic is linguistically linked with actual weapons systems, Metalhead (a.k.a. Matt Hurley), described as a “computer communications genius and an electronic warfare whiz,” is the brain behind such systems. Described in terms appealing to adolescent boys of that decade, Metalhead “blasts rock ‘n’ roll music in the heat of battle [and ] gets his job done with an in-your-face attitude and cranked out tunes – the louder, the better.”
Sergeant Savage doesn’t have a nickname, but his machine-like superbody “survived 50 years of cryogenic freezing by enemies after WWII.” In addition, his bio reports, this artillery and ammo specialist is “totally into new firepower systems, [and] has a serious thing for grenades.”
It is interesting to note that racial and ethnic stereotypes add a third dimension to these male war-machines. The character whose body is most closely associated with military weaponry (in this case, night-vision and tracking mechanisms) is the team’s Asian member, Black Dragon (a.k.a. Kang Chi Li). Black Dragon is perpetually encased in what appears to be flexible black armor that protects him from head to toe. This ultimate ninja warrior and stealth missions expert “works best at night, using a sharpened sixth sense to track the enemy”; he rarely speaks, the biography continues, “but when he does, people listen.”
The Asian male as martial arts expert, quiet and self-composed, possessor of a mysterious force or ancient wisdom (“sharpened sixth sense”) is a deeply-entrenched “oriental” stereotype in popular culture. Freight (a.k.a.. Omar K. Diesel), the series’ demolitions man and the only African-American soldier, is described on the back of his package as an “ex all-pro linebacker, enormously huge, incredibly bulked, over-the-top aggressive [who] throws his weight around with power-packed football-style hits and head-butts.” The big, bulked, football-playing black male, another stereotype with vast currency in contemporary culture, is offered by the Extreme toyline as the unit’s human bulldozer.
Stanley D. Rosenberg’s study of the language used to describe major phases of U.S. air campaigns against Vietnam is relevant here. Sports popular with men were often evoked. The Linebacker I and II air campaigns against the Vietcong, for example, were named after the most mobile and ferocious position in American football. In addition, in the language of their “war stories,” Rosenberg detected attempts by U.S. combat pilots to construct a fused narrative identity, “a workable conception of self,” between themselves, their aircrafts’ panels, and the panels’ many functions. A distinctive feature of this transaction (what he terms “the warrior identity”) was a linguistic fusion between the self and the technology employed. Not only was the technology anthropomorphized in this discourse, but these men “identified with and adopted the qualities of their aircraft and weaponry” (44).
We see this fusion of self and technologies in the language used to name and categorize the G.I. Joe Extreme characters. Similarly, the combat vehicles in this series have nicknames like those of their operators: Detonator, Road Bullet, Sand Striker, Bone Splitter Armored Tank, Sky Stalker, and Spitfire Battering Platform. It is important to note that some of these vehicles are linked with specific members of the team. For example, the Detonator Combat Cannon was released in U.S. toy stores in 1995 along with the action figure of Sgt. Savage, its operator. The Bone Splitter Armored Tank, while not released with a specific action figure, is pictured – in violent action – on the back-side of the package being operated by terrorist villain Iron Claw.
The combat vehicles came with descriptions that served both to anthropomorphize and masculinize them. For instance, the Sand Striker All-Terrain Vehicle, which can travel on both land and in sea, is described as “muscling” its way in from off-shore; “after battling its way to land, the multi-purpose vehicle converts to a rock-climbing, sand-grabbing ground cruiser, ready to eliminate any threat the evil forces of SKAR” have waiting. Although operated primarily by Sergeant Stone, the team leader and “master of technical battle skills,” the language assigns agency to the vehicle itself, as if it had a mind of its own. Similarly, the Sky Stalker SKAR’s aircraft is described as a “menacing shadow . . . [that] banks and swoops in to begin an all-out airborne attack. Its “long-range targeting systems and distance ultra-slam firepower makes it [not the character operating it, which is usually the character Inferno] the most challenging threat G.I. Joe Extreme has faced to date.”
Muscles, Uniforms, and The Machine-Made-Man
Perhaps the most startling transformation G.I. Joe has undergone since its inception fifty years ago is in the size and proportions of its body. The first G.I. Joe was issued with removable clothing. Stripped of that, the figure cut an unremarkable stance. Its muscles were roughly but symmetrically hewn; its pectorals and abdominal region cut by sharp linear hews with no attempt at anatomical realism. Its body type might be described as mesamorphic with a slight ectomorphic orientation.
The main characters from the Extreme series, however, might be described as mammoth mesomorphs on steroids. Compared with the ultra-pumped ready-for-action muscularity of Lieutenant Stone, Ballistic, and Sergeant Savage, vintage G.I. Joe is a pipsqueak. Even more startling is Freight’s enormous physique. Frozen into a permanent moment of mayhem, his muscles bulge out grotesquely, the veins and tendons of his necked strained almost to bursting.
Muscles, argues sociologist Alan Klein, are about more than just the functional ability of men to defend home and hearth or perform heavy labor. Muscles are markers that separate men from each other and, most importantly perhaps, from women. And while he may not realize it, every man – every accountant, science nerd, clergyman, or cop – is engaged in a dialogue with muscles (16) The size of the biceps on early versions of G.I. Joe dolls was equivalent to 11.5 inches, which falls within the normal range for adult men. With G.I Joe Extreme, the size of the biceps increased so that the adult equivalent would now measure 26 inches around, a clearly exaggerated dimension.
In addition, the G.I. Joe Extreme figures differ markedly from earlier versions of the doll in their relationship to their uniforms and ammunition. In earlier versions, the uniforms are styled after standard military issue. During the late sixties and early seventies, the most popular G.I. Joe doll came equipped with green, brown, and black camouflage fatigues which resembled those worn by soldiers fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. The Extreme series dons characters in uniforms which are not exact replicas of those produced by any branch of U.S. Armed Forces. Only some outer parts of the uniforms are removable and all have weapons (like high-tech grenades) and ammunition belts built into them. Hence, the male body, the uniform, and armaments are literally conflated to constitute a solitary unit – or, to use the language of Rambo – a “killing machine.”
The Deluxe version of Ballistic, for instance, resembles the character Robocop. His body-uniform consists of arm-length gloves and calf-length boots which contain series of mechanisms (buttons, slides, and other gadgets) to remotely control weapons systems he carries on his person. The doll comes packaged with four accessories: a missile, gold armor, a gun, and an external missile launcher controlled by a panel on his arm. The armor – a stylized breast-plate – provides more than protection; it offers an anatomically enhanced simulation of a muscular male torso, replete with pectorals, deltoids, obliques, and abdominals (above-left). The missile, like all the missiles in the entire Extreme series, resembles a circumcised erect male penis. “Guns are an important signifier of virility and power,” claims Katz, “and hence are an important part of the way violent masculinity is constructed and then sold to audiences” (351).
The simulation of uniforms and weapons accessories with an idealized male body also is significant to the development of a hypermasculine psychic subjectivity. In the first volume of Male Fantasies, a study of the letters, diaries, journals, and novels of the Freikorps, a group of paramilitary nationals who fought Germany’s border wars prior to the rise of Nazism, Klaus Theweleit argues that because the hypermasculine “ego” of these men “cannot form from the inside out . . . they must acquire an enveloping ‘ego’ from the outside.” (179)
This is achieved through emotional attachment to the hard, durable things of military environments, which allows them to “grow a functioning and controlling body armor … capable of seamless fusion into larger formations with armorlike peripheries.” These larger formations include “the Fatherland,” Germany, the “Great Nation,” of which the soldier-male (as Theweleit calls him) is an armored representative. Just as the soldier-male comes to see himself as an extension of a larger body, so too are his weapons conceived as an extension of himself:
The second armor is the barrel of his gun or rifle, and it provides the model according to which his own eruptions function. . . . Guns have the capacity to do something of which the soldier is normally incapable: they can discharge and remain whole. . . . The metal of the gun barrels appear almost to take the place of the soldier’s body armor; to function, then, as his “ego.” (179)
In Theweleit’s analysis, preserving the male “ego” posits warfare as the fulfillment of a desire for “fusion with the military machine and legitimate explosion in the moment of battle.” (134) Interestingly, images of men fusing with their weapons and, crucially, rejoicing in moments of discharge fill G.I. Joe Extreme‘s comic book pages and crowd the backs of packages containing the action figures’ military accessories.
For example, the package bearing the Detonator Combat Cannon pictures the device at the moment of detonation. The character Sgt. Savage has his fist raised in a sign of triumph, even though the signal is premature given that the missile has not yet hit its target. The steely blue color of the detonator matches that of the gloves, boots, pants, and battle-gear worn by the character, thereby fusing both man and machine into a single unit. The singularity of this unit is further suggested by the wall of fire encompassing it.
The Vicissitudes of Agency
This fusion of man with machine draws into question who or what bears responsibility for acts of destruction. The logic of cause and effect tells us the detonation of the weapon is a reaction to the human being setting it off–yet the human being is visually rendered as a subject reacting to the detonation.
This question of agency emerges from the degree of discrepancy between what the gun signifies and what the body signifies, for the conventional assumption that “people kill, not guns” is here rendered problematic. Is the weapon an extension of the body or the body an extension of the weapon? Put another way, does the man control the technology or the technology the man? The fusion between man and gun constructs a unitary identity in which human and weapon signify identical meanings.
This crisis in determining agency – of assigning blame, of deciding if an action taken was necessary, practically and morally – becomes clear when confronted with the photographed image on the back side of the package containing the military vehicle Sand Striker. The G.I. Joe character (Sergeant Savage) is belittled by the formidable vehicle, with its rapid-fire semi-automatic guns and huge missile cocked at an impressive 45 degree angle, ready to blow. The action figure’s uniform perfectly matches the brackish color of the vehicle’s body and the stem of the missile’s projectile. While we assume that the man controls the weapon, and is therefore the agent of all destructive action that ensues, we should recall the language describing the vehicle on the upper part of the box that clearly anthropomorphizes (and masculinizes) the machine:
Muscling in from off-shore and after battling it way to land, the multipurpose vehicle reverts to a rock-climbing, sand-grabbing ground cruiser, ready to eliminate any threat the evil forces of SKAR have waiting.
Agency is further complicated by items associated with both the man and the machine. A “Z” insignia is inscribed on both the man’s uniform and the hood of the vehicle. This insignia binds both weapon and man to a larger body, a military unit, which is of course part of an army that is itself part of a sophisticated and technology advanced society. When a missile is fired from this weapon and kills, who is responsible? G.I. Joe‘s Sergeant Savage? The ultra-high-tech Sand Striker? The military unit (“Z”) that brought this man and machine to this event? The Army that gave the directions? The nation that declared war?
Questions of this sort yield no definitive answers, as the trial in the aftermath of the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War made obvious. If Theweleit’s psychoanaltytic interpretation is correct – that a soldier male’s identity is shaped by his “need to transcend his actual-material body, to become ‘super-human’ to a degree [through embracing] a subject-position which sees itself as an extension of the military–machine” (183) then the messages toys such as G.I. Joe Extreme send to a generation of young males go well beyond that of patriotism and love of country.
This article is a condensed version of an academic essay I wrote in the late 1990s and revised in 2007. G.I. Joe collectors can find a vast array of vintage products like those discussed above at the G.I. Joe Collectionary. All images are obtained from the G.I. Joe Extreme archives.
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