The toys from my childhood that I remember fondly weren’t Barbie. I hate dolls for the most part. But action figures? Action figures were the best and my favorites were, you guessed it, G.I. Joe. My Joes went on countless missions, saving the world from C.O.B.R.A. and aliens, and the Soviets. They were trusty and loyal sidekicks; a way to bring their Marvel comics counterparts to life.
Now, Marvel has remained a huge part of my life. I have passed that deep affection for characters like The Avengers and, The X-Men and Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange on to my two sons with the help of the blockbuster franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But what I have failed to pass down to them, much to my chagrin, is the love of a sturdy G.I. Joe with that infamous Kung Fu grip.
I am not sure what happened to my own Joes. Maybe my mom donated them to a younger male cousin or to Goodwill when I wasn’t looking. But I do know what happened to the toys themselves. Production was halted by Hasbro back in 1994. By then, they had strayed far from their military roots and gone in some interesting directions, even adding eco-terrorism combat teams and dinosaur hunters. Sales slumped and Hasbro pulled the plug on the Real American Hero.
There was a brief attempt at a reboot of the G.I. Joe brand with two forgettable movies that came out in 2009 and 2013 respectively. To quote a friend and fellow SORFEP Contributor, Alex Hollings “I went and saw the movie with a group of Marines and we left halfway through to hit a bar. Not due to it being offensive to our sensibilities, but more because it was just AWFUL. The sequel with the Rock was much better but still bad. It takes a pretty laughable movie to get six Marines to realize they’re not drunk enough yet.”
A third installment in the movie franchise is confirmed for release in 2020 so they have a third shot to get it right, or more likely, we have a third shot to get drunk half-way through.
The original Joe action figures first came into production in 1964 as the alternative toy for boys to match the Barbie phenomenon for girls. More than one Joe kissed a Barbie over the years. Maybe some Barbies kissed other Barbies and Joes kissed other Joes too, but we didn’t talk about that back in those days. Although today you can find Barbies of more “average” body measurements and every skin color, what you won’t find in the aisles of toy stores is a military action figure. Captain America is as close as it comes but even Cap is working a little outside the lines of the government these days.
By 2019 there will be an entire generation of Americans that have never known a life without U.S. troops in conflict. Maybe we are war-weary in the toy department too? During the Cold War, at the height of G.I. Joes popularity, we could pretend to fight with our toys because our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and friends weren’t fighting a real war. Movies like Top Gun spurred tons of would-be pilots to the recruiter’s office because there weren’t daily sorties being flown in real life. To quote my colleague Alex Hollings again “Perhaps there’s a distinct correlation between the American exceptionalism of the 1980’s and our willingness to buy military oriented toys. In the last few decades (save a year or two post 9/11) we’ve become far more cynical about what our government does, and by extension, the military.”
It certainly feels that politics and its effect on our worldview has affected every aspect of our lives, even the way our children play. As for me, I will continue to regale my boys with the stories of the “real American heroes” I work with every day, whether they have an action figure in their likeness or not. They are certainly worthy of being an action figure, that’s all I know. And knowing is, after all, half the battle!