GIjOE’s “Secret History” Analyzed
We stumbled across an article the other day entitled, “GIjOE’s Secret Past.” Naturally, we were intrigued. The article’s headline proved to be a tad misleading, however, as it turned out to be a collection of book excerpts instead, none of which contained anything new, unknown, or even remotely “secret” about GIjOE. Nevertheless, the book itself looks to be an interesting read, and we felt that it warranted a quick mention here on The Joe Report.
As Joeheads already know, as America changed during the ’60s and ’70s, so too did “America’s Movable Fighting Man.” What you probably didn’t know was that GIjOE’s familiar story was recounted in a 1995 book with the lengthy academic title, “The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation” by Tom Engelhardt.
Engelhardt describes his book as an “idiosyncratic history of American triumphalism.” Okay… Well, despite its wordy title, Tom’s rather obtuse description and extremely lame cover art, the passages explaining societal factors affecting GIjOE’s evolution were all very well written and seem predominantly factual. Engelhardt further described the contents of his book thusly:
“I filled the book with the pop culture detritus of my own childhood, from horror comics and nuclear-mutant movies, to toy missiles and toy soldiers. While writing it, I became fascinated with the way in which an adult culture of war-making played itself out in children’s lives and also the ways in which the business of children’s culture sometimes anticipated developments in the adult world…how war was stripped from children’s culture in the Vietnam era, and how it returned.”
Intrigued and curious to learn more, we skimmed ahead until we located the first excerpt referring to GIjOE:
“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.”
In the 1960s, the U.S. would lurch from the Cuban Missile Crisis, through the traumatic Kennedy and MLK assassinations, and on into the morass of the Vietnam War. It was a turbulent, troublesome time, and Engelhardt begins by reminding readers how Hasbro’s initial marketing of GIjOE as a military soldier strategically coincided with LBJ’s Great Society, America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, the civil rights movement and other emerging mentalities of 1964, saying:
“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…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 GIjOE 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.”
We’ve located that original 1964 GIjOE commercial Engelhardt mentioned. You can view it NOW:
<Drool> Oops. Sorry! I’ll clean that right up. After tracing Joe’s story up through the Adventure Team era of the 1970s, Engelhardt eventually exhausts his GIjOE (reflected-an-evolving-U.S.-society) analogy, and moves on to introduce Barbie, the Star Wars films, and other such pop-culture examples deemed relevant to his discussion. But for our own selfish “Joe-centric” interests, we’ll leave you with one final passage from the book:
“This hipper, new Joe was, if not exactly gaining a personality, then undergoing a personalizing process. He no longer appeared so military with his new hairstyles and his ‘A’ (for adventure) insignia, which, as Katharine Whittemore has pointed out, ‘looked just a bit like a peace sign.’ In fact, he was beginning to look suspiciously like the opposition, fading as a warrior just as he was becoming a less generic doll. By 1974, he had even gained a bit of an oriental touch with a new ‘kung-fu grip.’ In 1976, under the pressure of the increased cost of plastic, he shrank almost four inches; and soon after, he vanished from the scene. He was, according to Hasbro, ‘furloughed,’ and as far as anyone then knew, consigned to toy oblivion.”