G.I. Joe, the children’s cartoon from the 1980s, has returned, appearing late at night on an obscure cable channel called Hub. I used to love this show as a child, buying the toys and the propaganda Hasbro was selling. Watching the show again, well over 20 years later, I still find it fun but for different reasons. Instead of seeing it as a fun, action-packed animated series, I perceive it as a highly unrealistic piece of propaganda – selling both ideology and cheap plastic toys.
For those not familiar with the series, G.I. Joe centers on a Special Forces unit, some who dress like The Village People, fighting the evil terrorist organization Cobra. Each week Cobra hatches a villainous world domination scheme, which G.I. Joe constantly foils. Because the show’s for children nobody ever dies (characters parachute out of exploding vehicles, laser bolts only knock weapons out of people’s hands, etc.) and the stunts the character pull are horribly unbelievable. Both Joe and Cobra members will jump out of moving airplanes or from high buildings, only to land on their feet. Like the claims against professional wrestling, I’m wondering if any children actually tried jumping from great heights, only to die or seriously injure themselves. G.I. Joe also never captures the architects of Cobra’s schemes, continuing the battle between America and its “evil” enemies. Like America’s War on Terror, it’s never ending, allowing various political and capitalist institutions an opportunity for endless manipulation and exploitation.
What strikes me as interesting is the portrayal of villains on the show: the Cobra foot soldiers appear vaguely Asian; the Baroness, Major Bludd, and Dr. Mindbender all see either Russian or eastern European; Destro – although possessing a metal cranium – seems African. Presenting non-American characters as the villains is very imperialist, denoting them as others and worthy of scorn. This is reminiscent of Sel of Saturn from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film The Holy Mountain. Sel runs a children’s business, selling toys, comic books, and other adolescent paraphernalia – all with a hegemonic agenda. Sel asserts she makes toys for the war effort. In the film her organization, in conjuncture with governments, will start the war effort 15 years before any actual conflict begins by creating propagandistic materials. The example used is Peru and a litany of toys and comic books presenting Peruvians as evil trains children to hate their enemy by the time they’re ready for military service. It seems natural to hate Peruvians, making their demise fun and desirable.
The show depicts Cobra as ruthlessly evil, boasting a steadfast desire for world control. It’s their entire motivation on the show and they’re one dimensional characters. The Joe’s, on the other hand, are more developed; some episodes contain back-story’s, revealing personal information. One episode where Roadblock’s the protagonist features his aunt and uncle and their failing hamburger franchise. Of course their eatery is mixed up in an evil Cobra scheme and the Joe’s save the day, later renaming the restaurant “Joe’s Place.” The Cobra characters receive no back-story, unless they’re defecting from Cobra. They’re always presented as mysterious and ambiguous, which is perfect for an enemy. If you’re going to kill people in a war, it’s best not to think of them as people with families; they’re better off as symbols, not people.
My favorite part of the cartoon, aside from the excellent jazz/funk soundtrack, is the latent homosexuality in many characters. Although some characters don’t come across as homosexual, some blatantly exhibit stereotypical gay attributes. For example, Shipwreck (the sailor Joe) vaguely resembles the sailor from The Village People’s In the Navy performances and 12” cover. Another character, Gung-Ho, is a rough and tough soldier, wearing only a vest, pants, and a hat. His mustache and appearance contains some stereotypical homosexual attributes. While I don’t believe these characteristics represent anything gay, ignoring the pigeonholed gay representations on G.I. Joe is difficult.
A certain episode called Money to Burn presents an interesting exploration of our conceptions of social reality. Cobra devises a scheme to destroy all American currency, placing Cobra in a position to rebuild our economy. A statement by Cobra Commander, “we have begun by eliminating the worthless green paper which your government has deceived you into believing is valuable,” speaks volumes about the current status of our world. However, the representation on G.I. Joe approaches it from a vastly different perspective. John Searle argues in his book The Construction of Social Reality that money is just a symbol; it’s our collective agreement that makes it valuable. From an ontologically objective perspective, money is just paper with various symbols printed on it, yet from an ontologically subjective point of view it’s currency, used for exchange for corporeal goods and services. The only reason it’s worth anything is because we believe it is.
Although G.I. Joe presents it as a negative, this might not be the case. I’m not proposing capitalism’s demise, but, as the old saying goes, “money’s the root of all evil.” Unfortunately, Cobra’s solution to the problem is creating its own currency, perpetuating a class system where they control it instead of the United States. They’re exchanging on symbol for another, taking with it the beliefs we all project onto it. When Cobra orders America’s citizens to exchange their physical goods for “Cobra Currency,” people line up, eager for the new tender. They’re scared, hostile, and violent – demonstrating how strong this particular symbol is to our society. Eventually G.I. Joe saves the day, destroying Cobra’s money burning machine and subduing the crowd and the bad guys.
The episode presents the current economic system as positive and any other structure as negative, regardless of its potential benefit. Cobra’s scheme is asinine and just continues a class-based monetary system instead of aiming for a removal of poverty and fiscal unevenness. This is one of the problems of this show – both sides are working within a structure that furthers poverty and subjugation. The show doesn’t present another perspective, one that would actually aim at abolishing hunger, homelessness, and imperialism. In essence, any dialogue can only work within the standards of prevailing institutions. Is this the answer to the various ills our world is facing? As we’ve seen within the last few years our current economic system severely hinders options for anybody but the ridiculously rich. The originators of our current economic woes are the same ones with the majority of the money. In short, G.I. Joe is defending those taking away jobs and opportunities for those outside the very wealthy minority.
As a kid I thought the animation on G.I. Joe was great; now it looks cheap and corny. The background art isn’t that bad, but the foreground animation cuts corners and is a little crude. Probably made in Korea, the cartoon’s main focus (advertising toys and imperialism) doesn’t necessitate artistic integrity. Even though the show isn’t high quality animation, I still enjoy it. Like watching old After School Specials or films like Reefer Madness, G.I. Joe is comical in its absurdity. Unfortunately the episodes on the Hub channel don’t contain the public service announcements that appeared on the original broadcasts, but the show itself is still watchable (something I can’t say about Transformers).
Here’s a video of the opening theme song
Here are some G.I. Joe public service announcements