G. I. Joe and the Action Figure

December 10th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

In this season of giving, a brief history of a successful product line of enduring tradition seems appropriate. We all know that jewelry, clothes, appliances and tools make great gifts, but the focus of gift giving on Christmas and other holiday celebrations this time of year is still oriented toward children (of all ages) and that means, above all else, toys.

There was a time not too long ago when using “guys and dolls” in the same phrase referred only to the title of a timeless and classic Broadway musical. That is until Hassenfeld Brothers looked over at what competitor Mattel Toys had achieved since 1959 with its Barbie™ line of dolls and accessories. Under the guidance of toy designer Stan Weston and partially influenced by the TV show The Lieutenant, Hasbro, as Hassenfeld Brothers came to be known, in 1964 launched a line of pliable figurines called G. I. Joe and the “guy doll” concept was born.

But G. I. Joe and other similar products were never called dolls. Rather, the term “action figure” was developed to describe this type of toy. The key element of the 12-inch doll was the articulation: twenty-one moveable joints that enabled the toy to be posed in combat positions. The imagination of the players determined how the action figures and their sold-separately accessories would be used in play. This past summer Hasbro co-produced two blockbuster movies that originated with their action figure lines: G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Transformers 2. The success of movies, cartoons, books, games, accessories and the toys themselves attests to just how successful a merchandizing concept the action figure has been.

Boys have been fooling around with toy soldiers for centuries, but these have been of the hand-painted or extruded non-malleable variety in play sets. Napoleonic War – of which there are examples in the fine hand-painted collection of figurines in musée de L’Armée at Hôtel des Invalides in Paris – Civil War and Revolutionary War soldiers are among the play sets that have been around for a long time. For the past sixty years or so World War II army sets have probably been the most popular toy line using military figurines. Settling on the WWII theme, the name of the original toy was inspired by the Ernie Pyle biopic The Story of G. I. Joe. There was a ”Joe” for each major service branch dressed in military fatigues. A scar on the face was a touch to help differentiate G. I. Joe from traditional dolls. A public relations campaign claimed that the face of the doll, err, action figure was a composite of twenty WWII Medal of Honor recipients.

Knock-offs of G. I. Joe appeared quickly, including an imitator from toy giant Marx called Stonewall “Stony” Smith. None of the knock-offs generated any serious threat to G. I. Joe and it wasn’t until action figures inspired by a megahit movie, Kenner Products’ Darth Vader and other outer-worldly characters from Star Wars, burst onto the scene that the military theme action figures had some serious competition.

The accessories for G. I. Joe, as well as the action figure itself, expanded the toy line considerably. In 1965 the first African-American G. I. Joe was introduced, followed by a nurse version and Talking Joe. Anti-war sentiment during the Vietnam War caused Hasbro to deemphasize the original military model in favor of the Adventure Team. Whether it was the political climate, the higher cost of plastic during the late 1970s oil crisis or competition from R2D2 and friends, the G. I. Joe line was discontinued in 1978. But consumers appealed to the company and Joe returned in a smaller 4-inch version, becoming popular with a new generation of youngsters in their imaginary action figure playgrounds. In 1983 the FCC lifted a 14-year ban on toy-inspired programming. Starting with the animated G. I. Joe cartoon series, Joe-themed productions on the large and small screen began a long run that continues today.

The G. I. Joe line advanced more exotic personas: foreign soldiers, movie-inspired hi-tech Joes and others. Today’s stocking stuffers include “Snake Eyes” and “Duke” from G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. But World War II models are still popular. The talking G. I. Joe Navajo Code Talker, one of the newer 11-inch models, gives phrases in Navajo and English. Vintage G. I. Joe dolls and accessories are in demand on auction websites and on-line forums devoted to collection, discussion and news about the many action figures produced over the years are all over the web. The toy originally inspired by real and fantasy heroes of “the Good War” has had quite a history of its own in the annals of popular culture.


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3 Responses to “G. I. Joe and the Action Figure”

  1. [...] the many action figures produced over the years are all over the web. The toy originally … Go to Source Date December 10th, 2009 Filed in Uncategorized No Comments [...]

  2. [...] G. I. Joe and the Action Figure : Great History [...]

  3. Jay, I posted a much similar post on my blog about the history of the action figure although I don’t have it at much length as you do when it comes to the background story behind G.I. Joe as it relates to the French figurines. Wikipedia also touches it only slightly so you could edit the bit when they talk about the inspiration behind the G.I. Joe.

    By the way the term “action figure” and “doll” start getting distinct in a much more subtle way that when we first think about it. Check Care Bears vs. Transformers: Gender Stereotypes in Advertisements to read a very interesting post of why we call it action figures, or dolls.

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