GI Joe: Not a doll but an action figure

First, as most boys quickly remind you, GI Joes are not dolls. They are “action figures.” And this separate terminology reveals the very different meanings toys such as GI Joe and superhero figures convey. Typically, these toys are not designed to be dressed up and admired for their appearance. Product packaging shows them staging daring rescues and fighting battles. In stark contrast with Barbie, boys’ action figures seem to teach children that:

  • Boys and men are powerful and important.
  • Boys and men do great things and are recognized for their deeds.
  • Boys and men fight the bad guys, and protect the innocent and the weak.

And yet, recent decades have seen boys’ action figures become impossibly, even grotesquely muscular. Some recent dolls have biceps bigger than their heads—not a positive message about brain vs. brawn. Jackson Katz, in his documentary Tough Guise, observes that the GI Joe doll’s biceps have been steadily enlarged over the years to the point that the figure’s body proportions are virtually impossible for any real man to attain.  What’s more, Katz points out that such toys are just one source of messages in our culture that associate masculinity with violence—heroic, morally justified violence in this case, but violence nonetheless. One current line of professional wrestling action figures is promoted as the “Ruthless Aggression” series. Thus, among the potential harmful messages conveyed by action figures, we might include the following:

  • Boys and men should have large, powerful bodies with sculpted muscles.
  • Boys and men should be willing and able to use their bodies to commit morally justified acts of violence.
  • The only real men are “tough guys.”

Again, the psychological and behavioral effects of being exposed to these messages are hard to gage. However, potential negative effects include 

  • A negative body image for boys and men, especially those labeled as “fat” or “weak,” and the development of unhealthy practices to cope with feelings of frustration and shame 
  • The potentially life-threatening use of steroids to build muscle mass
  • The socialization of boys and men to violence and dominance.