Something I’ve always liked about G.I. Joe (as I mentioned yesterday) is that it took a progressive approach to things like race and gender, considering it was a toy about the military with its roots in the ’60s and ’80s. Granted, some aspects of the franchise were more progressive than others; the cartoon was content to throw in a few stereotypical caricatures and call it a day. (Roadblock no doubt doth protest: “Ain’t no crime/to make black people rhyme!”) But really, the first couple years of the toyline alone were impressively diverse, all things being equal:
The team kicked off with an experienced black Vietnam vet, a female counter-intelligence agent, and a Hispanic rocket specialist. The following year saw the addition of a second black character (a medical doctor), a Navajo paratrooper, a second female (who drove a frigging missile tank), and a native Hawaiian S.E.A.L. Not bad! No doubt much of this can be attributed to the fact that Larry Hama, a Japanese-American writer who himself served in Vietnam, wasn’t just responsible for the Joe comic but also for penning the bio cards that defined the characters’ names, backgrounds, and personalities. Aryan nation poster child Duke — the main dude in every cartoon incarnation of the franchise as well as the upcoming movie, and the guy invariably attached romantically to Scarlett (the redhead seen above, left) — barely registered in the comic, where Scarlett had the hots for the mute and grotesquely mutilated Snake-Eyes instead. Because he was a sensitive soul, you see, and also a totally awesome American ninja.
Bear in mind that the G.I. Joe ’80s “A Real American Hero” relaunch happened in 1982, the same year that Michael Jackson released Thriller. As everyone has reminded us repeatedly over the past week, Thriller was a landmark because it was the first time MTV allowed blacks on the network. I know America is hardly the apotheosis of unity, but relatively speaking we’re a big, open, loving society these days compared to the way things were just 25 years ago. And while they occasionally ran the risk of looking a bit much like The Village People, the characters of G.I. Joe made a positive impression on kids by subtly telling us that race and gender have no bearing on one’s abilility to shoot lasers non-lethally at terrorists.
Or so I’d like to think. But I made the tragic mistake of reading some G.I. Joe-related forums where I discovered that the lesson didn’t actually take very well. See, the upcoming movie features one of the Wayans (Marlon, I think, but the family’s downright Baldwinesque and difficult to keep track of) as Ripcord, a character who, in plastic, was a red-headed Irish-looking kid. This made many people quite unhappy. I can understand people reacting badly to the prospect of suffering Marlon Wayans for two hours, but so far as I can tell the complaint among G.I. Joe fans isn’t “oh no Marlon Wayans” but “how dare they turn Ripcord into a black guy!” I’m positive that if the movie were to include the Bongo the Balloon Bear subplot, the word “miscegenation” would come into play sooner or later. It was kind of depressing to watch, honestly.
I blame Sunbow, personally. If only they’d made a PSA about racial harmony, none of this would have happened.
“Remember, kids, people can still be awesome even if they’re a different color than you.”
“Wow, next time I see someone who isn’t white, I won’t instinctively burn him in effigy! Thanks, Flint, now I know!”
“And knowing is half the battle.”
Although I guess the problem might have something to do with the kinds of people who are instinctively drawn to violent fantasy cartoons about American military superiority? Nah, couldn’t be.