Rainbow warriors

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.

23 thoughts on “Rainbow warriors

  1. Speaking of Joe, when is someone gonna write up either of the NES games, just in time for the movie? Pretty please?

  2. I’m not up on my G.I. Joe mythos, as it was never really my thing as a kid, so without knowing the character of Ripcord all that well, I don’t know how I feel about it either way. What I will see is that the issue isn’t always so clear, at least for me.

    Before they cast Daniel Craig for Bond in Casino Royale, there was a lot of talk about the idea of making the next James Bond black, and that didn’t sit well with me. It’s not out of some kind of vaguely veiled racism, but the character of James Bond is rather set in my head and I can’t see him as a black man.

    On the flipside, there was a similar uproar when Mos Def was casted as Ford for the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie. It was very opposite of his description in the book, but I really didn’t care. He was an alien either way, what did his race really matter? And for the most part, Mos Def did a great job with the role.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that if I had more context about Ripcord, I may be able to understand where the argument is coming from. Realistically though, it’s probably just those authenticity freaks.

  3. No, trust me, there’s a really unpleasant subtext to their comments. And “HALO jumper who played a peripheral role in a year-long subplot before vanishing forever” isn’t quite the same storied legacy as James Bond.

  4. I don’t get why they don’t show Cobra Commander in the trailer. I understand that they’re trying to surprise the fans, but he’s by far the most iconic image in the Joe canon. It’d be like not showing Optimus in the Transformers trailer.

  5. Although my experience with G.I. Joe was only with the toys and, to a lesser extent, the cartoon, I had the same (positive) reaction that you described. Even as a small child I remember thinking how cool it was that Doc the medic was black, since that wasn’t really expected. Of course, many of my young friends didn’t see it the same way, but I guess you can’t expect everyone in ultra rural Ohio to look beyond established racial stereotypes. Doc was still probably my favorite G.I. Joe, honestly.

    …well, after Croc Master, that is. For a child, any toy that comes with a crocodile is just rad.

  6. Ah, that’s one more mystery solved. I’d wondered why they remade a ridiculous figure like Croc Master for the 25th Anniversary line, but the most anyone could say is “he’s a fan favorite.” Now I understand why.

  7. It’s great that people of all colors can come together to act as tools of brutal imperial dominance. I know Snake Eyes alone put down a wave of Sandanistas (even though they were in the Scorpion Formation!)

  8. I heard Mutt was actually Iranian.

    Man, I only wish they would scrap the upcoming movie and replace it with John Carpenter’s The Thing by CGIing Kurt Russel into Snow Job. That would be a great GI Joe movie.

  9. Hrm, was there any bitching when Agent Fury was revealed to be played by Samuel L Jackson? I honestly don’t remember, although maybe I’m not frequenting the ‘right’ places.

    I was personally hoping it would be that master thespian David Hasslehoff again.

  10. If the character’s race wasn’t part of the plot or a part of the character’s motivation, that should give a re-imagining free reign to cast who they want. For instance, any character in the Joe universe.

    If the race is central to the character or plot, then it should be hands-off if any desire exists to stay true to the source material. For instance, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun. When Wesley Snipes was cast as the main character, this did not please Crichton since the entire story was basically a race war story with American Caucasians versus Japanese; a palpable sentiment in 1992. With casting Snipes, the focus of the story got shifted somewhat, especially with an added scene put in to specifically take advantage of African American stereotypes. Luckily for us, Rising Sun – the movie and the book – aren’t particularly good and certainly don’t hold up as anything better than a window into an interesting period of international relations.

  11. Thriller wasn’t the first time MTV showed black artists on its channel. It just opened the gate for more than half a dozen specific black artists to be shown on MTV.

  12. @AgentNein
    Nick Fury in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe is modeled after Samuel L Jackson. Even though he doesn’t look like the original Fury, he does look like an established canon version of Fury.

  13. yeah, about this race thing, I’m still scratching my head why they went with Ray Park as Snake Eyes considering Snake Eyes always been black as coal and has been depicted as Levar “Geordi Laforge” Burton ever since the beginning of time.

    Ray Park. Pfft. GAY Park. Hey guys! I’m Ray Park, look what I can do! *pirouettes* That’s literally all he does in every movie he’s in.

    I just realized this is going to be Metal Gear Solid 2 the movie.

  14. “…but so far as I can tell the complaint among G.I. Joe fans isn’t “oh no Marlon Wayans”

    For the record, “oh no Marlon Wayans” is an extremely valid complaint.

  15. And I totally would have accepted that, had it been the substance of the general complaint!

  16. Snake Eyes black? That’s a new one on me. Snake Eyes has always been white, with blond hair. Sure you’re not thinking of Stalker? They were in the same LRRP, you know.

  17. Well, there’s a rather more controversial potential explanation for a diverse lineup in a cartoon that is essentially military propaganda in the wildly disproportionate number of poor minorities in the service. (From what I understand a greater percentage of Native Americans enroll in the Armed Services than any other race.)

    @Adrian: regarding Hitchhiker’s Guide, I was one who was a bit surprised by Ford’s casting, but it was because he was American, not because he was black. Turned out they found a great way of taking care of that in a single line that fit easily into the existing dialogue: “What would you say if I told you I’m not from Guildford after all?”/”Well, that would explain the accent. I’ve always wondered about that.” (And of course they’d already gone with an American Trillian who looked nothing like her description from the books in the TV series; Adams himself purportedly said that Arthur was really the only character who HAD to be British. Incidentally, I loved how they worked the TV Trillian into the radio adaptation of Mostly Harmless a few years back as the parallel-universe Tricia McMillan — “It’s Trillian! Except she’s blond and has an American accent!”)

    A few more examples: I was a lot more upset with Ben Affleck as Daredevil than Michael Clark Duncan as Kingpin; the rumors of Beyonce as Lois Lane a few years back bothered me but in hindsight she would have at least brought some charm and energy to the role where Kate Bosworth was utterly bland; I thought Paterson Joseph or Chiwetel Ejiofor would have been excellent for the Eleventh Doctor but James Nesbitt was my favorite of the actors purportedly considered for the part and I’m interested in seeing what the guy they actually picked can do; and of course Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury is the greatest thing ever.

    Anyhow, um, got an “IP address has been blocked” error when I tried to post this, so I’m dodging behind a proxy — if I was banned intentionally then I’m sorry for dodging, but…I can’t imagine what I’ve actually done to be banned so I’m assuming it’s a mistake?

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