Three years ago Hasbro brought G.I. Joe back onto toy store shelves, with resounding success. Joe was soon joined by a brigade of violent military toys.
According to the National Coalition on Television Violence,
"The sales of war toys have climbed by 350 percent since 1982 to a record $842 million per year. War toys are now the leading category of toy sales, making up 5 of the 6 best-selling toys in the United States. The most popular war toys set in the U.S. is Thansformers, a series of futuristic robot warriors. Transformers are promoted by a cartoon of the same title, currently the most violent cartoon on TV, averaging 83 acts of violence per hour. The only nonviolent toy in the top selling category is Cabbage Patch Dolls.
"A total of 214 million individual war toys have been sold in the past year in the U.S. All five war toys sets are promoted by violent cartoon programs with war themes. The average American child will see 800 advertisements this year promoting violent toys.
The role of these toys is explained on the package. One of the Transformer dolls is called "Megatron." He's a "bad guy" who "believes in Peace Through Tyranny, combines brute strength, military cunning, ruthlessness, and terror. He's out to destroy the Earth . . . he fires a particle beam cannon." (Sound familiar?)
The G.I. Joe series is modelled after the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force. Equipped with up-to-date military hardware, the tough-as-nails G.I. Joe team is ready to fight any time, wherever there is a challenge to democracy and the American way of life. This challenge usually comes from the evil Cobra Command and its heathen Crimson Guard. The G.I. Joe cartoon show broadcasts nationwide five days a week in the United States.
War toys dropped out of sight when the Vietnam War finally became ugly in Americans' eyes. There was something unappealing about watching young Tommy play with his machine gun while his older brother Fred was on his way home from the rice paddies in a body bag.
Not until the Iranians took 52 Americans hostage did the Pentagon get a good public relations break. America was fed up with being slapped around. War became popular
again - not dragged-out, agonizing wars, but ones with quick and easy victories -such as the invasion of Grenada. Americans were cheered in the streets of St. George's and G.I. Joe sales soared. Once again, little boys wanted to grow up to be soldiers. Hasbro airlifted some 23,000 of its toys into Grenada the Christmas after the invasion, with the gracious aid of the U.S. military.
Something as ugly as war needs to be beautified before it hits the market. Memories of American boys being slaughtered on national TV fade into the background when Rambo is around. America is seen as taking control of violence again, rather than as being a victim of it. Being kicked in the head is not glamorous, but doing the kicking is glamorous - and even virtuous.
G.I. Joe caught the wave of militaristic fervor and has been riding high ever since. This did not result purely from luck:
Hasbro did market research for two years before putting G.I. Joe back on the market. They concluded that North Americans are ready to face war again. Such toys are produced by American companies, largely for Americans. G.I. Joe is quite a salesman for the supremacy of U.S. power. It is a sign of Canadians' colonial mentality that G.I. Joe sells so well here without even changing to a Canadian uniform.
The purpose of toys is to prepare children for the roles they will take upon reaching adulthood. Therein lies the sexism of toys. Boys are still pushed to trucks and tanks, girls to dolls and toy stoves. War toys say to a child, "This is what some adults do. This is what you might do."
The entertainment industry romanticizes war. War toys show violence without pain, and movies show violence as a virtue, with handsome, heroic men perpetrating it. Participatory war games are a current fad -running around in a forest shooting your friends with red paint, or running around in a maze shooting your friends with a phaser gun. You get the excitement of war without the risk or pain.
War toys normalize war. Whether or not those who play with war toys grow up to fight actively in a war, they do grow up not to resist it.
We hear such comments as this: i played cowboys and Indians as a boy and there's nothing violent about me now. I'm quite normal."
Answer: "You may be fine, but have you talked to a native North American lately? You may not personally have shoved them onto reservations, poisoned their food, and massacred their leaders, but through your silence you have allowed others to do so. Perhaps the game you used to play contributed to your ignorance, which contributed to your silence, which contributed to their suffering."
The educational system adds to this. Jonathan Kozol's disturbing book, The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home, discusses how people are taught to obey authority from kindergarten, and how the obedience grows into military compliance. Kozol says, "If you can get someone to put up their hand to go to the bathroom, you can get them to do anything.
It is sometimes argued that children are naturally aggressive and that these toys provide a healthy outlet. If so, why is aggression natural only in boys? These toys are promoted only for males. Are men naturally warmakers and women naturally cooks and cuddlers? Such an inference would hardly be accepted as scientific fact today.
Children are in powerless positions. Play with guns gives them a feeling of using power, and war toys make war seem palatable, safe, even fun.
But we don't have to buy them. When we oppose the institutions of war, we teach children by example that choices are possible. They will recognize our concern for the planet and be safer and stronger for it.