Before recognizing and fully grasping the impact of the revolutionary Star Wars action figure, one needs to understand Star Wars' predecessors in the toy industry. For nearly two decades, the male action doll, usually twelve inches tall, dominated the young male market. These figures, epitomized in and led by the GI Joe line, served as the primary toys that enabled boys to transfer stories from their mind into the play actions of a plastic figure. The GI Joe figure emerged in 1964, just six years after the debut of the Barbie doll, as the brainchild of Stan Weston, and became a great success.
The main reason for GI Joe's success lay in its ability to serve as an object that mirrored and reflected American popular culture. GI Joe's appearance happened at a time when America still gloried in her World War II success; the discord around Vietnam that would alter America' military mentality was still a thing of the future. Almost everywhere in American popular culture existed an example of America's fascination with the soldier. Bookstores and drug stores stocked their shelves with the ever popular Sergeant Rock and Sergeant Fury comics, which both focused upon the individual hero and his exploits and adventures. On the relatively new medium of television, the military show Combat premiered and ran an admirable five years from 1963 to 1968. Clearly, the society of the early 1960's, in the midst of the Cold War and still close enough to World War II, still possessed a cultural fascination with the American soldier and it manifested this interest through various media.
With this natural presence in popular culture, the GI Joe figure immediately had a cultural text which it could plug into and market itself. While Hasbro, GI Joe's manufacturer, did not have a television show, movie, or comic book through which to promote the figure, it had at its disposal a set of resources through which its "soldier doll undoubtedly benefited from loose association with specific features of a then burgeoning American popular culture" (Fleming 115-116). In fact, Hasbro based many of its first costumes for the GI Joe doll on World War II infantry costumes seen weekly on Combat. Even the packaging for GI Joe was designed in a way to emulate the art of the military comics of the day. Hasbro definitely had a wealth of natural marketing that it could tap into freely. In 1964, playing on American culture's war interest, Hasbro shot one of its first GI Joe ads, depicting the figure with actual footage from World War II. As Fleming notes, "over six million of the toys were sold that year, thanks in no small measure to the 'aura' of meanings which television evoked around the doll" (Fleming 40).
The GI Joe doll definitely embodied the "hero loner" stereotype promulgated by popular American media. The fact that the GI Joe figure relied on costume accessories rather than other figures reflects this "rugged individualism." With the twelve inch size, the figures cost a relatively large amount, and therefore, children rarely had more than a couple of the soldier dolls. With only one or so dolls, the child had to rely on that one doll to be the hero and solver for every problem created. Therefore, Hasbro marketed a host of costumes ranging from an astronaut suit to an amphibious soldier's scuba gear, that enabled kids to take their infantry doll and make him the sole hero in a variety of environments and situations. This marketing of the doll lent itself to the image presented by American television and comics. "A child looking at GI Joe in the 1960's was being offered a self-sufficient and fixed metaphor of individualism, backed up by that image's proliferation in comics of the time" (Fleming 100). While America's propensity toward the soldier image changed as a result of frustrations with the Vietnam War, the toy type embodied in GI Joe and created by popular culture did establish a template for the toys of the rest of the decade and well into the 1970's. When Kenner created its so called "action figure," it completely diverged from the twelve inch, heroic individual doll norm that, despite GI Joe's absence, still existed and persisted in contemporary toys representing new polular television shows such as The Planet of the Apes and the Six Million Dollar Man.
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