Friday, July 29, 2011

G.I. Joe vs. Ken

Anthony, the child I was shopping for today is a 7 year old boy from Newton, New Jersey. He could easily be described as the “typical” boy who enjoys water guns and nerf guns. This made finding a suitable gift easy. At age 7 Anthony is old enough to receive a “typical” boy toy, a G.I. Joe. What makes the desire for guns and violence a male standard? Why is a G.I. Joe thought to be a normal gift for a young boy? Male and female stereotypes are reinforced through the marketing of a similar item for little boys and little girls.
The stereotype for men is one of strength, pride, and bravery. Although these are just a few of the words used to describe what a man is, almost all of them can relate to a man’s role in battle.  Masculinity is directly tied to violence and a man’s ability to take part in this violence. It is expected of a boy to be interested in war and aspire to be like the war heroes that he is exposed to on a regular basis. Boys often start this battle with competition, such as sports. For little girls femininity is displayed as something much softer. Stereotypes for women include weak, kind and emotional. Little girls learn at a young age that they aren’t supposed to be equal to boys in physical stature and instead are to be nice and obedient. Girls are sugar, spice, and everything nice in contrast to the boy’s tough and rebellious nature. Because of this difference in thought, girls don’t have the same urge for physical competition with each other. They don’t feel the need to prove they are stronger then another girl.
Michael Messner states, “For the boys in this study, it became “natural” to equate masculinity with competition, physical strength, and skills. Girls simply did not (could not, it was believed) participate in these activities.” (Messner, 128) I believe it is safe to say that the boys in Messner’s study weren’t the only boys who felt the need for competition and greater physical strength. Being better then the boy next to you was desirable because of the stereotype set for men. It was important to be superior, to be stronger, and ultimately, to be the best. This desire is not often found in girls because of the lack of competition inherited in their stereotype. Since being weak is a stereotype for a woman, a little girl would have no need to prove she is better than someone else, this would make her masculine. Physical competition is looked down upon. Instead a girl is influenced to be nice and kind and to be controlled by someone else.
The G.I. Joe toy in particular shows the stereotypic image of a man to a little boy at a young age. Joe gives boys the perfect role model, muscular, violent, and always ready for battle. His accessories can include cool different camouflage outfits and a multitude of different weapons. If you remove G.I. Joe’s accessories and imagine him strictly as a doll there is little to no difference between Joe and Barbie’s boyfriend Ken. With this example you can directly see the difference between the two markets and their messages. Ken as marketed to girls shows a man with very feminine characteristics. Ken is always wearing the latest fashion, with an array of different outfits to choose from. Ken even represents the feminine stereotype of needing someone. Ken is basically sold as an accessory to Barbie. He is marketed as something that will go great with your Barbie doll, and as such would never be purchased without her. G.I. Joe, although similar to Ken under his violent accessories, appeals to boys with a completely different message.  The message from G.I. Joe is superiority as he takes on all his enemies and defeats them all, showing boys the need to be the best.
These stereotypes shown by G.I. Joe and Ken are an example of how the process of socialization occurs. Newman defines socialization as, “the way that people learn to act in accordance with the rules and expectations of a particular society.” (Newman, 108) These expectations or stereotypes pushed onto these little boys and girls soon shape them into the stereotypes their toys once symbolized. This is how we actually become male or female. Not the different sexes but instead the different lifestyle. Joe and Ken are the same doll but are marketed in different ways, one with very masculine features and one with very feminine features.  Choosing one declares your gender and soon shapes you as the stereotype you are following.
Looking deeper into how the G.I. Joe is marketed one can look at its packaging. Nearly every package Joe has ever been found in has an explosion on the box. This is just another representation of prominent violence. However this violence isn’t often really seen by parents since G.I. Joe is in the toy store just like every other toy. He is in the aisle next to the toy cars, or water guns. Just thrown into the “boy” section of the store. Ken, on the other hand, won’t ever be seen featuring an explosion on his packaging instead you will find him in a nice pink box next to all the Barbies, and often mistaken for one. This is what the difference between Ken being a doll and G.I. Joe being an action figure.
Explosions and excitement define G.I. Joe just as clothes define Ken. Newman explains, “Decades of research indicate that “girls’ toys” still revolve around themes of domesticity, fashion, and motherhood and “boys’ toys” emphasize action and adventure.” (Newman 112) With pink packaging for Ken and his fashionable clothes, he strongly appeals to the stereotypical girl, while Joe appeals to stereotypical boys with his strength and violence.  With packaging and accessories taken away, these two dolls are interchangeable, but once marketing has taken hold of them, the two target audiences can be easily seen. The twin dolls no longer appear similar and head off in very different directions.
I am sure Anthony, having grown up with water guns and army guys, will thoroughly enjoy his new G.I. Joe without realizing the way this simple toy is shaping him. He will also be blissfully unaware of the simple difference between his “action figure” and his sister’s doll. Often boy and girl toys are very different types of toys. It is then more difficult to see how stereotypes are reinforced. The Ken/Joe doll, altered primarily by packaging and marketing, clearly demonstrates how these stereotypes differ. Male and female stereotypes are reinforced through the marketing of a similar item for little boys and little girls.
Works Cited

Newman, David M. “Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality.” Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print

Messner, Michael A. "Boyhood, Organized Sports, and the Construction of Masculinities." Gender Socialization. Print.

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  1. I thought that you took a very interesting angle in comparing G.I. Joe to Ken. It worked out very well. I also liked the point that you made about Ken needing someone and being marketed just as an accessory to Barbie. The side-by-side images were also helpful in supporting your thesis.

    Although I think you did a great job, parts of your post seemed a little too repetitive when it came to making your point. I also thought that since you are quoting Messner in terms of his study, it might have been a good idea to give a brief one sentence summary of what his study was about. The reader of your blog may not be familiar with this study.

  2. Please read the updated "Welcome" message on SOCS for the detailed reason for why it's taken me so long to comment on, and also grade these assignments! I rather post it there instead of here :o)

    I hope you'll understand that, in the interest of getting your grade submitted to PAWS by tomorrow, the commenting will have to be skipped and all feedback will be on SOCS in the rubric for this assignment under "Assessments."