GI Joe and Trans Identity

In 1964, Hasbro introduced the now-classic line of poseable action figures known as G.I. Joe, the name a play on the generic term for soldiers in the US military. G.I. Joe was the brainchild of Manhattan licensing agent Stan Weston, who presented them to Hasbro executive Donald Levine in 1963. The original 12″ toys were marketed as ‘action figures’ with Hasbro explicitly forbidding sales reps and retail venues from using the term ‘dolls’ to refer to them. Anyone caught referring to them as dolls faced a fine. As GI Joe became increasingly popular, retail venues were more than happy to comply. The ‘action figure’ moniker stuck through subsequent iterations where GI Joe was rebranded to meet changing times.

Social Pressure and Identity

So what does GI Joe have to do with transgender identity? Allow me to give an example: When I began coming out to people as transgender, a common reaction was confusion, along with the respondent wanting to be supportive, but lacking a framework to do so.

“How can you be transgender? You never did… <insert stereotypical feminine behavior>?”

Koala Swim

I was rough and tumble, a daredevil, loved GI Joe action figures (the smaller, more modern version), and would never play with dolls, not even close. They only saw me from the outside. Of course, they hadn’t spent the amount of time I had thinking about transgender issues and identity, so it’s understandable if they had some misconceptions.

If you’re reading this, you may have some suspicions as to why I never played with dolls. It was completely and utterly socially unacceptable for any boy, including the one I was perceived to be, to play with a doll or any girl’s toy. As a kid, I just wanted to fit in, to be accepted by friends, and to be loved and supported by my parents and society at large. There was no way I was willing to put that safety and security on the line by playing with a Barbie doll.

Dolls are Dolls

The reason I bring this up, and my point of this article is the toys I played with in my childhood, and those that millions of boys played with, were dolls. Don’t believe me, just look at these two soldiers!

                                         (GI Joe Man of Action — with life like hair!)

                     (Barbie enlisted in the Army in 1989, followed by the Air Force, Navy and Marines.)

Hasbro felt “Life Like Hair” was an important enough selling point that it is the only feature to receive a call-out on the box! If the verisimilitude of GI Joe’s hair, uniform and poseability were important to the product, so are they equally important to the Army Barbie which debuted in 1989.

In a similar way, the actions I performed, the likes and dislikes, were no more authentically masculine or feminine than a doll. Many people across the gender spectrum misunderstand what makes someone transgendered. It is not determined by which activities they enjoy, either now or as a child; it is always and only their gender identity

In society, in general, we place fewer restrictions on acceptable gender roles than our grandparents once did. Although we have a long way to go, a woman is now free to pursue a variety of career options outside of the house. When I enlisted in the military as a man, I served right alongside many young women. However, society still expects transgender women to fall into a stereotypically feminine deportment, enjoying only fashion, makeup, and boys; transgender men enjoying cars, babes, and tools. Transgendered people have, and they should be allowed to express the wide variety of interests they have, just as the rest of society is allowed to do.


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    Melissa Ingle

    Transgender woman exploring her options.

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    Erica Gabriel
    Erica Gabriel(@snowyone)
    1 year ago

    I had the GI Joe with a submarine that was at the top of the hierarchy above Evil Kneivel and the Bionic Man. I would dress and undress them, though I’m not sure if they were a seed for my dysphoria. That’s another story.

    Erikka Ingebretsen
    Erikka Ingebretsen(@kvinne50)
    1 year ago

    So many times I have heard this. Yes I did X and yes I was X and thank you for accepting my camouflage as being real… while you thought what you saw was the real me, it wasn’t, the real me is now.

    Dee Lienert
    Dee Lienert(@jennidavis)
    2 years ago

    Thanks for writing this. It expresses exactly what I’ve been thinking for years.

    Michelle Liefde
    Active Member
    Michelle Liefde(@elantari)
    2 years ago

    Thank you and well said, Melissa. As someone who played with “action figures” or sometimes calling them “guys” I get it and do recall those times clearly. I remember being corrected in calling them dolls when I was real young by adults and kids. I also remember how much I wanted my 1974 Mego Captain Kirk to be able to drive my cousin’s Barbie’s 1976 Pink Star-vette and being told you cannot because you are a boy. Though I never felt really either fully boy or girl, just me, I learned (I stunk at it) enough to be a “boy”… Read more »

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