something I just figured out about G.I. Joe…
March 13, 2013
So I just realized something.
I’ve been re-watching the G.I. Joe cartoon on Hub for the last year or so, and I suddenly noticed that there are no nuclear weapons in this show. There are plenty of other mechanisms of mass destruction (Cold Slither FTW!), but most of them are completely outlandish, and they’re not total nuclear war. Heck, they even have Russian good guys in the Oktober Guard. The U.S.S.R. isn’t the bad guy — they’re as much Cobra’s victims as everyone else.
For a show that aired in the mid-1980’s, this is astonishing.
Some historical perspective: this was the stretch of time when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist’s Doomsday Clock was moved to three minute until midnight — the closest to midnight it’s ever been since the U.S. detonated its first hydrogen bomb in 1953. The idea of all-out nuclear war was everywhere. I think it’s easy for us, thirty years later, to forget just how pervasive it was. It wasn’t just in movies like Red Dawn, War Games, Mad Max, The Day After, etc. etc. It was on TV every single day. It was in sitcoms. I’ll never forget this episode of Silver Spoons where Ricky dreams that he’s president, and he’s talking on the “hot line” to Russia, and he says, “Walk to the edge of a cliff, Yuri — and drop off!” (This was considered funny in 1983. I can’t explain it. But yes, he causes nuclear war in his dream and wakes up vowing to be a better person . Or something. I don’t know, that’s the only thing I remember from the entire show.)
This was the stretch of time when my dad was stationed at Grand Forks AFB, commanding a B-52 crew. 1982-1985, I was 10-13 years old — pretty formative years. I joke now that Dad’s job was flying to Russia and dropping a bunch of nukes when Reagan pushed the button.
So this was the water I was swimming in when I was 10-13. The threat of nuclear war was everywhere, and if it happened, my Dad was going to be part of it. At the time, this was just life. Lately, this idea has completely traumatized me and I’ve been trying to figure out. (A couple years ago, a reader at a signing pointed out that I killed my main characters’ fathers in three books in a row. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m working out some suppressed childhood trauma.” I pointed out that in all three cases the father was a public servant who sacrificed himself to save others. Definitely something going on there, but I think I’ve got a handle on it now. No more killing my main characters’ fathers. And if you’ve ever sat in English class wondering if authors realize all the stuff they put in their books — well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.)
Now, the comics have plenty of nuclear bombs and nuclear threats and lots of exciting last minute disarming scenes, just like you’d expect. But that came later for me. The cartoon? Totally nuclear war free. It exists in an alternate reality where the Cold War with Russia was never that important because they had Cobra instead. For a kid whose dad had an role to play in any actual nuclear war that was going to happen, G.I. Joe felt very, very safe.
Since then, I’ve come to admire the franchise for its surprisingly effective characterization (Low Light in the cartoon? That dude is creepy, but I’d totally trust him to watch my back in a firefight), and for the way it balances its earnestness with its total absurdity. But I’m thinking there’s probably a part of me that will always treat G.I. Joe like a big fuzzy security blanket.