GI Joe, Barbie, Ken and Men:
Competitive Economics, Competitive Sex (short version)

by Steven Hill
This article was published in the New Internationalist
When I was eight or nine, like most boys my age I received one Christmas the obligatory GI Joe doll, complete with combat fatigues, M-16 rifle and a ruddy scar slashed across Joe's cheek. My GI Joe was one rough tough character; so rough, in fact, that one day he beat up my 11 year old sister's Ken doll and absconded with Barbie. My GI Joe carried off Barbie like a prized Helen of Troy. She was my (GI Joe's) prize for besting that wimp Ken, who could hardly defend the beautiful Barbie with only his te nnis racket, dressed in those limy green bermuda shorts.

Now, looking back on my dramatic play, I wonder how it was possible that a nine year old had figured out that role without ever having read the script?

Winners and Losers

In the nine-year old fantasy, GI Joe gets his Barbie. But at some point the nine-year old boy must encounter the real world, and this encounter is potentially devastating. For he will discover that he is more like Ken, yet still wanting to be like GI J oe. And he will have to figure out a way to somehow bridge the gap between his fantasy and his experience.

In the carnival game of heterosexual economic relations, women are one of the prizes offered to men for achieving our "success." But she must not be just any woman-- she must be a certain type of woman. She must be a woman that is highly-desirable, o ne that is worth striving and competing for. She must be a worthy prize, she must be a beautiful woman. She must be -- a Barbie doll.

Inevitably, not all the boys growing into men, nor the girls growing into women, will be able to live up to the demands of a competitive society. In a competitive society there are winners and losers: a few end up at the top, some end up at the botto m, and most end up in between, desperately clawing for the top to keep themselves from sinking to the bottom. This dynamic drives the economy: men and women straining to win, producing and consuming the goods and products that make the elite owners of t he economy rich. The ads selling those products whisper sexy messages, hinting to us how to soothe the gap between our ambitions and our actual status -- between wanting to be GI Joe, but feeling like Ken.

"Let them eat images"

Through this gap slithers the seduction of pornography, and also mainstream media images, and generally any beauty or sexual image including any real-life woman who attempts to conform physically to these images. With these images dancing in his head, a man can fantasize that he possesses his prize, the beautiful woman. We men can temporarily reconcile our socialized craving to win and feel dominant with our experience of powerlessness, by fantasizing about sexualized images of female beauty which we c an then manipulate in our fantasies. Possession of the sex-beauty image -- of the Barbie doll -- is a sign, a measure, of the competitive male's success, achievement, and dominance. Contrary to claims of a cathartic effect resulting from the use of porn ography, this vicarious process of relating to the sexual image acts as the practice sessions for real-life behaviors and relationships with women.

Most significantly, this dynamic is true of real-life sex-beauty images, as well as pornographic and media images. A man can see a flash of Cindy Crawford-like mane out of the corner of his eye, in the grocery market, or walking down the street -- the p ainted red lips and mascaraed eyes from afar, a smooth leg or a bit of cleavage pushing out of a low-cut blouse, and all in an instant miracle of his brain imagine that he owns the favor of that woman, imagine that he possesses that sex-beauty image, and that therefore he must be a virile successful man.

In a single day this sort of experience can happen a hundred times: a flash of breast here, a shapely profile there, a magazine cover in a grocery checkout line, prime time television, the way the hair falls, all of this in an instant conveys the cru de message: "Sex-beauty image, I've won her, I am a successful man." Relating to sex-beauty images for one's own self-approval and psychological bolstering is a subtle process, and an addictive one as well. Like all addictions, these "attractions" feel instantly pleasurable, and have a high associated with them. Furthermore, the high includes a momentary fix of approval and acceptance, and eroticized feelings of power and conquest, that are invested with the authority and approval of the culture. Con sidered as normal heterosexual attractions, this sexual high is a common experience, the cornerstone of nearly every heterosexual male's sexuality, and consequently arduously difficult to give up.

Thus, like a woman's obsession to be thin, sexy, young and beautiful -- to be a Barbie -- the man's physical attraction and his attempts to become the man -- the GI Joe -- that wins this beauty is an exercise in an ideology. And this ideology, after tho usands of hours of practice, re-makes the boy into a man who is a mechanized cog in the grinding competitive machine, an obedient soldier ready to march off to military or economic war.

Just think of it: what must be done in order to turn a bouncing, bright-eyed baby boy into a soldier who kills on command, a paid killer who is willing to pull the trigger or push the button from 10,000 feet to drop bombs of terror on civilian populatio ns? Or to turn the adventurous young boy into an obedient worker, routinely following his boss' orders for nearly one half of his waking hours? An observation of modern society produces the answer: you must offer that boy-growing-into-a-man a series of rewards and punishments, of triumphs, fears and insecurities, to motivate him. No wonder that, prior to bombing raids during the Persian Gulf War, U.S. pilots were shown films of disrobing bikini-clad women. These films were called "motivational" films ; "now I know why I'm fighting" grinned one enthusiastic pilot.

The antidote to this state of affairs is for both women and men to bravely stop producing, dressing as, and turning on to these images, and to compassionately stop asking each other to masquerade as the same. Rather than censoring or narrowing our choic e, this antidote opens up a plethora of possibilities about how women and men may dress, cross-dress and adorn ourselves.

Wouldn't GI Joe look lovely, with his hair in braids and in a flouncy chiffon skirt?

Private Property and Democracy Free Speech and Democracy Representation and Democracy Gender, Competition and Democracy About The Author

Private Property and Democracy Free Speech and Democracy Representation and Democracy Gender, Competition and Democracy About The Author