I consider myself very lucky to have been a child in the 80s. The music was peppy and fun. television was arguably at its height, and the movies were, and still are, iconic classics. However, there were two slices of 80s culture that really resonated with me, namely the animated television shows of the era, as well as the toys of the era. Indeed, these two were often intertwined in the 80s, thanks to Reagan deregulating television, allowing a cartoon to exist mainly to sell action figures, and, sometimes, even the other way around. My favorite of these cartoons was GI Joe, an update of the old 60s toy franchise into a typically 80s format. It was stylish, silly, patriotic, and cheesy, yet also well-written, with a host of fun characters and creative design. However, it is the show’s diversity that has always been its strength.
In fact, the best thing about GI Joe was the diversity of its cast, both hero and villain. Some people may point out some of the more offensive stereotypes portrayed by the show, such as the resident Magical Native, Spirit, and his pet bald eagle, Freedom (which is as subtle as everything else from the 80s), and the Dreadnoks, who were all apparently droogies from A Clockwork Orange, or the Baroness, a weird combination of Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle and every Russian ballbuster that ever existed, up to and including Brigitte Nielsen from Rocky IV.
However, that doesn’t take into consideration the many other relatively very progressive takes on minorities that can be found in the show. This really shows in a character like Doc, who manages to be a by-the-numbers combat medic without being a jive-talking caricature, or Alpine, whose real name is, according to his ID card on the back of his toy packaging, Albert Pine (get it?), and who was born in Idaho, is a mountain climbing expert, and just happens to be black. Just how non-stereotypical can you make a black character without turning him into Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? It is almost like in this cartoon they were really, really trying very hard not to be stereotypical. (Compare this to other shows of it time, especially its sister show Transformers, where a robot named Jazz is voiced by legendary black actor Scatman Crothers.)
This reluctance to stereotype characters can be seen in a lot of the female characters on the show as well. The best example of this is Scarlett, one of the main Joes that gets a lot of screen time in the cartoon. First off, it must be noted that she is fully clothed, not clad, as so many modern female characters in such stories today, in a cleavage-baring or butt-baring light bondage outfit. Secondly, she is often allowed to have character traits other than just being the “Team Girl” character that most of these shows have. She is often shown to be resilient, clever, and tough, and none of her teammates treat her as anything but a capable fellow soldier. This extends to many of the other characters on the Joe team, such as Lady Jaye, who is arguably more sultry a character than Scarlett, owing perhaps to her background as a spy, but is allowed to be similarly respected as an equal. Granted, Lady Jaye is showing a lot more cleavage, but it is peeking out from standard-issue army fatigues. Interestingly enough, but Scarlett and Lady Jaye use weapons from ancient history, the crossbow and spear respectively, which actually makes them come across as more primal combatants, which again goes against gender stereotyping, or at least it always did in my mind.
I think this diversity, however, extends not only to battling racial and gender stereotypes, but also character stereotypes as well. Most of the characters are given a backstory and a unique personality quirk or two. So we have Quick Kick and his obsessive quoting of old movies and shows, and Bazooka being a big klutz and kind of a doofus, and Roadblock being a chef, and Lifeline being, of all things, a pacifist. None of the many, many characters on the show were allowed to be cookie-cutter heroes; everyone in this show seemed like an actual person. A lot of credit obviously goes to Larry Hama, the original creator of most of these characters, who seemed to treat this characters of the show as if they weren’t just in a 30-minute advertisement for an action figure line, going beyond expectations to give us “Real American Heroes” that actually accurately represented the diversity of America.