new internationalist
issue 256 - June 1994

GI Joe, Barbie, Ken and men

Steven Hill connects competitive economics
and competitive sex.

When I was eight or nine, like most boys my age, I received one Christmas the obligatory GI Joe doll, complete with combat fatigues and M-16 rifle. My GI Joe was one rough tough character; so rough, in fact, that one day he beat up my sister’s Ken doll and absconded with Barbie. My GI Joe carried off Barbie like a prized Helen of Troy. She was his prize for besting that wimp Ken, who could hardly be expected to defend the beautiful Barbie with his tennis racket, dressed in 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.

In the carnival game of heterosexual economic relations, women are one of the prizes offered to us men for achieving ‘success’. But she must not be just any woman – she must be a certain type of woman. She must be a woman who is highly desirable, worth striving and competing for. She must be a beautiful woman – a Barbie doll.

Inevitably, not all boys as they grow into men, nor all girls as they grow 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 bottom and most end up in between, desperately clawing their way towards 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 products that make the owners of the economy rich. The ads selling those products whisper sexy messages, hinting to us how we can soothe the aching gap between our ambitions and our actual status – between wanting to be GI Joe, but feeling like Ken.

Through this gap slithers the seduction of pornography, together with mainstream media images of beauty or sex. With these images dancing in our heads we men can fantasize that we have won our prize, the beautiful woman, the Barbie doll. In the privacy of our fantasies we can temporarily reconcile our socialized craving to win, and feel dominant with our actual experience of powerlessness. Contrary to claims of a cathartic effect, these vicarious fantasies act as the practice sessions for real-life behavior and relationships with women.

Most significantly, this dynamic is true of real-life sex-beauty images – those women who attempt to conform physically to these 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 painted red lips and mascaraed eyes, a smooth leg or a bit of cleavage pushing out of a low-cut blouse – and in an instant miracle of his brain he can imagine that he owns the favor of that woman, that he possesses her as an image and that therefore he must be a virile, successful man.

In a single day, via magazines, TV and the women we meet or know, this sort of experience can happen to a man a hundred times, instantly conveying to his cranial synapses the crude 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 and addictive process. Like all addictions these ‘attractions’ feel immediately pleasurable and have a ‘high’ associated with them. Considered as a ‘normal’ heterosexual attraction, this sexual high is a common experience. It includes a momentary fix of approval and acceptance together with eroticized feelings of power and conquest that are invested with the authority of the culture. When combined with the orgasmic release of masturbation, the message of these images is positively reinforced.

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 a ritualistic exercise in an ideology. And this ideology, utilizing a series of rewards, punishments and motivational incentives – after thousands of hours of practice – re-makes the young 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.

No wonder that, prior to bombing raids during the Gulf War, US pilots were shown films of disrobing bikini-clad women. These films were called ‘motivational’: ‘Now I know why I’m fighting,’ grinned one enthusiastic pilot.

Part of a man’s need to dominate women – and other men – results from our sense of having failed to ‘win’ in a competitive and exploitative economic system. Once we have recognized this there is the potential to enlist women and men as allies in each other’s struggles, while not giving short shrift to women’s pressing issues resulting from male privilege and patriarchy.

Steven Hill is a freelance writer, community organizer and editor. He lives in Seattle.

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