Days Among The Dreadnoks

Image: mikequozl via Flickr

My favorite G.I. Joe figurine was named Zarana, but that’s not what I called her. She was one of the Dreadnoks, a Cobra- (they’re the bad guys) affiliated biker gang with a “particular taste for chocolate-covered donuts and grape soda.” (Wikipedia.) I never knew any of this stuff during the time we played with our G.I. Joes; I never cared. Zarana had pink-orange hair and a midriff baring top (a straight strawberry-bubblegum pink) and blue biker pants and her skin changed color in the sunlight, but I didn’t particularly care about that. She had an expression on her face of impatient contempt, and she was perfect. I bought her off a classmate who had outgrown G.I. Joes. We were the same age.

I played with Barbies for much longer than G.I. Joes, both in total number of hours played and in span of years, but I am not nostalgic for Barbie. My parents, still married then, were not keen on the idea of Barbies (we ate a lot of plain yogurt and rice cakes, didn’t own a television), but when I was very small somebody gave me one as a present and my parents felt rude turning it down and that one Barbie turned into forty or fifty, not counting the Barbie Jacuzzi and the Barbie dream house and the Barbie dog.

There are a lot of problems with Barbie—her embodiment of a certain idea of femininity in America, a femininity unattainable to everybody but nevertheless perpetuating within itself existing hierarchies of appearance, being, of course, the big one. That would be a good reason not to be nostalgic about Barbie, but my indifference to Barbie comes from the way her beauty slipped through my fingers when I took her out of the box. I chopped off her hair or I snapped off her head or I lost her outfit or I could not put her outfit back on properly or I made her have sex with a particular Ken one too many times and it made me feel funny, the way I thought about it. Her hair got matted from all the brushing. She was so big, and I could not construct a landscape for her to move in that seemed properly to scale. Those are the things I remember about Barbie.

The theoretical reason for the G.I. Joes was that I was playing with my stepsiblings, who were younger than I was. I don’t remember how long it lasted exactly. I remember it started with a rental house with an attic full of them, and the realization that although my stepbrother would mostly not play Barbies, he would play G.I. Joes, and also, honestly, with how awesome the G.I. Joes were as objects (they were small and plastic and sturdy and you couldn’t dress them or brush their hair, but you didn’t need to because they were what they were), and the feeling that although I was too old to play with Barbies, it was different to be a pre-teen/teen girl playing with G.I. Joes. Different better.

So when our parents moved out of the rental house into the house they bought, we filled its attic with G.I. Joes. We didn’t follow the story lines of the comics or cartoons. We made heroes villains and vice versa and often abandoned the concept of villains altogether, choosing to bend the narratives to misunderstandings and unity. We didn’t talk, mostly, about my fights with their mother and my father. Sometimes we fought amongst ourselves, but that was different, that was more manageable. Our G.I. Joes went into space and found aliens that turned out to be peaceful. They quarreled with each other over territory and reconciled. Sometimes they had dance parties and ordered pizza.

Male G.I. Joes were everywhere, but female G.I. Joes were hard to find. We hunted them down with obsessive fervor. I never found one new in a store, but I checked every single time. Having something to hunt for was comforting, that was part of it. Also, the unreality of anything that didn’t involve women. My mother had changed male pronouns to female in my picture books when reading aloud, and all the books I read once I was old enough to read to myself had women as main characters. My stepbrother and stepsister had a different mother, but they had also been brought up to believe that stories without women weren’t really stories.

But more than anything, I wanted to see myself in G.I. Joe form. Not just because I wanted representation. This was about wanting to be impermeable, unchangeable. Beautiful by definition and without alteration. Tough. Plastic.

It was the nineties and people made fun of Hillary’s changing hairstyles. I was nervous and striverish and in the process of becoming and I hated that about myself; the feeling of not having a core, of drifting from one trend to the next. My stepmother and I fought about how withdrawn and tense I would get; she saw it as a rejection of her and I didn’t have the language or the understanding to explain. I imagined a version of myself out there in the world that was all the same all the time, that could not be pierced or exposed.

I get why you like the female G.I. Joes, a friend’s mother said when I was thirteen. Barbies are so ugh, and the female He-Man figures all have thunder-thighs. But the female G.I. Joes are cute.

My math teacher (one of the best I ever had) wouldn’t sign the petition I passed around asking Hasbro to make more female G.I. Joes. He was a Quaker and couldn’t support normalizing women in combat because he was against combat altogether. Before that, I had never had to think about whether my idea of the equality of the sexes included the idea that women should participate in the things that are done but should be left undone, and afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I am not in regular touch with my stepbrother and stepsister any more. Occasional messages across the years, but none of the three of us live in the city that my father’s house is in. Our parents’ divorce was ugly, and I never could figure out how not to be a jackass to my stepmother, and those things are barriers between us. Sometimes I feel very much like the person that played G.I. Joes on the attic floor and sometimes I don’t.

That I miss my stepbrother and stepsister is one reason why I am nostalgic for the G.I. Joes, why I keep a plastic boar that I acquired in the great G.I. Joe hunt on a shelf in my house. But I’m also nostalgic for the idea that I might turn into a grown-up, like a G.I. Joe, unchanging and beautiful by definition.

This summer I took my husband to my father’s house for the first time. When I went up to the attic with my husband my G.I. Joes were still sitting in the built-in cupboard that I had used as their base. They looked exactly the same, except for some of them the rubber band that had once connected their bottom half to their top half had dried and cracked and split so that now they lay in pieces. I thought about taking them all back home with me, but I didn’t.