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Nashville Scene GI Joe Too Buff?

Little boys lusty for big biceps?

By Walter Jowers

JUNE 1, 1999:  Last week, a Harvard psychiatrist worried out loud that GI Joe's whopping-big biceps, perfect pecs, and flab-free belly might be messing with young boys' self-esteem. Apparently, a team of researchers watched little boys play with action figures, and came to the conclusion that boys prefer "very muscular figures," said Harrison Pope, Harvard shrink and author of the study which appeared in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

"The research team is concerned that boys who grow up playing with superhero action figures will feel bad about themselves if they don't grow up to have GI Joe's extrapolated 26-inch biceps." Just for comparison, home-run champ Mark McGwire's biceps measure about 20 inches. The closest thing to 26 inches on me is my whopping-big skull, which measures 24 inches around, about the size of a huge Fourth-of-July watermelon.

Dr. Pope, you researchers, listen to me: Y'all can relax. You're talking about guys here. We don't really care how we look. We know we live in a world where Julia Roberts willingly married Lyle Lovett. We may not know the path to a perfect life, but we've got plenty of evidence that our buffitude is not the make-or-break factor. It's probably not even in the top 10. We wake up every morning and thank heaven for these simple truths. But you Harvard social-science smartypantses knew all that, right?

When I heard about this action-figure study, I didn't worry about boys getting their self-esteem mangled. I didn't worry about the size of my own biceps. I worried about the following: First, who paid for this study? I smell pissed-away tax dollars. Second, what kind of grown men watch little boys play with dolls and write papers about it? Shouldn't a whole other group of researchers be watching these grown men? That's the study I want to see.

I remember when GI Joe first came out, so to speak. He just showed up on black-and-white TV one day, about the same time as Slinkies and Duncan Imperial yo-yos. He had a song: GI Joe, GI Joe, fighting man from head to toe....

I would've been smack in the middle of the GI Joe target market. But I never wanted one. In fact, I was glad not to have one. It was a doll, for crying out loud. Boys didn't play with dolls, unless a girl cousin came over to the house, and we had to do it to keep her from crying.

During my whole boyhood, I never knew a boy who owned a GI Joe. When we wanted to play war, we picked up plastic guns and grenades, and pretended we were killing each other. Some of the mean kids shot at each other with BB guns. We built forts and dug trenches. I just can't imagine a boyhood day that would've included a bunch of us lying on the ground in a circle, and leading our little soldier dollies in a puppet fight; or, weirder yet, stripping the little plastic guys down to their drawers so we could check out their pecs and quads and fret over our self-esteem. In South Carolina, in the 1960s, that kind of behavior would've gotten a boy enrolled in military school, right quick.

But here at the dawn of the millennium, we've got educated folks worried that little boys are going to take action figures as their role models. "Just as women who are anorexic have been influenced by the images of thin models, boys could be influenced by muscular men," said Martin Zelin, a Tufts University psychology professor.

It won't happen, Zelin. We're talking about guys here. We're just not wired that way.

But just for kicks, let's say Zelin's right, and boys start wanting really impressive muscles. That could mean boys playing a little ball, instead of Nintendo. It could mean boys spending a little more time in the weight room, instead of the arcade. How bad would that be? If these boys start taking steroids, we should worry. But if they just play hard and work out, I don't see a problem.

I won't be raising a boy, but if I were, I'd be on the lookout for stuff like this:

* Spending way too much time on his hair. A boy should just use his fingers to comb his hair, and it shouldn't take more than 10 seconds.

* A nipple ring. A boy shouldn't even know he has nipples.

* Dressy loafers with no socks.

* Preferring soccer over baseball.

I will not be losing sleep worrying about boys who want to look like GI Joe. Until I see the first Oprah show with a bunch of boys sitting in a circle crying, sputtering out tales of how they suffered as they tried to buff out to action-figure proportions, I'm going to consider this a real back-burner issue.

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