In the ‘80s, Hasbro almost singlehandedly changed both toys and cartoons with The Transformers and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Until those shows came long, the idea of creating the perfect loop of a TV show that promotes toys that promote the TV show was simply unheard of—or at least avoided on moral and legal grounds. Whether you see that as a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on how much you liked The Transformers and G.I. Joe as a kid, but either way, Hasbro changed a very small corner of the world with those cartoons.
To explore how exactly that happened, The Hollywood Reporter put together an oral history of G.I. Joe that features interviews with the creator of the show, a current Hasbro exec, and a whole bunch of the original voice actors. The details about how the show was created are pretty fascinating, with Real American Hero creator Ron Friedman explaining that he got the job because he accurately pointed out to Hasbro that the show would need to be slightly serialized in order to give the audience a chance to connect with the characters and “[see] them as people.” Friedman also explains that he organized the various characters into “groups of families” so he could visualize what their personalities might be, which made him realize that the show needed more female characters. He says he “knew girls who loved animation and loved superheroes,” so he didn’t want them to be left out.
That also ties into one of the more surprising parts of the oral history, which is where the cast and crew touch on the politics of the G.I. Joe cartoon. Mary MacDonald-Lewis, who did the voice of Lady Jaye, suggests that there was a feminist undercurrent to the cartoon, explaining that—even though the writers were primarily young men—they had been raised to recognize the importance of strong women. Bill Ratner, the guy who played Flint, says the show’s diversity also helped keep him and the others from feeling “squeamish” about being “purveyors of war.” Friedman even adds that he’s “a liberal and always [has] been,” so he specifically set out to give the heroic Joes more open-minded liberal ideals while the villainous members of Cobra would always be critical of each other’s differences.
The whole thing is worth reading, especially for the parts where some of the actors clearly wrestle with the fact that they worked on a cartoon that made combat look super cool and exciting. Apparently, though, there are a ton of people who out there who were inspired to become first responders by the show or who internalized those cheesy “knowing is half the battle” PSAs and consciously avoided getting into fights or whatever. There’s also a fun anecdote about Orson Welles for Transformers: The Movie fans, but that’s only tangentially related to G.I. Joe.