Patriotism in the Media and White Fragility: The True Enemies of the G.I. Joe Universe?

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ninja became very popular in American pop culture. The ninja appeared in movies, books, and comics. Ninjas were quick and easy villains for heroes […]

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ninja became very popular in American pop culture. The ninja appeared in movies, books, and comics. Ninjas were quick and easy villains for heroes to fight. In most cases the hero was White and the ninja was the evil Asian. Eventually, however, popular culture became fascinated with ninjas.  As a result, in addition to being depicted as villains, ninjas were also depicted as heroes who were always White, with many movies, books, and comics adopting the White ninja as the hero and the evil Asian Ninja as the villain.

In the 1980s there several films about the White ninja or White martial artist became very popular, including The Octagon starring American icon Chuck Norris, Enter the Ninja, starring Franco Nero, and The American Ninja starring Michael Dudikoff.  All these films are perfect examples of a White lead actor portraying a heroic martial artist or ninja versus an evil ninja portrayed by an Asian actor. This can also be seen in television through series such as The Master; the two main characters are martial arts heroes played by White actors Lee Van Cleef and Timothy Van Patten. Lastly, this same formula is demonstrated in G.I. Joe comics through the rivalry between the heroic ninja Snake Eyes, who is White, and his arch-nemesis Storm Shadow, who is Asian and employed by the evil terrorist organization COBRA.

Because a characteristic of patriotism is depicting Americans as heroes and foreign countries as evil, using patriotism in the media to depict Americans as good, heroic people provides screenwriters and comic authors a very simple formula for justifying making Asians evil.  This concept became a popular part of American culture, especially the media, in the 1980s, because for forty years prior to the 1980s, America had been at war with Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.  In the 1980’s G.I. Joe universe, because Snake Eyes is a hero associated with a military organization, he becomes a victim of racial stereotyping in the 1980s because it is easier and more marketable to make Snake Eyes White.

  If you look closely at G.I. Joe as a military organization, you can see that Larry Hama, popular G.I. Joe author, created one of the most racially diverse military organizations in comic books, with their ranks including soldiers who are American Indian, Asian, Black, Native Hawaiian, and Hispanic. It is interesting that a very popular comic book and action figure line with many diverse characters and a creator of Asian descent chose to follow the stereotype of American patriotism by depicting Snake Eyes as the heroic White ninja as a fantasy character.   

For many years, Snake Eyes remains White, and eventually, Snake Eyes hits the big screen in G.I Joe: Rise of Cobra and G.I. Joe Retaliation. In both films, Snake Eyes is played by Ray Parks, a White actor. Many fans embraced Ray Park as Snake Eyes because he has an extensive martial arts background.  Additionally, Park has played characters in two other very popular movie franchises. Parks played villains Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode One and Toad in X-Men. Snake Eyes was his first role as a major hero, but he wore a mask in both films and never revealed his face. 

A new Snake Eyes movie is set to be released in theatres in July. The movie is going to focus on a revision of the origin story of Snake Eyes. The original story of Snake Eyes was written over forty years ago by the creator of G.I. Joe, Larry Hama. In the new revisionist tale, Snake Eyes is played by Malaysian actor, Henry Golding. Many G.I. Joe fans are not happy with the decision to cast a person of color to play Snake Eyes and they are making their voice known all over social media, using phrases such as “Not my Snake Eyes,” “Snake Eyes is supposed to have blonde hair and blue eyes,” and “According to the comic book, Snake Eyes is supposed to be White.”  These fans are clearly outraged that their hero is no longer White, even though actor Henry Golding is biracial.  Because he does not look White, his race is being attacked on social media. It is many of the White fans that have labeled him as Asian and unfit to play Snake Eyes.

According to an interview with Henry Golding on Inverse.com, Larry Hama gave his blessing for Golding to play Snake Eyes. According to Golding, “Larry Hama gave us his license to co-create with him the backstory he always wanted to tell.”  Golding continues, “People are like, ‘That’s not his history. He is meant to be White.’ Well, maybe Larry had to do that. Maybe Larry had to make an obvious fish out of water. He had to make him White with the blonde hair and blue eyes.” Even Golding admitted that it is possible when Snake Eyes was created, he had to be White because it was just part of the culture in the 1980s.

It surprised me that, in an age of diversity of inclusion, because of changes in color that shift away from White, there is such an immense hate for a movie that no one has seen, without even giving the actors or actresses of the film a chance to perform for the fans. I am looking forward to seeing the Snake Eyes movie and I hope it does well. As a G.I. Joe fan, I want to thank everyone involved and I am looking forward to being entertained.

It is interesting to note that multiple Japanese films such as The Ring, Godzilla, and The Grudge have been remade in America using White actors as heroes and protagonists, without an outcry of “Not my Godzilla!!” on social media, even though the characters portrayed in those movies were originally Japanese.  According to sociologist and author Robin DiAngelo, white fragility is the defensive reactions that so many White people have when their racial worldviews, positions, or advantages are questioned or challenged.  Why do some White Americans experience white fragility when the tables are turned with characters such as Snake Eyes? Does the “white hero” stereotype created by patriotism in the media truly cause White people so much cognitive dissonance that it triggers white fragility?

Chip Carroll

About Chip Carroll

Chip Carroll has a master’s degree in American history focused on contemporary pop culture. He has been collecting action figures most of his life. His favorite toy lines are G.I. Joe, Marvel Legends, and Star Wars. Also, loves to read comic books and has a file at two of his local comic book stores. He is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an educational medieval organization. He likes to spend his weekends with his friends doing full contact medieval fighting. Lastly a beer connoisseur, his favorite beer is free and cold.