On Barthes, G.I. Joe, and Jeff Winger

“My name’s Fourth Wall. And I believe [that] what we perceive as life is actually a syndicated children’s cartoon.”

A lot of you are likely aware that I have hyperfixated on the NBC sitcom, Community, for the last few months. It’s gotten to the point where I’m bringing it to theory class with me. In what follows, I will attempt to make sense of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies using one of Community’s animated episodes, “G.I. Jeff.”

In “G.I. Jeff” (Season 5 Episode 11 of Community), ex-lawyer Jeff Winger experiences a delusion wherein he and the rest of Community’s cast are cartoon characters in G.I. Joe. Throughout, Fourth Wall (the cartoon version of character Abed Nadir) reminds Jeff of the “real world” but Jeff blanches at any mention of it.

Live-action scenes mimicking old commercials for G.I. Joe toys and action figures intercut the animated episode. Barthes, in his iconic essay collection, Mythologies, describes how toys mimic the adult world for children and condition them into their future roles. Miniature kitchens and baby dolls teach girls how to mother; toy soldiers and tanks prepare boys for war.

Toys constitute a type of myth— take the G.I. Joe action figures, for example. The action figure constitutes the form, holds its own meaning on the plane of language: a cursory reading of the shape, uniform, and posture creates an image of this character that translates to “G.I. Joe” in our minds. The form takes on a more abstract concept— a cocktail of patriotism, masculinity, and virility. Together, form and concept birth the signification, the myth that transforms the action figure into not only an aspirational symbol of manhood but also an imperative to embody this mythology. The children in the fake commercials in “G.I. Jeff” pit Cobra “terrorists” against G.I. Joe, who’s the image of wholesome American heroism.

According to Barthes, toys based on imitation “produce children who are users, not creators.” As such, the child wanders through adventures already written out for them, “without wonder, without joy.” Cartoon-Jeff accidentally kills a villain in the beginning of the episode (a no-no in children’s cartoons), earning himself the title of ringleader of his mutinous crew. But he resents the label, stating, “All I wanna do is be a good G.I. Joe. What’s wrong with me?”

In Barthes’ essay on wrestling, he notes how “the function of the wrestler is not to win: it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” Perhaps we can apply this idea to Jeff’s predicament. For Barthes, wrestling is a spectacle. It’s an exhibition of suffering and defeat and justice portrayed in excess and exaggeration. In the US, wrestling is the performance of a mythological battle between Good and Evil— a clear-cut moral fight with a clear-cut victor. Crowded around the ring, spectators are lifted out of the everyday and “placed before the panoramic view of a universal Nature …” where heroes become real, ideals are enforced in battle, and justice is intelligible.

By the end of the episode, the real Jeff wakes up in the hospital surrounded by his friends. We learn that it had been Jeff’s fortieth birthday, and he’d drunk a fifth of scotch and taken some shady Koreatown pills because he’d been overcome with insecurity about his age. He didn’t want to be a middle-aged community college teacher, he wanted to be a virile, young G.I. Joe fighting for freedom.

Although Jeff is the “creator” of this episode’s delusional cartoon-world, he struggles to follow the script. Jeff has always been depicted as a smooth-talking playboy, but one with a fragile sense of self-worth and masculinity. As he ages and his constructed identities fall away from him (the suave lawyer, the womanizing playboy, the young opportunist with nowhere to go but up), Jeff recedes into this boyish self-insert character in his mind in an attempt to secure an idealized version of himself he aspired to be.

“We can be gods here forever … I don’t wanna leave here. I wanna hang out with you guys and blow stuff up,” Cartoon-Jeff insists.