Social Misrepresentations in Hollywood War Movies
Author: Marcel Fomotar
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 04/17/2007
Category: Special Report II
This paper is an attempt to assess gender representations in war films with the view of contributing positively to the anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle. I argue that women, in particular, have been objectified and marginalized in movies, especially war movies. Bigotry is equally a reality in movies and blacks particularly, have almost always been demonized by Hollywood with the claim that the salvation of blacks can only come from whites. Homosexuality has also been exploited rather negatively by the silver screens. I will begin by looking at the cultural and historical foundations for gender socializations and violence, before getting into specific issues like sexism and racism in war movies within the framework of culture.
Culture and History: A Foundation for Cultural, Structural and Direct Violence
By culture, I refer to what Fonlon defines as “the sum total of best responses by human beings in an environment to their needs”,1 which constitutes a source of happiness and pride. Happiness precisely because it is evidence of man’s triumph over obstacles. Happiness will mean, in Cicero’s words, “the sum total of what is good when all that is evil has been removed”,2 or what Boethius called, “a perfect state attained by the accumulation of all good”.3 These definitions of happiness, despite their flaws in exaggerations, all stress the fact that happiness is the feeling that one has attained perfection. Perfection is provided by the feeling of fullness and culture is, in fact, the search for fullness of being which is real happiness. The reality, however, is that there is no absolute ‘perfection’; perfection is relative.
Unfortunately for mankind, some people often think that their responses to what Galtung, Maslow and Burton, among others, have termed basic human needs, are best in absolute terms. Fonlon’s definition of culture, it should be noted, implies that there are bound to be several distinct human cultures given the diversity of human environments. Aware that culture is a source of happiness, Said warns that culture can be a “protective enclosure which gives people the feeling that they are the centre of the world”:4 the superiority complex. Thus, culture becomes a source of imperialism which Said describes as “thinking about, settling on, controlling land that you do not possess that is distant, lived on and owned by other people” colonialism,for instance, is almost always the consequence of imperialism and constitutes the implanting of settlements on distant territory/territories.5
Material conquest of land and wealth aside, both colonialism and imperialism have ideological basis; the idea is that some people and territory need to be dominated because they are inferior and this is how Africa, for instance came to be colonized by Europeans who declared that Africans had no culture. If any at all, they claimed, it was a culture of war and violence. Africans had to be, supposedly, ‘cultured’. These are some of the justifications for the continued violence on blacks that the movies, Hollywood especially, rekindle.
In the field of peace and conflict studies, violence is broadly divided into two types: overt/physical/secondary violence and covert/structural/invisible violence. Galtung is credited for his identification of the second category of violence (structural).6 Schirch describes structural violence as:
…disparities, disabilities, and deaths [which] result when systems, and institutions, policies, or cultural belief meet some people’s human needs and human rights at the expense of others’. Structural violence creates relationships that cause secondary violence.7
Structural violence is caused by “social injustices resulting in diminished access of marginalized groups to basic needs and humane quality of life”.8 These groups will include among others women, Africans, and gays. Another important theory on violence is the social learning theory which has a significant if not fundamental link with culture. According to Barash and Webel:
Human beings are strongly influenced by their experiences – those that occur early in development and that also characterize later socialization – as well as society’s norms and expectations. Most psychologists and sociologists maintain that human violence arises in response to experiences…9
By my understanding, human beings learn from their experiences; violent experiences, just like non-violent ones, therefore are copied by human beings as they grow. Summarily, violence can be learned and every normal human being can be violent (especially in ‘abnormal’ circumstances) and many more are simply victims of violence. It is wrong therefore to ascribe violence to a group of people. At this point, I will like to consider Galtung’s definition of cultural violence:
…those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence – exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) – that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence.10
That is, history and culture have contributed largely, if not totally, in the justification of human behaviour- violence. In this light, it is no wonder that women, for example, have been made invisible by the use of certain words – as far as language is concerned with the notable examples of modern English and French– for the male gender as for the entire human species. Christianity also argues further that women were created after men and from a man’s left shoulder; men ‘should’ therefore lead. These are injustices backed by dogmas that women suffer from. As Galtung notes, “non-sexist writing is a good example of deliberate cultural transformation away from cultural violence”.11 Non-sexist writing and practice by extension is a necessary challenge to history, science and culture.
It is imperative at this point to make reference to another theory which claims that violence is innate in man – a theory I strongly disagree with. It is in fact this theory of innate violence that has dominated Hollywood movie content’s depiction of Africa, ascribing violence to the black race and justifying ‘western’ intervention (violent or non-violent) in ‘the salvation mission’. As already mentioned, colonial ideologies, strongly fostered by Christian religious doctrines argued that Negroes have a culture of violence. Accordingly, blacks are inherently ‘evil’ where ‘black’ symbolizes evil and darkness, and the ‘burden’ of the ‘white’ race was/is and probably will continue to be the ‘enlightenment’ and ‘liberation’ from ‘evil’ of Africa. By this logic, the black race is dangerous and incapable; disability.
Racism and sexism in movies
Recently, many groups of people some of which are gays, women, African-Americans, Latin-Americans and Asian-Americans have appealed to Hollywood to clean up its representation of their people in movies and on television. This has prompted several inquiries into Hollywood productions by many film critics and their findings clearly demonstrate that blatant patterns of bias exist in Hollywood films in the sense that whole populations of our culturally diverse world society are consistently portrayed in a negative or stereotypical manner. According to Cones, “when it comes time for the Hollywood control group to portray itself and its fellows on the screen, it tends to do so in a more favorable light.”12 Bias thus becomes evident in Hollywood film productions, which is fostered through propaganda.
The malicious distortion of African history and culture by Hollywood has been denounced by Richard Maynard in Africa on Film: Myth and Reality. The stereotyping of black Americans has also been explored by Thomas Cripps in Slow Fade to Black, by Daniel Leab in From Sambo to Superspade and by Donald Bogle in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. Ralph Friar and Natasha Friar’s The Only Good Indian narrates the imagistic mistreatment dealt out to the Native American. Allen Woll’s The Latin Image in American Film focuses on the stereotypical bandidos’ and greasers’ common in Hollywood films about Latin America, while Pierre Boulanger’s Le Cinema Colonial exposes the caricatural vision of North Africa and the Near East displayed in such films as Pépé le Moko and Lawrence of Arabia. Moslems have almost always been demonized as terrorists by Hollywood. “Tom Engelhardt’s essay ‘Ambush at Kamakazi Pass’ places screen anti-Asiatic racism within the context of the war in Vietnam.”13
Most Hollywood war movies on Africa, if not all, depict Africans as a bunch of irrational beings killing each other and Africa’s salvation can only come from the ‘west’. By this logic, therefore, Africa is associated with a culture of violence. In Moravo’s novel, Two Women,14 that chronicles the home front in World War II Italy, there is no rape scene but in Vittorio de Sicca’s film version of the novel,15 there is the merciless rape of mother, Cesira (Sophia Loren) and her 13-year-old daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown). Why the rapists are Africans (North Africans) is a cause for concern. Anybody could have raped the ladies (I do not support rape by any means) and I think it is unfair to bring Africans into the scene as rapists. This is clear cultural violence.
Demonizing statements about Africans is also typically ‘Hollywoodian’. Waters (Bruce Willis) in Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun says “God already left Africa” and then Danny ‘Doc’ Kelley (Paul Francis) – says “let’s get these people to safety.”16 Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Zwick’s Blood Diamond also refers to Africa as a “God-forsaken continent” and to emphasize his point he says “T.I.A. This Is Africa”.17 To further prove the “insanity” of Africans, Fuqua’s film fails to give any speaking role to the rebels especially the “cruel” Colonel Sadick (Malick Bowens). Could the name Sadick also imply a “sadist” to completely demonize the blacks and Waters, “Water” the fire-quencher? Whatever the case, there is virtually no reason given to justify the reason for the war; the rebels (Hausa-Moslem) are on the rampage massacring the Ibos. The title Tears of the Sun also suggests Africa’s hopelessness. That the sun sheds tears is unheard of and if it does, then, the situation is beyond “sub-human” (black people’s) control and certainly requires divine intervention. This image of hopelessness is also reinforced by celestial imagery of the skies consumed twice by darkness; the relatively small whitish skies faintly brightened by the moon are consumed by the black (‘evil’) clouds. The movie appears to say that Waters and his men (God-like) who are white are the natural and only saviours of such a continent.
Race aside, women too have known misrepresentations and mistreatment by Hollywood. It should be noted here that it is not only Hollywood that has been sexist in its representations of masculinities and femininities. Nollywood is also culpable, just like Bollywood of misrepresenting men and women, let alone homosexuals. There is substantial evidence to show that war films, generally, for example, depict women as nothing better than sex objects or pleasure and entertainment mates which are societal stereotypes, especially in the societies from which these films come from. In Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (Hollywood-made), the sex-starved American soldiers in Vietnam trade fuel in order to sleep with women, thereby equating women to commercial and pleasure objects; objectification.18 In Stone’s Vietnam war-based film Platoon,19 girls are brought to ‘strip-dance’ (pornography) for the American soldiers. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s (R. Lee Erney) verbal assault on the new recruits in Full Metal Jacket is also substantial proof of this rather demeaning stereotype about women.20 Hartman says, “Tonight, you men will sleep with your rifles. You will give your rifle a girl’s name because this is the only pussy you people are going to get”. Hartman, as yet another way of devaluing women tells Private Joker (Matthew Modine) that he (Pvt Joker) can come and “fuck” his (Hartman’s) sister. Implicitly, his sister is as good as sex. While in Vietnam fighting the Vietcong, Hartman’s men are willing to pay as low as US$5 to sleep with a Vietnamese lady who accepts the deal. Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove also depicts women negatively with General Turgidson’s (George C. Scott) female ‘playmate’ half-naked either caressing him as he answers a call, or calling him back home (as he discusses an important matter with top-ranking members of government including the president) for sex.21 Women thus appear as a distraction, with nothing substantial to offer but sex.
Henry also points out that “the most common depiction of women in war films relegates them to simple victim status or that of a man’s mother, wife, fiancé, girlfriend, or whore”.22 Henry further argues that the degradation of women has long been a tactic to glorify the masculine and force men to fight. This method is reflected in virtually all war-related film or novel. In Kubrick’s Paths of Glory General Mireau raucously declares, “If a man’s a ninny, let him put on a dress and hide under the bed”.23 By implication, men who refuse to fight are no better than women who are ‘traditionally’ considered fearful and weak. Not only do such movies depict these negative stereotypes of women but also foster them.
These movies undermine the role a good number of women have played in times of conflict. Very few movies, however, try to depart from this kind of image. A notable example is Portecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers based on the Algerian war of independence (which is an independent film production) in which women are actively involved in well-coordinated ‘terrorist’ attacks against the French.24 These Algerian women plant bombs in French stores and bars which explode and kill a good number of French citizens, adding to the coercive measures employed by Algerians against the French government for the eventual liberation of Algeria. These are historical facts about the Algerian independence struggle in which women, like men, contributed unreservedly to the liberation struggle. The movie is a rare example of women depicted as heroines. I say this not to glorify war nor its heroes and heroines. Again, this is propaganda. It should also be noted that homosexuality has not really been handled in war films.
It is clear from the above review that racism and sexism clothed in propaganda thrive in Hollywood movies and are potential, if not real, sources of pain. These are the products of socialization which can be challenged. The world’s advancement requires everybody’s participation; everybody has something unique to offer and everybody can do something to change the changeable status quo. The world needs not be deprived of its rich diversity. The world needs to rethink gender socializations. The media can play a huge role in ‘resocialization’.
Bio: Marcel Fomotar is a student in the MA in Media, Conflict and Peace programme at the University for Peace