Is it any surprise that Chris Kyle’s brutal tale of slaughtering Iraqi men, women, and children has become a box-office smash when American White males have never felt more threatened?
What’s behind the appeal of Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper and how does that appeal translate to real life?
For the third week in a row, American Sniper is the nation’s top film at the box office, drawing rave reviews from everywhere, including most mainstream outlets. Adapted from the memoir of the late Navy Seal Chris Kyle, Eastwood chronicles the life of the deadliest sniper in U.S. history, a man who described himself as a “redneck.” Having earned the nickname “The Legend,” he had over 160 kills of men, women, and children in Iraq.
Kyle’s legend as a brutal killing machine is underscored by the fact that he didn’t view his victims as fully human, and thus, didn’t see their slaughter as problematic. For Kyle, they were not victims. “They’re just targets,” he told Forbes magazine. “You don’t think of the people you kill as people … You can’t think of them as people with families and jobs. They rule by putting terror in the hearts of innocent people. The things they would do—beheadings, dragging Americans through the streets alive, the things they would do to little boys and women just to keep them terrified and quiet … That part is easy. I definitely don’t have any regrets about that.”
His only regret was that he was not able to kill “the people … before they got to my boys.” His hate was real and the consequences, clear: “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis … I hate the damn savages.”
While playing fast and loose with history (as we’ve seen, especially this awards season, most critics are only concerned with the truthfulness of films about American civil-rights history), American Sniper is ultimately a story about Chris Kyle the hero. It is about lionizing White American masculinity, imagined through war and violence.
American Sniper’s popularity emanates from its heroic portrayal of White masculinity defeating evil, one “savage at a time.” This is nothing new within the American cultural landscape. Following in a tradition of John Wayne–taming-the–Wild West films, and Rambo movies, where the hero neutralizes Communist threats, American Sniper reimagines the White male savior for the post-9/11 patriotic angst age. The entrenched anxiety is not merely the result of a culture of racialized fear, a military industrial complex that capitalizes on the insatiable yet illusive desire for safety and security, but because of a belief that American masculinity, particularly White masculinity, is in a state of crisis.
The power of film, particularly when viewed on a huge screen among an audience full of hyper-nationalist, mostly White strangers, is key to feeding mainstream societal and cultural mores. Popular films send and continually reinforce seductively powerful messages and narratives about race and manhood—all based on maintaining dominance and, if necessary, slaying those deemed “the enemy” to do so. These messages are rampant in TV series, sports, video games, music and all facets of popular culture.
Since the 1990s, we’ve seen movies that have been centered on the redemption of White men, who are portrayed as unprivileged, disadvantaged, sensitive, caring, vulnerable, and childlike. White male violence is justifiable as the forces of “evil” conspire to threaten the social order, and civilization as a whole. These popular representations of a White masculinity in crisis are used to deny, mask, and disavow the socially, culturally, and economically privileged position of being White and male in contemporary America. It is a response to a post–civil rights moment where unearned privileges have been increasingly illuminated and criticized. It is an effort to consolidate and maintain power by any means necessary all while maintaining the fantasies of American exceptionalism and meritocracy.
These are challenging times for White Americans, perhaps more challenging than any time in our nation’s history—at least that is what it looks like on Fox News, right-wing talk radio (and those who call in), the tea party, and the subsequent comments threads, the letters to the editor, and on Twitter and Facebook. With the browning of America, a Black man and his family in the White House, a truly global economy with the majority of the world’s populace of color, the presumption of White supremacy and dominance is being not only challenged, but legitimately threatened.
Eastwood’s film comes at a time when American life is being increasingly organized around the fear of external dangers: terrorism, financial decline, natural disasters, global pandemics, climate change, demographic shifts, immigrants, the falling White birth rate, and the death of the American Dream putting the White American middle-class family on the precipice of collapse.
With the real or perceived loss of power, a president who can never be viewed as anything other than “foreign” and therefore not to be respected or taken seriously, the anxiety surrounding the global war on terror, and the end of the oil-addicted American empire, waning U.S. economic power and the increased visibility and global impact of hip-hop, the popularity of Black artists and athletes in popular culture, the hyper-masculine White crusading hero becomes a moment in which White people can shore up their sense of power, dominance, and superiority.
It is apocalyptic.
American Sniper, like so many other films in this genre, brings to life the quintessential reluctant White male hero. Driven to enlist in response to 9/11 to protect family and country, when America was attacked and victimized by Arab terrorists, his destiny and duty is to kill for the love of nation, for the sake of civilization.
In the face of the assault on White masculinity and the resulting vulnerability, self-defense is necessary. American Sniper simultaneously depicts the White male as being under attack yet essential for a safe and desirable future. The benevolent brutality executed by a White male hero is necessary to preserve and protect White women and children, the domestic sphere of his home and all that he knows and believes to be right and true and good.
It melds the tropes of the tea party, Fox News, right-wing radio hosts, and the so-called patriot movement to reclaim America for White males and their families, to protect and restore order, and maintain “civilization.” White male soldiers are seen as fulfilling the same vital functions—ridding the world of evil and maintaining a sense of safety and security through the barrel of a gun and the bloody carnage of bombs. It’s about the pleasure in seeing the enemy beaten back and controlled through patriotic violence and the sight of dead bodies of color.
American Sniper opens with the killing of an Iraqi boy, sending the message that these children are the future terrorists and therefore need to be feared and controlled. They are, like children of color in America, a source of anxiety; threats who need to be locked up or killed because they can’t be allowed to reach maturation. White male anger is justifiable and necessary, being channeled into good.
In “American’s Angry White Men,” Michael Kimmel writes in Huffington Post, “What unites [angry White men] … was … ‘aggrieved entitlement.’ Raised to believe that this was ‘their’ country, simply by being born White and male, they were entitled to a good job by which they could support a family as sole breadwinners, and to deference at home from adoring wives and obedient children. And not only do their kids and their wives have ideas of their own; not only is the competition for those jobs increasingly ferocious; they’ve also been slammed by predatory lenders, corporate moguls, Wall Street short-sellers betting against their own companies and manipulated by cynical elites into believing that their adversaries were not the ones downsizing, outsourcing and cutting their jobs, but those assorted others—women, immigrants, gays, black people—who were asserting their claims for a piece of the pie.”
Kimmel continues: “Today’s Angry White Men look backward, nostalgically at the world they have lost. Some organize politically to restore ‘their’ country; some descend into madness; others lash out violently at a host of scapegoats. Theirs is a fight to restore, to reclaim more than just what they feel entitled to socially or economically—it’s also to restore their sense of manhood, to reclaim that sense of dominance and power to which they also feel entitled. They don’t get mad, they want to get even—but with whom?”
I watched American Sniper with a predominantly White audience at a theater in the Chinatown section of Washington, D.C., and it was surreal. The people I sat with applauded Kyle’s kills; they found joy in his humanization, charm, and wit. I felt something else: deeply disturbed. I kept thinking about the fear directed at Black and Brown youth, about the parallel dangers experienced by scores of unarmed Black and Brown people murdered by police officers every year. I found myself thinking about the racism and hatred about the palpable racial fear on and off screen.
While the “savages” for Kyle and American Sniper are Iraqis, Black males in America are routinely viewed as “thugs,” whether they are celebrating mainstream athletic victories, walking down the street with a cane, or having an innocent snowball fight, like these teens in New Rochelle, New York, who were held at police gunpoint for being too free.
These threats—external and internal—are imagined as violent challenges to whiteness, to civilization, in danger of continually being victimized and threatened by “terrorists,” “militants,” “insurgents” and “thugs.” Translation: Whiteness is perceived as being victimized by political correctness, by multiculturalism, by anti-police brutality, by calls that #BlackLivesMatter. Chris Kyle and American Sniper feed right into that fear, that hunger to reassure the mainstream that White masculinity is the only thing that will save the USA from these internal and external evils.
Just as “brainwashing” and “re-programming” are required to turn young men and women into soldiers for any nation’s military, movies like American Sniper are about teaching the civilian-viewing audiences, nurturing the messages that reassure them in these times of dark doubt and fear.
The narratives of White victimhood are key to this classroom, because the growing sense of crisis and threats celebrate and value Whiteness to say that, “We matter. We are America, and our nation needs us, requires things to remain as they have been, with us in charge.” Yes, the president is Black; our kids might love Jay-Z, Richard Sherman, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and LeBron James; suburban housewives might look to Oprah’s guidance and reassurance to make sense of their lives. But it is White men above all who provide safety and security; who are the true leaders and alphas; who must remain in control for life to go on as it must for the world to be right and strong and true.
And if Black and Brown bodies must be sacrificed to the gods of White supremacy, if inauthentic narratives must be advanced to maintain the status quo and stave off unimaginable chaos, then this is a price that history tells us many are willing to pay.
The heap of dead Iraqi bodies in American Sniper is like the “strange fruit” of lynched bodies hanging from American trees, photos of Black men used as target practice in a Miami police station, Trayvon, Michael, Eric, Oscar, Tamir—all dehumanized, their deaths unworthy of sympathy or concern.
The story of a benevolent father-sniper, a killing machine, of, ultimately, a heroic White masculinity is as central to American life as apple pie, the Star-Spangled Banner, and Super Bowl Sunday. It is no surprise that this mythology creates such pleasure, not just for Whites, but for an entire nation, bringing together people across racial, class, ethnic, religious, and generational lines.
This is the American truth. Death is seen as the price we must pay for freedom, violence as the necessary evil to maintain the status quo, and the demonization of non-Whites as the sacrifice to the beast of White supremacy that bulldozes anything in its path.
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