American Sniper: Violent, Racist, But Can We Be Surprised?

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The release and surprise success of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has polarized popular opinion in the United States, with celebrities taking sides on social media and an army of patriotic conservatives announcing their renewed desire to ‘kill some ragheads’ over Twitter. However, in the context of a long history of Arab and Muslim representation in American film, neither Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of sniper Chris Kyle or Eastwood’s depiction of the Arab world are particularly surprising or innovatory.

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Above: Some of the more unsavoury reactions to ‘American Sniper’

Dr. Jack Shaheen provides an authoritative account of the history of the demonization of Arabs and Muslims in his 2008 documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People, identifying consistent images of the Arab world that have existed since the earliest days of Hollywood. In an analysis of 1000 films featuring Arabs between 1896 and 2000, Shaheen found that an overwhelming 90% of them were negative representations, usually featuring stereotypes that evolved directly from 19th century European Orientalist art. Since the Second World War, popular film has demonized Arabs and Muslims in an increasingly aggressive way.

The evolution of a villain

“Politics and Hollywood’s images are linked; they reinforce one another”, Shaheen argues. He points to how political events like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in which American support for Israel has been unwavering) and the Iranian revolution have caused the presentation of Arabs in Hollywood film to evolve from the racist but jovial depictions in films like The Happy Hooker and Father of the Bride 2, to the psychopathic sadists and frenzied mobs, depicted in films like Rules of Engagement and Navy Seals. The events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have only accelerated this process, and consequently it is easy to view American Sniper as simply the latest stage in a long-standing pattern of demonization in American cinema.

In fact, some of the most shocking scenes in Eastwood’s film have clear parallels to existing films. The already controversial scene of ‘The Butcher,’ the merciless antagonist in American Sniper, torturing and executing an Iraqi child with a drill visibly resembles a similar scene in the 1987 film Death Before Dishonour, in which Palestinian militants kidnap and torture an American marine, again using a drill. In the same film, a Palestinian haphazardly drives a truck into a building before detonating a suicide bomb, mirroring a scene in American Sniper where an enemy soldier surges towards American tanks in a car, detonating a suicide bomb moments after being shot by Kyle.

Since American Sniper’s release, Eastwood has been accused of failing to give a voice to any of the Arab characters in the film, and of failing to situate the Iraq war within the political context from which it arose. The Arab men in the film are terrorists, deceitful civilians or passive, silent victims. The women, universally clad in cloaking burqas, or as Shaheen describes them “bundles in black”, hover in the background, never speaking other than to notify Kyle’s fictional sniper rival, ‘Mustafa’, that the ‘Legend’ has been spotted. When they meet their violent ends at the hands of the omnipotent Kyle we are comfortably reassured by him, and his comrades, that they are nothing more than savages.

Eastwood paints a black-and-white picture of the conflict, where the simplistic bad guys are cast in stark contrast to the American soldiers, who display emotional depth and have loving relationships with families back home. This again is nothing new, and countless films about the Middle East over the last few decades are equally guilty. Hollywood has systematically erased the Arab voice from its productions, and, consequently, the most shocking thing about the portrayal of Arabs in American Sniper is how familiar it is. The treacherous, irrational and inherently violent Arab has become as recognizable a stereotype in 21st century America as the hook nosed, greedy Jew was in Germany on the eve of the Second World War.

Above: Jackie Salloum, inspired by Shaheen’s documentary, created this montage demonstrating the prevalence of racist stereotypes in many Hollywood films

Chris Kyle and Hollywood Hyper-masculinity

The second issue in American Sniper that has caused controversy is Cooper’s admittedly compelling portrayal of sniper Chris Kyle. Cooper’s character is an all-American hero; a likable man who tends to let his actions do the talking, but when he does speak usually imparts some words of wisdom to help embolden his comrades in moments of despair. He agonizes over having to pull the trigger on a young child, and returns home, constantly tortured by his experiences. This appears to be in sharp contrast to the Kyle who wrote the book American Sniper, who boasts about killing “savages”, and laments; “I only wish I had killed more” adding “I loved what I did … It was fun. I had the time of my life.” Are we really to believe that Cooper’s character is the same man who claimed to have sat on the Superdome during Katrina and assassinated civilians? The man who paraded around with shirtsleeves cut off to display his crusader cross tattoo? The man who painted Marvel’s ‘The Punisher’ logo onto his flak jackets and incorporated it into the logo of his private security company with the phrase “Despite what your momma told you… violence does solve problems” emblazoned around it?

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Above: The logo of Chris Kyle’s private security firm, Craft International

However, when one looks back at the history of hypermasculinity in Hollywood films, Eastwood’s decision to sanitize and humanize Kyle’s violent nature again ceases to be surprising. Anti-sexist activist Jason Katz ( who anyone present at Occidental orientation last year will be familiar with) deconstructs America’s obsession with violence and masculinity in his documentaries Tough Guise and Tough Guise 2. He examines the way the Hollywood image of the ‘real man’ has evolved and intensified from old John Wayne westerns, through films like Rambo and Die Hard, to today’s heroes and vigilantes featured in films like Taken and The Dark Night. In all these films, the protagonist is a muscular white male, who speaks little, usually turns to violence to solve his problems, but always possesses a stoic sense of moral justice which in turn legitimizes their violent actions. By valorizing violent masculinity, the directors make the constant barrage of assaults and murders (the most recent Rambo sees Stallone dispose of 2.59 bad guys per minute), both acceptable and justified.

Thus Eastwood’s decision to gloss over Kyle’s less palatable characteristics is again, nothing new; after all, Eastwood himself, whose most famous roles include Harry Callahghan in Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, has had a huge influence on the history of Hollywood tough guys. The scene in American Sniper where a young Kyle is taught by his father how to be real man; namely by using violence to protect the weak, has become almost a Hollywood stock image, with similar scenes present in The Tree of Life featuring Brad Pitt and Eastwood’s own Gran Torino. With violence being instilled in boys from an early age, can we really claim to be surprised when young men take to Twitter to confirm their belief in Kyle’s assertion that “violence does solve problems”?

Some Conclusions

Overall, the combination of violence and racism that permeates American Sniper clearly has a long history in American cinema, and consequently we cannot be shocked by the violent, racist responses by some members of American society. Racist stereotypes have become engrained in the American psyche, making it increasingly difficult for many young Americans to recognize that Arab Muslims could possibly be people with lives and families just like theirs. Their recourse to violent language, and increasingly, violent actions (the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has reported a surge in Islamophobic violence since the film’s release) is understandable in an all-encompassing media culture that promotes a one-sided, black and white view of America’s relations with the Middle East.

This is particularly unsettling due to the popularity of Hollywood films across the Arab world. At a time when US and European relations with Muslim countries are worse than ever, we must consider the message that we are sending to the people there who see these films. A concerted effort is required by all facets of the media–film makers, news networks and journalists–to break the monotonous repetition of tired and inaccurate stereotypes, and to address the culture of violent masculinity that has become inextricably tied to them. Failing to do so is both irresponsible and immoral, and history is littered with examples of what this failure could lead to.