Reconstruction 11.2 (2011)
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9/11 Goes to the Movies: The Ideological Reverberations of “The Day That Changed America” / Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo & Carmen Lugo-LugoAbstract: In this article, we pair our previous work on the discourse and ideology residing behind, and acting to construct, the "War on Terror" and "9/11"—and their attendant links to matters of race, sexuality, and citizenship within a post-September 11, 2001 United States—with an examination of Hollywood mainstream films as post-9/11 cultural products. In post-9/11 films, we find both an examination of the events of September 11, 2001 and the "American" response to those events, as well as the emergence and reinforcement of "9/11" as a culturally defined and produced lens for the "American" experience in a post-September 11, 2001 world. Our consideration of post-9/11 film keeps with Graeme Turner’s (2006) notion that "the reason we want to examine film at all is because it is a source of pleasure and significance [that is, meaning] for so many in our culture" (61), and with Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill’s (2009) point that "the events of September 11 and the subsequent War on Terror have further tangled the knotted relationship between popular culture, political discourse, and terrorism" (12). We also keep with scholars examining post-9/11 cultural production, in particular the type of film arising in the wake of the September 11, 2001 events, termed "the post-9/11 movie." We employ Jeffrey Melnick’s (2009) articulation of "9/11" as a phrase capturing an event that has been transformed into a discourse, a language, and an ideology that can be deployed to analyze and understand cultural and material production after September 11, 2001. Far from being simply a date, "9/11" has been transformed into an ideological, cultural, and sociological concept.
Keywords: Culture Studies, Race & Ethnicity, Television & Film
Tales of a battle between good and evil must depict the world as a threatening
or even terrifying place, full of monsters. That alone would be enough
to make people feel insecure. But there is more. The stories always
imply (and often say quite openly) that the monsters can never
be destroyed. The best to hope for is to build a stout defense
against them, one strong enough to keep them from
destroying us. The monsters may be contained.
But their threat will never go away
(Chernus 2006, 4–5).
Threat and Containment: 9/11 Ideology and Post-9/11 Film
<1> In Containing (Un)American Bodies: Race, Sexuality, and Post-9/11 Constructions of Citizenship, we argue that in the wake of the events on September 11, 2001 and the ensuing United States-led "War on Terror," the United States government—and the G.W. Bush administration, in particular—established a pattern of discourse linking perceived "outside" threats (for example, Muslim extremists and countries supporting terrorists) with perceived "inside" threats (for example, same-sex couples and "brown" immigrants) (Bloodsworth-Lugo and Lugo-Lugo 2010). This discourse not only merged otherwise distinct issues, it reinforced a series of oppositional pairings (inside/outside, safety/threat, us/them) and enabled the American public to conceptualize the United States as a vulnerable place in light of the September 11, 2001 events and the American people as requiring vigilant State protection.
<2> Whereas prior to the events of September 11, 2001, the American people had been trained to view the world as a shrinking and consumable place, available "at the click of a mouse," with "the day that changed America," Americans retreated from what had proven to be a newly disclosed threatening and uncontained world. In response to the September 11, 2001 events, Americans hung flags in front of their houses, signaling a renewed sense of patriotism. The United States government created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), one of the more far-reaching federal agencies to exist within the country in order to secure "the nation from the many threats [it faces]" (Department of Homeland Security 2010). "Security/threat" became configured as "us/them," while "American" became conceived as antithetical to "terrorist."
<3> Given American anxiety around terrorist "uncontainability," a concerted effort to protect "America" by containing "un-American" bodies ensued. Protection and security became synonymous with the containment of threats—threats residing in uncertain places ("lurking in shadows") and potentially harming from within ("lingering among us"). However, while the containment of threats became the expressed post-September 11, 2001 aim, the G.W. Bush administration repeatedly reminded Americans that the increasing threat of terrorism could never truly be eliminated. "America" could attempt to contain an ever-expanding array of conceived threats (including groups of people rhetorically merged with terrorists), but those threats would demand constant identification and vigilance. Through the process of constructing and merging threats, various groups were effectively rendered un-American. In concert with the G.W. Bush administration, the "American" public overwhelmingly acted to contain those threats— redefining the category "American" itself in the process.
<4> In the present article, we pair our work on the discourse and ideology residing behind, and acting to construct, the "War on Terror" and "9/11"—and their attendant links to matters of race, sexuality, and citizenship within a post-September 11, 2001 United States—with an examination of Hollywood mainstream films as post-9/11 cultural products. In post-9/11 films, we find both an examination of the events of September 11, 2001 and the "American" response to those events, as well as the emergence and reinforcement of "9/11" as a culturally defined and produced lens for the "American" experience in a post-September 11, 2001 world.
<5> Our consideration of post-9/11 film keeps with Graeme Turner’s (2006) notion that "the reason we want to examine film at all is because it is a source of pleasure and significance [that is, meaning] for so many in our culture" (61), and with Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill’s (2009) point that "the events of September 11 and the subsequent War on Terror have further tangled the knotted relationship between popular culture, political discourse, and terrorism" (12). Films have functioned as "the locus for America’s negotiation of September 11 and its aftermath," according to Schopp and Hill (2009, 13). We also keep with scholars examining post-9/11 cultural production, in particular the type of film arising in the wake of the September 11, 2001 events, termed "the post-9/11 movie."
<6> Thomas Pollard (2009) notes that, as an immediate response to the events of September 11, 2001, Hollywood producers "suspended many productions," since they were "fearful of offending a public shocked and in mourning for the attack’s victims" (195). However, Hollywood filmmakers soon introduced "the post-9/11 movie." For Pollard, "post-9/11 movies" have marked "some of the most pessimistic, violent, and cynical movies of all time" (206). Jonathan Markovitz (2004) adds, "Hollywood has a long history of turning widespread fears into cinematic spectacles, but never before has the source of those fears been so singular, so easily isolated, or so thoroughly disseminated to national and international audiences" (201). Wheeler W. Dixon (2004), on the other hand, suggests that "post-9/11 movies" actually reflect a "variety of impulses; some films seem to encourage the warrior spirit, while others question it, and others still avoid the issue altogether" (1).
<7> We would like to extend the various analyses of "post-9/11 film" to maintain that "9/11" has informed our collective imagination so thoroughly that it has become the lens through which Americans have come to view the world in the wake of September 11, 2001. As a consequence, we can locate "9/11" (that is, the ideological and cultural concept developed as a response to the events of September 11, 2001) in most cultural artifacts produced after September 11, 2001, including films. These films showcase our ideologies and feature a specific set of fears, perceptions, and hopes in a post-9/11 world. Our concern in this essay is not with whether films produced and released after September 11, 2001 are pessimistic, singular in vision, or encourage a warrior spirit, but with the way they embody, reflect, and portray a set of assumptions about United States culture at the start of the twenty-first century, as well as what they teach us about the ideological leanings of United States society in a "post-9/11" era. We argue that instead of offering powerful "substitutes of reality," as Jaap Van Ginneken (2007) maintains, films provide forceful ideological representations at a given time based on cultural perceptions of reality. Thus, it is not a matter of "this is how it probably is or was," as Van Ginneken asserts, but rather, this is how "we" perceive it to be or to have been. As in other contexts, perception then becomes reality. As sources of meaning and as influential carriers of "reality," films promote the comprehension of the culture and time in which they are created.
<8> In what follows, we sketch ways in which mainstream Hollywood films have offered powerful sources of significance and representations of reality vis-à-vis the events of September 11, 2001. We employ Melnick’s (2009) articulation of "9/11," in 9/11 Culture, as a phrase capturing an event that has been transformed into a discourse, a language, and an ideology that can be deployed to analyze and understand cultural and material production after September 11, 2001. Far from being simply a date, "9/11" has been transformed into an ideological, cultural, and sociological concept.
<9> We would like to note that while any movie released after September 11, 2001 might afford a post-9/11 lens, within Hollywood productions, there are particular films that negotiate the events of September 11, 2001 in two specific ways: (1) they depict the multiple war and security efforts that emerged from the events of September 11, 2001 and the impact of those efforts on United States culture, and/or (2) they portray a decidedly "9/11 sensibility"—to use the words of Melnick (2009)—including the ideologies, fears, anxieties and perceptions that developed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 events. Both groups of films—those dealing with post-9/11 efforts and those involving post-9/11 sensibilities—would "fit" in a non-contentious way the definition of a "post-9/11 movie" employed by scholars such as those above. While we wish to maintain that "9/11" has become the lens through which Americans have come to negotiate the post-September 11, 2001 world, we wish to limit our discussion in this article to films fitting the two categories above. In addition, in deploying the notion of a "9/11 sensibility," we primarily aim to highlight themes examined in our previous work on post-9/11 discourse, politics, and ideology; namely, issues of containment, citizenship, race, and sexuality. These issues, within a context of "9/11"—and the relationship between "9/11" and film—remain under-examined in the scholarly literature.
<10> In the remainder of this article, we briefly discuss five "post-9/11 films." We maintain that the first of these films, Babel, offers a broad account of the post-September 11, 2001 world, especially as Americans have conceived that world vis-à-vis issues of threat and containment. The film offers both an account of post-9/11 efforts and a depiction of a post-9/11 sensibility. The two films that follow, Home of the Brave and The Hurt Locker, address the United States response of war to the events of September 11, 2001. These films also provide conceptions of the "enemy within" and demonstrate how "the day that changed America" might be reconciled with notions of home and safety. The final two films, V for Vendetta and Avatar, provide examples of a post-9/11 sensibility in relation to matters of sexuality and race. We focus on the themes contained within these films and how audiences might be expected to read and engage with these themes given post-9/11 ideology. Our discussion of these five films is not intended to provide a comprehensive examination of the impact of the events of September 11, 2001 on Hollywood films or to offer an in-depth analysis of these particular films. Rather, we aim to reveal significant ideological reverberations in mainstream Hollywood movies of what has been packaged as "the day that changed America."
The Threat is Everywhere, the Enemy is "Brown"
<11> Babel (2006) examines the connection between the "outside" world and life "inside" the United States, deploying the clichéd notion of the human web (or six degrees of separation) on a global scale. The film takes its audience through the seemingly disconnected events in the lives of several people on three continents. As the plot unfolds, we learn that regardless of how physically separated the characters might be, their lives (and fates) are indeed connected and affected by the others’ actions. However, it is not the "we all live in a small world" message that is central to our analysis, but the fact that the characters bear witness to a post-September 11, 2001 uncontainability. That is, regardless of State efforts, the world proves threatening, especially to the film’s American characters, which arguably hold a central role in the film despite its multiple cross-cultural storylines.
<12> The film begins in a yet-to-be-identified desert where people are speaking Arabic. Two men (Ibrahim and Abdullah) exchange a rifle for money and a goat. We soon learn that the rifle is for Abdullah’s young sons (Ahmed and Yussef) to use against jackals that threaten the family’s herd of goats. Once the exchange occurs, the sons take the rifle to watch the goats, and Yussef, the youngest, attempts to demonstrate his shooting skills by firing at a bus full of tourists. One of the bullets critically wounds an American female tourist (Susan Jones, played by Cate Blanchett), who we learn is in the country with her husband (Richard, played by Brad Pitt) trying to resolve problems within their marriage. We learn that this part of the film takes place in Morocco.
<13> As the film continues, we meet Amelia, a Mexican nanny in a suburb of San Diego, who is in charge of two white American children (Mike and Debbie) and whose parents are out of the country. We witness a call from the father of the children (her boss, Richard) telling Amelia that he has not been able to find anyone to watch the children and relieve her of duty, so she will have to stay with them longer than anticipated. Amelia reminds her boss that it is her son’s wedding day and that she needs to attend the ceremony in Mexico. In light of the situation, her boss commands her to reschedule the wedding and volunteers to pay for a "new one." After trying to find an alternative caretaker on her own, and failing, Amelia decides to take the children with her to Mexico for the wedding.
<14> The film’s next scenes involve Chieko, a Japanese high school girl, who is deaf and plays on her school’s volleyball team. We quickly learn that Chieko is an angry girl, desperately seeking acceptance and struggling with the death of her mother and her father’s (Yasuhiro) seeming detachment. We eventually learn that the rifle, from the start of the film, found its way to Morocco from Japan—a gift to a local guide, from the girl’s affluent father, upon visiting the country to hunt game. We can also infer that the girl’s mother had used the rifle to commit suicide.
<15> The four storylines unfold in different languages and foreground a lack of clear communication or understanding, connecting the film to its title with Biblical roots. However, we maintain that the post-9/11 undertones of the film provide its coherence and principle messaging. For instance, after Susan Jones is shot in Morocco, the incident is treated and investigated as a terrorist act by both the Moroccan and American governments. Not knowing that one of his sons has shot the American with the new rifle, Abdullah discusses the incident with his wife over dinner, conveying that authorities believed a "terrorist" had shot the woman. The wife’s response is both swift and telling: "[B]ut there are no terrorists here." The investigation leads Moroccan authorities to Ibrahim, and then to Abdullah and his sons, after Ibrahim tells authorities that the rifle had been a gift from a Japanese hunter and that he had sold it to Abdullah. Once it is determined that Abdullah was the last owner of the rifle, authorities chase Abdullah and his sons, and Ahmed is killed.
<16> On a different continent, although Amelia is able to cross the United States-Mexico border with the American children without incident, upon returning from the events of her son’s wedding day, authorities question and challenge the car’s occupants. Amelia’s nephew, Santiago, the driver, is angry and decides to run from authorities rather than pull the car over for further investigation. Santiago drops Amelia and the children off in the desert, saying that he will return for them, while continuing to flee the authorities. This decision puts the three lives in danger, effectively affirming what Mike’s mother (Susan) had told him earlier: "Mexico is dangerous." Mike had actually conveyed his mother’s comment to Santiago earlier that same day, during the wedding festivities, and Santiago had humorously replied, "Yes, it’s full of Mexicans."
<17> The impact of Santiago’s placing the American children’s lives in danger by dropping them into the desert is that it confirms Susan’s suspicions—and, by extension, the suspicions of a post-9/11 (white) American audience—around "brown" bodies. Mexicans, conflated with illegal immigrants, again conflated with "dangerous brown people" in other parts of the world (such as Morroco) present a threat given a post-9/11 ideology supported by issues involving immigration reform and threatening countries in an "axis of evil." In fact, the three countries highlighted in the film—Japan, Mexico, and Moracco—become a problem for the film’s American characters, much as President G.W. Bush suggested the three countries comprising an "axis of evil"—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—would be trouble for the United States in his State of the Union Address in 2002.
<18> While Susan’s suspicions are confirmed for an American audience, it is primarily Richard’s character that maintains the place, and demonstrates the anxieties, of a post-9/11 United States. Richard can be seen to enact the ideology of the G.W. Bush administration, or the position of the United States itself, through his struggles within the film. He must comfort and protect Susan (Americans in general) in an uncertain location and within a context of mounting difficulties (in a "changed America" and a "changed world"). He must try to persuade the other American and European tourists (an international community whose cooperation must be obtained) not to abandon them in a small village while awaiting help for Susan from the American embassy. In the meantime, he must attend to the matter of his children within the United States, vulnerable persons subjected to a recognized danger.
<19> Of course, it is arguably Richard’s own self-interest that has caused the difficulties for his children. Likewise, it is the couple’s venturing to a distant location to address problems within their own marriage that has presented troubles for Susan. Richard’s white Americanness is central to the film, serving as the axis upon which the remaining storylines turn. Richard portrays the anxiety of a post-9/11 United States, especially fear that with the world’s connectedness, there is uncontainable danger. Within both the investigation of the Moroccan rifle incident and the incident at the United States-Mexico border, we see the multiple, if inadequate, security efforts led by the United States government in the wake of the September 11, 2001 events. While post-9/11 ideology suggests that the United States government will protect the American citizenry, Babel demonstrates the danger lurking in "brown" parts of the world.
The War Within Us: A Different America, A Different World
<20> Rebecca Bell-Metereau (2004) claims, "American blockbuster movies laid the groundwork for the public’s response to [September 11, 2001] as the beginning of war than as a terrorist attack" (143-144). In our view, however, the basis for transforming September 11, 2001 into an act of war was found more in the rhetoric developed by the G.W. Bush administration, which began to frame "9/11" as "a war that came to our shores" immediately after the events of September 11, 2001 (cf. Snauwaert 2004). We can see this language in the following examples. Just nine days after the event, in an address to Congress on September 20, 2001, President G.W. Bush stated:
On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars—but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war—but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks—but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day—and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack (Bush 2001).
A few months later, in his 2002 State of the Union Address, President Bush remarked, "As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers" (Bush 2002a). Shortly thereafter, making a case for invading Iraq, he stated, "the attacks of September the 11th showed our country that vast oceans no longer protect us from danger" (Bush 2002b). Similarly, in a speech delivered prior to his signing of the Homeland Security Act, he claimed, "With a vast nation to defend, we can neither predict nor prevent every conceivable attack…. We’re fighting a new kind of war against determined enemies" (Bush 2002c). And in his 2003 State of the Union Address, he summarized the preceding two years: "In two years, America has gone from a sense of invulnerability to an awareness of peril; from bitter division in small matters to calm unity in great causes" (Bush 2003).
<21> The President’s rhetoric after September 11, 2001 was consistent and offered a clear message: there is danger around us, and this danger is unlike any that has existed before. The new danger means that our world is unpredictable and that we have entered into a new kind of war. When post-9/11 war movies depict soldiers, it is no accident, then, that they are shown to experience a profound sense of displacement. This is especially true when they return from Iraq or Afghanistan to United States soil since, following the logic advanced by the G.W. Bush administration, the soldiers actually do not return to the "same country" because the country and the world have irrevocably changed. They, like other Americans, must find ways to negotiate and reconcile that rupture—the rupture between the safe and familiar and the threatening and new.
<22> While, in our view, post-9/11 presidential rhetoric established the foundation for construing the events of September 11, 2001 as acts of war, American blockbuster films nonetheless crystallized that message and placed "war speak" (for example, "collateral damage," "enemy combatant," "roadside bomb," "rendition," "detainees") into the collective American vocabulary and imagination. Mainstream war movies have shaped post-9/11 ideology concerning "the world" in which we now live and offered common themes that have framed a post-9/11 United States culture. Two of the more clearly present themes, and those we address below, are: (1) the idea that, with "9/11," war "came to our shores" and is within us/our borders, and (2) the notion that, after September 11, 2001, we live in a different America and a different world. We discuss Home of the Brave (2007) and The Hurt Locker (2009) to demonstrate how these two themes have unfolded and interacted in 9/11 films about war and war efforts.
<23> Clearly influenced by the G.W. Bush administration’s articulation of "9/11" as an act of war on United States soil, Hollywood filmmakers have translated this attack and the ensuing "War on Terror" as a disruption or alteration of daily life within the United States—one in need of repair or resolution. A place once deemed safe is no longer safe, as the American public has endured a national trauma. Within post-9/11 war movies, soldiers are featured as main characters commonly struggling with their return to the United States. In addition to Home of the Brave and The Hurt Locker, examples of such films include: The Lucky Ones (2008), Stop-Loss (2008), and Brothers (2009). Soldiers in these films suffer from anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, numbness, and depression, as well as detachment and isolation from family members and friends. While these displays of behavior are recognized as effects of war on individuals, it is the message delivered to American audiences that interests us here; as a collective, Americans are being placed in a similar position to these individual soldiers insofar as they themselves have been grappling with a "different America" in the context of "9/11."
<24> In Home of the Brave, the four main characters (one white woman—Vanessa Price, played by Jessica Biel; one white man—Tommy Yates, played by Brian Presley; and two black men—Jamal Aiken, played by Curtis Jackson and Dr. Will Marsh, played by Samuel L. Jackson) appear to experience dislocation when their company is sent home to Spokane, Washington from Iraq. Having been caught in an ambush and roadside bombing, Price has lost her arm. We see her struggling with daily routines (for example, buttoning her shirt, folding the laundry, and putting items in her car). Aiken, unable to find solace in group therapy or to reconnect with his former girlfriend, is killed in a shoot out with police. Dr. Marsh turns to alcohol. In the character of Tommy Yates, however, we find a key to understanding the "inner war" of these soldiers and how we might extend that struggle to a post-9/11 American public more broadly.
<25> Yates’ best friend, Jordan, has died in the same ambush in which Price’s arm has been severed. Price and Yates encounter each other in Spokane and share their impressions of returning home. They confirm similar trouble relating to others and have an extended discussion regarding their medications. They agree that nothing is the same as before. As the movie unfolds, Yates remains unable to find a place of comfort or belonging. In the movie’s final scene, entitled "Going Back," we see Price and Marsh finally resuming their lives (by way of a high school baseball game they attend with their families). Yates, on the other hand, is in the process of returning to Iraq. The audience is offered a voiceover narration of a letter Yates has written to his parents regarding his decision to return.
<26> Ultimately, the audience does not learn whether Yates is able to resolve his sense of displacement by returning to Iraq. In the letter to his parents, we do learn that, by returning, he seeks redemption for "those who went over with him [the first time] and sacrificed so much." Consequently, Yates re-enlists not because he believes he is fighting a just war, but because it is the only way that he, as a soldier, knows to help. This decision, we are to assume, offers a resolution not available in Spokane, Washington, even if the outcome of that decision goes unseen within the film. By extension, American audiences are reassured of the necessity of war overseas, given the "new America" emerging from a war that came to our borders but that cannot be resolved within them.
<27> The Hurt Locker also highlights war efforts in a post-September 11, 2001 world, specifically those of a bomb specialist, Sgt. William James, played by Jeremy Renner. The movie juxtaposes Sgt. James’ seemingly nonchalant behavior while trying to diffuse multiple bombs in Iraq (the majority of the film) with his life back home, where he has a wife and an infant son. By observing his inability to relate to life in the United States, James’ actual attachment to his job in Iraq comes into relief. Near the end of the film, the audience witnesses James in a grocery store cereal aisle appearing partly overwhelmed and partly disgusted by the enormous selection. Prior to this, we have seen him cleaning the gutters to his house with a discontented expression. In a sense, these daily routines are too mundane given his exceptional experiences in Iraq. However, it is also the case that "home" is no longer home—a place of familiarity and comfort—to James. He finds that, like Yates, everything has changed. James offers a monologue to his baby at the end of the film that provides a similar sentiment as that expressed by Yates:
You love playing with all your stuffed animals. You love your Mommy, your Daddy. You love your pajamas. You love everything, don't ya? Yea. But you know what, buddy? As you get older... some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore. Like your jack-in-a-box. Maybe you'll realize it's just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. And the older you get, the fewer things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe it's only one or two things. With me, I think it's one.
<28> With this, James returns to diffusing bombs in Iraq—the one thing that he "really loves." It is through redeployment that, from Hollywood’s perspective, the wars being fought by James and Yates must be engaged. After all, the United States is fighting "the War on Terror" on foreign soil as a response, according to official rhetoric, to the war that started at home. The message being conveyed is that "9/11" is "in" these soldiers, just as it is "in" New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. A place once safe is no longer safe. In the face of displacement, they/we do "what needs to be done": fight (and presumably win) the wars thrust upon them/us.
The Enemy Within Our Borders: The Threat of Sexualized and Racialized Others
<29> According to Andrew Schopp (2009), along with other films, V for Vendetta (2006) "depict[s] the way governments, media, and/or individuals manipulate fear… [speaking] to the contemporary cultural and political condition in America, a situation in which fear threatens to function as a means of social and political control" (260). In fact, when discussing V for Vendetta, critics have tended to focus on similarities between the fictitious fascist regime of Chancellor Sutler and the actual presidency of George W. Bush. Even Alan Moore, creator of the original V for Vendetta graphic novel, criticized Hollywood’s version of his art for its desire to transform it into a critique of G.W. Bush and his administration. In Moore’s words:
What had originally been a straightforward battle of ideas between anarchy and fascism had been turned into a kind of ham-fisted parable of 9-11 and the war against terror, in which the words anarchy and fascism appear nowhere. I mean, at the time I was thinking: look, if they wanted to protest about George Bush and the way that American society is going since 9-11—which would be completely understandable—then why don’t they do what I did back in the 1980s when I didn’t like the way that England was going under Margaret Thatcher, which is to do a story in my own country, that was clearly about events that were happening right then in my own country, and kind of make it obvious that that’s what you’re talking about (Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness 2010).
<30> While perhaps hiding behind a futuristic scenario unfolding in Britain, V for Vendetta certainly does offer similarities between the discourse of Chancellor Sutler and that of President G.W. Bush in a post-September 11th United States. Below is just one example of this similarity. Here, Chancellor Sutler warns of an impending attack from V:
Tonight our country, that which we stand for, and all we hold dear, faces a grave and terrible threat. This violent and unparalleled assault on our security will not go undefended… or unpunished. Our enemy is an insidious one, seeking to divide us and destroy the very foundation of our great nation. Tonight, we must remain steadfast. We must remain determined. But most of all, we must remain united... Tonight, I give you my most solemn vow: that justice will be swift, it will be righteous, and it will be without mercy.
In this passage, President Bush conveys the lesson of "9/11":
Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom—the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time—now depends on us. Our nation, this generation will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail (Bush, 2001).
While political rhetoric is certainly central to our argument regarding the construction of "9/11," rather than highlight further similarities between Chancellor Sutler’s regime and the G.W. Bush administration, we would like to focus on lessons surrounding sexuality and race/ethnicity developed within the film. We consider this particular aspect of the film to present the most extreme manifestation of the "us/them" rhetoric emerging after September 11, 2001, although even in this case, there are similarities between the two leaders and their policies and practices.
<31> The film uses the character of Valerie (who we later learn has been long dead) to narrate a story. The story reveals a perfect analogy between the treatment of sexuality (gays and lesbians, in particular) under Sutler and past historical occurrences involving race, most notably the Jewish Holocaust under Nazi Germany, the massive deportation of Mexicans that occurred in the United States in the 1930s, and the treatment of American Indians within the United States. It is also a reminder of post-9/11 ballot initiatives within the United States advancing constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage—a much supported and nurtured project by President Bush.
<32> In fact, an important component of the "9/11 sensibility" in the United States has been sexuality. From efforts to thwart State sanctions of same-sex relations, to backlash over the ordination of the first gay bishop by the Episcopalian Church USA, to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, sexuality has figured prominently in post-9/11 American discourse and culture concerning the containment of threats to the nation. Within the United States, the containment of sexuality, and the bodies of those deemed sexual outsiders, intensified during the first decade of the twenty-first century on a par with efforts to contain terrorists, immigrants, and other groups considered outside the fold of the mainstream (Bloodsworth-Lugo and Lugo-Lugo 2010). The fact that sexuality and terrorism have been placed under strict containment shows the impact of the discourse involving threats, with Hollywood assuming a participatory role.
<33> However, before we actually learn about the treatment of gays and lesbians under the Sutler regime in V for Vendetta, we witness two important points: (1) a strong and consistent use of the term "we" when articulating how circumstances are and ought to be by the most important agents of socialization in any fascist regime—the government and the media, and (2) that gays are not able to live their lives openly within the film’s setting. We first learn of the second issue when Evey’s co-worker, Gordon Dietrich, "comes out" to her. As Gordon tells Evey, "you wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it." We learn that Gordon must not only hide his sexuality but also any material indication that he may not be straight (for example, his interest in literature, music, and art). When we start to learn Valerie’s story, we are already positioned to know that it will not end well. Valerie provides her account through Evey, who reads installments of the story while imprisoned. The narration begins as follows:
I remember how the meaning of words began to change. How unfamiliar words like "collateral" and "rendition" became frightening, while things like Norsefire and the Articles of Allegiance became powerful. I remember how "different" became dangerous. I still don't understand it, why they hate us so much.
The story continues and culminates when Valerie finds Ruth, the love of her life. After conveying how happy Valerie and Ruth were together, Evey conveys an event closely reminiscent of the historical and recent events mentioned above. In Valerie’s words: "They took Ruth while she was out buying food. I've never cried so hard in my life. It wasn't long till they came for me."
<34> We agree with Alan Moore’s critique of Hollywood’s treatment of the film’s material. While the setting of the film is Britain, the allegories, along with Natalie Portman’s presence (as Evey), offer a decidedly American point of view—and a post-9/11 view, in particular. Consequently, American viewers of the film are able to accommodate the film’s messages within their frames of vision and modes of understanding in a post-9/11 United States. Moreover, in a film almost completely devoid of racial content, an embattled Valerie, wondering why she (a lesbian) is so hated, harkens to the experiences of racial minorities who have asked similar questions for most of the existence of the United States. In this case, the treatment of sexuality is used as a substitute for race, offering a futuristic concentration camp, or Abu Ghraib prison, while conjuring the conceived threat of sexual outsiders in a post-9/11 America. It also provides a warning of what could happen—both to the subjects themselves and to the contours of the country if permitted to continue down a similar path.
<35> In the case of the film Avatar (2009), the story has been heralded as a welcome critique of environmental destruction and pervasive military actions. Writing for CNN.com, movie critic Tom Charity (2009) states that Avatar "wears its anti-imperialist, anti-corporate sentiments on its sleeve." However, Charity also indicates that this message is rather ironic given the status of the film as a "big, big budget blockbuster, a movie that seems destined to inflate Hollywood costs still further at a time when mid-budget pictures are being squeezed out" (Charity 2009). In addition to its denunciation of imperialism and rampant corporatization, we can find in Avatar a message regarding "9/11"—even though its setting is another planet (a moon, actually) in the twenty-second century.
<36> The film conveys the story of the Na’vi, the native inhabitants of Pandora, a moon replete with "Unobtanium"—a precious metal desired and "needed" by Americans to solve their energy crisis. The Na’vi, along with their Tree of Life, sit atop the richest deposit of the mineral. In the words of Parker Selfridge, a representative of the corporation aiming to sell the mineral in the film, "This is why we are here [showing a small rock]: Because this little grey rock sells for 20 million a kilo. Their village happens to be resting on the richest deposit and they need to relocate. Those savages are threatening our whole operation." The extraction has become a corporate and military operation, as scientists working for both the United States military and the company in charge of mining Unobtanium have developed specific avatars to gain access to the planet (which is toxic to humans) and its people (who are much taller and stronger). We learn that Marine Jake Sully has been brought to Pandora to replace his twin brother, Tom, a scientist who has died. Since Jake and Tom are identical twins, Jake provides a genetic match for Tom’s avatar.
<37> Although the plot is reminiscent of many imperialist efforts within human history, the dialogue reveals a uniqueness vis-à-vis "9/11." For instance, in one of his video-journals, Jake Sully confides, "This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on shit that you want, you make ‘em your enemy. Then you're justified in taking it." This candid interpretation of the situation in Pandora is quite similar to critics’ claims of the United States’ occupation of Iraq as being tied to oil, and relatedly, of President G.W. Bush’s transformation of former President Saddam Hussein into an enemy to enable the invasion of Iraq to manage its oil.
<38> The film’s dialogue also utilizes the "us/them" rhetoric consistently employed by President Bush and the Bush administration to reference "the terrorists." When Coronel Quaritch (Jake’s commanding Officer) learns that Jake is more sympathetic to the Na’vi than the military operation demands, he remarks, "You let me down me son!... So, you find yourself some local tail, and you just completely forget what team you're playin' for? Hey Sully... how does it feel to betray your own race? You think you're one of them?" The mark of "9/11" is also clearly seen in Colonel Quaritch’s rant when preparing the troops for combat against the Na’vi. In his words:
People, you are fighting for survival. There’s an aboriginal horde out there massing for an attack [showing a slide show]. These orbital images show the hostiles’ numbers have gone from a couple of hundred to over two thousand in one day, and more are pouring in. By next week it could be twenty thousand. Then they’ll be overrunning our perimeter here. We can’t wait. Our only security lies in preemptive attack. We will fight terror with terror. This mountain stronghold is supposedly protected by their deity. When we destroy it, we will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep, they won’t come within a thousand licks of this place.
The call for a preemptive attack, fighting terror with terror, and blasting the hostiles back in time (recall the "Shock and Awe" campaign in Iraq) comprise central components of the collective discourse deployed to address "terrorists" after September 11, 2001.
<39> It is no coincidence that when Jake Sully falls in love with a female Na’vi (even though he does not actually exist in her world—only his avatar does), the lure of the female native (that is, "hostile") becomes a threat to the United States and its corporate and military interests. Colonel Quaritch’s reproach of Jake—that he has betrayed his own "race" for a piece of "local tail"—is quite telling in this regard. Even if we were to assume that the Colonel intends to reference the human race in general, and not a particular race within the broader category, the situation would present itself as still more complicated, given that the entire film revolves around United States military and corporate interests. Thus, when Quaritch refers to "race," he may actually mean to suggest that the United States is a race, and although the audience might assume that the Earth’s energy crisis is a global situation, the scientists, the corporate representatives, the military personal, and the avatars in the film are exclusively American. Moreover, the Colonel, the lead scientist and her assistant, the lead corporate representative, and Jake Sully are all white Americans. The use of the word "race" by Quaritch could very well suggest that Americans are being equated with the human race and that the human race is incompatible with the Na’vi. The Bush administration consistently deployed a similar equation, suggesting that some bodies (for example, gays/lesbians and terrorists) undermine the whole of human/Western civilization and threaten the recognized pillars of humanity themselves.
<40> While sexuality and race have not been the primary areas of concern for most commentators and critics of V for Vendetta and Avatar, these issues nonetheless infuse these films with a "9/11 sensibility." Although we can identify other moments in U.S. history in which sexuality has been racialized and race has been sexualized, within the post-9/11 era, this co-mingling of issues was persistent and a staple within the official discourse of President G.W. Bush and his administration. As a result, Americans and American popular culture were subjected to seven years of persistent conflations and discourse involving sexualized and racialized threats to the nation. These threats became part of Americans’ ideological framework and components of the "9/11 sensibility" exemplified within these films. Thus, gays/lesbians have become conflated with "terrorist" threats, "terrorists" have been identified and reified as "brown," gay/lesbians have been "browned," "browned" threats have become sites as requisite containment. The American public has been held separate from the terrorist "them," while the range and realm of such perceived "terrorists" has expanded.
<41> The ideological reverberations of "9/11" take multiple shapes. However, these shapes link to form a single and singular story—one of threats and fears, annihilation and containment, all within an unprecedented landscape. In post-9/11 film, "9/11" (the concept) has unfolded to represent an emerging United States society after "the day that changed America and the world forever." In the face of the events of September 11, 2001, the United States became—as Chernus remarks, from our opening epigraph—a country fighting a battle between good and evil, against monsters that can never be destroyed. Chernus argues that while these monsters may be contained, they will never go away, suggesting that a post-/911 ideology could survive in the United States for some time to come, as well, until there is a new way of conceiving and envisioning threats. Thomas Pollard (2009) suggests that the post-9/11 era may become known as "the age of paranoia" (206). And Andrew Schopp (2009) contends that viewing some films released after September 11, 2001 reveals that the post-9/11 American culture is one "troubled by its media, torn between conflicted visions of justice, bogged down in moral complexity yet desiring no moral ambiguity and thus unable to determine where ‘evil’ and ‘good’ truly reside" (281).
<42> In the second edition to his now-classic book, Movie-Made America, published seven years prior to September 11, 2001, Robert Sklar (1994) argues that by the early 1990s, no social commentator "could speak confidently of… the magic and myth of the movies" after "decades of turmoil and transformation—within the film industry and in society at large—had taken their toll on Hollywood’s capacity to purvey America’s myths and dreams" (357). He blames multiculturalism for this "loss" by reasoning that "the cultural disunity of American society gave rise to a new concern, not with the traditional rhetoric of myths and dreams, but with historical memory" (358). That is, for Sklar, multiculturalism has created a sort of fractured society preoccupied with its past instead of its future. While we disagree with Sklar’s claim regarding multiculturalism and its effect on society and film, we can clearly see that "9/11" has changed film in a fundamental way in which neither historical memory nor myths or dreams are a primary concern. "9/11" has provided a lens for the American public through which to interpret their present (a present completely devoid of a past and one that anticipates an uncertain future). "9/11" has also "unified" the American public, a public intent on containing threats and fears. We can find this intent reflected in "post-9/11 film," given that these films likewise reveal a consistent effort to contain threats and fears—new threats, amorphous threats, threats that will continue, and threats that came to our shores on one fateful day that shaped the contours of our perception of reality perhaps forever.
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Bloodsworth-Lugo, Mary K., and Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo. 2010. Containing (Un)American Bodies: Race, Sexuality, and Post-9/11 Constructions of Citizenship. New York-Amsterdam: Rodopi Press.
Bush, George W. 2001. "Address to a Joint Session of Congress Following 9/11 Attacks." American Rhetoric: The Rhetoric of 9/11. September 20. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm.
Bush, George, W. 2002a. "State of the Union." American Rhetoric: The Rhetoric of 9/11. January 29. http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/01.29.02.html.
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Charity, Tom. 2009. "Review: Avatar Delivers on the Hype." CNN.com. December 18. http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Movies/12/17/avatar.review/index.html.
Chernus, Ira. 2006. Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Department of Homeland Security. 2010. "About the Department." Department of Homeland Security. http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/.
Dixon, Wheeler W. 2004. "Introduction: Something Lost: Film After 9/11." In Film and Television after 9/11, Wheeler W. Dixon (ed). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 1-28.
Markovitz, Jonathan. 2004. "Reel Terror Post 9/11." In Film and Television after 9/11, Wheeler W. Dixon (ed). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 201-225.
Melnick, Jeffrey P. 2009. 9/11 Culture. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Pollard, Thomas. 2009. "Hollywood 9/11: Time of Crisis." In The Impact of 9/11 on the Media, Arts, and Entertainment: The Day that Changed Everything?, Matthew J. Morgan (ed). New York: Palgrave, pp. 195-207.
Schopp, Andrew. 2009. "Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s War on Terror. In The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (eds). Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, pp. 259-286.
Schopp, Andrew and Matthew B. Hill. 2009. "Introduction: The Curious Knot." In The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (eds). Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, pp. 11-42.
Sklar, Robert. 1994. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. New York: Vintage Books.
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Van Ginneken, Jaap. 2007. Screening Difference: How Hollywood’s Blockbuster Films Imagine Race, Ethnicity, and Culture. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.
Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 18 December 2009.
Babel. Dir. Alejandro González Iñárrita. Paramount Pictures, 10 November 2006.
Brothers. Dir. Jim Sheridan. Lionsgate, 4 December 2009.
Home of the Brave. Dir. Irwin Winkler. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1 March 2007.
Hurt Locker, The. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Summit Entertainment, 26 June 2009 (limited).
Lucky Ones, The. Dir. Neil Burger. Lionsgate, 26 September 2008.
Stop-Loss. Dir. Kimberly Pierce. Paramount Pictures, 28 March 2008.
V for Vendetta. Dir. James McTeigue. Warner Bros. Pictures, 17 March 2006.
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