Tag Archives: confusing

Strange Confusing Feelings Part 2

9 Jun

Read Part 1 first

The discussion which spans these two posts has been a bit like a Simpsons episode – start somewhere, end up in a very different place. So here I’ve come. To the reason why I wanted to write this set of blog posts in the first place. I have a lot of friends who are fervently against Cap presumably for the reasons I discussed in the previous post. But I think there’s more to Cap than this, therefore here are three reasons why I think Cap isn’t necessarily a clear-cut easy target poster-boy of American cultural imperialism.

1. The idea of American cultural imperialism is itself a shaky concept. Is every other nation, really that easily culturally conquered? Are they/we really that weak and passive? Are audiences really that impressionable and malleable? Remember: texts are polysemic.

And what is “American” culture? There’re a lot of Americans, a lot of individual experiences, belief systems, and backgrounds that go into making America. Does a nation have a single culture that they then organise and disseminate in an orderly and uncontested fashion? Governments can barely keep track of their paperwork, let alone organise a major cultural offensive… I mean, defensive…

Captain America may be draped in symbolism of the USA, but I think it’s safe to say the USA means different things to different people – the semiotics of the costume/character can and will be read in a number of different ways – as I’ve been saying, I read it several different ways that seem to be completely at odds with one another all at once.

This isn’t to say some discursive regimes don’t become more obvious or powerful at certain times. That certain groups, individuals, belief systems don’t ever become dominant – but they are always being contested, are always in a state of flux, are always needing to re-win consent to remain ascendant. Change might take a while, but it can and does happen. And maybe Cap can contribute to the effectiveness of challenges to the not-so-good parts of the mainstream because he is like a ready-made red, white and blue Muppety-Trojan horse.

2. I think Cap becomes the scape-goat for criticism of textual themes such as ‘great white hope’, ‘patriarchal dominance’, etc within The Avengers. However, The Avengers, Marvel, even the comic book industry in general are dripping with these themes. The superhuman “aggregator” in the Marvel universe is called S.H.I.E.L.D for goodness sake! Cap might have a shield – but a significant portion of superheroes in the Marvel universe work for and under one. DC isn’t much better, in fact, it’s probably more overtly Anglo-Christian in its ideological leanings; the DC equivalent of the Avengers is – let’s say it together – The JUSTICE League. The Justice League includes Superman who stands for – once more together – “Truth, justice and the American way!”

Cap is just one of a bazillion characters who reside in and are created by people who are a product of their cultural context. In the case of high-profile comic books, that context is dominated by discursive regimes where, unfortunately, white males are most privileged. See, here’s a really depressing set of graphs:


These inequalities are not going unnoticed – there’s a bunch of scrutiny taking place which is brilliant. And what’s more, I think comic-books – like any cultural product – can be used as a platform to discuss and negotiate necessary change, or even just to articulate cultural ambivalence. This brings me directly to my third point…

3. Captain America is a character that has clearly changed over time. He was a character created in the midst of a ridiculously devastating war. I can only imagine the importance a character such as Captain America played in helping to legitimise American involvement in WWII to the American population –  right, noble, brave, defenders of the weak . Think politics of plausibility again.

More recently however, Captain America has been used rather subversively. Between 2006-2007, Marvel comics had a company-wide story-arc called ‘Civil War’. In this series the superhuman community was divided as the American government tried to implement a compulsory registration system for all superhumans (this includes mutants – as in, the X-Men type) which would require them to make their private persona public and work officially for government/military bodies like S.H.I.E.L.D – much like soldiers or police officers are employed. Some superhumans were pro-registration (Tony Stark/Ironman was one of the proponents of the Act), while Captain America was leader of the anti-registration resistance movement. Anti-registrationers argued that the act was a violation of civil liberties. You can find a summary of the series here if you’re interested and don’t mind massive spoilers.

This storyline mirrors events taking place in America post 9/11, particularly the USA Patriot Act which, among other things, relaxed restrictions on the measures law enforcers’ could take to gather intelligence (detaining suspects for longer with less evidence etc). This is where Captain America becomes Muppet Man – sneaking in the thing that hasn’t been allowed (ie, subversive/challenging ideologies) in the guise of a recogniable ally you feel comfortable with. All the symbolism contained within Cap: of America as defenders of justice, defenders of truth, defenders of the weak, gets caught up a hardcore challenge to people’s taken-for-granted perceptions and definitions of patriotism.

What’s more, Cap ends up being assassinated on the steps of a court house after he is tried for criminal acts committed during his anti-registration efforts.

Death of America…

Subversive much!? And majorly political.

TL:DR. What I’m trying to say is, when I watch The Avengers, I don’t only see the problematic patriotic semiotics of the character. I’ve had the benefit of growing up with comic book geeks who entice me to read up on these storylines, to keep track of the wider transmedia narratives of (in this case) the Marvel universe. For me, the gentle, innocent, older brother-type Captain America in The Avengers movie is inextricably connected to the beacon-of-hope Captain America of the 1940s, and the Captain America who fought and died for civil liberties not all too long ago in the comics. He is representative of these themes just as much as he signifies ugly American self-righteousness. And that is why I think Captain America deserves a little more credit than he is given.