by Robert A. Saunders on September 22nd, 2017

Image Source: An American Infestation by Koren Shadmi
Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 24 August 2017. The original post can be found at: http://www.e-ir.info/2017/05/09/iceland-a-pop-culture-powerhouse-at-the-top-of-the-world/.

This post represents the first in a series on the pop-culture presidency of Donald J. Trump. In this series, I plan to address different facets of the current American president’s imbrication with popular culture, recognising that he is – first and foremost – a product of mass media (unlike Obama and his predecessors). I have refrained from focusing too much on the Trump presidency in this blog as I feel that such analysis would be trite or simply become lost in a growing morass of similar content, which ranges from 140-character critiques to monograph-length excoriations. My change of heart results from my son’s admonition following his attendance at U2’s recent tour. As part of the band’s stage show, attendees were treated to a video from a 1958 episode of the Western Trackdown in which a charlatan named Walter Trump rides into town promising to save its denizens from the ‘end of the world’ by building a ‘wall’ around them. This Trump is quite the orator, and when confronted with his lies, threatens to ‘sue’ anyone who challenges him. While it has been reported ad nauseum that The Simpsons predicted Trump’s inevitable ascension to the presidency, this curious artefact from over a half-century ago seems to have actually birthed the real Trump into reality. Reflecting on the power of popular culture, this set of short essays aims to provide commentary on Trump and his times. And with that, I offer up five speculative/science fiction films to view as the Trumpocalypse builds, with helpful suggestions on how to watch.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, dir. Anthony and Joe Russo)

The consummate American superhero Steve Rogers undercovers a sinister plot by a world-wide fascist organisation Hydra to infiltrate the highest levels of state power around the globe, including the U.S. government. Nearly killed by the brainwashed turncoat Bucky Barnes (a.k.a. the Winter Soldier), now a (post)Soviet agent of destruction, Cap must go rogue to defend his homeland from the insidious forces who would rob Americans of their liberty and annihilate ‘undesirables’ capable of challenging the new world order, all in the name of promoting ‘security’. Interestingly, when the film premiered, it was read by many as an indictment of the ‘deep state’, but is now gaining a second life as condemnation of Nazism in all its forms. As filmmaker Nick Murphy pointed out in his tweet on the film, the 2014 version of himself wondered: ‘In Winter Soldier, I don’t see how Hydra/Nazis could infiltrate the government without anyone noticing’. However, his 2017 self (using the GIF of Captain American dropping his head in bewilderment), no longer finds such malfeasance surprising in the wake of Trump’s implied moral equivalency of neo-Nazis and anti-fascist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.

2. Dune (1984, dir. David Lynch)

A baroque adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 masterpiece of political science fiction, Dune offers up a celluloid roadmap for understanding the machinations of IR in the Trump era. With his orange hair, unquenchable thirst for power, and taste for exotic pleasures, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen represents a grotesque manifestation of the U.S. head of state. The analogy gains steam when one looks at the coterie that surrounds him – from his relatives Raban and Feyd-Rautha to the twisted Mentat Piter De Vries to the obsequious Captain of the Guard Nefud – one is tempted to draw parallels with Jared and Ivanka, recently-ousted advisor Steve Bannon, and jettisoned Chief-of-Staff Priebus.  Likewise, it is not difficult to expand the allegory of the Dune universe, as the Padishah Emperor is the one controlling the intrigue (read Vladimir Putin), while the dutiful advocates of good governance, House Atreides (read Angela Merkel), are enveloped in a web a danger in which the only way out is to play the game. Let us hope that the foresight of the Kwisatz Haderach is realised, and that these dastardly ‘plans within plans’ can be thwarted before it is too late for us all. 

3. Reign of Fire (2002, dir. Rob Bowman)

If you are curious to see what the world view of the alt-right looks like, I recommend a critical viewing of Christian Bale-Matthew McConaughey fantasy film, Reign of Fire. Following a mining accident in subterranean London, a swarm of hibernating dragons are unleashed upon the world. Witness to the origins of the catastrophe, Quinn (played by Bale) has gathered a band of survivors in a Northumberland castle, eking out a proud but meagre existence that smacks of neo-mediaeval privation. When a lost troop of American military personnel arrive, accompanied by a tank, helicopter, and big guns all under the brash leadership of the heavily-tattooed commander of the ‘Kentucky Irregulars’ (McConaughey), the combined Anglo-American – and almost entirely white – force retake the Earth from their reptilian overlords. The subtly racialised end-of-the-world sensibilities of the film are chilling when cast against Weltanschauung of those angry, khaki-clad young white men who filled the streets of Charlottesville, VA on 11 August 2017, chanting ‘Blood and Soil’ and ‘You [or ‘Jews’] will not replace us’. 

2. The Dead Zone (1983, dir. David Cronenberg)

Screening the eponymous novel (1979) by horror writer Stephen King, the plot centres on a small-town schoolteacher, Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), who is blessed with the ability to see into people’s pasts and futures following his recovery from a coma. The gift quickly sours when he meets a third-party candidate for the U.S. Senate, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen). Upon shaking the hand of this charismatic politician, Smith is witness to a horrific vision in which paranoid Stillson, now president and surrounded only by a single advisor, decides to bring about nuclear Armageddon. Sacrificing himself for humanity, Smith makes a failed attempt to assassinate the demagogue, who – in a craven fit of self-preservation – grabs a baby from a political supporter to block the killing bullet therein ending his political career. Stillson, a former door-to-door salesman who is never without his trusty broom which he plans to use to ‘sweep out the trash’ in Washington, D.C., is strikingly similar to Trump and his (false) claims to ‘drain the swamp’, a fact not lost on King, who has called out the billionaire-turned-politician on more than one occasion.

1. Monsters (2010, dir. Gareth Edwards)

Playing on the popular notion of the developing world as a place contagion threatening the global North, Monsters postulates that NASA unwittingly causes the spread of alien life near the southern U.S. border, resulting in the quarantine of northern Mexico and the erection of massive wall to protect the American population. Personalising the plight of actual migrants who brave the perilous journey every day, the film follows an American photojournalist and a wealthy young woman who attempt to make their way back to El Norte, combating thieves, security forces, and extra-terrestrial threats along the way. The climax reveals that the aliens are drawn to electrical signals, particularly television broadcasts, and when these cease, so does the interest of the creatures. Perhaps we can all learn something about Trump by watching this, perhaps even Trump himself.

by Robert A. Saunders on May 19th, 2017

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 9 May 2017. The original post can be found at: http://www.e-ir.info/2017/05/09/iceland-a-pop-culture-powerhouse-at-the-top-of-the-world/.

In early May 2017, Bloomberg Financial reported that the Icelandic krona was the world’s best performing currency, outpacing all others against the euro and the US dollar over the previous year. Moreover, it shows no signs of slowing down and is on track to continue its growth. The reason: Game of Thrones. Obviously, the gritty HBO series is not the only or even the main reason for the krona’s dramatic ascent; instead, GoT serves a synecdoche for Iceland’s pivotal role in producing contemporary popular culture and a concomitant rise in tourism. According to Newsweek, the island nation attracted approximately seven-times its total population in tourists during 2016. The driver for much of this tourism is rooted in the country’s depiction in movies and television series; in fact, a recent study shows that more than a quarter of US tourists select their destination based on what they have seen on film or TV, and Iceland seems to be everywhere right now.

As an (anonymous) backdrop to fantastical shows like Game of Thrones and blockbuster science fiction films including Prometheus (2012), Interstellar (2014), and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), the otherworldly geography of Iceland’s glaciers, fjords, and waterfalls makes an excellent tableau for showrunners and cinematographers. Seeking to cash in on film and televisual tourism, Iceland’s tour operators tend to frame their excursions and travel packages with references to easily recognisable celebrities from Christian Bale to Angelina Jolie. With its proximity to both Europe and the north-eastern United States, Iceland has also become a cinematic stand-in for other locales, from the Himalayas in Batman Begins (2005) to Siberia in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Tapping into the Nordic Noir craze, Sky TV’s thriller Fortitude (2015- ) is also filmed in Iceland, which doubles as a fictional Norwegian island (Svalbard, perhaps?), and stars some of the country’s biggest actors. However, the tiny nation at the edge of the Arctic Circle also serves as an explicit setting for other media products. In the recent remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), Ben Stiller’s character makes his way to Iceland only to be greeted by a massive volcanic explosion, evincing the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (paradoxically, the ash cloud which virtually halted air traffic in the North Atlantic actually put Iceland on the map for many prospective tourists). Similarly, the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) was set in and around the extinct volcano Snæfellsjökull.

Not content to let Hollywood exploit the island’s pop-culture resources on an exclusive basis, Iceland’s cultural producers are also making good use of international interest in their homeland. The runaway hit Ófærð/Trapped (2015- ) has established Iceland as a peer among its Nordic neighbours Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, showing that an island at the top of the world can make shows as good as Borgen, The Bridge, and Occupied. Recognising the popularity of the Nordic Noir genre, Netflix has scrambled to sign deals for more Icelandic content, including The Lava Field (2014) and Case (2015). Following in the ample wake of the iconic songstress Bjork, there is also an ‘Icelandic invasion’ underway in the US and Europe, spearheaded by ethereal rockers  Sigur Rós, hipster darlings Of Monsters and Men, and up-and-coming acts like Samaris, thus expanding the allure of the island beyond its visual beauty and into the aural realm. With its unexpected defeat of England in the knockout stages of Euro 2016, the national football team has also added its might to the global image of Iceland as a country that punches above its weight in terms of popular culture.

Cognisant of Simon Anholt’s notion of nation branding and Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power, the growing puissance of Iceland popular culture-tourism partnership on the global scale bodes well for its position in International Relations (not least of which is the aforementioned buoyance of its currency, particularly in the wake a disastrous economic collapse a decade ago). However, such gains are not necessarily accidental. In fact, there is an obscure geopolitical source behind Iceland’s current rise. When I visited the country in advance of the summer solstice of 2015, I was told by locals that the ongoing boom in tourism was – at least partially – attributable to US foreign policy. In 2006, Washington informed Reykjavik that it would be ending its decades-long military presence on the island, centred in Keflavik. As the State Department web site attests, the US committed to working with ‘local officials to mitigate the impact of job losses at the Air Station, notably by encouraging U.S. investment in industry and tourism development in the Keflavik area’. During the financial crisis that lasted from 2008 until 2011, Americans started to flock to Iceland to see the northern lights, take the waters at the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa, and go off-roading across the country’s unique landscape.

Buttressed by countless media products touting Iceland’s harsh beauty, the country now presents a tantalising destination for Americans, Brits, and Europeans seeking something off the beaten path (though with its tiny population of 330,000, Icelanders are being swamped in a slurry of international visitors, which may not be sustainable in the long run). In 2015, the Pentagon signalled that it was interested in re-evaluating its decision to quit Iceland, recognising the rising threat posed by a resurgent Russia. Some ten years after departing, the US Navy is back on the island to counter Vladimir Putin’s more aggressive posture, and seeking funds to modernise existing facilities. While the small military presence on the island may do little to deter Moscow, what it is certain is that Iceland is now a meaningful quotient in everyday geopolitical understanding of millions of citizens in other NATO countries, thus shoring up the country’s security in ways that many foreign policy experts are liable to overlook.



by Robert A. Saunders on April 11th, 2017

With the summer fleeting all too fast, I found myself spending a surprisingly warm day touring the tap houses of Nørrebro, a neighborhood that can best be described as the Brooklyn of greater Copenhagen, Denmark. My adventure began as I stepped off the S-train at the Nørreport station in the heart of the city. Coming up the stairs I turned right onto Fredericksborggade heading across the Dronning Louises Bro, a scenic bridge that separates the Peblinge Sø from its northern sister, the Sortedams Sø. Together with the Sankt Jørgens, these manmade lakes form the one of the most distinctive elements of Copenhagen’s topography, providing enticing promenades for pedestrians as well as an easily navigable cycling route for those on two wheels.

Crossing into Nørrebro, one notices a palpable change in atmosphere, if not necessarily architecture. One of ten official districts of Copenhagen, the borough is known for its bohemian ethos, ethnic diversity, and periodic bouts of social unrest, including a number of violent riots in recent decades. However, on this particularly pleasant Saturday afternoon, such worries were far from mind as I strolled along Nørrebrogade spying the kebab houses, electronic shops, and Islamic garment boutiques. Distracted by the bright colors and weekend conviviality, I soon came to my senses as I approached the high walls of Assistens Cemetery, the final resting place of such luminaries as the writer Hans Christian Andersen and the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. After reviewing the wares of the locals who gather along the promenade to sell family heirlooms and various baubles, I ducked into the cemetery, which seemed a world away from the teeming streets of Nørrebro. Traversing this quiet green space punctuated by the gravestones of Denmark’s most famous souls (one of which even sported Norse runes), I took a moment to gather my thoughts before pushing on to my first stop, Mikkeler and Friends (Stefansgade 35).

Situated on a corner abutting a park where neighborhood kids were playing soccer, this modest outpost of the growing empire of Mikkel Borg-Bjergsø did not disappoint. Having been to two of his other pubs, one in central Copenhagen and the other in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, I immediately felt at home (perhaps a bit too much so with the flat echoes of American accents all around).  I wasn’t surprised to see so many American beer-hounds here given that Mikkel is one half of the great Danish beer twins, the other being Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø whose Brooklyn watering hole Tørst serves as the NYC metro area’s most important beer mecca. I bellied up the bar and ordered one Mikkeler’s guest beers, the Twisted Verbena, a Berliner Weiss accented with that supernatural herb that purportedly wards off evil. A collaboration between Barcelona-based Edge Brewing and the British brewery Magic Rock, this otherworldly beer proved to be just the right way to start my hop-centric journey, particularly when offset by a slab of Danish hard cheese and some smoked pistachios. Having just flown in from Newcastle, Northumberland, a city famous for its chocolatey ales, I chose to follow the verbena beer with one of Mikkeler’s own, the Nørrebro Brown. As I downed this sweet and simple brew, I felt as if I was literally drinking in the environs. Rather than visiting Koelschip, Mikkeler’s Belgian-style adjunct next door, I decided to push on to new pastures.

After a fairly short walk through an area that was clearly undergoing a robust wave of gentrification, I found myself at just-opened Tapperiet Brus (Guldbergsgade 29F), a well-appointed brewery with extensive outdoor seating just opposite an organic pizzeria and a bustling bakery. While I considered ordering the Brettexit, a wild ale made with “non-European” hops, I instead settled on a curious hybrid entitled My Sour Pils from To Øl. Positioned in the sun on a park bench where I could watch the many passersby, I was able to properly appreciate the wonderful venue. Located in an old iron foundry and locomotive factory, Brus is a partnership with To Øl Brewing and the tony Copenhagen cocktail bar Mikropolis. Brus takes its name for the Danish word for the sparkling appearance of bubbling beverages, and with a baker’s dozen of fermentation tanks and 70-odd oak barrels, you know you are in the heart of a burgeoning brewing culture. Interestingly, the Danes are the only nation Scandinavian nation that prefers ales to aquavit, shifting from a spirits-based to a beer culture only in the last century.

Although I could have spent the rest of the day at Brus sunning myself and drinking tart pils, I pushed on to one of my favorite haunts in the Danish capital, Nørrebro Bryghus (Ryesgade 3). Heading down Guldbergsgade, I happened upon another, smaller cemetery cordoned off by those now-familiar walls. After stopping to purchase a few old maps of Scandinavia (including one sketched before World War I), I happened to overhear a local guide tell his charges to hop up on the bike racks and peer over the wall. I waited until they departed and discretely followed his advice to discover the (closed) Jewish Northern Cemetery. Seeing the overgrown headstones inscribed in Hebrew, my thoughts turned to the privations of the last war and how they afflicted this northern corner of Europe. However I shortly was drawn back to the here-and-now watching local youths in a skate park. One turn later and I was at the only brew house bold enough to take its name from the neighborhood.

Commanding a prime piece of real estate in a friendly corner of the borough, Nørrebro Brewery is a destination for any visiting beer-lover. With the good weather, I was lucky to score a seat at one of the few park benches outside (sunny days drawn Danes out into open air regardless of the temperature).  Departing from form, I ordered a bottled beer known as “The Good.” This refreshing Danish take on an American pale ale is in a new series from Nørrebro Brewing known as The Good Bad Evil. Its darker peers are a Belgian quadruple (the “Bad”) and a black imperial porter (the “Evil”). With the sky now totally blue, Nørrebro was teeming with Danes and international visitors alike seeking to drink in the waning days of summer, so I gave up my seat and headed south perusing a pop-up market on the wonderfully eclectic pedestrian lane known as Blågårdsgade, before turning right onto Rantzausgade towards my next destination, Kølsters Tolv Haner at No. 56.

As I approached this organic beer mecca, I noticed a heavy police presence on the streets despite the seemingly halcyon atmosphere of this brilliant Saturday. The experience immediately memories of watching the Danish-Swedish TV series Bron//Broen (known in the U.S. as “The Bridge”) and its foreboding depiction of the Nørrebro district in the episode on the “failure” of integration. But when I ordered a small glass of golden Højsommer, all thoughts of the oppressive grayness of The Bridge evaporated. Appropriately, I drank down that honey-flavored beer that smacked of the midsummer days after which it was named in the front garden (the back was only for residents of the surrounding apartment complex) staring at a Brorsons Church as the sun dipped reverently behind its red brick. While the setting was perfect, the beer—which is brewed by the owners’ father—proved to be the one disappointment of the day, lacking the effervescence (or “brus”) that had otherwise characterized the afternoon’s menu (perhaps knowing that organic beers are less bubbly, the pub only serves its libations in “half” portions, or 20cl).

Running short on time, I dashed back towards inner city intent on finding the newly-opened pub that had come highly recommended by a publican across the Baltic Sea in Malmö, Sweden. After one wrong turn, I located Himmeriget (Åboulevard 27), co-owned by Mikkel’s “evil twin” Jeppe. Small and serious, this little spot offered up ten craft drafts, of which almost half were American in origin, including one from my own hometown of Dunedin, Florida. Recognizing the value of this well-curated list, I settled on 25ml of a low-alcohol, cherry-laced sour from the California-based Lost Abbey brewery and purchased a “to-go” can of Evil Twin Mission Gose, an ale brewed with salt and coriander with a bit of eucalyptus thrown in for good measure.

With my memorable jaunt winding down, I meandered back across Queen Louise’s Bridge, smiling at the growing crowds of 20-somethings who were congregating on the span’s northern edge, filling the benches to catch the late-afternoon rays of a setting sun. There were more than a dozen little parties forming, each working up a good amount of hygge (that untranslatable Danish word for ‘making a cozy space’) with their six-packs of canned Tuborg, one of Denmark’s two mega brewers. While I was tempted to linger and let the Indian summer vibe overtake me, I decided to hurry back to my hosts in northern Copenhagen, knowing full well that a home-cooked meal awaited me, with plenty of hygge on offer.


by Robert A. Saunders on November 24th, 2016

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 30 October 2016. The original post can be found at: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/10/30/amazon-american-or-israeli-the-pitfalls-of-un-iversalising-wonder-woman/.

Back in 2009, Barack Obama’s smiling visage graced the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #583 just a week before his presidential inauguration, while this year Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared on a variant cover of Civil War II: Choosing Sides #5, sporting boxing gloves and ready to take on his (political) foes. While comic book junkies like me recognised these events as major milestones on the road to mainstream recognition of the link between popular culture and world politics, they pale in comparison to what happened earlier this week. Wonder Woman, a fictional character that dates back to the early 1940s, has prompted an international backlash at the United Nations. The controversy stems from a 21 October 2016 ceremony in which the superhero was named a UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. As the UN web page on the project notes:

The Wonder Woman campaign will highlight what we can collectively achieve if women and girls are empowered – along with examples of women and girls who have made and are making a difference every day by overcoming barriers and beating the odds to reach their goals.

Accordingly, the campaign encourages people to speak out against discrimination, work against gender-based violence, support leadership opportunities for women and girls, promote access to quality education, and to generally celebrate ‘real life’ wonder women everywhere.

In the wake of the honour, more than 600 UN staff signed a petition criticising the choice due to concerns associated with her appearance (namely that she is a ‘large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions’) and that she sports a U.S. flag-themed costume. In excess of 10,000 other people have joined the UN staff in criticising the decision.  As the petition rightly points out, the choice of ‘an overtly sexualised image’ is a curious one if the goal is to promote empowerment of women and girls on the global stage. The petitioners go on to argue that an ‘animated character surely cannot be charged with what is a very important role’ (though as they point out, it is not unprecedented given that Tinkerbell and Winnie the Pooh were previously tapped for such outreach). Lending support to the concerns of the anti-Wonder Woman campaigners, a recent New York Times article cited a number of high profile women in global governance who have come out against the decision to grant this role to Wonder Woman, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the appointment of (another) man to lead the organisation at a juncture where many UN-watchers had predicted the ascent of the first female secretary general. Most dramatically, the ceremony resulted in an exceeding rare protest within the UN chambers and severe criticism of Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Cristina Gallach, the highest UN official to attend (Ban Ki-moon had been set to speak at the event but was a no-show).

These well-argued and undeniable criticisms of the choice of Wonder Woman, however, only scratch the surface of the potential pitfalls of the selection of Princess Diana of Themyscira as the new face of women’s empowerment. Created by American psychologist William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Wonder Woman (inspired by the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and whose voluptuous figure was purportedly based on that of their ‘cohabitant’ Olive Byrne), is a decidedly complex character if one considers the full arc of her narrative. A demigoddess fashioned out of clay, Diana once ruled an island of Amazons, who were supposedly created to protect a ‘man’s world’, but later abandoned the mission to establish their own distaff society. However, in the context of World War II, Diana chose return to this original calling (in the forthcoming Wonder Woman film [2017], the Great War becomes the catalyst for this origin story as Diana takes on the ‘Hun’ in defence of American democracy). As historians of the comic book industry have pointed out, the original Wonder Woman was quite the feminist, often binding her (male) victims in what many have labelled as a soft rendering of sadomasochistic fantasies.

However, in the über-conservative 1950s, Wonder Woman, like other comic book heroines, was ‘domesticated’ and, owing to the puritanical Comics Code Authority (1954), fleeced of her fetish for bondage. While always (and somewhat inexplicably) an American patriot, her advocacy of the ‘American way’ mirrored that of other alien or immigrant superheroes of the day (most notably Superman and Aquaman). During the second half of 1970s, Wonder Woman burst onto the small screen in her own television series starring Lynda Carter (who appeared at the UN appointment ceremony). Reflecting changing gender dynamics, the maturation of the U.S. sexual revolution, and the country’s bicentennial Kulturkampf, the show revelled in schmaltzy patriotism and (the promise of) sex. In the 1990s, Wonder Woman discarded her star-and-stripes costume for a straps-and-black leather version, harking back to her S&M roots and prompting a firestorm of criticism from the American right. As part of DC Comics growing film franchise, Wonder Woman is now appearing on the big screen and being played by the Israeli model and actor Gal Gadot. With a well-received cameo in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and her own feature film on the way, the most recent iteration of the first female superhero is alive and well.

As the emissary of man-free society, a feminist-inspired dominatrix, an American jingoist of the first order, a paragon of U.S. interventionism, and a star vehicle for one of Israel’s top models, there is no shortage of reasons why the choice of Wonder Woman is a dangerous one for the UN. While the organisation is no doubt dedicated to universalising positive attitudes to the empowerment of women and girls, it will be nearly impossible to avoid sustained criticism of the ‘mascot’ for the current campaign. Given the retrograde attitudes towards the promotion women’s rights in many member states in the Islamic world, anti-American sentiment among major world powers like China and Russia, the sexism accompanying the rising tide of nationalist-conservative sentiment in developed countries, and feminist concerns about overtly sexualised representations of women in comic books, Wonder Woman seems doomed.

However, as anyone who reads comic knows, you can’t keep a superhero down for long.
Echoing the spirit behind the UN’s decision to promote Wonder Woman to the level of ambassador, Carolyn Cocca, author of Superwomen: Gender, Power, Representation (Bloomsbury, 2016) argues in her blog Talking Comic Books: ‘Not only do we still need Wonder Woman, but we also need many more wonder women’. Not because we need to see more buxom, lasso-wielding goddesses taking on super-powered villains, but because we need to see more women – of colour, of differing abilities and body types, and of all sexual orientations – taking positions of power. Given that DC Entertainment now has a female president, Diane Nelson (who was on hand at the UN ceremony), perhaps things are moving in the right direction.


 

by Robert A. Saunders on November 24th, 2016

Note: The blog post originally appeared at E-International Relations on 23 August 2016. The original post can be found at: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/08/23/commercialized-nationalism-on-display-at-the-olympics/.

With the closing of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, it is both timely and pertinent to reflect on the power of national image through the medium of sport. Every four years, the Olympics provides the most visible stage for the televisual performance of national identity, while at the same time, creating conditions for the throaty expression of nationalism back at home. While no war will be ended at the games, nor will any treaty be signed, the chance for countries to go head-to-head on a (purportedly) level playing field is a unique experience, comparable only to the World Cup. At the games, dedicated men and women compete for the glory of their homeland, typically clothed in the colours of their nation, while their countrymen cheer them on often waving flags as ‘proof’ of their loyalty. In this highly choreographed and purposefully affective environment, nationalism is the coin of the realm.

With nearly 11,000 athletes representing more than 200 countries and watched by billions around the world, this spectacle is the most effectively mediated form of international relations possible, putting to shame the United Nations General Assembly or any ‘real world’ geopolitical event. Certainly scholars have long recognized the Olympics qua an international competition as an important adjunct to IR and geopolitics; however, in this post I want to focus on another aspect of the games: TV commercials. Two advertisements in particular caught my eye this year, each showcasing American nationalism against the backdrop of the Olympic Games, which, incidentally, saw Team U.S.A. take home more medals than in any time since the Soviet-bloc boycotted games in 1984. Adding to the euphoria was the realization that the U.S. became first national team to crack the 1,000-medal mark in the history of the modern games, more than doubling the count of its nearest competitor (in all fairness, the U.S. was helped to win their 121 medals by the absence of a sizeable portion of the Russian team, banned from competition as punishment for state-sanctioned doping during the winter games held in Sochi, Russia, two years prior).

The first of these advertisements was for the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Billed as the ‘sexiest large-screen phone ever’, this stylus-enabled device sells for upwards of $1,000 USD. In the commercial, Austrian actor Christoph Waltz assumes a variety of personae, beginning with that of an effete European gentleman sitting in a well-appointed study overlooking the Alps where he is taking high tea. ‘Americans’, he sniffs, ‘I don’t understand you. Always working all the time: busy, busy, busy’. He then dismissively draws the viewers’ attention to the mobile phone is his hand, lamenting that now ‘we’ can do ‘even more’ (work, that is). The visual narrative then shifts, with Waltz in ethnic drag (and, in one case, actually drag as well) portraying a variety of ‘stereotypical’ upwardly-mobile Americans: a new mum on a stationary bike with her infant strapped to her chest in a BabyBjörn so she can update her Facebook profile photo; a dreadlocked vacationer in a tropical waterfall using the phone to stay in touch with the office; a plaid-clad everyman using the handset’s Bluetooth to buy a giant fountain at a Home Depot stand-in; and a high schooler winning the robotics challenge due to the ‘extra curriculum’ supposedly abetted by the device.

Making a direct reference to supposedly ‘lazy’ Europeans, he states, ‘You get more done before 8:00AM than the rest of the world and we are hours ahead of you’, before going on to tell ‘us/U.S.’ that ‘You’re never happy just winning something…you’re only happy winning everything’. In the third act of the commercial, which showcases the ‘greatest most influential nation’ in the world’s ‘tireless ambition’, Waltz assumes the visages of iconic American patriots, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to astronaut James B. Irwin, before realizing that his (materialistic) dreams can also come true. All he needs is to become a hard-working American (visually realized with the closing shot of his blond, preppy family in front of a McMansion draped in the stars-and-stripes). And how does he do this? Of course, with his hard-working mobile phone. In his meticulous, urbane, and seemingly care-free existence, Waltz presents an American-viewing audience with the epitome of continental Europeanness. But the lesson learned here is that despite our transatlantic neighbours’ seeming happiness achieved through an appropriate work-life balance, they all just want to become Americans at the end of the day.

The advertisement is curious on multiple levels. First, is the casting of Waltz, who is most-known for playing savagely racist characters like SS-Standartenführer Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the real-life Belgian colonist, who served as inspiration for ‘Kurtz’ in Heart of Darkness, Léon Rom in The Legend of Tarzan (2016). Beyond Waltz’s filmic associations with the darkest manifestations of Social Darwinism, the politics of race are (inadvertently) on display throughout the commercial, whether via Waltz’s ‘white Rasta’ pantomime or the Aryanesque patriarchal domesticity of the achieved ‘American dream’ (white plantation-style home, blonde wife, blond kids, yellow Labrador Retriever). Second, the notion that South Korea’s largest chaebol is the driving force behind American ‘success’ fails to pass the red-face test when placed in context. Although Samsung, with its over-the-top (American) nationalist chest-thumping, has actually outdone Cadillac, which in its commercial for the 2014 ELR Coupe, struck a similar chord. The latter ad, widely-condemned for both its jingoism and elitism, denounced ‘other countries’ (specifically France, as evidenced by a sly ‘n’est-ce pas’ at the end of the ad) for ‘taking the whole month of August off’ (and which made a similar reference to the lunar roving vehicle as interplanetary evidence of American ‘success’).

The other commercial that underscored the Olympian extravaganza as the optimal zone for engaging in national-identity building was an extended version of Budweiser’s rebranding campaign. In the summer of 2016, the fourth-most popular beer in the country officially changed its name to ‘America’. Given that this temporary departure in nomenclature explicitly occurred as part of the 2016 presidential campaign, the framing of the name-change through the summertime medium of the Olympics should be of no surprise. Importantly, Budweiser has stated it will revert to original product name after the November election and that the redesign, which includes the national motto E pluribus unum, is meant to ‘inspire drinkers to celebrate America and Budweiser’s shared values of freedom and authenticity’. Coming from Budweiser, a company that began by pilfering its name and style from the Bohemian brewery Budvar, and is now owned by the Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev, the notions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘Americanness’ are equally suspect. However, unlike the almost unbearable whiteness of the Samsung commercial, the Budweiser TV spot is at pains to sculpt a multiracial America, where block-parties and low-income jobs contrast sharply with the Waltzian U.S.A. of über-pampered and propertied elites (also of note, the Bud ad also includes footage of athletes, thus linking the medium to the message).

In these duelling depictions of the American dream, we are witness to two very different versions of America, which strangely parallel the narratives of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The Samsung commercial portrays an America of intellectual labour, white privilege, and vertiginous wealth, ‘made great’ by behaviours and habits that reflect Trump’s now infamous conflation of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘success’. Whereas, the Budweiser-imagined realm presents an America defined by faces of many colours, a people bound together by manual labour, hard knocks, and not-to-be-taken-for-granted moments of camaraderie. The Samsung ad begins by looking at America as a ‘negative’, but in the end resolves that with the ‘right’ attitude (complemented by accumulation, wealth, and whiteness), it can be the best in the world; in other words, a highly contingent form of patriotism. Alternatively, the Bud commercial revels in an everyday America, a nation that already is great and not something that needs to be changed. Herein we see an organic and unequivocal patriotism, much like the one that was (somewhat surprisingly) on display at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Olympics are over, but the U.S. is just beginning to wrangle over which form of banal nationalism it prefers: the (un)American dream of Christoph Waltz as an immigrant Trump wanna-be, or the workaday reality of a patchwork nation downing cans of ‘America’. Whichever direction the country decides to go, it should not be overlooked that giant overseas corporations (dutifully supported by local advertising agencies) are taking an increasingly important role in telling Americans exactly who they are.



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