Three news items this week share an unexpected connexion: the killing of Osama bin Laden, the royal wedding, and Superman’s renunciation of his American citizenship.
The spontaneous expressions of joy in Washington and New York after Obama’s announcement that an American operation had located and killed Osama bin Laden vastly increase the president’s chances of re-election next year. Although he has always faced racist opposition at home, an even sterner threat has been harder to shake off. A president apparently obsessed with policies of gentleness, such as broader provision of reliable healthcare, does not sit well with the cultural expectations of a nation where manliness is the supreme virtue – and a manliness specifically twinned with the most aggressive forms of masculinity.
While many positive human qualities, such as rationality and artistic creativity, have traditionally been alleged to be the exclusive property of men (according to these prejudices women are irrational, sensitive creatures rather than philosophers; they procreate rather than creating artworks, and so on), in American popular culture there is an extraordinary focus instead on and cherishing of the more animalistic and violent forms of stereotypical heterosexual masculinity. (Thinking is for ‘professors’ – a label used to taint Obama – and creativity for queers.)
It is a country that spends more on the military, even in terms of a proportion of its GDP, than any other in history; expresses inordinate levels of concern at the display of naked bodies or overtly sexual practices in its film and television (while expressing no concern at all for high levels of gory violence in the same); is incapable of reaching an intelligent policy on gun control; and requires its presidents to blow the brains out of its enemies, rather than bringing them to justice through the courts, to prove his credentials as a man. The excesses at which the world rages are just an exaggerated expression of ideologically sustained cultural norms: for instance, in the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib we see an obscene reflexion of initiation rites in fraternities on university campuses. It is of more concern that a child might be interested in on-screen affection than violence because it creates the ideological threat that people might want to kiss one another rather than shoot one another.
Historical precedent is not hard to find and such exceptional focus on manly qualities often accompany imperialist nations such as America. In late 19th-century Britain, as the imperial propaganda machine got going, men were exhorted to be men, to focus on the good, outdoorsy pursuits that still dominate the extracurricular instruction in Britain’s public schools. Real men did not write music, poetry, dress stylishly, and so on. All these things smacked of decadence, of Wagner and Wilde, poofs and foreigners. For imperial power to be maintained down the barrel of a gun, countries need to inculcate stiff upper lips and avoid inhibiting military control by such sentimentalizing questions as mercy and the rule of law. (The expression ‘stiff upper lip’ is an American coinage, incidentally, and applies equally well these days to a nation that speaks the language of ‘collateral damage’ and ‘extraordinary rendition’ when a more sympathetic world would prefer ‘tragically needless death’ and ‘torture out of sight’.)
To turn again to ordinary forms of cultural expression, where ideology always lurks, we see this sort of view recalled, bizarrely, in this year’s Lurpak butter billboard adverts in the UK, in which some heartily buttered soldiers are dipped into a squelching soft-boiled egg. The caption reads ‘Empires were never built on muesli bars’, and the subtext is clear: this touchy-feely liberal health-conscious diet you have all adopted is all a bit limp-wristed – to be a masterful man you must take on as much cholesterol as you can in the form of butter and egg, and then take over the world. Ephemera such as these adverts are very revealing about the general state of ideological discourse: the positive invocation of empire, long under attack, unsurprisingly re-emerges in 2011 under the first Tory-led government for thirteen years.
In this context, Superman’s decision to renounce his American citizenship (making it the only country represented at the UN of which he is not a citizen, according to aficianados) is culturally offensive. This big brute of a man, who has long declared his fight for ‘truth, justice, and the American way’, is as important an ideological device as the British royal family who, aside from their role in confirming class divisions between the economically powerful and economically weak, serve to solidify culturally normal separations between men and women. The fact that the recent royal wedding was a public obsession not just in the Commonwealth but throughout the world – including in countries such as the USA which ought to know better than to worship royalty – is evidence of what every thinking person already knew: that the image of the princess is the summum bonum for women (just as Superman is for men). Many nauseating tweets on the morning of the wedding mirrored this one:
Royal Wedding is a real-life Disney movie – the ordinary girl gets married to Prince Charming and becomes a princess. It’s so magical.