To see or not to see American Sniper

A friend told me to go see American Sniper (AS). I’m reluctant for obvious reasons. I wasn’t planning on seeing it, at least not anytime soon, as my list of films to watch is long and there are other films that require my (immediate) attention.

However, my friend said something that made me think about mostly unrelated things. He told me, “Gotta challenge yourself…You can read all about racism all day long but you’re comfortable with that. This will stretch you.” Before anyone misreads what he said, as you do not know the context of our conversation (or friendship), this was said in the spirit of discourse. He wanted to talk about the film, and in order for that to happen, I needed to see it. But in saying this, he made me think.

I don’t want to see a (propaganda) film that reproduces (regardless of intention) racist and xenophobic ideas. But my friend made a good point. Not only do I think I will disagree with the films portrayal of everyone (including American soldiers – and I assume that I will disagree), but there will be an emotional impact, not one that inspires empathy, but one that inspires rage.

I’m over being exhausted. I don’t find the need or desire to watch something I know will personally upset me (versus being Academically upset – which can sometimes be very similar or happen simultaneously) and actually believe its counter productive. Its also about mental health. Aside from actually experiencing racism on a daily basis, it isn’t healthy to see it in film (or any type of media) again and again and again. I see it anyways, in advertisement, television, writing, etc. I don’t need anymore of it.

While the suggestion to challenge myself is a good one, it is misguided. I don’t think watching AS is challenging myself the same way, lets say, Selma or Dear White People challenges individuals in position of racial privilege. I see what my friend was trying to say, but “discomfort” doesn’t work that way. See, when a white person, or a male, or someone who is wealthy, or embodies any privilege (or multiple), they can be challenged by visual texts like film, because they are in a position of privilege. Now, AS, I would argue, does not challenge power structures but reinforces them (I say this from what I’ve read). My watching it does not challenge my preconceived notions predicated on power relations, mainly because I am not in a position of power that is in the film. The protagonist, a white male, is not someone I can identify with. A challenge for me would posit a critique, often scathing, of someone who I can identity with who is in a position of privilege; a male. Now, AS has a male protagonist, but I would argue that his position of power comes in the form of his whiteness, not his maleness, as the antagonists of the film are people of color, Iraqis, Arabs. Thus, given I am a person of color (though not in the same sense), and given that I am not white, even if the film was critical of the protagonist, it is not a challenge to me because I do not, and cannot, embody the power structure being critiqued.

It is not to say I am free from being challenged in the cinematic theatre. If a film critiques a power structure that is first and foremost centered around male privilege and patriarchy, then I will be challenged as I have male privilege. I benefit from the patriarchal system that we live under, and so, my discomfort and affective response would be because I am being forced to see my privilege and contend with the fact that I am complicit in the oppression of others.

On the other hand, if a friend told me to watch something that challenged my notions of patriarchy and to check my privilege, I would go watch it, and the discomfort that would follow would be  warranted, because my being challenged is challenging an oppressive system.

White people should watch Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Dear White People, because it forces them to face their privilege. Individuals in the Military should watch The Invisible War, because it forces them to face the rape crisis in the military. College students should watch the upcoming film The Hunting Ground because it forces students, especially male students (which I am), to face the problem of rape culture on campus. Anyone who’s been to SeaWorld and SeaWorld employees should watch Blackfish, because it forces them to confront how reckless it is to keep Orca Whales in captivity. I can go on, but you get the point. These films challenge positions of privilege. AS does not.

A quick second point. Reading and speaking about racism is not comfortable. I have not chosen to dedicate my life to the study of violence, gender, and race because I am comfortable with it, but because I believe that one way we can address these oppressive structures is by their study and the activist-academic traditions that stemmed from civil right movements in our history. It comes with so much heavy emotional weight that I am bogged down sometimes because of the toll it takes, but I have found my ways to cope with this, as have many academics. So, no, I am not comfortable with reading about racism. I find it necessary. And I’m not really saying this to my friend, because he gets that, I’m saying it to other folk out there that often say “Why are you always talking about race if its so exhausting?” The answer. Because, unfortunately, we have to.

I might go watch AS. But the second I start feeling some type of way, which may literally be in the first five minutes, I’m stopping. But I’ll give it a go.

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