Monthly Archives: June 2014

Hidden Rhetorics and Secret Identities: The Question of Superhero Movies as Social Commentary – Part II

This is a co-authored post by our Casey Schmitt and Rebecca Keyel, a student in UW-Madison’s department of Design Studies.

This is a continuation of a two-part entry. See Part I  for context. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Of the major superhero franchises, perhaps none has been more celebrated as social commentary than  X-Men. The X-Men books and films tell the story of genetic “mutants” who are born with fantastic superhuman powers, shunned by greater society on account of their difference. The X-Men, led by the paraplegic telepath Charles Xavier, are “sworn to protect a world that fears and hates them,” often against the militant mutant known as Magneto, who holds ordinary humans at fault for their prejudice.

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Since 1963, the X-Men have often been touted as an allegory for civil rights and the internal struggles faced in movements to counter prejudices against ethnic minorities, differently-abled individuals, and, more broadly, anyone who feels “different.” The comic books themselves were especially notable for the team’s diverse roster and celebrated storylines like writer Chris Claremont’s “God Loves, Man Kills” and “Days of Future Past” that focused especially on the universal dangers of xenophobic hatred.

Rhetorician William Earnest is one of many to trace how the X-Men films have stressed a particular attention to the stories as LGBTQ allegory. He cites the scapegoating dialogue of McCarthy-esque antagonists, conversations between characters about “passing” for normal, and a conversion-therapy mutant “cure” storyline that dominates much of the series’ third film. He also highlights a cleverly worded scene in which a mutant character “comes out” to his parents, to their dismay. The 2011 film, X-Men: First Class, includes not-so-subtle dialogue about mutant “pride” and a joking reference to “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. Beyond the screen, gay activist and actor Ian McKellan, who plays Magneto in the films, has repeatedly said he was drawn to the role by director Bryan Singer’s explanation that “Mutants are like gays. They’re cast out by society for no good reason,” while First Class screenwriter Zack Stentz has also stressed that the allegory is intentional.

With this in mind, audiences are primed to see the films as social commentary and advocacy. The series’ most recent installment, Days of Future Past, however, gives only slight nods to the LGBTQ theme. The plot mirrors the Claremont story, in which one hero travels back in time from a post-apocalyptic future brought on by the assassination of an anti-mutant demagogue to warn the X-Men of the past of the need to overcome differences without murderous violence. In a broad sense, this narrative is still in place. Yet overall there are many other elements in the film that overshadow this theme and, ultimately, there is very little argument or activism to speak of.

Set primarily in the 1970s, the film makes no reference to the very real civil rights campaigns and complications of the era. Beyond this oversight, however, the film really doesn’t forward broader civil rights interests in practice either. DoFP features an overwhelmingly white, male cast, and all are at least implicitly heterosexual. The one lead female role belongs to the shapeshifter Mystique who represents difference well when in her blue-skinned form but who spends much of the movie with conventionally attractive blond hair and blue eyes. Women and ethnic minority characters—crucial to the original Claremont telling of the tale—appear in supporting roles with very little dialogue, and are mostly killed off in the film’s climactic scenes.

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The central characters of the film are the archetypical action hero Wolverine and Xavier himself, though Xavier’s handicap is removed for the better part of the story. The central allegory seems no longer to be one of social activism and civil rights, but of a single white man’s struggle with his own lost sense of masculinity and self confidence.

These changes are subtle, but for all the celebration of X-Men as minority allegory, the film is still very much about the concerns and actions of white, straight men. Would it have been difficult to write a script or cast roles that included a greater spectrum of ethnicity, gender, and physical abilities? No—though it might have worried studio executives. That is, for all the talk about social commentary and hidden rhetorics, these films are still designed to make money and to avoid alienating audiences by pushing partisan issues.


So are these films rhetorical? Well, yes, but not nearly as “revolutionary” as they might be. Imagine an X-Men movie with a young female minority traveling back in time instead of a middle-aged white man. Imagine an X-Men movie in which the team is made entirely of women, or one that features gay marriage as its central plot point. The comics have done all of these things. And even they haven’t changed the world but, rather, echoed the public sentiments already at play in American society.

The same might be said of Captain America, who of course sticks up for American ideals by rejecting overreaching government surveillance, but does so by fighting against Nazi infiltration and allying with morally ambiguous super-spies. The social commentary is perhaps palpable, but it’s also fairly elementary and ultimately secondary in purpose.

Superhero movies give audiences a chance to cheer for an idealized protagonist who pushes for a better world. In this way, superhero movies both present a constitutive ideal and contribute to larger social movements with their “hidden” rhetorical elements. Yet, as a recent article on Crave noted, studios like Marvel and Fox “don’t make complex motion pictures full of rich allegories; they make broad, universally relatable fables in which fun characters with superpowers overcome all odds.”

As lifelong comic book readers, we’re glad to see some of our favorite characters being embraced by world audiences and we’re glad to see their stories told in fun and creative ways, but we caution against celebrating Captain America and Wolverine as real champions of social change. The actual heroes are out in the streets, stomping the pavement, and making more regular, explicit challenges to the status quo on a day-to-day basis. Your mild-mannered social activist doesn’t even need a cape.

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Thai Protesters’ Use of the Hunger Games 3-Finger Salute as a Form of Resistance and Critique

On May 22, 2014, the Thai military took over control of the Thai government in a coup. Since then, martial law has been announced, information has been restricted, agitators, protesters, and members of the old government have been detained, and political elections have been postponed until the second half of 2015. In response, protests have broken out. While coups and protests are not unusual in Thailand (the last coup was in 2006), the form some of the protests are taking this time around is different.

On June 2, 2014, reports began coming in that Thai protesters have been holding three fingers in the air, making the 3-finger salute depicted in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. The Hunger Games has circulated widely around the world in both book and movie form. It sold more books globally than even Harry Potter and has more than 50 million copies currently in circulation. While the Thai protesters are not the first to utilize the Hunger Games 3-finger salute (see Senator Santiago and the Harry Potter Alliance), the Thai protesters have achieved widespread media attention and have brought up questions about how we are to understand the use of a symbol from a fictional book in a real world protest. I answer some of those questions here by arguing that Thai protesters using the 3-finger salute perform resistance that critiques the Thai government, even in an environment highly controlled by the state.

Set in a dystopian future, The Hunger Games tells the story of sixteen year-old Katniss Everdeen. She lives in a nation called Panem in which most of the twelve districts are mired in poverty for the benefit of the Capitol, where citizens live in comfort. During the annual Hunger Games, the Capitol requires each district to offer up one boy and one girl between 12 and 18 to fight to the death. The Capitol requires this as retribution for the districts’ rebellion decades ago and uses this as a way to maintain control. Televised across Panem, the Hunger Games are designed to maximize entertainment value for residents in the Capitol while also reminding residents in the districts that they are utterly powerless. In Book 1, Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister’s place when her sister’s name is drawn for the Hunger Games. When Katniss and Peeta, the male tribute for Katniss’ district, manage to survive the games together and defy the rule that only one person may survive, they spark a kind of revolution across Panem. Books 2 and 3 follow the development of that revolution from quiet resistance to full war. The 3-finger salute serves as one of the central symbols of the revolution.


Katniss giving the salute in the arena after Rue’s death in the first movie.

Katniss giving the salute in the arena after Rue’s death in the first movie.

In the trilogy, the 3-finger salute begins as a local tradition but quickly becomes a symbol of resistance. Katniss describes the 3-finger salute as “an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love” (The Hunger Games, Book 1, pg. 24). When Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games, the crowd refuses to clap and gives her a 3-finger salute instead. Later, Katniss uses the 3-finger salute as a form of resistance when her friend, Rue, dies in the games. Katniss yearns to show that she is “not just a pawn in their [the Capitol’s] games” but she has little power. So Katniss raises a 3-finger salute to the cameras broadcasting the games live across Panem, showing respect for Rue, while also resisting the Capitol’s devaluing of human life. The people watching the live broadcast in District 11, Rue’s home district, return the 3-finger salute to Katniss and then riot against the Capitol’s police force.

Rue’s district giving Katniss the 3-finger salute during the press tour in the second movie.

Rue’s district giving Katniss the 3-finger salute during the press tour in the second movie.

In Book 2, Katniss and Peeta are forced to go on a publicity tour across Panem, held up as the victors of the Hunger Games. When they arrive in Rue’s district, Katniss goes off script and speaks of Rue as brace and selfless. The people of Rue’s district respond with the 3-finger salute. The audience member who first held the 3-finger salute was publicly shot in front of the crowd as a warning against further resistance. The 3-finger salute in The Hunger Games signals respect for fellow protesters and resistance to a brutal regime.

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The 3-finger salute used in Thai protests functions as a form of resistance when the state-controlled environment makes that resistance particularly difficult. Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, explains that in Thailand information is controlled, media is censored, and public gatherings are banned. While posters can be confiscated and lead to arrests, the 3-finger salute is both safer and perhaps more effective. This is part of what makes the 3-finger salute in the Hunger Games narrative so effective. People across the poorest districts lack the power to protest, revolt, or circulate messages of their own, but the 3-finger salute functions as a symbol or resistance even in these difficult conditions. Indeed, the Thai military and police, like the government in the Hunger Games, seem to recognize the symbolic power of the 3-finger salute. In Thailand, one person wielding the peaceful salute in public has been detained, though the military is currently determining what further course of action to take. As a symbol rich in resistance, critique, and solidarity, the 3-finger salute may pose a significant threat to the Thai military government.

The 3-finger salute not only performs resistance, but also critiques the Thai military and government officials. When protesters hold their 3-finger salute in the air, they assume the role of Katniss and put the Thai military government in the role of Panem’s government. In this way, they frame the Thai military as corrupt, self-serving, and brutal, willing to go to any lengths to put down resistance and maintain the status quo. As Thai protesters hold up their 3-finger salutes, we are invited to see the Thai military actions as unjustified and undemocratic. Thai protesters further imbue the 3-finger salute with democratic meaning by combining it with the French slogan “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The symbol of resistance also becomes the symbol of democracy.

The 3-finger salute seems to be emerging as an increasingly important aspect of the Thai protests. The New York Post reports that Sombat Boonngam-anong, a “Red Shirt” and social activist leader in Thailand, called for protesters to continue holding their 3-finger salutes in the air. He said, “Raising three fingers has become a symbol calling for fundamental political rights.” By raising the 3-finger salute, 3 times a day in public places, he says, Thai citizens can “escalate the anti-coup movement three times a day together.”

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Between the images and tweets emerging online and the reports from journalists on the ground, we have some sense of how the 3-finger salute is currently being used. But that understanding is of course limited. There may be much more going on among protesters that we cannot see. It’s also important to remember that political and social action changes quickly, and the symbolic meaning of the 3-finger salute may change as the context shifts or new participants are brought in. The last caveat I want to offer is that I am not an expert in Thai politics or culture. I am an expert in popular culture and politics. I hope readers and journalists combine the analysis I have offered here with analysis from experts in Thai politics. With reports and editorials like this, we desperately need analysis that brings us closer to a fairer and more complex understanding of what is going on in the Thai protests. This blog post is the first step in that direction.



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Hidden Rhetorics and Secret Identities: The Question of Superhero Movies as Social Commentary – Part I

This post is a two-part, co-authored post by our own Casey Schmitt and Rebecca Keyel, a student in UW-Madison’s department of Design Studies.


Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson as Captain America and Black Widow. Image from Marvel Studios.

Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson as Captain America and Black Widow. Image from Marvel Studios.


It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a complex allegory for modern American social conditions! Or, maybe, it’s just some dude in a cape.

For years now, with an increasing popular audience for superhero stories, films, and merchandise, audiences have sought to trace literary meanings and social commentary in the content of comic-book escapades. Iron Man is, for many, a not-so-subtle metaphor for the military-industrial complex. Director Christopher Nolan’s Batman epic, The Dark Knight, is widely viewed as a defense of the Bush administration‘s post-9/11 counterterrorism policies. In Barry Brummett’s 2008 collection on “social issues in disguise,” William Earnest traces the “hidden rhetorics” of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise as subtle yet potent commentary on LGBTQ rights and activism. When film reviews for Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier circulated earlier this year, the film was framed through a political lens, being lauded as a smart and “scathing critique of 21st-century surveillance” by left-leaning outlets and lambasted as “shallow” and “lefty” by right-leaning sources. One favorable reviewer even wrote, “Edward Snowden could be on Winter Soldier‘s marketing payroll. It’s that revolutionary.”

As fans of some of these films and their characters, we found this emphatic turn in public conceptions of the superhero intriguing. Certainly these stories have political overtones and allusions. Even if unintentionally, as mere products of their place and time they might comment on dominant social concerns and conditions.  Yet we wondered how prevalent these elements of social commentary actually were in the films. That is, while these so-called “hidden rhetorics” may have critical social qualities, are the films themselves actually as “revolutionary” as some reviewers have claimed? A quick glance at two recent blockbusters provides some perspective.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is tangentially a sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, part of what Marvel calls Marvel Phase 1, the set of films that led up to the release of Avengers in 2012 and went on to break a number of box office records. Winter Soldier follows the super-heroic Captain America and Black Widow as they discover the intelligence organization they work for—known as S.H.I.E.L.D.—has been compromised by Hydra, a Nazi offshoot originally founded by the fist film’s  villainous Red Skull.

Captain America comics have long commented on social issues—in fact, the original stories were published in part to encourage U.S. entry into World War II—and, while their “hidden rhetoric” critiques have not always been nuanced or successful, Winter Soldier follows suit by engaging a number of contemporary political topics, most notably personal agency and privacy.

In the film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has developed a system called Project Insight, which allows the organization to predict and eliminate potential threats to national security. The system is meant to be a preemptive strike against domestic, international, and extraterrestrial attacks. However, Hydra’s leaders are using their control over the United States’ intelligence apparatus to mine the electronic records of everyone living in the U.S., giving them the ability to predict whether or not the individual will be a threat to the organization. This system identifies such potential threats to Hydra and eliminates them, a preventative measure to keep the control over society that Hydra spent the previous fifty years cultivating. Once the film’s protagonists discover this threat, they formulate a plan to thwart it by triggering the weapons system to target itself instead

Within the film’s narrative structure, the implications of this kind of power in the hands of an “evil” organization like Hydra are obvious. The film’s protagonists understand just how dangerous that ability is and must take down the system before Hydra can activate it. The story, for many viewers, echoed public concerns about NSA surveillance, drone strikes, and the potential for U.S. government agencies to infringe on citizen privacy in the name of security, law, and order.

The more subtle commentary of the film concerns the choices an individual makes, and the film engages with these issues on multiple levels with multiple characters. While Winter Soldier isn’t the first film to engage with issues of surveillance and “big brother,” or even the first superhero film to use surveillance as a plot point, it takes a particular stance against using surveillance on an unsuspecting population. The crux of the film’s plot is the threat to the U.S. population and the fact that an individual’s electronic records were what made them targets for assassination. The individual choice to commit or not to commit a threatening act was circumvented by the potential threat they represented.

The choice to act or not and the absence of choice is what makes the film’s “villain” and eponymous character—the brainwashed assassin known as Winter Solider—ultimately sympathetic. Hydra and its scientists remove his sense of identity and his agency. He is prevented from making any choices of his own and is actively turned into a threat to others. In contrast, in the film’s climax, the Black Widow character actively chooses to give up her privacy and the secrecy of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files by uploading them to the Internet, a la Wikileaks. However, in releasing her secrets, she also releases sensitive government information to the wider public, potentially compromising national security. She’s allowed that choice, but she takes the choice away from those others who are potentially impacted by her actions.

In a film like Winter Soldier, thus, superhero exploits seem to mimic popular sentiments and champion a social cause, but in sometimes muddy, inexact terms. In part two of this post, we consider another superhero film to demonstrate that the social activism of the superhero movie is not always as potent as it may at first seem.

See Part II for conclusion.


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