Overthinking It is celebrating our nation by searching for the most American piece of pop culture with the word “American” in the title. Read the entire series here.
he United States has been in love with violence since the very beginning. We aren’t unique in having won our freedom through arms, but we went one step further and enshrined our right to keep them for a well-regulated militia. In other words, we wanted to constitutionally ensure that we’d have the means to overthrow the government if we felt like it. The American ideal of rugged individualism has always gone hand in hand with a willingness to fight for it and defend it, to the point where aggression is seen as a core American value. Today, Americans are killed by firearms at a rate 25 times greater than the rest of the developed world, and while some of that is due to the massive amount of guns floating around, a lot of it has to do with our admiration for asskickers. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the Most ’Merican pieces of pop culture about Violence:
American Sniper vs American Horror Story
Americans like to see themselves as masters of their own destinies, free to cast off old traditions and family bonds to craft new lives and identities. Being a sixth generation cobbler isn’t seen as admirable; Americans romanticize the idea of starting things with a clean slate.
American Horror Story says that nobody ever gets a clean slate. Everyone is tainted by the ugly history that came before us. It’s significant that in every season, there’s at least one episode that flashes back a generation or more to show the cyclical nature of violence. The longer the show goes on, the more we see dark connections between seemingly isolated incidents. Lady Gaga in Season 5 had a horrific illegal abortion at the house from Season 1. Jessica Lange from Season 4 was mutilated by the sadistic Nazi doctor from Season 2. Misery begets misery; monsters create monsters. At the end of each season, almost everyone is dead, but the same faces are back next season to enact another set of grisly tragedies. In America you can run, but when you carry the darkness inside you, there’s no place to hide.
In American Sniper, violence is also a legacy that gets passed down, but it’s presented as a positive thing. “You have been blessed with the gift of aggression,” Chris Kyle’s father tells him, exhorting him to be a sheepdog, protecting the sheep from the wolves. So when Kyle (Bradley Cooper, all hulked out) sees footage of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings on TV, he signs up for action. We see him save countless American marines with his infallible aim. We see him volunteer for more dangerous assignments when he feels like others are taking all the risk. We see him re-enlist again and again, even after his friends are killed and his wife threatens to leave him. He’s a hell of a sheepdog.
But the gift of aggression cuts both ways. When he’s back in the States, Kyle is jumpy, withdrawn, his blood pressure off the charts. He screams at the maternity ward nurses for not paying enough attention to his daughter. He almost kills the family pet with his bare hands. All his wife Taya wants from him is that he be a normal husband and father, but it’s like asking a sheepdog to become a sheep.
It’s only through working with other emotionally and physically scarred veterans that Kyle starts to regain some semblance of normality… right before a schizophrenic veteran kills him for no reason. It’s a shocking tragedy, but maybe the real shock would be if Kyle didn’t die a violent death. “You can only circle the flame so long,” Taya tells him at one point, but he doesn’t know how to stop.
Chris Kyle, like the misfits of American Horror Story, is changed and haunted by violence. But there’s a crucial difference: in AHS, the characters are mostly insane, selfish, or consumed by rage to the point where right and wrong don’t matter. To Kyle, right and wrong are everything. He’s taking on the burden of violence to protect others, at great personal cost. Nevermind whether Kyle’s worldview is woefully misguided; what matters here is that he believes he’s fighting for good, while the American Horror Story characters know they’re going straight to Hell. It’s that sense of righteous purpose that makes American Sniper the better depiction of our national gift/curse of aggression.
Winner: American Sniper
American Ninja vs An American Werewolf in London
American Ninja is a product of legendary 1980s b-movie factory Cannon Films, headed by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Just like Nabokov, these outsiders were able to perceive America more clearly than the Americans (we’ll talk about their work again when we get to Sex), and they saw that what audiences in the testosterone-fueled Reagan era wanted was American exceptionalism, and also ninjas with wrist-mounted laser guns.
On an island in the South Pacific, a French aristocrat is hijacking American military convoys using a private army of ninjas. But along comes a young American soldier named Joe Armstrong (played by Michael Dudikoff – extra points for the perfect 1980s action name). Joe turns out to be pretty good at ninjaing himself, when he’s not seducing the Colonel’s daughter.
This is a pretty old trope, the idea that Americans can easily surpass foreigners at whatever native skills they bother to learn, usually in a matter of months. It’s as old as The Last of the Mohicans and as popular as Avatar. And at a time when Japanese corporations were widely feared to be taking over America (remember Marty’s future boss in Back to the Future 2?) the idea of an American ninja was appealing enough to spawn three sequels (and that’s not including American Samurai).
Here’s another well-worn cliché: American tourists are a rowdy, disrespectful, downright dangerous plague. (Ryan Lochte is only the most recent example.) At first glance, An American Werewolf in London seems to play on this fear. David Kessler is an American teenager in Europe in search of adventure and girls. He ends up brutally killing scores of people before the police gun him down.
But David doesn’t start out as a monster. He just wanders into the wrong rural Scottish village, where the locals – rather than warning him that a werewolf is on the loose – tell him an anti-American joke. To make matters worse, once David gets bit the villagers just dump him in London, knowing that at the next full moon he’s going to kill. So the villain here isn’t Americanism; it’s the cowardice and insularity of the Old World. David’s actually a model American: polite, charming, and full of self-deprecating humor. But he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong side of the world, swallowed up by forces he doesn’t understand and can’t control.
Both of these films are about the bloody clashes of a lone American and a foreign culture. In American Ninja, Joe’s combination of Japanese secrets and innate American awesomeness makes him both the best of all ninjas and the most deadly (and therefore the best) of all Americans. In An American Werewolf In London, David’s Americanness is a disastrous liability: he falls victim to a curse all the locals know how to avoid.
But what rubs me the wrong way about Werewolf is how innocent and helpless David seems. Historically, Americans are more often the perpetrators of cultural misunderstandings, not the victims of them (the classic 1958 novel The Ugly American popularized the titular phrase for arrogant, ethnocentric Yanks). Werewolf is a movie about how Americans abroad should be wary of foreign cultures, and Ninja is a movie about how foreign cultures should be wary of us, and I know which of those messages carries more historical weight. Also, how awesome a name is Michael Dudikoff?
Winner: American Ninja
American Gladiators vs American Ultra
Thirty-somethings, sing along with me: dum du-du da da DAAAA! Da da da da!
(Fun fact – the theme song was by Bill Conti, Mr. Gonna Fly Now himself.)
American Gladiators was an attempt to take the pageantry of pro wrestling and incorporate unscripted competition. The giant hamster balls might seem like harmless fun, but as Dan Clark (aka Nitro) wrote in his memoir, the Gladiators were not kidding around: “The whistle blows. I blast into my opponent with reckless abandon, instantly overwhelming and dominating him. My shoulder slams into his ribs, sending the ‘football captain’ flying in the air before landing in a painful, broken heap at my feet. The world slips away, and for a moment the voices are quiet. The universe is mine.” This is a show that was aired on weekend afternoons for kids.
As beloved as the Gladiators were, the whole point of building them up was to then give us underdog challengers to root for. Americans like to think of themselves as the little guy, even though we’re the most powerful nation on Earth. Think about Rocky, the Miracle on Ice, and rags-to-riches stories from Horatio Alger to Steve Jobs. The fantasy of American Gladiators was going up against these larger-than-life figures and rising to the occasion.
That’s also at the heart of American Ultra, which was a box office failure in 2015 but a really interesting entry into our bracket. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, an utterly average stoner living in a run-down West Virginia town working at a convenience store. But Mike is actually a veteran of a secret government program, trained as an assassin and then implanted with false memories when the program was cancelled. When a CIA bureaucrat decides he needs to be killed off to clean up loose ends, Mike’s programming comes back and much bloodiness ensues.
Now technically Mike isn’t exactly an everyman, since he has years of government training at his disposal. But he certainly presents as a normal guy. After he dispatches the first two assassins, he calls his girlfriend in panic, babbling, “If you don’t come here right now, I’m just gonna start, like, pissing in my pants. I swear to God, Phoebe, I’m just gonna start, like, pissing.” And much like Bourne before him, he only has MacGuyvered weapons at his disposal while the government is calling in drone strikes, poison gas, and hit squads of dangerous mental patients. Much like in Gladiators, the satisfaction comes from seeing a regular Joe outbadassing the badasses to claim a better life for himself.
But there’s a crucial difference. The people who competed on American Gladiators were amazing athletes, sometimes even Olympians, Heisman Trophy winners, or Ellen Degeneres one time. They were in the kind of peak physical condition that most of us can only dream of. Jesse Eisenberg, not so much. In fact, you’re pretty sure that you could take him out, if you really needed to. And by the transitive property of ass-kicking, that means you could easily beat up waves of government agents to save your girl. That’s as American as the Second Amendment, and it sends American Ultra to the next round.
Winner: American Ultra
Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American) vs American History X
When Osama Bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Toby Keith’s “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)” was suddenly in heavy rotation. “Hey Toby!!!!!” tweeted Blake Shelton. “We finally put the boot in that ass!!!!!” As fate would have it, Keith was actually on a USO tour in Iraq at the time. “It’s a great day to be an American,” he said. “I’ve been telling you for a decade that the U.S. military would hunt down and kill world enemy No. 1.”
But the song was never quite that specific. Sure, the most famous lyric can be interpreted as a threat towards Bin Laden: “And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” But Keith never actually names Bin Laden, and at times the target of the boot seems to be much broader. “Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye / man, we lit up your world like the 4th of July.” Bin Laden actually escaped into Pakistan after September 11th, so is Keith bragging that at least we carpet-bombed Afghanistan in retaliation? Or is the “your” not just one man but anyone in that part of the world? That’s what Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks thought about “The Angry American,” telling the Los Angeles Daily News, “It targets an entire culture – and not just the bad people who did bad things.”
Toby Keith is by no means equivalent to the neo-Nazis in American History X (I’m uncomfortable even putting them in the same sentence), but the common thread that connects the song and the movie is a national tendency to paint with a broad brush. “I hate anyone that isn’t a white Protestant,” says teenaged Danny Vinyard.
Danny Vinyard: They’re a burden to the advancement of the white race. Some of them are alright I guess…
Seth: None of them are fucking alright Danny, okay? They’re all a bunch of fuckin’ freeloaders. Remember what Cam said: we don’t know ’em, we don’t wanna know ’em.
That’s a great bit of double-think there: complete certainty that he understands the Other combined with complete unwillingness to learn anything about him. It’s the same attitude that got us slavery, the Trail of Tears, internment camps, and “Build That Wall.”
“The Angry American” is a good example of how tragedy can become generalized into a justification for almost anything. (Researching the song, I found a reference to Keith visiting the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in the middle of the torture scandal. This was literally a case where America put things in people’s asses.) However, American History X goes further to show exactly how difficult it is to climb back up that slippery slope. Edward Norton only rejects his racist ideology after being locked up with the most good-natured black guy in the country, and even then he can’t do anything to break the cycle of violence. The movie can be painfully unsubtle (YOU SHOT IT IN BLACK AND WHITE, I GET IT) but it also seems as sadly relevant today as it did 18 years ago; the alt-right is all over the news as I type this.
Sorry Toby: you’ve been out-angered.
Winner: American History X
Here’s how the bracket looks like after Round 1.
Next week, let’s talk about sex, baby.