Thursday, November 17, 2016

Comic books, war, race & masculinity

Excerpt from Borderline (pp. 344-47)

Germany was inundated with visual propaganda under Hitler—paintings, posters, and statues. Masculinity, as it had been since the eugenics movement began in the West, was closely associated with “physical culture”— bodybuilding. The male form was represented in Nazi art as lean and heavily muscled, modeling its bodily archetypes on Greek and Roman art, with facial features that emphasized “Aryan” beauty. Figures of men were often nude and hairless, emphasizing the idea of a clean, self-contained, impermeable boundary at the skin. The torsos of the Nazi male archetype were modeled on breastplate armor to reinforce the idea of impermeability and lack of vulnerability. Feet were planted firmly apart, hands often doubled into fists, and visages sternly aimed at the horizon.12

American war propaganda also emphasized men’s bodies as hardened, using the terms “steely,” “like iron,” and “hard as nails” to describe them. And while Nazi images did the same, they were often hyper-idealized and standing naked to merge a Classical aesthetic with a racial purity ideal. American images had well-muscled men who were dirty, hairy-chested, at least partly clothed, and almost always in contact with big guns or big rounds of artillery ammunition displayed in decidedly phallic ways. The underlying narrative was that of the citizen-solider, the industrial worker cum soldier, of men fused with their machines, with a look of determined anger on their faces. A “now you’ve pissed us off” look.13

Christine Jarvis concludes that the transformation of working man into fighting hero mapped onto a popular American art genre, the comic book superhero:
The aesthetics of American figures . . . were based on the bodily ideals evinced in comic books. . . . Superheroes could, with the aid of a magic word or swirling costume change, transform themselves . . . into superhumans with abilities and bodily characteristics that exceeded the realm of mortal powers.14 

The fight against Germany was understood as a fight between men, whose associations are always either social or competitive (never intimate!). When that sociality broke down, it was time for a competition; and with that martial competition came a competition of ideas, of democracy versus dictatorship (in two different white nations). This was Athens versus Sparta.

Disney produced war propaganda films that caricatured Hitler as a lunatic, even as it included what would now be considered deeply offensive stereotypes of American Indians, Jews, Asians, and African Americans.15 In the case of the Japanese, however, American propaganda was deeply and intentionally racialized.

Anti-Japanese sentiment had prevailed in the United States for decades, anti-Asian racism for a century.16 The stereotype of the Asian man before the war had been highly feminized; Asian males were portrayed as nearly hairless men with “small bones” who did laundry or cooked. The one-sided and brutal American war against Filipino resisters had been portrayed at times as probative masculinity through big-game hunting.17

This portrayal became a crisis for white American political masculinity when the Japanese military devastated the United States navy at Pearl Harbor, then delivered another series of humiliating military defeats of Allied forces in the Pacific Theater over the following year and a half. If the Japanese were “effeminate” men, why were they trouncing American and British forces? Bill Stevens, a World War II veteran, remarked, “The white hang up about the infinite superiority of the white man to any man of color did not prepare the American white for the Japanese.”18

“In the months following Pearl Harbor,” writes Jarvis, “the government, military, and media . . . endeavored to recharacterize its Asian opponent.” Japan had to be re-masculinized in the eyes of Americans to rehabilitate white American political and martial masculinity. The signifiers of manhood and race, as applied to the Japanese, were transformed. From being known and effeminized, the Japanese became inscrutable. The reason the white nations were taken off guard was that Japan was misunderstood, being as it was, otherly-other.19

The Japanese soldier was newly represented as physically tough and a good shot, though he was simultaneously portrayed as ugly, with “splayed toes,” and as having no appreciation for human life—a kind of supervillain.20 Time magazine and the OWI repeatedly published materials about Japanese ugliness, treachery, cruelty, and unbridled lust. One propaganda poster showed a snarling Japanese solider holding a knife to the throat of a terrified white woman, with text that read, “Keep this Horror from your home . . . invest 10% in War Bonds”21—a tithe to the state and the war to protect white womanhood. Slotkin traces these images to earlier racial stereotypes:

Poster images of the Japanese as ape-like monsters raping and murdering White women draw more heavily on the iconography of Black stereotypes (from films like Birth of a Nation) than from the images of Western-movie Indians.22
So pervasive was the white American hatred of the Japanese that hardly a voice was raised in objection as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed executive orders 9066 and 9102—ordering the dispossession of property and incarceration in prison camps of 110,000 people in the United States who had Japanese ancestry, more than 60 percent of whom were American citizens.23 Even the American Communist Party, which had been at the forefront in the fight against racism in the South through the 1920s and 1930s, supported Roosevelt’s racist order and delisted its Japanese American members.24

By 1942, Hollywood had begun a campaign called “Slap the Jap,” in which the entertainment industry produced magazines, films, radio programs, and cartoons that portrayed the “yellow peril” as pestilence and disease—the same strategy being used in Germany against Jews. The Japanese were compared to rats, snakes, roaches, and lice—an implicit call for extermination that paved the way for acceptance of what would come to Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.25 The Japanese were unclean; they were like dangerous germs, and the disinfectant was the bomb.

A new archetype of white warrior came into being—the jungle fighter, a man “who learned to match savagery with savagery to achieve victory.”26 This is a man who has learned to “know Indians” of a new sort, a man who has learned to accept the grime of jungle combat and with it the grime of moral ambiguity. He knows he has to get dirty, physically and morally, if he is to win against the savages—the tough, treacherous, and ruthless monkeys.27 This, God help us, was the archetype into which we were indoctrinated for Vietnam. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison writes,
This may shock you reader: but it is exactly how we felt. We were fighting no civilized, knightly war. . . . We were back in the primitive days of fighting against Indians on the American frontier; no holds barred and no quarter. The Japs wanted it that way, thought they could thus terrify an “effete democracy”; and that is what they got, with the additional horrors of war that modern science can produce.28

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