Problematic Visual Culture

What Artistic Depictions of Thanksgiving Get Wrong

by Liam Conner, class of 2025

National American Indian Heritage Month, since its inception in 1990, celebrates the past and present histories of Indigenous peoples and honors Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. In an attempt to acknowledge the United States’ colonization of formerly Tribal lands, the month recognizes the evils of colonialism and its effects on how we perceive American identity.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that has become a staple for all the wrong reasons. The feast-focused celebration now features early-morning 5Ks, televised parades, football games, and boxed stuffing (albeit the best kind). In classroom retellings of the holiday, we learn that the Puritan Pilgrims peacefully ate alongside their Native American counterparts solely because they developed a friendly relationship. Unfortunately, many accounts fail to mention painful truths, like how the feast coincided with various wars and battles for land. The contextual and historical exclusion of the crucial facts of this story not only allows for these traditions to remain prominent but also disregards the toilsome reality of Thanksgiving and its colonial undertone.

One way to visualize American misconceptions around Thanksgiving lore is to engage critically with depictions of the holiday in art. From Thanksgiving’s earliest representations in the 1800s to the modern clipart we can download on our computers, incorrect retellings inform some of art’s most seminal pieces. 

George Henry Durrie (New Haven, Connecticut, June 6, 1820-1863) Home to Thanksgiving, 1867, hand-colored lithograph, 14 ⅝ X 25 in. co. Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

One of the first published renderings of Thanksgiving dates to 1867, four years after Abraham Lincoln codified the holiday as a national celebration. In George Henry Durrie’s “Home to Thanksgiving,” a snow-covered farm and its inhabitants greet their guests from the city. Rural tranquility marked with a jovial yet modest celebration demonstrates the escapist nature of the holiday. The idea of leaving a bustling city for the peaceful countryside still prevails today, as relatives convene in a typically calm and welcoming home situated away from the day-to-day. 

While perfectly describing the current nature of Thanksgiving, Durrie’s painting does not reflect its origins in history and conflict. The people in this scene celebrate the holiday that began in 1863, not the 1621 feast that the current holiday attempts to resemble. In no way, however, was the first Thanksgiving utterly peaceful. Instead, the feast most likely celebrated a recent massacre of about seven hundred Pequot Indians or the newly agreed-upon, yet quickly broken, peace treaty between the local Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 8, 1863-1930) The First Thanksgiving, 1912 Oil on canvas.

Nearly fifty years later, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s painting “The First Thanksgiving” attempts to depict the holiday as dominated by the Pilgrims. They are postured above the Native Americans, standing up and feeding them as they sit on the ground. It is as though the Pilgrims were fully responsible for their bountiful harvests and societal advancement, leaving no thanks for the Natives, who were crucial to their survival.

Perhaps the most notable of these native guides is Squanto or Tisquantum. Tisquantum, a member of the Patuxet Tribe, was an English-speaking liaison between the Pilgrims in Plymouth and his own Tribe. His story is a prime example of how crucial facts are left out of the general public’s view of the holiday.  Many people tend to disregard the question of how Tisquantum learned the culture and language of the English. Many years before, European colonizers captured Tisquantum and sold him into slavery. Because of this enslavement, Tisquantum spent years in England, forced to adapt to the language and ideas of his colonizers.

Norman Rockwell (New York, New York, February 3, 1894-1978) Freedom from Want, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 3/4″ x 35 1/2″. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

A more contemporary look at Thanksgiving includes one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous pieces. “Freedom From Want,” part of a four-part series, displays a family sitting down to eat the Thanksgiving meal. Instead of gawking at the mouth-watering turkey, the family members smile at each other, grateful for their presence. They have no need for a bountiful meal; they just need each other.

Despite the wholesome and anti-materialist representation of this modern feast, the painting still disregards any historical context. The holiday may have signified familial love and gratitude, but that does not mean we should ignore its true and violent origins. Wars across the “new world” surrounded the time of the feast, making it nothing but cheerful. Therefore, depicting the holiday as strictly pleasant is wrong and misleading.

Before the colonization of the “new world,” there were approximately five million American Indians, but by 1800, this population had declined to only 600,000. European colonizers brought disease, quickly killing many Native peoples, yet the wars they waged were the most impactful. In a greedy search for land, colonizers decimated Native populations and enslaved the remaining survivors. As a result, Europeans and their colonial desires wiped many tribes completely out, one of them being the Massachusett, who resided on the very land that Boston College now inhabits. Because of this, a month of history is not enough, as many Native Americans call for reparations to begin amending the crimes of the colonizers.

While these famous works of art certainly depict a widespread misunderstanding of Thanksgiving, there are even false and problematic pieces like these on Boston College’s campus. In Gasson Hall’s rotunda, there are four large paintings on the upper walls created by Francis Schroen, SJ. Two of them display colonizers and their interactions with the local Tribes. 

While attempting to praise these saints, these religious images blatantly show how European colonizers forced Christianity onto the Native Americans. In the first image, it seems as though the holy figure leads the Natives in search of more land. He uses his domineering religion to colonize another land that is not his own. Similarly, the second image depicts a religious ceremony happening right in front of the Natives’ eyes. Placed in the background, they watch from afar, and the painter shows them gazing in a state of awe. The painting inflates the importance of Christianity, deeming it superior to the religion of the Natives. Again, on land that is not their own, the colonizers celebrate divine providence and the false sense of manifest destiny.

It is striking to see these paintings within the halls of Boston College, as they display extremely problematic scenes of colonization. To praise these saints that clearly imposed themselves and their religion on the native population is seemingly against the values of our institution. Unfortunately, this example is not limited to the walls of our own university. Reminders of the incorrect retellings of Thanksgiving and the colonization of the “new world” riddle themselves throughout the United States. Depictions through art are just one of the many ways our modern world ignores the horrific actions of the European colonizers. If we continue to acknowledge these works as accurate, we will never be able to honor the true history of our nation. Instead, we must know that these depictions are wrong and educate ourselves to the greatest extent.

Problematic Visual Culture Uncategorized

Problematic Visual Culture: Hair Removal Advertisements & Beauty Standards

By Joy Cheng, class of ‘23

Do you know where our beauty standard of the 21st century comes from and why we shave?  What we find attractive today is rooted in the advertisement boom of the 1950s. Along with the rise of fashion styles like short sleeves and bikinis, companies advertised hair removal products and perpetuated beauty standards of hair removal, especially for women.1 We should, therefore, be wary of the constant exposure and pressure from advertising agencies of profit-hungry companies that harmfully dictate shaving and hair removal trends.

When we think of advertisements, the words “visual culture” are not usually the first thing to pop into our minds. However, advertisements often are forms of visual culture—like paintings, photographs, or videos and it is through these mediums that advertisers can associate beauty and happiness with hair removal. When we see ads like the one below, we often compare ourselves with these models—desiring to be happy, proud, and feeling good about our bodies. We draw an interesting connection between being beautiful and shaving; “if I want to be just like that model, I should shave my body hair too!” As a result, we come to the conclusion that “if I want to shave my body hair, I’ll need to buy a razor.” In other words, advertisements are a form of visual culture that attempts to influence consumers’ actions in a way that leads them to purchase products. As a result, corporations promote hair removal, making products like razors a necessity to gain profits.

Pictured above is a 1978 magazine ad for the hair removal product Nair.

In the modern digital age, we are more exposed to advertising than ever before. Advertising is omnipresent, from billboards on the highway to Instagram ads to full-page spreads in newspapers and magazines. Sometimes advertisements are not evident at first glance—a shelf of sleek Gillette razors at CVS is a form of advertising too. With ‘winner of Allure’ or ‘best of 2021’ signs, our eyes are bound to pay attention to these catchphrases. Yet, most of the time, we do not realize how they influence our thoughts. With so much exposure to advertising, it is no wonder that we begin to internalize the messages they present. As we internalize messages about hair removal, we may perceive ourselves as ugly for having body hair—even though body hair is perfectly normal! The goal of advertising is to sell products and capitalize on both real and manufactured insecurities. By perpetuating beauty standards of hair removal, advertisers influence women’s self-perception in unhealthy ways by telling people that they need to shave in order to be beautiful.

Advertising taglines reveal explicit attempts to create beauty standards for hair removal. For example, one ad from the 1900s asks us, “are you going to permit unsightly hair on your face, arms, underarms, and limbs to spoil the freedom which awaits you at the beach?” while another reads, “summer dress and modern dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.”2 These ads are trying to generate shame about our body hair—it is something shameful that spoils our fun and how others perceive us. We see similar ideas in modern-day ads, like a Gillette Venus advertisement that states, “you’re a woman, shave like one,” implying that shaving is necessary for women.3 The message is consistent throughout decades—we need to eliminate body hair because it impedes us from being viewed as beautiful.

Gillette’s advertisement for Venus Embrace Razor in 2012.

Today, people are challenging the notion that we need to shave to be beautiful. Body hair is becoming more and more accepted as beautiful, and we see that some celebrities are confronting conventional beauty norms that mainstream culture imposes onto us. Julia Michaels, a singer, announced on Twitter that she is “not shaving [her] armpits ever again… social norms can eat an eggplant.”4Mo’Nique, a comedian, says, “I tried shaving one time, and it was uncomfortable and painful… I said never again would I do that to myself.”5 Beyond celebrities, we see public opinions moving towards body hair acceptance through movements like #Januhairy, a social media campaign encouraging women to grow their body hair for the month of January.

Left: Pictured above Mo’Nique showing off her unshaven legs at the Golden Globes in 2017. Photo courtesy of Getty Images. Right: Instagram account showing support for #Januhairy movement.

Beyond celebrities and popular sentiment, there are also emerging shaving companies that promote body hair acceptance. One such company is Billie, a razor company, which states that “what you do with [your hair] is up to you – grow it, get rid of it, or comb it.”6 Another company, Estrid, is running a “Super Hairoes” campaign to help women feel more comfortable about their body hair.7Although we could be cynical about the whole thing and claim that these companies are just trying to profit from public sentiment, it does do its part in bringing us to question certain status quos and their origins. Even though they sell hair removal products, they are not trying to generate insecurity about body hair and profit from it. Rather, they are trying to support consumers with their own choices about body hair. I think this is what we need—advertising that supports our body hair choices rather than enforcing uncomfortable beauty standards.

Problematic Visual Culture

Problematic Visual Culture: Orientalism and Expedition Photography

By Michaela Brant, class of ‘23

The Problematic Visual Culture series seeks to highlight works of art, film, and other media that display and perpetuate harmful, discriminatory ideas. The series also aims to address the effects of these works on our individual and collective biases.

On April 22, 121 people logged onto a Zoom webinar to hear Assistant Director Diana Larsen and student ambassadors Ata Chowdry, Matt DiBenedetto, Ethan Starr, and Peyton Wilson (from the Collections Management Committee) present their research on items in the McMullen’s permanent collection. The presentation centered around expedition photography in the Middle East and North Africa, and how the photos and practices embody the idea of Orientalism. 

DiBenedetto contextualized the discussion through the framework of Edward W. Said, a literary theorist who coined the term “Orientalism” in his 1978 book of the same name. “The Orient,” while it often refers generally to the areas east of the Mediterranean Sea and Southeast Europe (the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa), does not technically refer to an actual geographic region. Instead, “the Orient” is a region of imagination. It is a place for Europeans to project their curiosities, fascinations, and anxieties. DiBenedetto summarized that the point of the “Orient” (East) and the “Occident” (West) was to create two disparate essences. This binary was key for the rationalization and subsequent explosion of European imperialism and colonialism. European powers were able to convince people that places in the “Orient” needed to be “civilized” by “benevolent” countries. 

Larsen discussed that Orientalist works began as propaganda paintings to display non-European regions in a light that justified imperialism and colonialism. By the late 1800s, these works also became popular decoration and tourists’ souvenirs. Expedition photographers accompanied royal family members and the wealthy on trips to photograph “the Orient.” One example of an expedition photographer that Larsen gave was Francis Bedford. Born in London, Bedford began his career photographing architecture mainly in England during the 1850s to sell to middle-class tourists. The Queen of England hired him to travel with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, on his trip to the Middle East, where Bedford photographed landscapes, architecture, and figures.

Bedford and other photographers of this time, capitalized on the abundance of sun in the region, making the manipulation of contrast between light and dark easier while producing photographic prints. According to Larsen, this contrast added mystery and provided the viewer with a “tantalizing glimpse of the Orient.” The problem with these expeditions and resulting photographs was that the monarchy funded them to justify imperialism and colonialism, providing a constructed, idyllic view of these regions and people. 

Schroeder & Cie. (Zürich, Switzerland), Karnak: Way of the Sphinxes and the Pylon of Euergetes II, c. 1870-75. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

DiBenedetto tied these scholarly ideas about Orientalism to the Swiss company Schroeder & Cie.’s photograph Karnak: Way of the Sphinxes and the Pylon of Euergetes II. The photo depicts Karnak, a massive and complex religious center of the Kingdom of Thebes in Egypt. DiBenedetto pointed out the positioning of the Egyptians on the road versus the European expeditioner on the side. He noted how the photograph seemed posed, and the separation between the two groups of people visually reinforces the binary of East versus West and other Egyptians. Additionally, the location of the photograph, and the ruins in the background, leave out the signifiers of the vibrant modern society of Egypt in the 19th century. Between the distinct othering of the Egyptians and the intentional background construction, this photograph suggests that Europeans of this time had a moral obligation to “civilize” Egypt.

Unknown, Rue de la Casbah d’Alger c. 1870s. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

Wilson chose a photograph by an unknown photographer, titled Rue de la Casbah d’Alger. Algeria was France’s oldest North African colonial holding. Wilson invited the audience to consider the composition of the photograph: the subject is isolated from any other people or structures that could give a sense of the vibrant society in Algiers. The social and geographical contexts that would make French presence there problematic were wholly left out. French occupation of Algiers led to the destruction of religious spaces, turning them into Christian churches and military buildings. Again, photographs like this disregard the reality of “the Orient.” This image is stripped of its context and is used to reinforce French imperial and colonial agendas through staging Algerian society in opposition to European values. 

C. and G. Zangaki (Greece), Arabs Posing in Front of Suez Canal at Suez City c. 1885. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

Chowdry presented a photograph from 1885 by the two Greek brothers, the Zangakis, who photographed Europe and the Middle East. Chowdry used this opportunity to tie the history of the Suez Canal into the concept of Orientalism. The location of the Canal played an essential role in the “Scramble for Africa,” as Britain and France fought over who would control the land. Europe developed imperialist interests in India and China (especially in the South Pacific for France) once they realized they could connect the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing for shorter trips to Asia. England seized control of Egypt in 1882—and the troops that had invaded and occupied it did not leave until 1956. The construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which put Egyptian workers like those in the photograph in immense danger, allowed Westerners to have more control over the East as both colonizers and tourists. With little to no real benefit to the Egyptians, the Canal became a symbol of British and French imperialism. The photograph and the Canal are yet more examples of Europeans capitalizing on the sentiments of fascination and entitlement cultivated around Asia. 

Avraham Hay (Baghdad, Iraq, 1944), The Wilderness of Sinai, 1986. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

Starr rounded out the presentation with a more recent photograph, Avraham Hay’s The Wilderness of Sinai, which the McMullen featured in a 1996 exhibition. This photograph, among others, was originally paired with engravings by J. M. W. Turner, a Romantic artist. The carvings and photographs are from similar visual perspectives. However, Hay is operating as a documentarian. His objective, said Starr, was to show the facts on the ground, contrary to other photographers from earlier in the presentation. Since Hay is both from and lives in the region being documented, he has a unique perspective. However, there are still questions to be asked with this work. How do we consider this work in the context of today’s conflict between Israel and Palestine? What do we make of the presence of a church in this photograph, and who has a claim to this site? Although on the outer limits of Orientalism, this photograph still invites us to ask questions about where and from whom the work originated.

This “Into the Collection” event, which McMullen Museum Director Professor Nancy Netzer called “absolutely dazzling,” was the most attended of its kind this year. If you missed it, you can watch the full talk here. This event highlights the importance of thinking critically about the origins of different artworks within our museum’s holdings. All art is intentional, so it is important to consider the historical, political, and social contexts surrounding a work. Whether in a museum, on the internet, or anywhere else, DiBenedetto said it best: “the images that we encounter in daily life are more than meet the eye.”

Works cited:

Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

Diana Larsen, Ata Chowdry, Matt DiBenedetto, Ethan Starr, and Peyton Wilson, “Into the Collection: Orientalism and Expedition Photography,” April 22, 2021, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College. 

Problematic Visual Culture

Problematic Visual Culture: “Pentagon Pictures: What is the Military-Entertainment Complex?”

By Dana Connolly, class of ‘22

In an article recently published in Harper’s Magazine, the acclaimed director wrote that the art of moviemaking has been “systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator,” that is, movies have become “content.” In the patois of marketing and business analytics, “content” is any media that is rapidly shared through the internet, consumed, and dismissed without critical thought. TikToks, celebrity endorsements, YouTube videos of cats, Twitch streams, viral memes, tweets, and everything in between. The torrent of readily available, instantly gratifying visual media on the internet is by no means less legitimate than movies and literature. However, the endless flood of “content” may be hindering our ability to critically engage with visual media—making us more susceptible to bias and propaganda as a result. 

In the kingdom of “content,” profitability reigns supreme. For that reason, major Hollywood blockbusters are becoming increasingly more expensive to produce. Production companies are happy to overspend on the assumption that bigger sets, better visual effects, and star actors will reap greater rewards at the box office or on streaming services during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not only must these movies wow audiences, but they must also compete with the constant barrage of other, more instantaneous media like Snapchat or Youtube. 

Image from Patty Jenkins, 2020, Wonder Woman 1984, Atlas Entertainment.

Film producers want to make as much money as possible without overspending their precious millions of dollars. For planned blockbusters like Wonder Woman 1984 and WandaVision, a surefire way to keep production costs down is to partner with the United States Department of Defense (DoD). Most moviegoers are completely unaware of the Pentagon’s involvement with the film industry, and the U.S. military would like to keep it that way. As of 2016, the Department of Defense has helped produced more than 410 movies, including classics like James Bond’s License to Kill, biographical thrillers such as Captain Phillips, and many more popular movies like Transformers: Dark Age of the Moon. The most successful entry in the DoD’s oeuvre is Top Gun. Directed by Jerry Bruckheimer in collaboration with the Pentagon, Top Gun was a massive box office success and grossed $356.8 million from a budget of $15 million. However, the return on investment for the US Navy was even greater. The well-timed release of Top Gun led to a 500% increase in young men signing up to become naval aviators and, crucially, portrayed the pro-military, colonialist themes to help rehabilitate the U.S. military’s post-Vietnam public image.

The agreement is dead simple. Films that portray the U.S. military in a positive light receive taxpayer funding, set locations, and military consultation from the Department of Defense. However, the specific criteria for film selection and military involvement are still highly classified. I personally don’t think that the Department of Defense should influence the film industry. Some critics argue that in the competitive movie market, the military-entertainment complex is a necessary evil. If that is true, why the total lack of transparency from the Department of Defense? If taxpayers must line the pockets of the film industry, don’t we deserve to know where our money is going and how much is being spent? On social media, we know the individuals behind the screen and can evaluate biases using our own judgement. For movies backed by wealthy producers, funded by the Pentagon without any government transparency, American moviegoers cannot critically evaluate the ideological undertones of movies.

Image from Clint Eastwood dir., 2014, American Sniper, Warner Bros.

More importantly, when audiences return to the movie theaters, will we treat these movies the same as any other piece of content? As it stands, the Department of Defense wields its power to toy with the narratives of major blockbusters to benefit their public image. There are no checks and balances for a government agency able to alter the narratives on important historical events like the Vietnam or Iraq War. As it stands now, American audiences risk absorbing hawkish, colonial ideologies from popular films. If we allow the Pentagon into our theatres and streaming services, what will be next?

Problematic Visual Culture

Museum Current: “The Power of Place: Public Art and Indigenous Representations”

By Alex Hull, class of ’21

On Wednesday, March 17th, Jami Powell, Associate Curator of Native American Art at the Hood Museum of Art and Native American Studies Lecturer at Dartmouth College, joined the McMullen to speak about her role as the first curator of Native American art at the Hood, misrepresentations of Native and indigenous peoples in art, and the responsibilities that museums have in dismantling these harmful misrepresentations. Powell mentioned that one of her main goals is to “disrupt the false binaries we have of Native American people” (Powell). This is a challenging project to undertake since so many of the representations she speaks of persist widely throughout our culture, despite progress being made in how we see Native peoples. These false binaries in American art, media, and even history are not only incorrect, but are actively harmful to indigenous individuals and communities. Powell says, “the power relations embodied within these images are deeply entangled and omnipresent within many of the spaces we occupy each day.”

Powell spoke about her own experience as a member of the Osage Nation, as an anthropologist, and as a curator. Citing her own experience as both a visitor and curator, she noticed many microaggressions against indigenous people in museum settings. During her time at the Field Museum in Chicago, she raised concerns about the depictions of Native peoples through the way the art was presented and was ignored by museum staff. She went on to speak about the harmful representations of indigenous people at Dartmouth, where she is currently employed. A series of murals named the Hovey Murals, tell the fictitious story of the founding of Dartmouth, based on a Dartmouth drinking song, in which a white settler paid an indigenous tribe with barrels of rum for the land that the college would be built on. The University realized that these murals contradicted the values it wanted to uphold as an educational institution, so the murals have been removed and will soon be placed in the Hood Museum of Art, where they can be viewed and studied from a place that acknowledges their history, as well as their false and negative depictions of Native Americans. 

Walter Beach Humphrey (Elkhorn, Wisconsin, 1892–Glens Falls, New York 1966) Hovey Murals (the first panel), 1938, mural, oil on canvas adhered to wall. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. Image courtesy Dartmouth News.

Powell then spoke of the role and responsibility of museums in dismantling harmful representations of indigenous people in art. Museums are upheld in our culture as institutions of knowledge and education; people trust them to provide the public with true, valuable information. The art that museums showcase and the perspectives they display shape the way that their visitors view art more broadly. Historically, art museums in the United States have perpetuated harmful images of indigenous people, and people of color are now responsible for engaging in action and conversation that works to display history accurately, that gives a space for artists of color to showcase their work. Therefore, museums should be taking on the responsibility of thinking about and changing the way they display art and the artists they choose to represent. An example of a museum currently self-reflecting on its history and collection is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the Great Hall, the museum has installed a diptych by Kent Monkman, titled “mistikôsiwak,” which translates in English to “Wooden Boat People.” This piece challenges the artistic canon and art history itself, as Monkman reworks depictions of indigenous people in the Met’s collection.

Kent Monkman (First Nations, Cree, born Saint Marys, Ontario 1965) mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Welcoming the Newcomers, 2019, acrylic on canvas,11 × 22 ft. (335.3 × 670.6 cm). © Kent Monkman, image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Kent Monkman (First Nations, Cree, born Saint Marys, Ontario 1965) mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Resurgence of the People, 2019, acrylic on canvas,11 × 22 ft. (335.3 × 670.6 cm). © Kent Monkman, image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Powell says, “It’s not always about taking things down, museums should be about celebrating the creative expression and knowledge…that comes from populations around the globe” (Powell). The Hood Museum of Art changed the spatial layout of the museum, placing the African and African diaspora art in the front rooms, before the European art. Also, some exhibitions have been combined temporally and geographically, with pieces from different places and time periods being placed near each other. These actions are essential to disrupting the traditional Eurocentric focus of museums, allowing for new ways of seeing art, and giving a voice to those artists who have been silenced in the past.  


Powell, Jamie. “The Power of Place: Public Art and Indigenous Representations.” Lecture, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, March 17, 2021. 

Humphrey, Walter Beach. Hovey Murals. 1938. Oil on Canvas. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. 

Monkman, Kent. Welcoming the Newcomers. 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 132 x 264 in. (335.28 x 670.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Monkman, Kent. Resurgence of the People. 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 132 x 264 in. (335.28 x 670.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Problematic Visual Culture

Problematic Visual Culture: Orientalism in American Action Films

The Problematic Visual Culture series seeks to highlight works of art, film, and other media that display and perpetuate harmful, discriminatory ideas. The series also aims to address the effects of these works on our individual and collective biases.

A white American man is a protagonist, and Muslim terrorists are the antagonist. Can you guess the movie being described in this plotline? Most likely, many movies popped into your head, ranging from True Lies, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and even to Iron Man. The stereotype of Muslims—specifically from the Middle East—as terrorists have infiltrated the Hollywood film industry for decades. This process of othering Middle Eastern people and declaring the vast territory that encompasses Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and many other countries as the “Middle East” has its roots in the ideology of Orientalism. 

Although many American films perpetuate stereotypes, I will focus on a more in-depth analysis of Orientalism in the American action film genre by deconstructing the movie American Sniper. I will begin by analyzing the plot of American Sniper and connect it through addressing the origins of Orientalism as an academic discipline described by Edward Said. American Sniper is an example of how art is used to perpetuate divisions and stereotypes in our society. In direct contrast, our current exhibit Taking Shape: Abstractions from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s uses art to break stereotypical boundaries and present the complex reality of marginalized groups.  

The action and war drama American Sniper, made in 2014, recounts the true story of a U.S. Navy SEAL named Chris Kyle. The movie depicts the life of Chris Kyle, who is known as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. Inspired by the August 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, Chris joins the U.S. Navy and is deployed to Iraq. The movie takes place during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the first scene depicts a woman in a head covering holding a grenade, who Chris kills. The movie continues to present similar imagery of the Iraqi people as villains and a threat to American safety. Kyle and his fellow SEALs are searching for an al Qaeda leader in an evacuated city in Iraq, and they are told that any military-aged male who is still in the city should be a threat. When one of Kyle’s fellow SEALs expresses regret about the war, he reminds him that they are patriots serving their country and protecting their families. The movie depicts Chris as a hero and patriot helping America fight against terrorism or, more realistically, Islam, as American society conflates the two. 

Beyond dismissing the fact that the U.S. instigated this war, American Sniper embodies how problematic American media is, as it exacerbates the issue of terrorism and perpetuates the image that all Muslims are foes. American Sniper participates in the othering of Middle Eastern people that Edward Said calls “Orientalism.” Said defines Orientalism as the academic discipline representing institutionalized Western knowledge of the Orient, resulting in a collection of images and vocabularies in different forms such as museums, paintings, novels, movies, etc. The Orient is a construction made by the West where the Orient or “the other” becomes the opposite of the West. The West views itself as rational and superior, and therefore, in its obverse, the Orient is irrational and inferior. These characteristics of irrationality and inferiority attributed to the Orient resulted in the implication of certain types of political action to be taken by the West, including colonialism, domination, and military invasions.  

Orientalism is not based on the reality of people in the geographical region that it entails; instead, it is based on this promotion of an “other” and a manifestation of all the qualities that the West deems as bad. In American Sniper, this ideology is apparent as immense amounts of violence is glorified against Middle Easterners and made into entertainment. This violence is “justified” as Hollywood portrays Middle Easterners as villains and threats to the American way of life. The viewer is meant to fall for the historically fantastical concept that all Middle Easterners are terrorists threatening American security, while the American military men loaded with guns and shooting down hundreds of Iraqi citizens are seen as patriots and heroes. This is clear when Chris dismisses his companion’s doubts about the war by saying that they are patriots who are protecting their country. In reality, the so-called “patriots” have fallen for an ideology that associates all the problems of America with the Middle East, a distraction to the real internal issues that our society suffers from. 

Issues of discrimination and “othering” in our society are not only rooted in political institutions but also in the culture and the art that we consume. Perhaps, a new movement needs to emerge in which visual culture and art no longer perpetuate discriminatory ideologies such as Orientalism but are made to represent the complex realities of people’s diversity beyond their attributed stereotypes. 

Image Credit: El Tecolote. The image represents a use of art to depict the Islamophobia present in the U.S. and the violence used in response to it. 

1 Said, Edward W. Orientalism. First ed., Pantheon Books, 1978.