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.