One College Student's Analysis on Representation in the Film American Sniper

05/26/2015 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016


In this day and age, many people are constantly exposed to all sorts of media texts, television series, films, music videos, social media, news and radio programs, etc., and are surrounded with images that help shape the way they view different groups of people. The way facts are presented shape our perception of others and negatively affect our perception and opinion of a group of people. In The Media Student's Book, Gill Branston and Roy Stafford state "the term [representation] has the capacity to suggest that some media re-present, over and over again, certain images, stories, situations. This can make them seem 'natural' or familiar--and there by marginalize or even exclude other images, making those unfamiliar or even threatening" (Branston, Stafford, 2006, pg. 106.) In American Sniper, the representation, and resulting conflation, of Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Eastern and North African (MENAS) communities were framed in a way that all were seen to be the "enemy" of the United States of America. With the use of Eurocentric discourse, common stereotypes, and tropes of empire, American Sniper delivers a very harmful, and racist, portrayal of MENAS, Arab and Muslim populations hidden behind hypnotizing scenes of American patriotism.

American Sniper loosely follows the autobiography of Chris Kyle; a United States Navy SEAL and the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history with 160 confirmed kills. In the telling of Chris Kyle's four tours in Iraq during his involvement with the U.S. SEALS, the viewers witness Chris Kyle's kills and mini-war with a local man that goes by the name of 'The Butcher', his sniper, Mustapha, and his seemingly never ending supply of male bodies to help him achieve his goal of killing as many Americans as possible while dominating and terrorizing the indigenous population in an effort to resist the Americans.

American Sniper is delivered with Eurocentric discourse that frames the United States to be benevolent and Iraq to be barbaric, resulting in a continuation of harmful and racist portrayals of MENAS, Arab, and Muslim populations. Eurocentric discourse, as defined by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam in their book Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media:

"...projects a linear historical trajectory leading from classical Greece (constructed as "pure," "Western," and "democratic") to imperial Rome and then to the metropolitan capitals of Europe and the US....It renders history as a sequence of empires...In all cases, Europe, alone and unaided, is seen as the "motor" for progressive historical change: it invents class society, feudalism, capitalism, the industrial revolution...[Eurocentrism] attributes to the "West" an inherent progress toward democratic institutions.... [Eurocentrism] elides non-European democratic traditions, while obscuring the manipulations embedded in Western formal democracy and masking the West's part in subverting democracies abroad....[Eurocentrism] minimizes the West's oppressive practices by regarding them as contingent, accidental, exceptional. Colonialism, slave-trading, and imperialism are not seen as fundamental catalysts of the West's disproportionate power...[Eurocentrism] appropriates the cultural and material production of non-Europeans while denying both their achievements and its own appropriation, thus consolidating its sense of self and glorifying its own cultural anthropophagy....In sum, Eurocentrism sanitizes Western history while patronizing and even demonizing the non-West; it thinks of itself in terms of its noblest achievements-science, prograss, humanism-but of the non-West in terms of its deficiencies, real or imagined" (Shohat, Stam, 1994, pg. 2-3.)

This sanitization of Western history and patronization and demonization of the non-West, and specifically Iraq, was extremely prevalent throughout the entire film. It paints a very black and white depiction of the Iraq War; an "us" versus "them," "good" versus "evil" binary. There is no context provided for the war, but a scene from 9/11 of the World Trade Center collapsing being shown on the television. The scene is right before Chris Kyle deploys for his first tour, implying that 9/11 and the Iraq War had a cause-and-effect relationship; many individuals who are educated on current events know that the attack on 9/11 didn't have anything to do with Iraq. In fact, many would argue that the U.S. went to Iraq based on the lie of Saddam Hussein developing weapons of mass destruction, something later exposed to be completely false. The film's exclusion of the United States' faults with its involvement in Iraq makes it seem as if the suffering of the Iraqi people is justified and a necessary means to protect those in the United States. A point made clear in American Sniper was the "danger and evil" that awaited those who went to Iraq. In a scene where Chris Kyle speaks with one of his higher-ups, he's told: "This city has been evacuated. Any military age male who is still here is here to kill you" (American Sniper, 2014). This choice in script completely ignores the civilians who have chosen to not leave their home or were physically or financially unable to do so, and attempts to justify the home invasions by U.S. Soldiers into any home. In a scene where we watch Chris Kyle and his men break into a building, they immediately find a family consisting of two parents, and children. The father of the family is immediately beaten and shoved by Chris Kyle and screamed at that 'This is a f*cking military zone. You shouldn't be here.' The man's response was clear: "This is my home. I stay" (American Sniper, 2014.)

When one of Chris Kyle's fellow SEALs, Mark, was killed, Chris Kyle and his wife attended the funeral where Mark's mother read the last letter that he wrote home:

" Mother (at funeral): '...Glory, something some men chase and others find themselves stumbling upon, but not expecting to find...My question is when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade or an unjustified means by which consumes one completely. I've seen war and I've seen death'
Taya (in car on the way home from funeral): 'Chris, I want to know what you thought of his letter...?'
Chris Kyle: '(Begins to describe the ambush where Mark was killed)...But [the ambush] that's not what killed him. That letter did. That letter killed Mark. He let go and he paid the price for it" (American Sniper, 2014.)

Chris Kyle asserts here that Mark died because he dared to doubt the nobility of what the United States was doing in Iraq. Mark even pondering that what the United States was doing was "a wrongful crusade" or "unjustified means" was justification enough for his death, according to Chris Kyle. For a movie that glorifies Chris Kyle and his life, one is expected to take his word as that of a truly patriotic and loyal American; this furthers the Eurocentric discourse that those who stand with the West will not fall, and those who doubt it or sympathize with the MENAS, Arab, and Muslim populations, the "Others," will.

Many different tropes of empire were used in American Sniper that further propagate the racist and harmful portrayal of MENAS, Arab, and Muslim populations that have existed for the last 100 years of film. Tropes of Empire are repeated storylines and themes that informally support Eurocentrism, colonialism, and imperialism.

"Within colonialist discourse, metaphors, tropes, and allegorical motifs played a constitutive role in "figuring" European superiority. For Hayden White, troping is "the soul of discourse," the mechanism without which discourse "cannot do its work or achieve its ends." Although tropes can be repressive, a defense mechanism against literal meaning, they also constitute an arena of contestation; each is open to perpetuation, reject, or subversion. The idea of race, for example, can be seen as less a reality than a trope; a trope, as Henry Louis Gates Jr has pointed out, of difference" (Shohat, Stam, 1994, pg 137.)

In American Sniper, the following tropes are present: animalization, infantilization, naturalization, savage war, and terrorist threat. Animalization is when "the Other is narrated as an unrestrained wild beast, as savages who cannot constrain their animalistic impulses, and whose living conditions also reflect those of an animal" (Alsultany, 2015, pg. 6.) In the case of American Sniper, the "Other" is the Iraqis. The animalization of the "Other" begins in the very first scene with a mother and her son.

Chris Kyle: "I got a woman and a kid about 200 yards out moving towards the convoy. Her arms aren't swinging. She's carrying something. She's got a grenade...she's handing it to the kid." (Kid holds RKG and runs towards the envoy) (American Sniper, 2014.)

Immediately after this scene where Chris Kyle is holding his sniper pointing towards the son, we get a flashback to Chris Kyle shooting his first deer; creating a direct parallel to the young boy and the animal. When the viewer returns from the flashback, one hears Chris Kyle shoot the boy.

"Other sniper with Chris Kyle: 'F*ck, that was gnarly.'
(Mom doesn't even mourn the loss of her child, solely focused on grabbing the RKG and tries to throw it towards the envoy. Chris Kyle shoots her and the mother is shown lying dead with her son.)
Other sniper with Chris Kyle: 'F*cking evil bitch.'
Chris Kyle: 'That was evil like I've never seen before.'" (American Sniper, 2014.)

Showing the mother failing to express any signs of sadness for her child, even for one fleeting moment, makes her seem like a mean, killing and unfeeling machine. This being the very first scene of the film sets the tone of the "barbarism" that reflects extremely poorly on MENAS, Arab, and Muslim populations. Another extreme scene created to illustrate the barbaric nature of the Iraqi Arab consists of 'The Butcher' using a drill, as his weapon of choice, to kill his victims. In a scene that shows "The Butcher' carrying out this horrific act, one watching American Sniper may feel the need to mute the film to avoid hearing an innocent child's screams drowned by the sound of a drill going into flesh and the wailing of the child's family.

Infantilization consists of "representations of the Other as embodying an earlier stage of human development, as childlike" (Alsultany, 2015, pg 6.) In American Sniper, the single Iraqi family we saw that wasn't involved with violence, was shown instead to be completely helpless with no means to defend themselves or "save" themselves. This further perpetuates the stereotype of MENAS, Arab, and Muslim populations needing to be saved by the Western world, and in this case, Iraqis needing to be saved by the United States.

Naturalization is "the reduction of the cultural to the biological, representing the Other as closer to nature and vegetation, rather than learned and cultural" (Alsultany, 2015, pg. 6.)

"Mark (a fellow comrade of Chris Kyle): 'I just want to believe what we're doing here.'
Chris Kyle: There's evil here. We've seen it.'
Mark: 'Yea, well, there's evil everywhere.'
Chris Kyle: 'You want these mother f*ckers to come to San Diego or New York. We're protecting more than just this dirt.'" (American Sniper, 2014.)

Referring to all of Iraq, and all of its people as "this dirt" screams of viewing the Iraqis as underdeveloped and closer to nature than civilization.

The trope 'Savage War' demonstrates "the belief that enemies are savages (based on blood or culture) who are incapable and opposed to progress and civilization, which means that in order for progress and civilization to exist, the Savages must be eliminated" (Alsultany, 2015, pg. 5.) Regardless of who within Iraq Chris Kyle and the other soldiers were talking about, they always referred to Iraqis as savages. This is very obvious when Chris Kyle and his friend are talking about wedding rings:

"Friend: 'I got the ring'
Chris Kyle: 'From here?'
Friend: 'F*ck yea, it's so much cheaper here.'
Chris Kyle: 'Dude, you bought it from savages. How do you know it's not blood
diamond?'" (American Sniper, 2014.)

Constantly referring to all Iraqis as savages reduces the "value of life" of the Iraqis and makes the many scenes of death in American Sniper justified.

The 'Terrorist Threat' trope "is one of the most common tropes in depicting the Middle East in Hollywood films. It involves representing Arabs or Muslims or Iranians as presenting a terrorist threat. They can be a threat to national security, a threat to the U.S. economy, or a threat to the lives of Americans. Often Islam is portrayed as a violent religion and the cause of terrorism are portrayed as rooted in Islam. Ultimately, Islam is seen as threatening" (Alsultany, 2015, pg. 5.) In the opening credits of American Sniper, one hears the Muslim prayer call overlapped with a thumping noise that continuously grows faster. This creates a feeling of tension, fear, etc. and as if "doom" is coming. Linking this feeling to when one hears the Muslim prayer call, therefore, trains one to feel fear when they hear it. It creates a negative feeling towards those who practice that faith, and who are mistaken, and often conflated, with practicing Islam. Also, Chris Kyle often tells his wife, Taya, that he does his job in order to protect her and his family. Protect from what? A threat. These tropes of empire generalized and paint a thick brush over the conflated members of MENAS, Arab and Muslim communities, and teaches those who are constantly exposed to these representations that members of those communities are inferior. This can potentially become the "common sense" approach to viewing these communities, and that's harmful:

"He [Gramsci] emphasized hegemony is a lived process, never simply imposed, or existing in ideas alone. The power of 'Common Sense' (rather than what he called 'good sense') comes from its relationship to day-to-day material practices, rituals and activities, as well as dominant ideas." (Branston, Stafford, 2006, pg. 189.)

Stereotypes of the commonly conflated, combined into one, MENAS, Arab and Muslim populations consist of the 'terrorists,' the 'oppressed women,' and being 'hateful towards America,' etc. Stereotyping "puts these at the center of the imaginary figure and then implies that all members of the group always have those step is to suggest that these characteristics are themselves the cause of the group's position" (Branston, Stafford, 2006, pg. 109.) In American Sniper, the only representation of anyone not from the United States was an unfavorable continuation of the common stereotypes of MENAS, Arab and Muslim populations. There is a moment in the film where Chris Kyle is shown in his post with his gun; in a span of about 2 minutes, one watches him kill 5 males, all wearing a kuffiyeh scarf, and all without their face showing. This essentialization leads to the perception and stereotype that those who wear the kuffiyeh are dangerous and a threat. In a scene where Chris Kyle demands that an Iraqi man tell him where 'The Butcher' stays regardless of the risk it brings to him or his family, the Iraqi man is immediately killed by 'The Butcher.' The following scene shows a large congregation of Iraqis angrily responding to his death and shouting "Allahu Akbar" and "Death to America" to Chris Kyle and his comrades. This is a scene common in the film and media of the individuals from that region, making the term "Allahu Akbar" seem threatening and dangerous. In reality, "Allahu Akbar" simply means 'God is Great' and would rarely, if ever, fit in the context of angrily shouting it alongside "Death to America." This representation further stirs the belief that those from the MENAS, Arab and Muslim populations hate America and, therefore, deserved the slaughter one so casually views in American Sniper.

In the case of American Sniper, it is important to note that the representation of individuals on film can directly impact the lives of those off.

While correlation does not imply causation, it makes you wonder the coincidental nature of the above statistic. Anyone with a sound mind would not describe the portrayal of MENAS, Arabs and Muslim communities in American Sniper as favorable or positive. The lack of diversity in representation, painting all members of the "Other" to be evil and barbaric, or as helpless and defeated, sets only two binaries that make it extremely easy for the viewer ignorant of the conflict to stand 100% alongside Chris Kyle and his loyalty to the United States of America and patriotism. In American Sniper, the use of tropes of empire to dehumanize and justify the actions of the West, the use of Eurocentric discourse to make the West appear civil and righteous in its actions, and the common stereotypes that were further perpetuated into the minds of those who've ever seen any film or television, created a harmful and racist representation of MENAS, Arab and Muslim communities disguised with the many scenes of blind and unquestionable patriotism from Chris Kyle and most of his comrades.

Alsultany, E. (2015.) Course Terms Reference Sheet.
Branston, G., & Stafford, R. (2006). The Media Student's Book: Chapter 6. (4th ed.). London: Routledge.
Branston, G., & Stafford, R. (2006). The Media Student's Book: Chapter 4. (4th ed.). London: Routledge.
Eastwood,C. Eastwood, C. 2014. American Sniper [Motion Picture]. United States of America.
Shohat, E., & Stam, R. (1994). Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the media. London: Routledge.