By Braised Pork Blog / Medium
The corporate media landscape has saturated our feeds with images of NATO allies as superheroes, science fiction and fantasy protagonists, and pop culture icons. NATO’s enemies are villainized as the primary antagonists of major fandoms. The indoctrinated masses therefore cannot break free from seeing the wars their country started as a game where you merely root for the right team. Distancing wars from geopolitical realities and likening them to cartoon characters and childrens’ stories invents a reality in which morality is undisputed and it’s always the good guys who have to win. In just the past two months, an explosion of such images has defined the liberal discourse and obfuscated the gruesome realities of the preventable, NATO-instigated conflict in Ukraine.
Some of the best examples involving our pop culture heroes
A cartoon saluting the efforts of Zelensky, an unnamed soldier, and a frontline health worker was widely shared by MCU and DC Comics fans.
Depicting Zelensky as the noblest of all, while implying that the soldier and health worker are on equal levels of reverence, erases the reality that Zelensky and most soldiers are engaged in the destruction of human life rather than rescue. It also ignores the fact that frontline health workers in capitalist countries are in such a dire situation because their governments had diverted their funding to the police and military instead of following science-based COVID prevention throughout the pandemic.
Never mind the blood-stained genocidal flag the original Captain America represents, nor his background of loyal service to the American Empire. Fans just want to admire some masterful artwork that repurposes an imperialist Cold War hero without bringing any pesky politics into it. Just let us have our fandom, ok?
To fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, it is indisputable that Zelensky must be Harry Potter and Putin must be Voldemort.
Even many fans who are already highly critical of Rowling’s transphobia, antisemitism, racism, and adamant support for neoliberal systems like the police, have fallen victim to the liberal curse of the Boy Who Lived.
Not to be outdone, Star Wars fans depict the Ukrainian armed forces as the Rebel Alliance and Russia as the Empire.
It does make sense on a certain level — Russia is a big country. Ukraine is a small country. That obviously makes Russia the Galactic Empire and Ukraine the Rebel Alliance. Simple, right? If only we knew that the US military has nearly 13 times the funding of the Russian military, that the US has more than 800 military bases in over 70 countries, or that the US spends more on its military than the next 11 highest military spenders combined…the red, white, and blue on those formiddable Star Destroyers might start to mean something different.
Fans who prefer Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien will find plenty to their taste as well. Tolkienites have likened Ukrainian forces to the hobbits of the Shire and the Russians to the orcs of Mordor.
The orcs of Mordor: an ugly, deformed, inherently evil race who eat raw flesh, enslave others and themselves, lack any form of moral agency, and mindlessly serve the machinations of Sauron to get the Ring that controls them all. Sounds just like the Russians!
The stars in America’s longest-running sitcom have also picked up the new hobby of Ukraine activism.
The majority of American adults grew up with these characters on TV, the big screen, and in their toy chests. How compelling must it feel to follow their example in 2022, just as they did in 1989? Beloved role models like the Simpsons, adorable hobbits, DC and Marvel superheroes, Star Wars protagonists, and students at Hogwarts have made a deep impression on millions of childhoods, shaping their identities and the cultural hegemony of the USA. Fictional heroes are such effective political messengers because fans unconditionally love and trust these characters as childhood friends.
The capitalists have fused commodity fetishism with pro-war propaganda, achieving two goals in one: they sell us a product that the fans love, while encouraging popular support of yet another devastating war that lines the pockets of the military industrial complex.
The real impact of these pop culture heroes and fandoms has been there all along. Repackaging fascist ideology into colorful, relatable, and consumable media is nothing new. While news media spreads propaganda about other countries disguised as nonfiction, the film industry arguably does it better, conditioning viewers to attach complex geopolitical issues to fictional characters who can easily be reduced to a battle of good versus evil. Pentagon-funded action movies depict fantastical and monstrous enemies to normalize violence towards them. With giant robots or giant aliens, viewers are never made to question their heroes’ brutality toward an unambiguously evil, inhuman enemy they can hate and kill without moral conflict. Linking US allies with a familiar face means the public will not suspect that once again, they are being manipulated to support a war.
The reduction of imperialist conflicts to pop culture worship extends to real-life stars as well. Pro-war propagandists didn’t miss a beat when two obscenely wealthy celebrities appeared to have a conflict on the stage of the Oscars.
Do the people who unquestioningly consume these images know that NATO has gone through five rounds of expansion since promising Putin that it would not expand anymore? Are they aware of the 8 years of bombardment suffered by the Donbas region at the hands of the US-backed Ukrainian forces, amounting in over 14,000 deaths so far? Pro-war propaganda tastes great when attached to our favorite celebrities and memes. The truth? A much harder pill to swallow.
Not even influencers and independent creators are immune. The White House briefed 30 top Tik Tok stars on producing a pro-US message, disguising it as a push to “combat misinformation” about the war. The propagandists in our government leverage the massive followings of these influencers to reach younger and more diverse audiences than the official messaging of the White House Press Secretary.
Depicting geopolitical allies as our favorite pop culture icons shuts down our ability to think critically about imperialism, the military industrial complex, and the global consequences of US-dominated capitalism. While western mainsteam media is fawning over Zelensky and comparing him to fantasy and sci-fi heroes, independent footage of horrific war crimes from Zelensky’s own forces expose a brutal reality. Romani people brutalized by Azov, a massacre in Bucha, and civilians being gunned down as they attempt to flee Mariupol — these images surely don’t belong in the glossy depictions of Zelensky as a Harry Potter or a Marvel hero.
Far more devastating conflicts in Yemen, Palestine, Syria, and Somalia have also gone largely ignored in the press, their refugees turned away or abused by the same countries accepting millions of Ukrainian refugees. Internationally, the conflict has led to increased tensions between former allies of the US, the imposition of sanctions on multiple countries set to cause worldwide shortages, and a general shift of peripheral nations toward closer relations with Russia and China. Indeed, the pro-Ukraine fervor that saturates the imperial core is not shared among countries in the Global South.
Not only does likening complex geopolitical conflicts and pro-US allies to fictional heroes generate approval for the current war, it also sets a precedent for future wars. Americans are no stranger to supporting their favorite action characters fighting alongside CIA-funded allies in distant corners of the world.
If Zelensky is defeated and the war crimes he committed become accepted as historical fact, will those images be redacted and revised the same way as Rambo’s end titles? Will the survivors of those atrocities hidden by the mainstream press finally get recognition and reparations?
What will we see next? Will the Mandalorian, the X-men, or Will Smith take up arms against the next enemy of the USA? If our fandom mentality tells us anything, they surely will. But if we start recognizing and resisting the attempts of the pop culture industry to indoctrinate us with a pro-war message, perhaps we won’t be so easily fooled next time.