Content warning: this newsletter contains mentions of Islamophobia and transphobia.
Sometimes my book club really doesn’t like a book, but we can see its potential, so we spend two hours mocking the bad bits and proposing increasingly comprehensive rewrites that would have made it better/more interesting/smarter. We'll do this with literary fiction and YA novels about vampires alike (we are equal opportunity judgey people), and fair warning, I’m tempted to take exactly that approach with the most streamed movie on Netflix right now: Purple Hearts, a military romance about a super liberal aspiring singer with type 1 diabetes and the Republican soldier she fake-marries for his health benefits.
First, a quick synopsis: Cassie (Sofia Carson, Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, The Descendents), the aforementioned aspiring musician, works three jobs and still can’t afford to pay for her rent, groceries and insulin. One night, a group of marines about to ship out to Iraq come into the Oceanside, Calif., bar where she works, including her old friend Frankie and his friend Luke (Nicholas Galitzine, Cinderella, the upcoming Red, White and Royal Blue), who is moderately obnoxious—but in a cute way. Another soldier flirts with Cassie’s co-worker by mentioning his excellent military benefits, something she remembers when she runs out of insulin the next day and her insurance won’t pay for a refill. She ends up proposing a marriage of convenience to Luke, who’s convinced by the fact that the military increases a soldier’s housing and cost-of-living allowances if they’re married, and he could use the extra cash to pay off a massive debt to his former drug dealer. But when Luke is seriously injured in Iraq, the duo has to live together to keep up the pretence, and they realize their differences aren’t so insurmountable after all.
Fraud aside, it sounds like a perfectly serviceable romance. (Also, let’s be honest, unethical if not downright illegal things happen all the time in romance novels, and it’s rarely an issue.) Better yet, the leads are attractive people with excellent chemistry, it has lots of popular romance tropes—enemies to lovers, marriage of convenience, there’s only one bed, hurt/comfort—and that one song is catchy.
But what the trailer doesn’t mention is the not-so-romantic casual racism and misogyny that are embedded in the story. Turns out, this opposites-attract story is between the white-passing daughter of an undocumented mom who hangs BLM and Pride flags from her balcony and a third-generation marine who calls her a snowflake and a lib and unironically says things like “fake news.” So hot.
And it gets worse! After the couple’s last-minute wedding, they go out for dinner with Luke’s marine buddies, where one of them, Armando, makes a deeply problematic toast, saying, “this one is to life, love and hunting down some goddamn Arabs, baby!” When Cassie objects, he asks whether she’d prefer they “go over there and teach them pronouns” and Luke both-sides it, implying that Cassie calling out problematic language is just as bad as his friend saying racist, Islamophobic and transphobic shit.
But at least that moment is presented as negative; everyone else at the table seems uncomfortable, if disinclined to call Armando out for his comments, and the viewer is clearly supposed to see Cassie as the voice of reason. I’m more concerned with the way the movie presents the military in general. Spoiler alert: it’s basically propaganda. In the movie’s world, the military is a benevolent employer with diverse leadership and everyone’s best interest at heart (uh, not so much), while war itself is bloodless and neutered. Viewers know Luke and his peers are in Iraq—which they uniformly pronounce “eye-rack,” a nationalistic affectation that signals disdain for foreign people, places and cultures—but they’re never shown engaging in combat or doing anything that might complicate our understanding of them as ‘the good guys.’ In fact, they’re mostly shown walking down sandy streets to tense music.
Be sure that when you recommend Netflix’s Purple Hearts movie and point out all Booktok / Booktwt favorite tropes you don’t forget the racism 💕 military propaganda ❣️ as well as the misogyny 🥰🥰— me but beefing w/ fictional characters ⚯ (@Dapheynahreads) August 1, 2022
What’s more, despite his extremely serious injury, Luke seems to come out of his tour of duty mentally, emotionally and even physically unscathed (eventually); his injury happens in a fade-to-black moment, and his recovery is similarly uncomplicated. It’s challenging enough for a training montage, of course, but not so hard that he can’t go for a run within months of his return to American soil. He receives excellent treatment, including regular physiotherapy sessions and a service dog named Georgia, though there is no mention of how much these things cost, who’s paying for them, or how come they were so easy to access. There doesn’t even seem to be any lingering trauma due to almost getting blown up/the overall horrors of war, even though the National Alliance on Mental Illness says “11–20% of veterans experience PTSD in a given year—significantly higher than past-year estimates for the general population at less than 4%. Suicide rates of military service members and veterans are also at an all-time high, with deaths by suicide having increased by 25% during 2020.”
While the story was inherently pro-military, it became even more so after the U.S. Department of Defence got involved. According to director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum, they were allowed to film at Camp Pendleton for free; they just had to make sure the movie adhered to the military’s standards (an unsurprisingly common ask). “We did have to adjust a little bit of dialogue to show a more balanced depiction of the Marine Corps, because we had a couple of Marines [who are still in the movie] that weren't particularly educated and were making slurs,” she recently told Military.com. “So we balanced it out with a couple of the other characters.” Interestingly, the slurs were probably the most accurate part of the movie. A 2017 survey of U.S. troops found nearly one-third of Black U.S. military service members experienced racial discrimination, harassment or both, abuse that went largely unreported. And, as recently as 2021, the official United States Army website published a news article that pushed “Islamophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Iraqi and anti-Arab themes” and proselytized conversion to Christianity.
But perhaps the worst propaganda is Cassie herself. At the beginning of the movie, she’s an anti-war feminist, but as she and Luke Skype to keep up appearances, her stance softens. It would be one thing if she developed a more nuanced understanding of why someone might opt to join the military, including the fact that, for many young recruits, the only way they see to build a future for themselves is to serve. But instead, she buys into Luke’s nationalism and ‘protecting Americans’ freedom’ brainwashing, even writing a song with the lines, “And I hate the way I see words that I laughed at before/And I hate the way my thoughts aren't mine, now they're yours.” Um, yikes??? (There is also a truly cringeworthy scene where she signals her change of heart by hanging an American flag beside her BLM and Pride flags, which... 🙃)
Despite all of these red flags, this movie is all over my TikTok FYP. The #purplehearts hashtag alone has more than 715 million views on videos of Cassie singing, snippets of the most romantic moments and behind-the-scenes video of the actors being cute together. There are also thousands of tweets about how romantic their movie was—and comparatively few about any controversy. And you know what? Part of me gets it. There were things I enjoyed about this stupid movie, too! The snarky banter, taking care of one another and forehead kisses all very much worked for me, so I can appreciate the argument that we can enjoy things that aren’t perfectly aligned with our politics... to a certain extent, anyway. But at some point, it becomes necessary to unpack what it is we like about entertainment like this—and what we’re ignoring.
It is wild to me that Netflix’s most popular movie features a Latinx, diabetic main character, but her love interest is explicitly right-wing at a time when Republicans demonize immigration, pass laws that take away reproductive rights from anyone with a uterus and make price gouging diabetics a literal part of its platform. But what's even more bizarre is that thousands of young women on the internet just... don't see that as a problem.
I mean, sure, the whole point of romance novels and movies is fantasy. They’re a safe place to ‘experience’ power dynamics or situations that you might not actually want in real life, and that’s fun. But we shouldn’t forget that this genre has also done a lot of work to reinforce repressive social mores and normalize potentially problematic ideas about desirability. Think about older tropes, like Native American and sheikh romances, which exoticize racialized men and uphold racist stereotypes, or newer ones like billionaire and mafia romances, which glamorize manipulative behaviour and downplay misdeeds that would be terrible in real life, as if they’re simply obstacles to be overcome. And of course, military romances like Purple Hearts usually spend as much time quietly romanticizing war as they do on the love story between two characters.
The fantasy this movie sells is that you can find common ground with the hot guy who has different political views from you, but it doesn’t actually deliver. Cassie says and does seveal things that show she’s changed her mind about the military, while Luke… never re-evaluates what he thinks about anything except how hot she is.
In conclusion, Wedding Season is streaming now. Maybe watch that instead?
This excellent essay by Moira Donegan on Susan Faludi’s 1992 book, Backlash, which traced the rise of antifeminist movements in the 1980s, and what today’s feminists can take from it.
Grub Street’s hilariously blunt take on why you probably don’t want to date The Bear’s Carmy IRL.
The unsealed documents from the Depp v. Heard defamation trial, which do not reflect well on Johnny Depp at all.
Sydney Sweeney’s pity party PR strategy and why she should reconsider this approach.
This profile of reality TV show producer Elan Gale, who masterminded some of the Bachelor franchise’s most compelling (and problematic) seasons.
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