By Jukka Jouhki
In the mid-1980s, Finland was geopolitically tightroping between the socialist East and the capitalist West, but its popular culture had already been won by the West. Or, more specifically, by Hollywood.
Like most of my friends, I was particularly mesmerized by Rambo in First Blood (1982), the quiet character trying to mind his own business, but forced to be reborn as a super soldier. If there was any anti-governmental critique in First Blood, it was non-existent in Rambo II (1985) in which Rambo had to face evil Russians and Vietnamese holding American POWs captive in the jungle.
Ten years ago, the Rambo film franchise got its fourth installment (Rambo 2008). The cold war had been over a long time ago, and Rambo had no geopolitical battle to fight. The plot of the film was described as following: ‘A group of Western human rights activists are imprisoned in Burma, and Rambo and his mercenaries set out to rescue them.’ It was definitely something a post cold war hero in the West would do.
A social scientist can find many ways to analyze Rambo as a symbol of his time(s). The movies are fruitful data for anyone interested, for example, in nationalism, Orientalism, corporeality, or masculinity in crisis – with a vengeance. But how warranted would it be to interpret Rambo as a representation of ‘Western society’?
For sure, Rambo’s fight against communists could be labeled as geopolitically Western as in being on the side of the capitalist West. Also, he is a citizen of the US, a country that can be said to be in the epicenter of the West – as Hollywood could be viewed as the center of Western popular culture.
On the other hand, Rambo as a character is quite universal. Rambo-esque lone heroes are fighting for justice in a morally dichotomic world in societies around the globe, not just in Western society. Sure, Rambo could be said to be Western, but is he exclusively Western? I would say not really.
But when we look at the above-mentioned synopsis of the last Rambo film, we see a faint but powerful hint of Rambo’s exclusive Westerness. Rambo is not just going to rescue human rights activists, but Western human rights activists. And we know Rambo likes to help ‘his people’. Perhaps more importantly, if we go into the basic collective function of language, the synopsis reconfirms that there is indeed a category of Western people.
Many would say a simple word like ‘Western’ in a film synopsis is not indicative of much. However, I would say it might even be vice versa. Perhaps, it is just this kind of banal, faint and almost undetectable utterances connoting a collective group of people that uphold any society, from villages and tribes to nations and even groups of nations like ‘the West’. As Michael Billig (1995) says, it is not the flag waved with fervent passion but ‘the flag unnoticed on the public building’ that makes banal nationalism which is more effective than explicit nationalism. And that’s perfectly fine – there’s no inherent problem in being nationalist, banally or otherwise.
However, the almost unnoticeably normal labeling of things ‘Western’ (e.g. Western people, Western food, Western clothes, Western fashion) when repeated and reminded of day in and day out, in movie synopses, news, journal articles, and casual talk, unify a heterogeneous aggregate of populations into an imagined community called ‘the West’ or ‘Western society’. Maybe this kind of banal Occidentalism is more efficient in reproducing an exclusive West than any impassioned propaganda for Western society. And exclusiveness means something or some people are left out.
The author is a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology at University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and the director of coordination group for The West Network. He has conducted research on banal occidentalism in media.