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Where are We? The Misrepresentation of Military-Affiliated Individuals in Pop Culture

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

Fun fact: there are currently 1.3 million school-aged military kids in the United States. We're attending public school, private school, DODEA schools, etc. across the world, so you'd expect to see a little more of us represented in ads, movies, programs, TV shows, magazines, books, or the general news.

And yet, we are nowhere to be seen. When we are, it's during the solar eclipse on February 29th at 11:11. We are portrayed as the quirky kid who mysteriously moves into town and moves out once the storyline is no longer in need of a supporting character. The kid's father is a stiff general and the house rules are non-negotiable.

Now, as someone who has moved eleven times in fourteen years, I am not denying that moving is a big part of my life. But am I not more than a nomad? Do I not face more problems other than fitting into a new school? Does my dad only have a buzzcut and speak in monotone?

I think it's important to note that when I was doing research for this article, it was nearly impossible to find characters from any platform that were military kids. I originally wanted to talk about how military teens are represented in the media, but that seemed impossible.

Instead what I did come across were lists of military-affiliated characters from Disney, Marvel, and other big-name production companies. What I found is the perfect example of the stereotypical representation of the military in shows I know we have all found ourselves watching, but might not have noticed. Take a look:

*Quick Disclaimer: I am a very large fan of the movies and characters discussed below. I am writing to discuss the stereotypes these characters represent and not in any way trying to bash their writing, portrayal, or character itself. I am simply trying to raise awareness about the misrepresentation of military-affiliated characters in pop culture.

Captain America: The world's hero and WWII veteran portrayed by the ever-talented Chris Evans is as stiff a character as they come. Now, as a #teamcap person, I love Captain America. But please give me three other character traits of Cap that don't stem from his military background. Cap despises cursing as he is a perfect, cookie-cutter soldier. He is loyal and will risk his life for others. He doesn't bicker or joke all too often. Usually quiet and more reserved, Captain America is the poster image - literally - of the respectful, loyal, quiet soldier. And again, I love the impressive Captain America, but most of his character is simply being a soldier.

I understand that a large part of writing this character is his military background. But please explain to me why after many decades of living and time spent frozen, Cap hasn't developed more of a personality that deviates from his military bearing.

Bucky Barnes: Similar to Captain America, Bucky is a reserved, respectful, and loyal soldier. He's pretty much the dark angel version of the hero and is once again a perfect cookie-cutter soldier.

I am not going to pretend to be oblivious to the trauma many of these characters have gone through. Bucky literally had his head messed with. However, I still refuse to believe he is past the point of personality.

Captain Marvel: And what do we have here? Another Marvel military member. Captain Marvel, as wonderful as she is, is yet another quiet, serious, reserved military member. Even as her movie went about describing her back-story, it is still difficult to find specific character traits in the heroine that don't come from her military background.

The constant theme of military-affiliated characters only having traits that stem from their service implies that that is all they have: the military. No family, hobbies, pet peeves? No, the military is their entire identity.

Peggy Carter: Here is another military-affiliated Marvel character. I don't mean to beat a dead horse, but she is stern, serious, and loyal to her mission. Sounds just like a mainstream media military character if you ask me.

Fa Mulan: Growing up, one of my favorite movies was Mulan. The strong heroine fought for her country and family and saved China. But tell me about her character. From my light research and memory, she is dedicated to her mission, strong, and serious. Is she funny? I don't know. What's her favorite food? Who knows. Is she more sweet or sarcastic? I have no idea. All I know is that she is militaristic.

Li Shang: Mulan's love interest and follow comrade is - say it with me - strong, serious, and dedicated. As I have met many high ranking military members, I can tell you that most of them were very cheerful, welcoming, and kind. They cracked many smiles and seemed genuinely happy to meet me. Why is it that so many characters, like that of Li Shang, are stereotyped to be stone-faced and serious?

Lieutenant Dan: A character taken straight from my favorite movie, Forrest Gump, the character - who's name is quite literally from the military - once again lives up to the stereotype I discussed above. Lieutenant Dan is serious and stone-faced. While he is a little different from the characters above - he isn't from Disney - he still abides by the militarist stereotype.

Now I must admit, I don't watch much TV and most of the movies I watch are either Marvel-related or cheesy rom-coms. My knowledge of the world of TV and cinema is not exactly extensive enough to recall every military character I've watched.

Also, I understand and am fully aware these characters are not carbon copies of each other. Each character - or at least most of them - has a quirk of their own. My problem is that almost every character associated with the military has these same very evident and over-ruling characteristics: serious, reserved, and loyal.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these traits! Where I find a problem is that these characteristics are the only traits of far too many military-affiliated characters in pop culture.

The misrepresentation in the media is not always obvious until you look for it. And while this is not an issue I will paint a sign and take to the streets over, it is one I believe deserves a little attention.

When every movie, TV show, and book stereotypes characters who have served in the military as stone-faced, serious, loyal, and reserved, those who are uneducated on the military may be influenced by these traits. Their perception of the characters and their view of real-life military personnel will be affected, which I don't believe is fair.

My dad is a kind, goofy man who likes karaoke, cooking, and writing. He has two children, a wife, three pets, plays the cello, and likes to laugh. He is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army.

My uncle is a very sarcastic and funny man with two daughters and cooks one of the best salmon meals I've ever had. He is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army.

My great-grandfather loved to play bridge and read voraciously. He told great jokes and had a fiery temper. His daughter was the joy of his life as he was very good with kids and loved their company. But he was also a full bird Colonel in the U.S. Army.

Whenever I see military-affiliated characters in the books I read or shows I watch, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride. These are my people. These are America's people. But that warm feeling is shed almost as soon as I get a deeper glimpse into the character. It is saddening and irritating to watch a character with such great potential fall into the trap of misrepresentation. But what is perhaps even more irritating is the complete lack of representation for military teens. We are everywhere. We come in all shapes and sizes and from all different backgrounds. Our contributions to the country were not our choice, but have become our obligation. Our mothers and fathers are depicted as stern heroes. Where are we?


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