Captain Phillips and the Protectionist Scenario

Tom Hanks’ latest box office film, Captain Phillips, is making waves. According to one source, the film has already garnered $58 million in domestic ticket sales, and $63 million globally. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it recounts a story that played out in real life off the coast of Somalia in 2009, when a group of Somali pirates took Captain Richard Phillips and his ship – the Maersk Alabama – hostage in an attempt to hold him for ransom. These events were aired in real time on numerous mainstream American news outlets. In this post, David Mayeda contextualizes Captain Phillips’ narrative, explaining how it falls into a “protectionist scenario” that makes for typical Hollywood drama.

As Nathan Palmer pointed out way back in November of 2011, Hollywood has a way of recycling ideas such that viewers can consume moderately new ideas and easily digest them through familiar formulaic scripts. One of the dominant formulas that makes for a fiscally successful Hollywood action flick is that of the “protectionist scenario.” Carol Stabile notes that this scenario includes characters that fall into one of three categories (bullet points not in original text):

  • “the protected or victim (the person violated by the villain);
  • the threat or villain (the person who attacks the victim); and
  • the protector or hero (the person who protects or rescues the victim or promises such aid)” (p. 107).

We see the protectionist scenario play out in numerous forms of mainstream media; Captain Phillips is no exception. Even when the real Captain Richard Phillips was kidnapped in 2009 and held for ransom as the United States Navy Seals prepared their rescue mission, one could almost feel the protectionist scenario developing in real life. Captain Phillips was the victim, the Somali pirates the villains, and the American military the heroes. Hence, it is no surprise the story dominated mainstream news and was eventually reconstructed into Hollywood entertainment.

Though movie previews are very short and only provide a taste of the full film, the victim-villain-hero labels are blatantly apparent in the Captain Phillips trailer:

In fact, the Captain Phillips story may be more complex. Some may argue the Captain Phillips character also holds dimensions of heroism, and the Somali pirates, dimensions of victimization (see here). These nuances notwithstanding, the dominant protectionist scenario remains strong.

To this end, it is also important to recognize the oftentimes racialized and gendered ways that the protectionist scenario is presented in popular media. Take for instance the 2008 film Gran Torino, starring Clint Eastwood in which Eastwood’s Caucasian male character, Walt Kowalski (hero), saves the feminized Hmong family (victims), from the violently masculinized “Asian peril” Hmong gang members (villains) (see trailer, below):

A few other examples of the protectionist scenario in Hollywood film:

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Speed (1994)

Taken (2008)

Avatar (2009)

Although the above films are fictional, they still add to a dominant narrative. Furthermore, when media of any kind uses of the protectionist scenario, broader, complex histories are obscured. Our understanding of the full picture is limited and lends to severe bias. As explained by Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar in their 2005 article, “Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan,” the protectionist scenario was one way the mainstream American media justified its war in Afghanistan, by suggesting that the American military (hero) had to save Afghan women (victims) from the Taliban (male villains) – notice the racialized and gendered constructs at play.

Unfortunately, this simplistic mainstream media presentation not only glorified American militaristic intervention and erased Afghan women’s agency. It also glossed over the ways in which the United States provoked the war between the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan in 1979, trained future members of the Taliban despite their known patriarchal values, and abandoned Afghan communities after the Soviets pulled out, thereby allowing the Taliban to gain power.

Likewise the protectionist scenario centers focus on one aspect of Somali piracy, when in reality, the modern history of piracy off Somalia’s coast is quite complex, involving European freight ships taking advantage of Somalia’s fallen government in 1991. As described by Johann Hari, “In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.”

Given the macro forces involved in the broader scenario of Somali piracy, now consider how presentation through a limited protectionist scenario dilutes viewers’ knowledge of the full picture.

Dig deeper:

  1. Describe the protectionist scenario by identifying its key character-based categories, noting how these categories work together in mainstream media.
  2. Explain how the protectionist scenario minimizes viewers’ understanding of more complex story lines.
  3. Explain how protectionist scenarios can be gendered and racialized. For instance, explain why protectionist scenarios frequently feminize victims, masculinize heroes and villains in different ways, and simultaneously make heroes, victims, and villains come from particular racialized groups.
  4. Analyze a few more movies, television drams, or even examples in the news where you have noticed the protectionist scenario at play.

Photo via Wikicommons.