The American Flag Stars and Stripes

For this assignment, the trope I have chosen to discuss is the “American flag/ Stars and Stripes” motif. The symbol of the American flag certainly carries a lot of baggage with it, considering both the roles that the nation currently plays and has historically played in global affairs, as well as the near-constant political turmoil within the country itself. Though the image of this flag will definitely provoke different reactions from different people with varying political leanings and personal histories, it’s safe to say that it is culturally understood by many to represent the attitudes of American nationalism. The thing is displayed all over the place in the US, not only on or outside of public and government buildings but often voluntarily on private residences as well, speaking to the nearly religious dedication many Americans have for the icon. A flag is also displayed in pretty much every K-12 classroom across the country, where students begin the day by putting their hands over their hearts and pledging their allegiance to the flag and the country, which, while not technically mandatory, is definitely drilled into student’s minds and daily routines over their years in school, and often socially enforced pretty heavily by some students and teachers as well as through peer pressure. That’s a bit of a tangent, but I feel like it is a strong example for how much of a loaded subject the symbol of the American flag is. And that’s without getting into any of the reactions people have to flag desecration and burning in protest of American government policies. Anyway, on to the trope examples!


Example 1:

Comic: Captain America Issue #1 (1941)

Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon

Captain America is a really interesting character to discuss, as he has been around since basically forever (well, 1941), and over his long history has seen a great many changes to his motivations, ideals, and character in general, usually always reflective of the times in which the comics are published. In this very first appearance of Cap, we can see him taking the fight to fascism, delivering a superhuman punch directly to the face of Adolf Hitler. It’s not subtle in the slightest, and I kind of love it for that. This comic was published a year before the US would enter World War 2 by Timely Comics, which would eventually evolve to become Marvel Comics by the 1960’s. When the first issue came out, some Americans were very opposed to what Captain America stood for, and the creators received a lot of threatening letters and hate mail.

The usage of the Stars and Stripes trope in the design of the character’s costume, at least in the beginning, was certainly meant to evoke some sort of sense of pride in the country for the 1940’s audience. He represented the idealized vision of America’s ideals as seen by many citizens of the country, as well as the government itself. After World War 2, his character saw some significant changes, becoming a tool of McCarthyism and the Red Scare as he pivoted to fight the country’s brand new boogeyman: communism. This version of the character didn’t last long and, in a move that I think is really funny, would be retconned to show that it was actually different people who had assumed the Captain America identity during that time period. When the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, was brought back in the 1960’s, his character would grow to become more complex as the majority of American’s attitudes towards the country became more complex. After the in-comic version of the Watergate scandal happened, he became doubtful about the “Captain America” identity and ended up abandoning it and his red white and blue costume to become a hero called Nomad, only re-assuming it after realizing that with the identity (and his Stars and Stripes costume) he could become a symbol of what he saw as American ideals, rather than its government. Lots of other stuff happened after that, but I’m not going to go through a full character biography. I just wanted to go through these changes to make a note of how the Stars and Stripes costume has accompanied a character (well, actually a lot of characters by this point) who has had drastically varying attitudes and motivations over time. While many citizens of the country today recognize that American ideals and the American Dream are essentially propaganda rather than a coherent or cohesive belief system, it is intriguing to see a character who has stood for that sort of notion since the 1940’s to sometimes become critical of the government that he and his Stars-and-Stripes-trope costume represent.


(I typed way more than I was expecting for this first example, so I apologize that the discussion of the remaining two trope examples will be a bit shorter than this one.)


Example 2:

Poster: In God We Trust (2001)

Created by the American Family Association

Following 9/11, these framed 11 by 14 inch posters were distributed to school systems across the nation by the American Family Association, and posted in the classrooms, libraries, and cafeterias of many public schools. Over a background of the waving American flag, the poster features large yellowish letters spelling out the phrase “In God We Trust”, with smaller blue text beneath it reading “The national motto of the United States of America, Adopted by Congress July 30, 1956”. In addition to providing the posters, the American Family Association also promised to defend any legal challenges that could stem from the posters being displayed in public schools.

The American Family Association is officially classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Just thought I’d mention that. Since their founding in 1977, they have campaigned against LGBT rights and reproductive rights among other things, and are basically opposed to the mere existence of any religion besides Christianity existing in the United States. While I’m not surprised, I do still find it mind-boggling that an organization so well known for their hate speech and propaganda managed to get their posters into so many public schools.

Because of the organization they came from, the intentions behind these posters is pretty clear: to uncritically display and further engrain the very Christian phrase “In God We Trust” (which itself has seen a fair amount of criticism and controversies) into American society, and to promote the Star Spangled Banner as a patriotic icon, in order to help normalize and encourage blind American nationalism in young students. This was the period of time right after 9/11, when the country saw a significant swell in reactionary politics, warmongering, and hate crimes against Muslim citizens.



Example 3:

Magazine: TIME Magazine, August 30, 2010

In this TIME magazine from 2010, the cover story is about Islamophobia in America, and discusses the various ways in which Islamophobia is normalized and shows itself in American society and policy, speaking as well about the opposition faced by at least 6 mosque projects throughout the country at the time of writing. The cover utilizes the trope of the American flag by combining it with another iconic symbol, the star and crescent recognized by many to represent Islam. This imagery in tandem with the title above it are certainly intentionally provocative, likely to draw in more readers for the issue. Presenting the topic as a conversation probably made the story more likely to be picked up and read by those who would deny that Islamophobia is a problem and who would have otherwise dismissed the magazine as wrong, had it definitively stated on the cover that America is Islamophobic. And who knows, maybe reading the story might have even changed their mind by teaching them about the issue. But I am a little put off by how the title on the cover is posed as a question, because while the article itself asserts that Islamophobia is in fact extremely prevalent in American culture, the presence of a question mark kind of gives a little wiggle room for doubt or deniers that I don’t think should be there and works against the point that is being made.