Masculinity, Movies And The War On Terror in Tv’s hit Show 24 – Sociology Research Paper
When Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow began working on their new TV series 24 in early 2001, they could have had little idea how relevant and topical this seemingly innocuous action-adventure programme would become. Days before the show’s scheduled premiere, the September 11th terrorist attacks changed the USA’s political landscape in an instant.
The show was immediately postponed (though only for a few days), and the initial episode was trimmed of the shot of a plane exploding in mid air , but the tragedy has hung over the show ever since (inevitably, given that the show centres around the fictional Los Angeles Counter Terrorism Unit in a country that has embarked on a ‘War On Terror’), and has undoubtedly informed the programme’s storylines and style, especially in the show’s second season, which explicitly parallels real-life events; the storyline revolves around a terrorist attack by Muslim fundamentalists and the appropriate(ness of) military response. This essay shall focus on the representations of masculinity, femininity and authority in 24, and how those representations appear to have been shaped by September 11th.
24’s central character, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has many obvious antecedents in American fiction. Perhaps his most obvious influence (perhaps even inspiration) is the character of Martin Riggs, played by Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon (1987), a character whom Jack Bauer particularly resembles in Season 2 of 24. Both share a military background, rising to high levels and performing “black ops”, marking them out as highly trained and extremely dangerous characters (both characters’ experience and military training are demonstrated chiefly through their proficiency with firearms and their unflinching attitude towards killing). Both now work in a more domestic capacity (as a police officer and a CTU agent), and both characters (by Season 2 of 24) have lost their wives.
Beyond this obvious precedent, however, Jack Bauer belongs to a long tradition of male action heroes who are willing to break the law in pursuit of the greater good – a tradition that can be traced back cinematically to the film noir heroes of the 1930s, and western heroes in the 1950s – tough and rugged men’s men, who are called upon to save a society which they do not necessarily conform to (e.g. Ethan Edwards [John Wayne] in The Searchers, or Sam Spade [Humphrey Bogart] in The Maltese Falcon). (In the context of 24 the society Bauer is unable to conform to is that of the espionage and law enforcement community: a closed society which follows a military command structure, where the ability to follow orders and play the political game is the most overwhelming requirement for success and promotion). Bauer is quickly shown to belong to this tradition of male action heroes in the first episode of 24, when he shoots his superior George Mason (Xander Berkeley) with a tranquilliser gun in order to blackmail George for information Bauer needs on the case. Indeed, Bauer’s disregard for authority and correct procedure often borders on the reckless, but he always breaks these rules in search of the greater good, never for his own personal gain, and in the first season much is made of Jack having made many enemies within CTU for reporting four corrupt agents. Once again, he breaks the rules and procedures of society (i.e. CTU) but never his own, personal code. Of course, Bauer is ultimately always proved correct, whilst his superiors almost invariably make the wrong move, forcing Bauer to work alone with minimal help from his colleagues at CTU. This of course serves the dramatic function of making Jack seem more heroic – going into a compound full of armed men with a SWAT team is a lot less courageous than going in alone.
The character of Bauer does differ from these precedents in one important way, however: whereas most of these rugged heroes are doomed by their inability to fit in with society to live solitary lives, Bauer is a family man, and it is the kidnapping of his wife and daughter in the first season of 24 which drives the first 12 episodes, as Bauer is coerced into helping the terrorists in order to save his wife and daughters’ lives. During the course of the first two seasons of the show Jack is often confronted with mirror images of himself – most notably Ira Gaines (Michael Massee). Both characters have a similar military background, both kill without compunction, but whilst Gaines is now a mercenary, Jack works for the federal government, and whilst Bauer is a family man, there is no reference at any point to even the possibility of Gaines having a wife or children. The similarities between the two characters help to reinforce both the importance of family to the show and Jack’s work for the government, whilst simultaneously highlighting just how dangerous and brutal Jack Bauer can be; the similarities could even be said to raise questions as to whether Bauer’s actions are always morally justified, especially in light of the events of the second season.
The second lead in 24 is Dennis Haysbert as Senator (and in Season 2, President) David Palmer. Whilst deeply different in many respects, Bauer and Palmer also have a great deal in common. Palmer is seen, like Bauer, to lack certain political skills (with a small ‘p’) – particularly the ability to compromise in order to promote his own agenda. Like Bauer he follows his own conscience and always does the right thing, rather than the most politically advantageous thing. Once again he does not entirely fit into the society around him (in this case the world of politics), and thus is at least partly also descended from the same tradition of men of honour in a dishonourable world that Bauer hails from. (Towards the end of season 2 Sherri Palmer makes the connection between the two men explicit: “You’re a very impressive man, Jack, but you see everything as either god or bad, just like David, and the world is so much more complicated than that.”) Palmer is also part of another, more recent tradition (perhaps even stereotype) in US cinema and television: that of the gruff but ultimately kindly and wise black man (e.g. Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact, Se7en and Bruce Almighty and James Earl Jones in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger).
In this context the show’s position on what it means to be ‘masculine’ is clear: a ‘real man’ follows his own moral code, not the conventions of the society around him – adhering to what is right is more important than politicking for personal gain and career advancement. However Jack and Palmer’s moral stance does not always go unquestioned, especially in season 2. “24 appreciates these complications [that Sherri mentions], even if it might wish Jack was right. It reveals dangers from within the US administration (emerging from corruption and ineptitude equally), from within the perfect Southern Californian family, from within those ‘corporate interests’ propped up by government policies. It also gives you a hero, but he’s mad about it.”
The concept of family is central to the first season of 24, as both Jack Bauer and David Palmer have to resolve issues within their families. Jack’s marriage is on shaky ground following him and his wife Teri’s recent separation, and Teri must in turn rebuild her relationship with her daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) who blames Teri for Teri and Jack’s marital difficulties. Similarly Senator Palmer must come to terms with the revelation that his entire family covered up his son’s involvement in the accidental death of the man who raped his daughter several years previously, and the increasing realisation that his wife Sherri (Penny Johnson-Jerald) cannot be trusted. The villains of the first season are also revealed in the final episodes to be a family – the Drazens – whose sisters’ deaths were caused by Bauer and Palmer in a ‘black op’ during the Kosovo war (the rightness of their actions in attempting to assassinate Victor Drazen are never questioned: the issue is dismissed as Palmer describes him as “a monster” who was involved in ethnic cleansing – this is a contrast with the show’s second season), and great pains are taken to point out the poor family background of Rick, Kim’s reluctant kidnapper who later helps Kim and Teri escape Gaines (when Kim asks him at one point about his mother replies “Not all women are meant to be mothers”). In the Palmer subplot all the problems begin with the family’s failure to be honest with each other (specifically with Sherri’s failure to tell her husband what happened), and with David Palmer’s failure to keep his work from infringing on his private life. Teri even makes the point explicit at one point, opining “Everything bad that has happened to us in the past few hours has been because we haven’t been together.” The moral is not hard to mistake: that the family is paramount to all other concerns (Jack even risks Palmer’s life to save his own family), and those without a supportive and positive family life are weakened by the lack – Palmer’s whole family suffers the repercussions of the cover up, Rick is an essentially good person who falls in with a bad crowd due to his poor upbringing, and the Drazens are evil because a) their father was evil and b) Bauer and Palmer are responsible for the deaths of their sisters.
In light of this it is worth examining the role of women in the first season of 24. With one exception (Roberta Green, who impedes Jack’s investigation not through treachery but through mismanagement and her dogmatic approach to her work) all the female characters in the first season fall into one of two categories: they are either damsels in distress, in need of rescue by the heroic men (i.e. Jack Bauer), or they are duplicitous and untrustworthy. The most obvious examples of female characters who require rescuing are Teri and Kim, but others include Janet York (Kim’s friend, who arranges the party where Kim is ultimately kidnapped) and David Palmer’s daughter (whom Palmer feels he must protect from the allegations regarding his son and thus prevent her having to revisit the memory of her rape). Even more worryingly, duplicitous women are as prevalent as helpless ones. Jamie Farrell (CTU’s computer programmer) is revealed to be in league with Ira Gaines; Nina ultimately is revealed to be a traitor and kills Teri; Sherri Palmer lies repeatedly to her husband and goes behind his back often enough that over the course of just 24 hours she destroys their entire marriage. Even Jamie Farrell’s mother knows more than she is at first willing to let on, having been the recipient of the money Jamie received from Gaines. Even Gaines has trouble with untrustworthy women when one of his employees tries to blackmail him for more money. Admittedly these roles are not absolutes: Teri and Kim show resilience and resourcefulness in aiding Jack find them when they have been kidnapped, but ultimately they still just wait around for Jack to rescue them. Similarly, Sherri truly believes she is doing the right thing for her family, and Jamie Farrell still elicits sympathy despite being a traitor.
The most worrying aspect of this stereotyping is how often the duplicitousness of the female characters is conflated with sexuality. Nina is coded as a threat from the very beginning of the series – not as a potential traitor (after the first three episodes great pains are taken by the writers to convince the audience that she is a heroic character, to the extent that her final unmasking in the penultimate episode of season one makes no sense) – but as a threat to Jack’s marriage. We are told early on that Jack had a brief affair with Nina whilst he was separated from Teri, and reminders of this point are scattered throughout the season (CTU officials trying to persuade her to give away Jack’s location mock her for being in love with someone who doesn’t love her, and Teri ends Nina’s debriefing when she realises it was Nina whom Jack had the affair with). Thus tension is present in her relationship with Jack the entire time. Indeed, any deviation from sex within a marriage is seemingly punished, or coded as a threat. Gaines’ troublesome employee is a lesbian; she is both untrustworthy and ultimately killed for her actions (the question must be asked whether in the meta-narrative she is truly punished for betraying Gaines – the villain of the piece – or for being a lesbian). Kim does not have sex with Rick when they first go on a date, and lives. Janet York does have sex with her date, and dies. One of Palmer’s campaign workers is having what is largely portrayed as a purely physical, casual relationship with a man who turns out to be one of the Drazen brothers, and she manages to straddle both the helpless victim and scheming seductress roles, as she agrees to help Jack get information on Alexis Drazen, but instead takes the opportunity to stab her lover. Even Sherri Palmer persuades David’s speech writer to attempt to seduce him so that she gain his confidence and report back to Sherri. The only characters who are allowed to have pre- or extra-marital sex and live are Jack Bauer and Mandy (Mia Kirshner), and both are punished by the death of their partner.
One of the most notable features of 24 is the recurring theme of trust and betrayal. Some critics have placed it as part of a new wave of television drama series which place as their central theme the question of whether governments and the people around us can be trusted. In the traditional police/action show “the police need togetherness to survive rather than utility-maximising individualism” , though they have also traditionally held as a theme “the fate of the individual ‘under’ technologisation” . 24 subverts this notion of togetherness, as the people and colleagues Bauer turns to for help are frequently revealed to be traitors. Perhaps even more importantly, the upper echelons of the CTU command structure are inevitably shown to be more politicians than policemen. They hinder Jack’s investigations far more often than they help him, and are far more concerned with the letter of the law (and helping their own careers) than with hunting down criminals. In the second season the President’s cabinet even turns on him and removes him from office. This mistrust of authority is an increasingly common theme in television drama series, particularly in the US, and can be traced back to the X-Files . More recently Alias (which premiered within weeks of 24) has based its entire series’ concept on the concept of trust, with even the lead character being a double agent.
In the final episode of season one Jack is told (erroneously) by Nina that Kim has been killed. With no thought to his own safety he attacks the Drazens single-handedly and kills all of them, before finally murdering an unarmed Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper), the father of the family. This extreme violence is justified within the context of the episode as he believes his daughter has been murdered, but he spends the entire second season in the same vicious mood. At the beginning of season two Jack is still grieving the death of his wife – he is angry and embittered, and much more violent. In the very first episode of the second season Jack murders a suspect in cold blood, then cuts off his head with a hacksaw. The reactions of the characters around him (particularly George Mason, played by Xander Berkely) help to guide the audience’s reaction: although they ultimately accept Jack’s actions as necessary in light of the massive threat facing the city, they are still deeply uncomfortable with them, and references are made to this incident throughout much of the second season. After all, the good guys aren’t supposed to murder people. Throughout the season Bauer is far more brutal than in the first, and kills far more people – in the first season when Jack rescues Teri and Kim from Gaines’ compound, Jack uses his machine gun for covering fire. Throughout the second season, Jack shoots to kill.
It is hard in this context not to see Bauer in the second season as representing the US as a whole – just as Jack is grieving his wife’s death, and is angry at the world for that, similarly the US was (and in many respects still is) grieving the victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001, and is angry at the world for that. Although Jack’s actions, as the show’s hero, are only occasionally implicitly questioned (do the ends justify the means?), the show, later in its second season, much more explicitly criticises US foreign policy, as the focus of the storyline shifts away from finding the nuclear bomb, and towards preventing the US from starting a war with three countries who may be innocent (it is this issue which causes the hawks in Palmer’s administration to relieve him of his presidency). As Kiefer Sutherland says on his DVD commentary track: “Our show is about preventing a war; our country, unfortunately, is currently at war [with Iraq].” In this situation it is also interesting that the threat from within the government ranks comes not from traitors (though a couple are revealed within the White House early on in the season), but from honest people who genuinely believe they are doing the right thing. In these parameters the issue of trust moves from a personal to a national dimension: the question is not whether the people around the hero will betray him, but whether our leaders can be trusted to be capable of carrying out the task which they have been given.
In its second season women are also far better represented: Michelle Dessler at CTU is an aid to Jack and acts heroically in defying her orders to do so. Similarly Kate Warner (who begins as an innocent bystander) withstands torture and later faces her torturer. Jack later sends her to rescue Kim as the only person he can trust.
Bizarrely it would seem that as the US moved to the right politically, 24 moved to the left. The first season revolves around the theme of family, which is elevated through the stakes of the narrative to a level of life-or-death importance. Women are either helpless victims in need of rescuing, or deceitful and scheming (often posing a threat not just explicitly within the narrative, but implicitly to the family stability of either Jack Bauer or David Palmer), and the threat from within the government comes largely from these duplicitous women, who are traitors seeking only financial reward (when the threat is not these traitors it comes from petty self-serving bureaucrats who lack the courage to break the rules as Jack does: thus for following the rules these people are demonised). In its second season the focus shifts away from the closed domestic world to the international arena, and whilst Jack becomes ever more violent, even trigger-happy, the show itself calls for peace (even to the extent of implicitly questioning its heroes’ actions), and for governments (specifically the US government) to resort to war less readily than they currently do.
*Due to the fact that 24 is a relatively new show (less than three years old) there is very little critical writing available on the programme.
“TV drama says ‘Trust No-One’” by Amanda Cuda at www.uselessknowledge.com/opeds/article87.html
“Action Series” by Toby Miller – The Television Genre Book, ed. by Glen Creeber, St Edmundsberry Press, Suffolk, BFI publishing 2001, p.18