Stars Earn Stripes (and Shame)

What does it mean to “honor” the men and women who serve in the United States Armed Forces? Does it mean that elected officials act responsibly and only with the most accurate intelligence when making decisions to engage in war? Does it mean providing American troops with the best equipment and technology to enable their success and safety? Does it mean caring for veterans when they return home by providing comprehensive health care and opportunities for employment?

Although the above questions might prompt obvious answers, it is all too often the case that the material conditions of “the troops” are subordinated to the symbolic rituals of “support” that are commonplace in American culture. This is especially true of popular culture, where celebrations of militarism enable the individual members of the U.S. Armed Forces to be used as props in the mediated production of empty patriotism. Even as the United States has declared the war in Iraq to be over and offered a timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Americans are consistently called upon to give thanks and praise to the military. Nowhere is this discourse more prominent than it is in sport

Sport has long been the stage for fanning the flames of nationalism in times of war: the origin of the national anthem ritual at sporting events dates back to Major League Baseball’s decision to play the “Star Spangled Banner” prior to every game in the aftermath of the United States’ entry into World War II; the now ubiquitous Air Force flyovers were legitimized at the height of the Vietnam War prior to the kickoff in Super Bowl II, played in 1968; today, an endless list of “support the troops” and “military appreciation days” are bolstered by military sponsorships, military charity tie-ins, on-field coin tosses and enlistment ceremonies conducted by military personnel, and ritualized performances of patriotic songs and flyovers.

The logic of these rituals and tributes is simple: the more we celebrate “the troops” for their heroism and sacrifice, the less we question whether or not they should have been at war in the first place. Given the spectatorial positioning of audiences for sporting events—for those watching on television as well as those who attend the games live—sport is an especially persuasive metaphor for the impassioned nationalism that too often passes for citizenship. Moreover, sport’s constitutive effects allow militaristic displays to foster in audiences powerful identifications not only with the members of the Armed Forces but also with the performative ethos of “playing war.”

This phenomenon is especially present within “extreme sports” (or “lifestyle sports”), which situate viewers and participants in a discourse of adventure and risk that offers the “rush” of what we could term a “battlefield playground.”  The thrill-seeking characteristic of extreme sports certainly applies to the recent reality-based television program, Stars Earn Stripes,a creation of TV producers Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice) and Dick Wolf (Miami Vice, Law & Order). The show pairs “celebrities”—a term stretched to its definitional limits, given the participation of people such as Eve Torres and Todd Palin—with military and law enforcement trainers who compete in “challenges” in order to win money for military-based charities.

Sport provides a context for the show in various ways, including the NBC marketing blitz that promoted it in the late stages of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, as well as the participation of athletes such as Laila Ali, Eve Torres, Picabo Street, and Terry Crews. Most importantly, however, Stars Earn Stripes expands the parameters of the “battlefield playground,” promising audiences an authentic taste of “real” combat. In the words of celebrity participant Dean Cain, “We go on real missions, we receive real training, we go with real live fire.

As is obvious from this promotional video, NBC has gone to lengths to convince viewers of just how real Stars Earn Stripes is. From the simulations of training exercises, to the inclusions of Navy Seals, Green Berets, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark as one of the hosts, to the repeated references to danger and live ammunition, the show would have its audience believe these minor celebrities were being prepared to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan themselves. The most troubling aspect of this production, however, and it is something that scholars have lamented at least since the Persian Gulf War—the “video game war”—of the early 1990s, is that all of the claims to reality mask the ways that Stars Earn Stripes is far from real. The “challenges” are carefully staged and the participants know mostly what to expect; the ammunition may be real, but the targets are not; and, most critically, although someone might experience an injury during these exercises, they are not confronting matters of life and death.

All of this, then, means that Stars Earn Stripes is little more than a glorified video game/recruitment commercial. As the “stars” make clear in this video, this is precisely how they understand their experience. Olympic skier Picabo Street, for example, enthusiastically declares, “I wanna shoot something and have it go boom!” Wrestler Eve Torres suggests the show is “kinda like a real-life action movie or video game.” And boxer Laila Ali boasts, “I’m gonna be livin’ out, you know, a little fantasy of being, like, a warrior princess.” Thus, even as Dick Wolf claims that the show is “really a love song toward the people who keep us safe,” Stars Earn Stripes is actually a valorization of war as a game, something in American culture that exists to entertain and excite us, something through which we may fulfill our fantasies.

It is somewhat encouraging that Stars Earn Stripes has been seen by many for what it is: a crass commercial grab for patriotic imagery with the conflation of sport and war serving as a backdrop.  Veterans have expressed doubts about the show’s virtues.  Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert lampooned it for its audacious claim to being “real.” And most damning, nine Nobel Peace Laureates wrote an open letter to NBC demanding that the show be canceled, noting, “Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People—military and civilians—die in ways that are anything but entertaining.” Despite these criticisms (and others), Stars Earn Stripes was enthusiastically supported by NBC. Much like other contemporary iterations of militarism, the illusion that a war-themed reality television show can “honor” and “support” the nation’s troops is persuasively buried beneath the visual landslide of American flags, muscular helicopters, and breathtaking explosions. Meanwhile, American military operations continue through the remnants of what was the “war on terror,” and millions of lives have been irrevocably altered or lost altogether because of the service that has been required of the U.S. Armed Forces in the past decade. Through the example of Stars Earn Stripes, rather than focus on the human costs of war and the material conditions of military personnel, the culture of militarism is reaffirmed and even extended. In the end, this honors none of us, but shames us all.

About Michael Butterworth

Michael L. Butterworth (Ph.D., Indiana University) is Associate Professor and Director of the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. His research examines the relationships between rhetoric, democracy, and sport. He is the author of Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity during the War on Terror, co-author (with Andrew Billings and Paul Turman) of Communication and Sport: Surveying the Field, and author of articles in journals such as Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Communication, Culture & Critique, Critical Studies in Media Communication, the Journal of Communication, the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, and the Quarterly Journal of Speech. He also serves as the founding Executive Director of the International Association for Communication and Sport.

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