Purple Hearts Is A Sweet Escapist Story — But We Need To Talk About Its Representation Of America’s Presence In Iraq

Image courtesy of Netflix
There’s nothing I love more than a good rom-com to wind down with after a stressful work day. Seeing all my favourite literary tropes (enemies-to-lovers, fake relationship, slow burn – you get the gist) play out on the screen while I devour an ice cream is the antidote to a life that demands I am constantly ‘on’. 
This week, my movie of choice was Netflix’s current #1 flick, Purple Hearts, starring Sofia Carson as Cassie Salazar, an aspiring singer/diabetic in need of health insurance, and Nicholas Galitzine as Lance Corporal Luke Morrow, a marine with a shady past, who come together in a fake marriage in order to receive government benefits just days before he ships out to Iraq. 
I say ‘this week’ because I’ve basically watched the movie on repeat about a half dozen times, swooning over the bits where the lines between fake romance and real love become obviously blurred. 
Of course, the whole cute-man-in-uniform being respectful of a woman’s boundaries (“Is this OK?” he asks before they sleep together for the first time) and encouraging of her career (“She’s my new favourite artist…Let her be a rockstar first…Kids later!”, he says to prying relatives) intensifies said swooning. 
If this were the sum of the movie, then I’d totally rate it, because, in a genre that often plays into misogynistic tropes, it’s mostly a safe bet. The fact that it’s currently #1 in 93 countries around the world suggests others feel the same.
But there’s a confronting element to this movie that is getting very little attention among the film’s many fans, and as an Arab-Australian author and academic who has spent a significant part of her career advocating for positively diverse representations in Australian literature and entertainment, I can’t just let it slide. 
I am talking about its depiction of America’s military presence in Iraq, and its portrayal of US Marines risking their lives to ‘defend’ their country – a disturbing assertion that goes unchecked, given that we now know the Iraqi invasion was sold to the public based on stereotypes and unsubstantiated lore.
Case in point: Luke asks Cassie “How do you think the women in Iraq feel?”, despite the fact that America’s presence in Iraq had nothing to do with women. Although the invasion destabilised the country and partly contributed to the rise of ISIS, Luke so falsely and valiantly believes his corps are there to save Americans from terrorists, and the movie glosses over the fact that any remaining troops in the country are currently there to advise, train and support Iraqi security forces as they attempt to rebuild their nation. 
Cassie’s rebuttals offer ample opportunity to discuss the white saviour narrative and the glorification of military life with some nuance, but this is where the movie disappoints. Cassie and Luke don’t necessarily hash out their disagreements — on everything from gun laws to feminism to the treatment of illegal immigrants — because the movie is simultaneously focused on Cassie’s soaring singing career, but this means that viewers don’t get the opportunity to see the falsehoods in the war narrative challenged.
This is especially concerning when a soldier toasts his team with “Here’s to… hunting down some goddamn Arabs!” and Luke’s solution is to tell a justifiably angry Cassie to “sit down” rather than challenge the racism — interestingly, it’s also the only time in the movie where he exhibits misogyny, and it’s not surprising that it happens to be among his fellow marines.
What message does that send exactly? That we should not be questioning men in uniform because it’s “bullshit bravado”, or the narratives we are sold by our governments in their pursuit of war? 
I came of age at a time when there was an intense moral panic around Arab-Australians, which only intensified with Australia’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many people of my generation are still scarred by the 2005 Sydney hate rally known as the Cronulla Riots, and dozens of us have spent years unpacking the effects of this time on our sense of identity and the way we experienced life in Australia. 
The invasion of Iraq (and Afghanistan for that matter) had disastrous consequences that are still reverberating throughout the region, and failing to adequately represent the scenario is an insult to those whose lives were lost and irrevocably changed as a result. 
In letting this version of events go unchecked, the movie risks rewriting history, and those of us who lived through it have a duty to call it out. 
As an academic, I’m especially interested in the way that forms of entertainment — books and movies, for example — can demonise communities and perpetuate myths. Arabs around the world already endured this once, and should not have to sit through it again. 
As much as I found it a guilty pleasure, Purple Hearts should be watched through a more discerning lens, because it’s not just an escapist love story. It’s a reminder that war narratives should not be immune from criticism no matter how noble they might seem. It’s also a lesson that soldiers or not, we all have a role in saving the world, and letting characters get away with misogyny and racism on screen because there’s a budding relationship at stake doesn’t just undermine the reality of our past, but the potential for healing in our future.  
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!      

More from Movies