Torture in Fiction: Captain America, The Winter Soldier
With its superb fight scenes and stand out performances by a
talented cast, this movie is a fan favourite and cornerstone of the Marvel
I don’t think you’re going to like what I have to say about
So I’m going to start with the little disclaimer I have for
this series as a quick reminder.
Once again I’m rating
the depiction and use of torture, not the movie itself. I’m trying to
take into account realism (regardless of fantasy or sci fi elements), presence
of any apologist arguments, stereotypes and the narrative treatment of victims
The relevant plot details are, well, most of the film. I’ll
try to be as brief as I can.
Steve Roger’s (aka Captain America) boss at SHIELD (Nick
Fury) is assassinated by a mysterious man known as ‘The Winter Soldier’. Before
dying Nick tells Steve that SHIELD itself has been compromised and gives him a
On refusing to hand over the usb Steve is attacked by a
large group of his former colleges in a lift.
He escapes and teams up with Natasha Romanov aka the Black
Widow. Together they discover that SHIELD has been infiltrated by Hydra, a Nazi
organisation who are particularly interested in SHIELD’s latest weapons project
which they could use to kill millions.
The Winter Soldier, a character who is heavily coded as
mentally ill, is ordered to assassinate them by Hydra.
Steve and Natasha track down a SHIELD/Hydra agent and
threaten him with death or grievous bodily harm unless he gives them
information. They get the information they want.
They clash with the Winter Soldier and during the scuffle he
is unmasked and revealed as Steve’s long lost wartime friend Bucky Barnes.
Steve, Natasha and their friend Sam are all captured by Hydra.
The audience is told that Bucky, apparently now a super-soldier,
was captured by Hydra, tortured and brainwashed. He has been their best
assassin for decades. A scene of his memory being ‘wiped’ follows with props
that are heavily reminiscent of ECT machines.
Steve, Natasha and Sam stage an assault on SHIELD HQ in an
effort to stop the launch of the new weapons. In the process Steve takes over
the comm system and announces Hydra’s plan to the entire base.
Two sympathetic characters are shown resisting Hydra demands
when threatened with death. One of them dies for his trouble.
Steve and Bucky fight until the last weapon is disarmed.
With the threat of civilian casualties gone Steve refuses to fight Bucky and
tries instead to appeal to his humanity, asking him to remember their
friendship. Bucky beats him unconscious but stops short of killing him.
I’m giving it 0/10
And well that really is the problem: with regards to torture
I cannot think of more than one good thing about this film. Usually I’d throw
the movie at least one point for a single good scene, but in this case I think
the scene is part of a larger entirely negative trend in the narrative.
The scene I’m thinking of is the attack on Steve in the
lift. About eight or nine people, all armed in various ways, attack Steve at
once. His arms are pinned by several people each while he’s repeatedly shocked
with a device a bit like a cattle prod. This basic set up is extremely true to
life for many cases of police brutality, although a Taser would have been a
more likely weapon.
Where to begin?
‘good’ character in this movie engages in torture.
Our heroes Steve, Sam and Natasha
torture a Hydra agent for information by threatening to kill him, then throwing
him off a building (Sam catches him before he falls to his death).
This is not just portrayed as good and reasonable but it is played
for laughs. The scene is used to extend a joke about Steve’s dating life.
The ‘bad guy’ they torture does not resist once they
have tortured him. This is extremely unlikely. The data we have at the moment
suggests that torture makes people far
more likely to resist.
This stands in contrast to the way ‘good’ characters act when threatened
with death or torture. The film consistently shows ‘good’ people resisting torture and ‘bad’ (or in
Bucky’s case mentally ill) people complying
under torture. This is not only wrong; it’s frankly sickening and perpetuates
extremely harmful stereotypes about victims and torture.
Brainwashing does not work and is a central, important
plot device in the film. The story simply does not work unless violence,
torture and pain can ‘force’ a victim to change sides.
Torture cannot change hearts and minds. It cannot force
someone to support or work for a cause they are strongly against.
does not work in the way the film suggests. Anything that could remove old,
strongly held memories, such as those of childhood or the victim’s name, would also have removed their memory of how to
drive a car, fight hand to hand, use a gun or virtually anything else Bucky
does in the film.
Even accounting for the sci-fi idea of removing specific memories, torture and pain
would not force a victim to comply with their captors. In fact it makes
resistance more likely. A Bucky Barnes
without the memory of his friends or the war would still almost certainly
resist Hydra simply because they caused him pain.
There has never been a recorded case of ECT machines
being used to torture. They have been
used as a form of abuse in some hospitals but they have never been used by
military or terrorist organisations such as Hydra. This is another inaccurate
stereotype: the idea that torture is ‘scientific’ or ‘high-tech’.
film assumes that a victim of systematic abuse over decades would be physically and mentally capable of complex
assassinations. Instead the sort of damage to both physical and mental health
this would inflict means that Bucky and Natasha should both be noticeably less capable than
their colleagues. Instead they are more capable than their colleagues,
implying that abuse made them ‘better’ at committing wanton acts of violence.
this film and other Marvel films state that Natasha has both suffered and
committed abuse, yet she shows no severe symptoms. This seems to be narratively
linked to the idea that she is ‘strong’. And I detest the notion that a basic,
bodily reaction to trauma makes victims weak.
I think the word for this movie’s use of torture is ‘dire’.
It’s not just consistently wrong.
It’s not just based around an impossible, trope laden
It’s not just running through a check list of every harmful
stereotype that regularly turns up in fiction.
The movie supports the notion that the torture of ‘bad
people’ does not ‘count’.
It shows ‘heroes’, particularly individuals that the
audience is supposed to think are morally above reproach, engaging in torture
and the plot supports and justifies
their doing so. It tells us that really ‘good’, ‘pure’ characters, such as the
titular hero, threaten ‘bad guys’ with torture and then stand back to watch
their friends do the torturing.
It shows victims (ie Bucky) as dangerous and violent and without other symptoms. It shows
torturers like Natasha as without
symptoms. It shows torture as a successful interrogation tactic and shows
torture fundamentally changing hearts and
Even accounting for sci-fi elements, the movie’s attitude to
and treatment of torture is consistently false, dangerous and fundamentally against the basic principles of human
Human rights are not for ‘good people’. They are for everyone.
Whatever their race, gender, creed, politics, or crime. Torture is never justified.
And for that reason this movie’s treatment of torture is
quite possibly the worst I’ve ever seen. It is a shining example of how much
torture apologia pervades popular culture.
On bearing witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructiveness of ableism
One of the most powerful things that we can do is to bear witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructive consequences of ableism. When we bear witness to our humanity and to the things that others do to us, it changes the conversation. Our stories are powerful.
Some people have the privilege of being largely untouched by ableism. (Or being untouched by a particular kind of ableism.) Most people who are privileged in this way are also unaware of how deeply marginalized disabled people are being harmed. (I’m using disability as the primary example here, but this actually applies to ever kind of marginalization.)
We are dehumanized, and a lot of people don’t notice that it’s happening. They’re taught to overlook our humanity, and a lot of what happens to us is hidden from them. When people learn how to notice, they often start caring.
Bearing witness to our humanity means making it impossible to discuss disability in the abstract. It means making people have to notice that when they talk about disability, they’re talking about *actual human beings*. We do things. Some of us have jobs. Some of us are artists. Some of us write. Some of us are married. Some of us are fans of TV shows. Some of us are experts in our fields. Some of us cook. All of us matter. Making people notice us as real human beings changes the conversation about disability.
Speaking out about the consequences of ableism also changes the conversation. When institution survivors bear witness to what happens in institutions, it becomes much more difficult for people to believe that institutionalization is good for disabled people. When people speak out about what authoritarian childhood therapy did to them, it’s harder to pretend that compliance training is harmless. When people speak out about electric shock, it is much harder to pretend that people who are tortured with electric shocks think that it makes their lives better.
When disabled people talk about what it is like to learn the name of their disability by eavesdropping and googling, some parents listen. Likewise, when disabled people talk about what it’s like to grow up without accurate language for ourselves, some parents come to understand the importance of talking to children about their disabilities.
Bearing witness also matters to other disabled people. We often learn to overlook our own humanity. We often learn to disregard the things that others have done to us. When other disabled people are unapologetically human, it’s easier to see ourselves as human. When other disabled people talk about the harm ableism does, it’s easier to remember that these things shouldn’t happen to us.
This doesn’t always work. When people with disabilities bear witness to our humanity and to what happens to us, we often get hostile responses. Even when some people are listening, there are usually also angry people who are not. Even when people are eventually willing to listen, they are often initially angry and mean. Those of us who talk about these things pay a price for doing so. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether this is a price they’re willing to pay in a given situation.
Your stories belong to you. Stories can be a powerful force for liberation, but you are not a liberation object. You are a person. You have the right to decide whether or not to tell your stories. If you choose to tell stories, you have the right to decide which stories to tell, how you want to tell them, and who you want to tell them to. (Including, whether or not you want to answer questions that people ask you.) You can also change your mind. Doing some advocacy work doesn’t make you an advocacy object, and it doesn’t strip you of the right to say no. No matter how politically or socially useful your stories are, they belong to you.
Phnom Penh. 1996. Tuol Sleng prison, now a museum. Photos of inmates executed by the Khmer Rouge.
The infamous Tuol Sleng prison, aka Security Prison 21 (S-21), was
one of at least 150 execution centres in the country
used by the Khmer Rouge regime when in power (1975-1979). Between 17,000 and about 20,000 people were imprisoned there; there are only seven known survivors.
Prisoners at Tuol Sleng were systematically tortured to obtain confessions of whatever crimes their captors desired. Routine torture methods included beatings, electric shocks, searing of hot metal instruments, hanging, lacerations with knives, suffocation with plastic bags, pulling out of fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, and waterboarding. The “medical unit” at Tuol Sleng also performed medical experiments on some prisoners; test subjects would be sliced open and their organs would be removed with no anaesthetic; others would be attached to intravenous pumps drained of every drop of blood to see how long they could survive. Flaying was reserved to the most difficult prisoners. After captors were satisfied with the confessions obtained, prisoners would usually be transported to
Choeung Ek, one of the most infamous killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and killed there using crude weapons like iron bars or machetes, before being buried in mass graves.
Nowadays, Tuol Sleng is a museum open to the public. Buildings have been preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979 and extensive records are available since the regime made efforts to document its activities. Several rooms are lined, floor to ceiling, with black and white photographs of some of the estimated 17,000 prisoners who passed through the prison.
I got an ask about my opinion on torture in 1984, the best
way to address it seemed to be starting off the media analysis Masterposts. Possibly
the most famous dystopian novel in the world, 1984 is set in a fictional ‘future’
where the citizen’s every word and moment is recorded and scrutinised by a brutal
Orwell’s story about the ordinary Winston Smith’s desperate
struggle for some sort of emotional freedom has informed the Western world’s
view of totalitarian states and torture since it was published.
I first read this as a kid and I remember it feeling
incredibly profound at the time. Reading it again knowing what I do now instead
of taking Orwell’s word for it…..it doesn’t add up.
But that isn’t for lack of effort on Orwell’s part. I can
see to much larger extent reading this now
how Orwell’s journalism fed into the way he wrote this story.
Unfortunately without anything beyond interviews to go on,
without analysis, without statistics, Orwell fell for one of the oldest tricks
in the book: he believed the torturers’ hype.
I’m rating the depiction
and use of torture, not the book itself. I’m trying to take into account
realism (regardless of fantasy or sci fi elements), presence of any apologist
arguments, stereotypes and the narrative treatment of victims and torturers.
I’m giving it a 3/10
Winston, despite his mental posturing, is neither
political activist nor lover. He is not a true believer. He is, in all
important respects, an innocent. He hasn’t done anything. He doesn’t know
anything. And that makes the ease with which he ‘confesses’ and the information
he spouts realistic. Winston has nothing to protect and every reason to believe
that making things up will help his case.
Orwell’s depiction of sleep deprivation, relay
interrogation (the Party men shouting at Winston or questioning him for hours
at a time until he breaks down in tears), beatings and electrical torture is on point. This especially is where
Orwell’s work as a journalist shines through. The descriptions of humiliation
during relay interrogation, phantom pain from stress between torture sessions,
the searing pain of electricity and losing track of time in a windowless cell.
These all read like they could have come from interviews. And on these points, things that were actually
happening in Russia while Orwell was reporting, the book is incredibly,
The way Winston loses track of time is completely true
to life. And it ties in with the tortures he’s shown to go through early on.
His disorientation makes his account difficult to decipher in places. It makes
it difficult to tell what happened when, which tortures he was subjected to
when and what was real versus what was in his head. And that is true to life. Winston’s disorientation, confusion and
memory problems are exactly the sort of thing that makes prosecuting torture difficult: victims rarely know how long
they were held or what they went through when.
The rats, according to Rejali, were based on an actual
method of execution by torture. Which is a level of research I appreciate.
The fundamental problem is that Orwell seems to have taken
what torturers say as fact. The book
shows torture working and it shows
torture achieving things that it is incapable of doing. I don’t think this is
exactly Orwell’s fault, the statistical studies and research on pain I’m
drawing from weren’t done until decades after he died.
But he believes the hype; he shows it as if it’s fact.
Torture does not change hearts and minds.
Personalities can not be rebuilt using torture
Torture does not ‘break’ people in the way torturers
seem to imagine it does. It does not have predictable results and it does not
have the same effect on everyone. The systematic way the Ministry of Love ‘breaks’
everyone who comes through their doors is fundamentally impossible
The extent to which the torturers know about Winston’s
life is impossible and absurd. Even if they somehow had the manpower to watch
and listen to every second of his life and intently scrutinise every moment
they would not be able to judge his thoughts
at any given moment with the accuracy that they do.
Winston’s torturers are supremely good at detecting
when he lies. And human beings are terrible
at detecting lies. The degree to which the torturers seem to be able to read
Winston’s mind is really more at home in an X-men comic than anywhere else.
Because without telepathy what the book shows is impossible.
A lot of the torture that goes on in the Ministry of
Love appears to be high tech, drugs, complicated machinery and the like.
Doctors usually seem to be on hand and assisting. This rarely happens in real
life. If something is complicated enough that it requires a specialist to
operate than it generally isn’t used in torture.
The ordering of Winston’s torture doesn’t match the
general pattern I see in accounts and analysis. Torturers don’t tend to wait
around. They generally use as many of the worst things they can think of in the
first 24-48 hours. They may keep torturing beyond that point but they generally
repeat themselves after that point and after a while lose interest. In contrast
Winston is left alone, possibly for days, before he’s even beaten. Then he
progresses from beatings to relay interrogation to drugs to electricity to ‘Room
101’, going to progressively worse and worse tortures.
Torture destroys Winston’s affection for his lover. I’m
not convinced by the narrative that the affection was all that deep to begin
with but- that isn’t something torture can do. The idea that wounded people are
somehow incapable of affection seems particularly horrible to me: it’s
something torturers tell victims but it is not true. And it seems to perpetuate
stereotypes about the mentally ill.
It’s difficult to blame Orwell for the glaring mistakes in
this book when he was working with the best information he had at the time.
But looking back over this book I can’t help wondering how
much this has fed into the stereotypes about torture we see in fiction today. Because
most of the usual suspects are here:
The idea that everyone ‘breaks’. The idea that torture is
high tech. The idea that it’s scientific. The idea that torture can
fundamentally change a person’s beliefs, thoughts and feelings. The idea that
torturers can recognise lies easily. The idea that victims are forever defined
by their torture.
I don’t think these all started
with Orwell, but he seems to have codified them and popularised them.
They’re made to look more
plausible by being interspersed with descriptions that are accurate. They’re woven together so seamlessly that the two are
difficult to pick apart. It’s jarring to see such vivid, accurate portrayals of
Soviet torture techniques next to things that are flat out impossible.
In the end I think it’s a shame. 1984 is a book that gets a
fair amount really, really right but it’s outweighed by the sheer scale of the things
it gets so wrong.