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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Navigates the Problems of Empire

The good news about Tina Fey’s Afghanistan movie is that it didn’t make me want to die. In fact, despite myself, I found parts of it hilarious. The film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, based on a memoir, is about a journalist named Kim Barker who, because of her childlessness and marital singlehood, is offered a war correspondence gig in Afghanistan. The year is 2003. The film follows her for three years, showing us her transformation from naïve office reporter to savvy embedded journalist.

Here’s the lowdown. First, some concerns. Like most films set anywhere east of Portugal and south of England, we get shitty, supposedly local music during the scenes set outdoors. Think nays, tablas. We get what appears to be Journalist Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) telling Kim, who is a brunette, that she is a 10 in Kabul, not the 6 she is in New York. At some point, Kim calls the women in Afghanistan walking “Ikea bags.” In one scene where she is forced to wear a burqa to travel into a Taliban-controlled province, Kim looks at herself in the mirror and sarcastically says, “I’m so pretty, I don’t need to vote.” There is only one Afghan woman character with dialogue in the entire film, and her dialogue is only ever directed at Kim, and about Kim. During a scene where Fey’s character tells Journalist Barbie and the Afghan woman about a gym bicycle epiphany she had, the Afghan woman says, “That’s the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard.”

But the film is also the first commercial American film I’ve seen to show Muslims and brown people in the Near East rocking to House of Pain, smoking shishas, getting hammered, dancing, and wilding out. Afghan women smoke in gardens and dance at weddings, and they do so in the film, too.

The male predators in the film are the white men. I appreciated this. Afghan men in the film are translators, journalists, fixers, revolutionary fighters, Taliban, elected officials, corrupt officials, peddlers, butchers, bus drivers, and fathers. The white men are bags of testosterone, constantly asking to have sex with Kim, or offering sex to her, or commenting on her body. When Afghan men grab her ass, she yells at them, but we also see Afghan women yelling at men grabbing their asses. White women are not more “prized” in this sense.

The Afghan women, however, remain under their “Ikea bags,” even during a scene that had the potential to be more daring, at least by US film standards. During a recurring trip with the US Marines to a village with an oft-blown-up US-troops-built well (the Marines think the Taliban keeps blowing up the well), Kim discovers the truth. She is lead indoors by a woman in a burqa, and once there, is greeted by over a dozen covered women. The camera shoots from behind the women, Kim’s face in focus, as the women lift up their burqas and rest the fabric on the back of their heads, the only view of them we get. Kim is the center of the scene. We fade to black.

whiskey 2In the next scene, Kim informs the unit’s commander, who is played by a perpetually annoyed Billy Bob Thornton, that the Taliban aren’t the ones blowing up the well; that the women of the village are blowing it up because they miss walking down to the river, communing, and hanging out. They’ve been using left-over Russian mines. Because we get this information from Kim, we are likely to forget that the women did all this and told her about it, and are invited to assign or grant their agency to her, since she is the one delivering the news, or appropriating the story under the guise of being a spokesperson or an advocate.

And this is characteristic of the film, which is primarily concerned with the role of reporters. Are they thieves and selfish beings, out for the next high? Are they no different from the addicts of Afghanistan, which, an Afghan character succeeds in telling us, has 90% of the world’s opiate reserves? The film doesn’t explicitly or even covertly discuss that the war itself is a war for those reserves; that the soldiers themselves are security guards for this very expensive and deadly drug deal. Instead, the last third of the film finds Kim wanting a better position, and asking her boss, a white woman named Jerry, for it. But the job is stolen by Journalist Barbie (because the film thinks there are only two women in all of Afghanistan who can report on it), and the white-feminist dealings and ramifications of such a decision are not discussed between the three women. Instead, Journalist Barbie tells Kim that she may have been responsible for a fixer’s death (incidentally, one who loves male-donkey beastiality porn, because we need to dehumanize him for his death not to hurt too much), but Kim is responsible for a white Marine’s legs getting blown off since she shared his identity on TV and he was subsequently transferred to a more dangerous unit.

Meanwhile, Kim overlooks all the men of color around her—they are invisible to the point that she considers having sex with an idiotic white security guy with tribal tattoos — and then hooks up with Iain, a Scottish reporter who helps teach her the ways of the Kabul bubble—the Kabubble. There is some defying of gender expectations—he wants and likes her a lot more than she likes and wants him—and he is eventually kidnapped. Kim talks some powerful men—the head of the Marines unit; the Attorney General (played by a bearded Alfred Molina, which, why?)—into saving her fucktoy, and the unit that goes in to recapture him does so under cover of night and to the soundtrack of Harry Nilssen’s version of “Without You.” The unit knocks down doors and silently murders one Afghan after another, the ballad soaring, “I can’t liiiiiiive,” kill, kill, “if living is without yoouuuuu.” And a dozen dead Muslims later, Iain, the white lover, is found and saved.

“I can’t liiiiiive if living is without yoouuuuu.” Who is the I, here? And who is the you? Is the I Kim, and the you Iain? Is the I Iain, and the you Kim? Is the I Afghanistan, and the you the US? Can Afghans not live, literally, without the US, because they need America so badly? Or do they die, literally, if and when they choose that their lives should not be determined by the US? And if the I is the US, and the you Afghanistan, does that mean that white men can’t live if Muslim men do? That the US can’t live without stealing Afghanistan’s resources? What is an Afghan life worth? Since an Afghan life does not equal a white man’s life, is the ratio 12:1?

Earlier in the film, Journalist Barbie made a similar equation: that a dead Afghan fixer is worth a white Marine with no legs. This Marine character provides for one of the most satisfying, if cheesy, wrap-up dialogues ever. When Kim visits him on his bucolic farm in America to apologize and ask for his anger, he essentially tells her to get over herself. Why not blame Russia? Or the British Empire? He says. The implication is that her white woman guilt is arrogant and ridiculous, and that, in fact, what she ought to do is interrogate how Afghanistan got to where it is in the first place, not why, at this most recent iteration of empire, a white woman deserves to feel powerful enough and self-absorbed enough to take all of that on.

In a recent interview, Tina Fey said of the film, “it does make the point that people have been going to this part of the world trying to fix it for 1,000 years, and it is what it is. No one’s ever going to get a handle on (it).” She said she was more interested in the Kim character and her search for herself and for a normal life.

But what the film shows, in spite itself, is that Afghanistan and other Muslim countries have been fucked with for centuries, and don’t need to be “fixed” by outsiders (because fixing means raping, stealing, bombing). Fey is correct: no one from the West is ever going to get a handle on this part of the world. Because it is not theirs. Because “getting a handle” on it would mean complete genocide and colonization; would mean murdering every single person there and repopulating the place with Westerners.

The film, whether unwittingly or not, depends on whiteness. Where can a white person find themselves? And when, after all their hard work, can they become successful? In the end, the white characters’ whiteness protects them, rewards them, and connects them. The film concludes with Kim hosting a TV show on international conflict (her win), and her interviewee is Ian. He has written a book about his war correspondence (his win). Unlike the people of Afghanistan, they can leave the war zone and benefit from it to have lives, careers, and each other. Meanwhile, the Forgotten War rages on, and the Afghan people’s resources are stolen, their lives ended, and their land occupied, with an exit strategy more invisible than Ikea instructions.


Randa Jarrar is the author of the novel A Map of Home and the forthcoming collection Him, Me, Muhammad Ali. She teaches at Fresno State’s MFA program and runs the nonprofit RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers.

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