Entertainment Propaganda: The Anti-Hero and Enemy Point of View in Recent Spy Thrillers


The Cold War is back, and it makes for great television! If you like cloak-and-dagger tales with plenty of suspense and intrigue then look no further than The Americans, coming up on its fourth season, and Deutschland 83, which just wrapped up its first season a few weeks ago. Both shows are set in the 80’s and both are absolute propaganda, but then again, as I’m always pointing out, it’s ALL propaganda. Propaganda notwithstanding, I can help you to enjoy the thrills of espionage historical fiction and wax nostalgic for the 80’s with its new wave music, Walkman’s and other delights, and do it responsibly (without falling for the insidious messages contained therein).

I felt pretty sure that I had accurately identified the propaganda points made in these shows, but just to be sure I decided to check out the blog of the International Spy Museum; this “museum,” located in downtown Washington, D.C., is a clumsy attempt to whitewash the CIA’s image among the American public, primarily I would assume, teenage and young adult males. Concerning the hit FX channel show, The Americans, a blog entry had this to say:

“. . . The Americans continues to intrigue and resonate with audiences because it remains stemmed in real events. The Soviet KGB really did run this sort of operation and the Russian SVR continues to do so, as we were reminded in June 2010 with the arrest of the ten Russian illegals.”

“There is another aspect of the show that rings true: Phillip has started to go native.  He observes that everything seems ‘brighter’ here in the United States, and he openly toys with the idea of defecting to the United States.  This is a real problem that the illegals program faced, at least during the Cold War.  Sometimes illegals would find the United States or whatever western country to which they were posted more inviting than the oppressive and drab communist country from whence they came.  In fact, the International Spy Museum contains spy gear from one illegal who thought better of his work and defected to Canada in the 1960s.” 1

As I expected the show’s producers, who are former CIA men who made no attempt to hide this fact (another disturbing trend where, increasingly, activities previously engaged in secret, are done openly or only semi-covertly), along with their colleagues who run the “Spy Museum” continue to put forward the same propaganda themes regarding communism, e.g., America is bright, clean and more open and free while communist countries are/were drab, dreary and oppressive. This notion, taken to its conclusion, basically says that given the choice those living under dark and dreary communist oppression would leap at the chance to come to the capitalist utopia – the “shining city on the hill.” And not only citizens of communist countries, but practically all foreigners would gladly cut off their right arm to live in this paradise of freedom, democracy and lots of stuff!

Another upsetting aspect of these historical fiction shows is that most Americans will interpret them as more or less historical fact! While at least realizing (hopefully) that the show itself is fictional, many – if not most – will believe that the gist of the story is nevertheless, “pretty much how it happened . . . or could have happened.”

But, some will wonder, how can these shows be considered anti-communist propaganda when the protagonists of both series are communists, and communist spies at that?! This is precisely the question and the objection that far-right wing conservatives will proffer. In fact, The Blaze, an ultra-conservative, far-right wing blog, had a very negative view of The Americans; and, if you really understand just what a true conservative is, there is no mystery as to why they would not “get” this type of propaganda approach. A true conservative sees everything in terms of black and white; they have no understanding of nuance or shades of grey. They don’t think its cute or funny or clever to have godless commies presented as the good guys – it is completely beyond the pale as far as they are concerned. The article on The Blaze made this quite clear, as did most of the folks posting in the comments section. There was bafflement, outrage and charges of an ongoing liberal conspiracy to turn America into a socialist country. However, one individual, by his remarks clearly not especially conservative, tried to explain to his fellow readers:

Konjurer: “Common people. Think for yourselves. This is hardly the most controversial show on TV. I’ve watched all episodes and it rocks! The story is a bit more complex than Reds = Good. That is hardly the case. The KGB are shown to be ruthless and evil. The Russian’s [sic] have never been portrayed in a positive light on the show…ever!

“On the other hand, the FBI is shown to be the good guys. US society and our economy is also shown to be a good thing. In fact…slight spoiler…this is the fundamental struggle of the spy couple. The husband is realizing that he loves ‘arranged’ wife and kids. You can see the evolution of his character as someone who likes America…as he states ‘the lights are always on and the food is pretty good.’ His wife, who is more loyal and brainwashed to socialism, is starting to show cracks in her belief system.

“I think the producers of the show are probably saying these stupid comments [cheer for the KGB] to create controversy and get people watching. Give the show a chance…it’s some of the best TV in a sea of garbage. Yes, there is some sex* but less that [sic] the ABC Family Show called the Secret Life of The American Teenager!” 2


That was a pretty good explanation of how the show is not at all promoting communism, but on the contrary is actually promoting anti-communism in a somewhat subtle and clever way. However, you will never, ever, ever get a hardcore conservative right-winger to understand that; but the point is, this particular type of propaganda is not meant for them – it is actually meant for liberals. Yes, that’s right. Entertainment propaganda of this sort is meant to ensnare those who are feared to be just open-minded enough to possibly be sympathetic to another point of view and potentially attracted to progressive ideas.

You have to speak to your audience in a language that they understand. In storytelling there are two main types of protagonists – there are heroes and there are anti-heroes. Conservatives prefer heroes while anti-heroes appeal more to less conservative, and frankly, more mature and realistic people. The hero is larger than life; he or she may have some slight flaws, but the total package is something akin to a demi-god figure like Hercules. A hero will have a very straightforward purpose and moral code and selflessly fight to the bitter end to achieve the greater good and destroy the bad guys.  The anti-hero, on the other hand, is much more ambiguous, flawed and complex. As the website, Writer’s Digest, explains in the following two passages:

“An anti-hero is a protagonist who is as flawed or more flawed than most characters; he is someone who disturbs the reader with his weaknesses yet is sympathetically portrayed, and who magnifies the frailties of humanity . . . an anti-hero is unorthodox and might flaunt laws or act in ways contrary to society’s standards. In fact, and this is important, an anti-hero often reflects society’s confusion and ambivalence about morality, and thus he can be used for social or political comment.”

“. . . this character requires a great deal of nuance to arouse complicated reactions in the reader . . . [he] is not simply a bad ass who cannot follow the rules. The reasons for why he acts as he does, along with his self-concept, are important to the story. Another trick to creating a complicated anti-hero is to shape his less-than-moral traits and acts into a profound statement about humanity . . . An anti-hero’s actions and ways of thinking demand that the reader think about issues and ask difficult questions.” 3

In Deutschland 83, we get a good taste of this confusion in society and moral ambivalence in addition to a European viewpoint. The show was filmed in German and was distributed  in the U.S. by the Sundance channel with English subtitles. Like The Americans, this show is intended for liberals (who should really be thought of as not leftists, but moderate conservatives/center-right wing) and others with progressive proclivities or who are otherwise not wedded to American jingoism or exceptionalism.

The protagonist of Deutschland 83 is a young East German border guard recruited as a spy to go to West Germany in order to decipher NATO plans for a potential invasion of the socialist bloc. His cover is to impersonate a West German soldier who is set to become the personal assistant to a West German general. As the story progresses we come to see the Cold War through the eyes of East Germans and Soviets who feel very threatened by the U.S./NATO and West Germans who begin to feel like expendable pawns of the Americans. The propaganda is very cleverly interwoven into this drama that shows all kinds of points  of view, but the net result is going to reassure loyal Americans and other Westerners and supporters of capitalist imperialism that “our system” is better in terms of morality and efficiency.

One of the more interesting aspects of Deutschland 83 is that the East German spy, Martin Rauch, is a much less menacing sort of an anti-hero as compared to the KGB spy duo in The Americans. It is the type of society that he represents, or is forced to serve, that is presented as menacing while he is a victim who nevertheless begins to realize the “truth” that he is being manipulated by cynical and corrupt leaders more interested in preserving their own privilege rather than serving the common good as they claim. We go on this painful, but enlightening journey of redemption with Agent Rauch.

What we have with these shows is entertainment propaganda designed to appeal to a certain political demographic that is not far-right conservative. You get an EPOV (Enemy Point of View) with an anti-hero as the protagonist. The ruling class uses the powerful propaganda tactic of pretending to give all political perspectives an equal hearing when in actuality there is nothing equal about it. Furthermore, they use a kind of psychological carrot and stick with this particular mode of storytelling in order to drive people away from a historically genuine socialist alternative by reinforcing the rage of ultra-conservatives (the stick) – even when they don’t watch the show, but are merely made aware of it – and gently wooing away the liberals and progressives (the carrot).

* American conservatives, in puritan fashion, get very upset about eroticism and sex scenes on film, but don’t mind violence so long as it is not gratuitous.

1 International Spy Museum Blog, “The Americans – Fact or Fiction?” http://blog.spymuseum.org/the-americans-fact-or-fiction/

2 The Blaze,  “Is TV’s New Cold-War Spy Thriller Anti-American? Producer Admits ‘We Want You to Root for the KGB.’ http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/02/18/is-tvs-new-cold-war-spy-thriller-anti-american-producer-admits-we-want-you-to-root-for-the-kgb/

3 Writer’s Digest, “Defining and Developing Your Anti-Hero”  http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-books/bullies_excerpt

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