At the end of last month, Netflix dropped Purple Hearts, a movie that sounds a lot more like a horror movie than the rom-com it’s marketing as. The premise is simple and terrifying: Cassie, an aspiring singer-songwriter and current bar server struggling with diabetes, can’t afford insulin, and Luke, who struggled with substance before becoming a Marine, also has money problems. The two have vastly different political views and initially loathe each other, but nonetheless collude to enter a sham marriage that could address both of their problems, allowing Cassie to enroll in the military health insurance plan and Luke to reap the financial benefits of marriage. As you might’ve guessed, in true enemies-to-lovers fashion, they eventually, ~accidentally~ fall in love, nonetheless.
The name Purple Hearts itself is a clever little pun referencing the blending of their “blue” and “red” politics—Cassie is a liberal feminist and Luke is, well, someone who is shipping off to help kill Iraqi people. At one point he asks Cassie, “What exactly would you like us to do—go over there and teach them pronouns?”
Purple Hearts has been a phenomenally popular movie, likely owing to its undeniably attractive couple. At varying points, it’s topped Netflix’s most watched movie list, and has remained in the streamer’s top 10 for weeks after it was released on July 29. But it’s also drawn some predictable backlash, to which actor Sofia Carson, who portrays Cassie, finally responded over the weekend. What, really, did Netflix predict the reaction would be to a movie that pretty blatantly romanticizes U.S. military occupation in Iraq and somehow even the United States’ violent privatized healthcare system?
Much of this backlash has focused on a particular line in the movie in which one of Luke’s fellow Marines makes a toast to “hunting down some Goddamn Arabs.” The line itself seems like a pretty accurate representation of the U.S. military—I’d argue the real problem is the extent that the movie implicitly and explicitly justifies military presence in Iraq as somehow protecting the U.S., rather than just colonizer behavior 101 that’s swallowing up $1 trillion in federal funding, while kids rack up school lunch debt.
In a recent interview with Variety, Carson praised the movie for showing love can bridge political divides, which seems like a pretty sanitized way to reference going overseas to kill fellow human beings for no real reason. “It’s two hearts, one red, one blue, two worlds apart, who are really raised to hate each other,” Carson said. She continued:
Through the power of love, they learn to lead with empathy and compassion and love each other and turn into this beautiful shade of purple. We wanted to represent both sides as accurately as possible. What I think I’ve learned to do as an artist is separate myself from all of that and just listen to what the world is feeling and reacting to with the film.
Director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum weighed in too: “I hope that people understand that in order for characters to grow, they need to be flawed in the beginning. So we very much intentionally created two characters that had been bred to hate each other.” Of Cassie and Luke, she added, “They are flawed at the beginning and that was intentional. In order for the red heart and the blue heart to kind of turn purple, you have to have them be kind of extreme. Some of the people that they’re surrounded with are even more flawed than they are.”
Both sides-ing the U.S. military occupation of Black and brown countries is…a choice. The movie is rife with Cassie and Luke having brain-wormed conversations about typical left vs. right arguments that always wind up framing the military as a benevolent, necessary force saving American lives. Meanwhile, at home, it sure seems like poor people are more often dying because, like Cassie, they can’t afford insulin than because of any foreign threat posed by scary people of color.
As Vulture put it, Purple Hearts essentially “posits a porridge-consistency centrism as the one true path to love”—we can all merely agree to disagree about frivolous little things, just as Luke and Cassie put aside their petty differences on militarization, imperialism, trans rights, and I imagine other things, like whether people with uteruses are human beings. Why shouldn’t an ostensibly feminist woman be able to fall in love with a U.S. marine whose friends suggest being in the military entitles men to commit casual sexual assaults, subjecting us to such lines as, “We’re good enough to fight for your ass, but not enough to touch it?” I, for one, am swooning!
Eventually, the two fall in love because, true to life, the bar is in hell and Luke at various points shows vulnerability and humanity. Their love sways both of their politics: Cassie, who notably lives here in the U.S. and not Iraq, comes to embrace the military, and we’re led to believe Luke also makes some changes, perhaps even coming to respect pronouns! In many ways, the movie is inadvertently pretty accurate—plenty of liberal feminist women end up with Republican men, often because their convictions weren’t that strong in the first place, or their lack of personal stakes in issues like U.S. imperialism.
The reaction to this movie is about what you’d expect. Social media users are questioning how the “deaths of 1.2 million Iraqis” could be presented as “a romcom.” It’s also been called “straight up military propaganda” that romanticizes “a [Latina] changing her beliefs just to be with a white military racist guy.”
With Carson and Rosenbaum’s latest joint interview on the movie, Netflix—the same financially struggling streamer that paid Dave Chappelle $24 million to bully trans people amid surging anti-trans political attacks—seems to be in damage-control mode, but I just keep going back to the question of how they expected this movie to be received. We’re living through almost unprecedentedly violent times, between routine state violence in the U.S. in the form of racist killings by police; abortion bans rupturing the health system; inaccessible life-saving medications; and, of course, close to 1 million people killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan since 9/11. But, sure: Let’s make a movie about how the unlikely love story of two hot people can bridge all divides created by these crises.