The glorification of white characters, particularly white male characters, is nothing new. White characters can be anything and everything in our media, and still be praised, validated, and thought of as legends. White characters make up the overwhelming majority of heroes in our media – even when they’re the villains.White characters are heroes even when they're villains Click To Tweet
A majority of high octane dramas that portrayed different leading characters in morally questionable situations have all been about white men. Dexter, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Hell on Wheels, The Sopranos, The SHIELD and Justified are or have been highly praised and well-loved shows.
They also feature two distinct features: their leading protagonists are white men, and each engages in extremely morally questionable actions.
There’s a certain glorification of these characters and the lives they lead. By no means are they good men, and we as viewers know and understand that. They’re villains or antiheroes – but only in the loosest sense – that we watch with bated breath because they’re fascinating.
Here’s the pattern that forms as these shows rise in popularity. A stringent status quo formed around the concept that white characters, white men, are interesting and worthy of empathy even when they’re villains of the story. The message: White men can commit heinous crimes, but can still deserve your sympathy.
The continued creation of these stories in popular media builds a real-world structure of oppression. Even in celebrity culture, we can see the glaring contrast in how many prominent white celebrities are treated by both the public and media, as opposed to celebrities of color.
Both Woody Allen and Bill Cosby have been openly accused and tried for sexual assault and rape. In Cosby’s case, his court case is still an on-going investigation. Allen’s original case was rift with controversy, and supposed – but unproven – tampering. Even Dylan Farrow’s heartfelt open letter about the abuse she suffered at Allen’s hands has been brushed off by other prominent and well known celebrities. Hollywood and other American entertainment institutes continue to award Allen for his work.
Sean Penn has a documented history of spousal abuse of his former wife Madonna. Many other celebrities, the majority of whom are white, have gotten away with abusive behavior, or are still are prominent, respected members of their fields even with the stain of open and admitted violence against women.
Yet it is Chris Brown whose career was shattered after reports of his abuse against then-girlfriend Rihanna hit the media.
There’s no doubt that both Brown and Cosby have done horrible and unforgivable things to women. There’s no question that they should pay for their crimes – in Brown’s case he has, both in a court of law and within the court of public opinion.
But what about the white men who committed similar or the same crimes?
In our media, we see villains of color all the time, but hardly ever characters we are meant to feel sympathy towards. We see them as thugs, drug dealers, gang bangers, and sometimes dirty cops. But very rarely with the same level of care, consideration, or empathy like characters from Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, or The SHIELD.
Characters of color are stereotypes. When they’re being portrayed as villains we’re meant to fear them, not feel sympathy towards them. While even the most villainous of characters in our media still receive empathy from fans, or the media, characters of color don’t even when they are the heroes.Characters of color are too often stereotypes Click To Tweet
Building a history of this singular view of people of color in our media, in turn, builds a mindset that helps to attribute to the Racial Empathy Gap. An overall lack of empathy towards people of color as actual people.
Real white men are literally getting away with murder or being treated with sympathy. In some cases people will even flock to these white men who have been convicted of crimes and become their “fans.” Remember Aurora shooter James Holmes?
Fans will jump to a white character’s defense, blog passionately about their favorite white character and how they can do no wrong – while accusing a heroic character of color of being a villain. The media will involve themselves in two teenage celebrities’ lives, and tell the world about the young black woman ‘attacking’ the white woman. Even though the white woman was clearly in the wrong.
But our media consistently paints white characters as the heroes, even when they’re the villains. And people of color are always the villains, even when they’re heroes.The media always makes white characters heroes Click To Tweet