03 January 2011

White Guy Entertainment

Mmmph. Remind me never to take a break again. I put off trying to formulate this post by exercising. Things are dire.


So, way back around Thanksgiving, I went to see the Harry Potter movie.  And as is (I am told) typical, there were several trailers on top of it. And the trailers set me thinking about some stuff that's been brewing in my mind for awhile, namely, the gorgeously annoying simplicity of white-guy entertainment.

About half the trailers I saw had the same basic premise. Young (but not too young), handsome, athletic, straight, cisgendered, White Guy Protagonist is a slacker. His father is rich, but perhaps disgusted with said son, on account of son spending all his time partying and screwing sorority girls. Something Happens, maybe to father, maybe to son himself, but son – our YHSWG -- is forced to shape up. (Son is usually forced to shape up on account of something really terrible happening, like getting superpowers.) Son learns responsibility, saves pretty girls, earns father’s (and occasionally Supportive Girlfriend’s) love, finally fulfilling his potential. Green Lantern is, I think, the Platonic form of this. Tron: Legacy and Green Hornet have some of the same elements.

There’s nothing wrong with this basic story. Many, many people can sympathize with struggling to live up to one’s full potential, when it is easier not to. (I think I had a boyfriend in college who carried this particular cross. But facetiousness aside, I do get it, and it is compelling, learning to grow up.)

But look. It’s a very – straightforward problem. Not particularly complicated. Some would argue there’s beauty in its simplicity, but it’s been told rather often at this point.  YHSWG has no conflicting potentials to decide between. His potential and his destiny align nicely. The road may be difficult, but he earns everyone’s approval, including his own, through his journey. It's difficult to grow up for whatever reason, but the rewards are immediate and compelling. He has the ability to grow up, he only needed the impetus. People are tripping all over themselves to upgrade his status. 

Let me back away for a second, and generalize. In terms of pure storytelling, what you've done is: set up a protagonist. Give the protagonist a problem. (So far so good.) Then you've simplified the problem in several different ways, thus lowering your own stakes. First of all, solving the problem will generate approval for the protagonist. Secondly, the protagonist has the ability to solve this problem, and everyone around him knows it. This problem is in fact the way to unlock the protagonist's True Potential.  And it doesn't hit him too early, either: the protagonist hits this problem and gets ready to solve it when he's already over eighteen (and sometimes, he's older than thirty) -- which makes these stories about needing to grow up even more frustrating.

 Because the writer has thus taken all the real stakes away, he or she (but usually he) needs to add some artificial conflict. Superpowers! Computer-generated somethingorother! Secret identity hijinks! A dad who may not approve immediately and will instead turn out to be evil, thus freeing the hero from needing to take into account his opinion!

In real life – and real, interesting entertainment -- , when you’re not (necessarily) a YHSWG (who is also able-bodied, intelligent, emotionally stable, rich, and lucky) – when any one of these elements is missing – suddenly solving your problems not so much a matter of living up to your potential and earning approval. Suddenly it’s about fighting yourself, in the form of your own body, or your own mind. Or fighting others’ perceptions thereof. You have limitless potential in a particular field, but when you pursue it, instead of earning approval, you earn curiosity, disgust, contempt, confusion – because someone of your gender, or your sexual orientation, or your race just shouldn’t be interested in that sort of thing! Or you have a physical disability, or a mental illness – and you have to work three times as hard as everyone else to break even, and instead of approval, people wonder why you’re not doing more.

That’s not to say that YHSWGs do not have real problems. I mean, I've heard it can be very stressful when you're secretly a superhero but your love interest thinks you're a shmoe. 

Facetiousness aside, I’m not trying to belittle anyone’s problems. Problems are part of the universal human condition. Every problem can be generalized into a certain number of basic conflicts. Telling the same stories over and over again is what we do, to try to understand our problems, to try to help each other solve them.

But isn’t the must-grow-up problem, the must-reach-my-potential problem more interesting if you add a couple of wrinkles to it? What if you have young gay white guy? What if you have young straight poor white guy? What if you have older, gay, rich, black woman? What if you have a twelve-year-old Asian transgendered person with depression? They can all face the same problem, the problem of having to reach their potential through growing up and taking responsibility. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, let them all do it through the same mechanism: the acquisition of unexpected superpowers. They could join up and fight crime!

Because the way that problems really stay interesting (at least to my mind) is when you see permutations of them. When you see someone trying a solution that should work, but doesn't. When the resolution is actually in doubt. When the protagonist doesn't have everything stacked in their favor, and then proceed to whine about it (Peter Parker, I'm looking at you!). 

Ideologically, I see all the unacknowledged privilege in movies like this, and it drives me mad. I have ideological reasons for hating Judd Apatow movies, for example. 

But my overwhelming point here is the idea of stakes. There are all kinds of ways to make something "high-stakes" -- to make someone want to watch or listen, because it's IMPORTANT. And one way is to make it be about HAVING TO SAVE THE GODDAMN WORLD. And another way is really finding out about yourself, or someone else, or having some really deep emotional growth happen. And that kind is quieter, and less flashy, but no less interesting, although it has a bad (read: feminine) rep. 

But now we have these movies that are trying to combine the two kinds of high stakes, and they tend to combine them by doing one kind well and one kind really, really badly. And my EPIC POINT (which I have spent this whole thing circling around) is that a YHSetc.WG accepting his responsibilities? Is doing the second part WRONG.

Thankfully, we have Buffy, which (for awhile at least) did both sides really actually very well!


  1. I agree with all of this. For me, the answer to combatting it is alternative entertainments, stories, publications, whatever, since it's been proven over and over again that the (mostly rich, white, cis, straight) studio heads and producers will do everything in their power to homogenize the story as much as possible (and the blandwashing [if you will] gets worse depending on how big, expensive, an popular the film or whatever is going to be), if it's not homogenized enough already.

    Of course you're right - it would be incredibly easy and productive to start by changing just one or two things about the protagonist; it seems absurd that they don't do it.

    Another thing that always bothers me as well (and I was just talking to my friend about it), is how most of these films won't even have a queer, disabled, sometimes even person of color anywhere, even in marginal supporting roles (and when they are there, they usually fall into comic relief, sassy ______ friend, magical whatever - never even close to outside of a narrow stereotype). If Hollywood won't even have some variety of life and life experiences hiding in the corners of the frame, it depresses me to think about when more will change for the leads.

  2. I think there's this perception that if you add too many wrinkles to a problem, you'll alienate part of your audience, the part that doesn't have THOSE PARTICULAR problems. So you make Bend it Like Beckham and it is ONLY interesting to young, athletic, British-Indian women, whereas you make, I don't know, Good Will Hunting, and with a White Guy as your protagonist, suddenly it's interesting to everyone ever.

    Both of those movies are pretty good, but I shelled out the bucks to own Beckham and I haven't bothered to do that (at least not yet) for Hunting, even though I should theoretically have more in common with that protagonist.

    But I mean, I come up against it, when I get hesitant about recommending books with female protagonists to my male friends.

    Like I say. Ideologically it's annoying, but it meta-annoys me that it is also bad storytelling.

  3. That's also very true (and yeah, if you're going to be White Guy Entertainment, at least put some effort into your story). Your first point is kind of like this fucked up notion that White Male is just the universal default for everything - like anonymous comments or posts on the internet, or protagonists in films, whatever. We're supposed to all identify with that, and while many people I'm sure can, the idea that we also can't identify with other folks struggles or stories is ludicrous. Like your original post says, broadly told stories and struggles ARE universal, so having a protagonist that isn't just a SWG or whatever can only add to the appeal and narrative complexity and storytelling. Besides, we've SEEN the SWG story. We've seen it again and again and again.

    As for the Beckham/Hunting thing - it's as simple as one film being told better (for you), right? Less about identification with a protagonist as it is about that, AND overall plot, AND originality, AND pacing, AND a myriad of other things, and suddenly, presto! You completely identify with a protagonist that may not have that much in common with you, at first glance. Makes sense? No? Okay, I am rambling again. ...So bad at internet comments....

  4. Sheesh. If you have male friends who can't handle books with female protagonists, step one is to get new male friends.

  5. "from the specific comes the universal" - good storytelling is about the little different details, because no matter what the protagonist's emotions are about, they are still true and relatable emotions. Hopefully.

    and I know I'm preaching to the choir here. I bed now.

  6. @Elenore: Heh, if your comment is rambling, I shudder to think how my posts work. You're right, but there's another layer I want to mention (that I'll probably write a post about next week, actually) -- and that's that it is somehow ALWAYS easier for me to identify with the female protagonist, and I think that has a lot to do with my choice of Beckham over Hunting. I can think of very, very few fictional things where I felt close to the male protagonist in the way that I often do with females. Not sure if it's because I'm very very feminist or just very very cis. Possibly both.

    @caudoviral: That's the thing though! Because most of my male friends are totally FINE with books featuring female protagonists. I know one or two who complain about "chick books," but that's a whole other thing. What's interesting to me is that I've completely internalized this "boys are universal" thing, and ASSUME my male friends won't like books about girls, even when confronted directly with contradictory evidence. That's what I find interesting.

    @Fish - I totally agree (no surprise). Someday, I'll write an essay analyzing Shakespeare's universal human emotions told in specifics, etc., and then I will present that essay at some sort of conference because it will be way too boring for this blog.

  7. Ah, okay. I was a bit slow on the uptake there.