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Tropes in Entertainment Media: ‘Mighty Whitey’

Tropes in Entertainment Media: ‘Mighty Whitey’

Tropes in Entertainment Media: ‘Mighty Whitey’
July 10
13:00 2020

(This is Part 3 in an ongoing series that examines tropes that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and behaviors in media against women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Click the links to read Part 1 and Part 2).

Hollywood seems hell-bent to tell stories about white men on journeys of self-discovery. The issue with many of these films is that their white main character’s journey involves them mingling with brown foreigners and becoming better at said foreigners’ culture than they are themselves. This is called the “Mighty Whitey” trope.

The Mighty Whitey trope in media was a commonly used trope that was born in the adventure genre during the 18th and 19th centuries. The trope usually involves a displaced white European man who ends up living with a native tribe and eventually becoming the leader of that tribe. Bonus points if the village chief’s daughter marries the main character.

The Mighty Whitey trope suggests that a white person dumped among less white people will automatically become a king or a god. And in some stories, the use of the trope even suggests the whitey is mighty not just in contrast to people of color, but because of his affinity for people of color.

Jake Sully in “Avatar,” John Dunbar in “Dances with Wolves,” Paul Atreides in “Dune” and many more are all examples of well-intentioned white men who leave behind the inauthentic western world for something more natural, so they can hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon or something to that effect.

The crux of the issue, however, is that the trope is basically the racist equivalent of “I’m a nice guy.” The whole point of the white main character “going native” is to run away from the familiarness and ugliness of Western civilization. The “exotic” foreign civilization is somehow more natural, more primal, more sensual…. the way people really ought to live. But these characters aren’t fleeing the western world in a passive “I’m gonna leave my comfort zone and go to Africa” way but more in an “I have to actively resist my culture” kind of way.

It’s a repeated fantasy written by writers to appease the audience’s feelings of white guilt. To see a white main character shed their whiteness, abandon their home culture, join the oppressed and take up arms against the still-racist home culture. Jake Sully did it to the mercs in Avatar and John Dunbar took up arms against the U.S. Army (with the film going as far as suggesting the Lakota won solely because Dunbar was there). All of this stems from a desire to be absolved from guilt.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. The true root of the Mighty Whitey characters is that becoming a good guy should hurt. For Jake Sully in Avatar, “going native” and joining the Na’vi was a reward. It was fun. At the start of the film, he was a wheel-chair bound marine, but by the end, he was a 10 foot tall blue alien with working legs and a hot girlfriend. All he had to do was shoot a bunch of racist white people. But becoming the good guy should involve seeing uncomfortable and ugly things about yourself that you’d rather not see. It should involve changing your behavior in ways that you’d honestly rather not do. Giving up the chains of the western world is not an act of liberation, it would be painful and terrifying and humiliating.

In contrast to “Avatar” is “District 9” (both released in 2009). Both have similar themes, but the main character of “District 9,” Wikus, does not find himself the leader of an exotic group of aliens where he is a powerful, heroic good guy. Instead, Wikus is plunged into an unfamiliar challenge and nightmare where he keeps screwing up and being confronted with his own guilt and privilege. “District 9,” unlike “Avatar,” showed that being a human in a world where aliens are oppressed is pretty freaking great.

Being plunged into a new world of those who lack your privilege is not a fun adventure nor should it be treated as the discovery of a beautiful new world. And, if Hollywood wants to make movies about the perspective of those who are less privileged than us, we need more “District 9s” and fewer “Avatars,” where our Mighty Whitey characters actually confront their privilege and set it aside, to try to actually be one of the good guys.

Featured image: Courtesy 20th Century Fox

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Chance Townsend

Chance Townsend

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