The Complexion For The Protection: White Privilege in Media

A laptop with black keys and a silver cover shows the mostly black menu of NetFlix Originals to browse through, including Riverdale, Orange is the New Black, and The Crown. There is an entirely white wall behind it.

As always, the beauty of guest posts on this blog is that they enable Yopp to include subjects and types of content that I could never hope to create myself. In order to shift the societal scrutiny off of people of color and onto white people for once, Dennis does what he does best: Biting critiques about the ways media represents and encourages our society’s racial disparities, as well as educating us on the often overlooked role that white privilege in media plays in these problems. And extra big thank you to Dennis for tracking down the media-specific stock photos for this article. I am current-media-illiterate and would’ve been totally lost without his help!

CN: extensive discussion of racism and white privilege, brief discussion of fictional instances of stalking, murder, sex, illegal drug-use, abusive/manipulative relationships, false rape accusations, war and mass violence. Brief discussion of real-life murder, mass violence, and racially-motivated violence. Assume potential spoilers for all media mentioned below.

When media is analyzed and critiqued, we often look at elements of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and how they are handled with respect to marginalized characters. Understandable, given how little representation minorities receive, and the understanding of the power of perception and how it affects us in real life.

However, rarely do we ever consider how whiteness, white culture and white privilege factor into stories and how many characters can only exist and function simply because they are white. Because whiteness is considered the default, the norm, the universal standard, it’s rarely examined or critiqued.

That is until today.

The following are a few examples of white protagonists who can only exist and operate as white characters.

To quote the great Paul Mooney, they have the complexion for the protection.

Dan Humphrey (Gossip Girl)/Joe Goldberg (You)

Penn Badgley who plays Dan/Joe (You/Gossip Girl), with a self-absorbed smirk on his face, wearing a taupe shirt with the first few buttons unbuttoned to reveal chest hair.

If you’ve noted a few parallels between Netflix’s You and Gossip Girl beyond actor Penn Badgley starring in both shows, there’s a good reason for that.

For those of you who didn’t watch the entire series of Gossip Girl….yes, I watched the entire series of Gossip Girl. As a YA author, a social media influencer, and media critic it is my responsibility to keep up with what’s hot in the streets and discover what the young people are getting jiggy with. So this was strictly due diligence and it certainly has nothing to do with the fact that Chace Crawford has the dreamiest eyes and you know what I don’t appreciate your judgment. I’m a grown man and I don’t have to explain myself to you.

Digressing now. Where was I?

Gossip Girl, the TV series was loosely based on a best selling YA series of the same name. Gossip Girl was an anonymous blogger (the show’s narrator) who reported on all the privileged rich kids of New York’s Upper Eastside. GG’s favorite target was Serena Vanderwoodsen, the It Girl of the elite social circle, and the love interest of aspiring working-class writer Dan Humphrey. Gossip Girl cyber-bullied Serena and the rest of her friends for years to the point that in the final season they vowed to uncover the identity of Gossip Girl.

It would turn out that Gossip Girl was none other than Dan Humphrey. While horrified to learn that her boyfriend made Edward Cullen look like Mr. Rogers, Serena decided the stalking wasn’t a deal-breaker and still married Dan in the series finale. The reason? Something something something patriarchy something something something internalized misogyny something something something white fauxminism something.

Gossip Girl is not to be confused with Netflix’s You where Badgley plays Joe Goldberg, a seemingly unassuming mild-mannered bookstore worker who spends his free time stalking the women he’s obsessed with and murdering anyone who gets in his way, even the women he’s stalking. As Badgley has previously stated, You ultimately illustrates how far society is willing to go to forgive an evil white man.

Brooke Logan-Forrester (The Bold & The Beautiful)

Character Brooke Logan Forrester: A light skinned woman in her late 30's, with blonde wavy hair and reddish roots, wearing a white pearelscent flowy top and a long white and gold necklace hanging over over tight distressed jeans, as she smiles pleasantly at the camera.

A spinoff of daytime’s number one soap opera, The Young & The Restless, The Bold & The Beautiful debuted on CBS in 1987. The show centers on the Forrester family and their fashion house, Forrester Creations. One of the show’s original four central characters and actors, Brooke Logan has been portrayed by the lovely and talented Katherine Kelly Lang since the series premiered. Show-runners have essentially described Brooke “as the show’s quintessential heroine, always in turmoil and forever symbolic of true love and destiny prevailing.”

But the punchline is that said turmoil is usually of Brooke’s own doing. While Ridge has been repeatedly deemed Brooke’s one true love, that hasn’t stopped her from sleeping with Ridge’s father Eric, and both of Ridge’s half brothers: Nick and Thorne. In fact, Brooke has slept with every male member of the Forrester family with the exception of her own son, Rick Forrester. Brooke also had an affair with her daughter Bridget’s husband, Deacon Sharpe, which resulted in the birth of her second daughter, Hope. History repeated itself when Hope became a teenager and Brooke slept with her boyfriend, Oliver. What’s more, CBS Daytime’s answer to Helen of Troy is depicted as the sympathetic protagonist and a victim of the toxic situations she creates.

Imagine a woman of color engaging in the same behavior and see how well that would end for her. One thing’s for certain she wouldn’t be deemed the show’s quintessential heroine and forever symbolic of true love and destiny prevailing.

Mike Ross (Suits)

In Suits Patrick J. Adams plays Mike Ross, a college dropout and reprobate with a photographic memory that he regularly squanders on things such as taking the LSAT for the paying customer. In the pilot, Ross is in the middle of conducting a drug deal when he realizes that it’s an undercover sting. Ross escapes by slipping into the hotel room where Pearson-Hardman senior partner Harvey Specter is interviewing prospective associate attorneys. Ross’s encyclopedic knowledge of the law impresses Specter that he hires him on the spot and the two conspire to pass Ross off as Harvard Law grad. Most of the series revolves around maintaining Mike’s secret and the fallout that would transpire if it is discovered that he is practicing law without a degree or license. The inevitable ultimately happens and Ross is exposed as a fraud. He winds up doing a brief stint in prison and the law firm is rocked with lawsuits and scandal.

Character Mike Ross: A young white man with cropped brown hair, wearing a grey business suit and tie, a grand piano out of focus behind him. He is looking intently at something off camera and his expression is one of disbelief or shock.

When it comes to the workforce, PoCs, specifically Blacks, are often the last ones hired and the first ones fired. We have to work twice as hard to get half of what we’re due. Our credentials and qualifications are regularly credited, no matter how exceptional we may be. This issue was explored on Suits with Mike and Harvey’s boss and mentor, Jessica Pearson. Despite constantly drawing (the wrong kind of) attention to himself and constantly getting in over his head, Ross was able to maintain the hoax for as long as he did because of his white male privilege. For anyone who believes that white male mediocrity isn’t rewarded, this fustercluck is a reminder to the contrary.

Oliver Queen (Arrow)

Oliver Queen, you have failed this series…..but kinda saved a multiverse so it sorta balances out.

In the comics, Oliver Queen is the quintessential white liberal fauxgressive; the type who identifies as a male feminist but regularly cheats on and denigrates his “one true love” Dinah Lance aka Black Canary, one of the fiercest super-heroines in comics.

Queen is the Bernie Bro who thinks he’s woke but is often more steeped in his white male privilege and more problematic than most conservatives. Arrow stayed true to its source material. After being marooned on an island for five years, Oliver Queen returns to Star City and becomes the vigilante archer, the Green Arrow.

While racking up a body count to rival one Frank Castle during season one, Queen felt more than entitled to mansplain to fellow vigilante Huntress why doing the same thing was morally wrong. During one annual crossover where the heroes of the Arrowverse join forces to stop the invading alien threat, the Dominators, Oliver orders Supergirl to take the bench. Why? Because even though she was by far the most powerful ally, Supergirl triggered Ollie’s white male fragility.

Character Oliver Queen: A white man in his mid-30's with reddish stubble and a sparse mustache, staring intensely at the camera with his brown eyes. His hair is concealed by a camo green hooded, zip up jacket, and he is holding an arrow in front of him.

Let’s not forget season six when Ollie played the race card and questioned Diggle’s loyalty when they were at odds against estranged New Team Arrow members: Renee, Curtis, and Dinah. Why? Because Diggle and New Team Arrow are all of African Descent. Black people can’t be objective when it comes to race. Only the demographic who benefits from systemic racism can be trusted.

You know you’re a special kind of trash heap when even the Flash and Supergirl, the most Opie Taylor/Pollyanna glass half full white people to ever white people call you a douchebag.

While Oliver Queen is the character one would love to hate, that proved to be most difficult when he’s being portrayed by the amazing Stephen Amell. While promoting the series and the Arrowverse, Amell proved over the years to be a humble, gracious, gentleman, and the definition of a class act.

Now I know what some will argue. This argument is DOA as PoCs have been the Emerald Archer both in the comics and on Arrow. This is true. Connor, Mia, Diggle, and Emiko have each donned the mantle. But as far as the character Oliver Queen goes, he can only exist and function as a straight white male.

As Diggle aptly explains at Oliver’s funeral during the series finale, Oliver’s story arc was that of someone who initially wasn’t a good person but over time became a good man and ultimately a hero. Which is more than what can be said about anyone else on this list. However even redemption arcs, as well earned as they were by Queen, are a privilege usually reserved for white characters.

Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)

Gone Girl is the story of Amy Dunne; a spoiled elitist trust fundee who is also the inspiration of her parents’ popular Amazing Amy children’s book series. As Amy revealed to her husband Nick, Amazing Amy was the perfected version that made up for Amy’s real-life shortcomings. When Real Amy quit the cello at 10, Amazing Amy became a prodigy in the next book. When Real Amy was cut from volleyball during her freshman year of high school, Amazing Amy made varsity. Parents pitting siblings against one another is bad enough but to pit your only child against a fictional superior version of yourself is how sociopaths are spawned.

Amy likes to date men she considers beneath her station and then resents them when they fail to live up to her expectations. But rather than seeking counseling, religion, or do the work and break the cycle of toxic relationships, Amy chooses to stage fake pregnancies, and frame her lovers for rape. After discovering her husband Nick is having an affair with a creative writing student, she ups the ante and frames him for her disappearance and suspected murder. This leads to a nationwide search and Amy relishes all of the attention and delights in her husband’s and parents’ misery.

Character Amy Dunne: A young white woman with long blonde hair, brown roots, blue eyes, and heavy mascara. She is tilting her head, resting in her right hand, as she looks vaguely but pleasantly into the distance.

As clever as she perceives herself to be, Amy doesn’t fare too well on the lam in the “real world.” In fact, she can’t last a week without her actions resulting in her being assaulted and robbed by her new BFF Greta and later blackmailed, and held prisoner by her wealthy ex-boyfriend, Desi. Thus Amy is forced to miraculously “return from the grave” and frame Desi for her “kidnapping” and “disappearance.” This, of course, doesn’t prevent Amy from using Nick’s sperm stored at a fertility clinic to inseminate herself and use their unborn child to threaten Nick to remain married to her.

If anyone thinks that Amy would have garnered the same sympathy defending herself from male predators if she wasn’t white, they need only ask Marissa Alexander, Cyntoia Brown, or CeCe McDonald. Amy Dunne is the personification of privileged white womanhood and her antics are very reminiscent of the likes of the real-life Lena Dunham, Corinne Olympios, and Susan Smith.

Anthony Stark(Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Want to talk facts? Ultron was created because people were too close to Tony Stark. They were blinded by his charm. They trusted him. Never even thought to look at what he was working on. The Avengers, they let one man do whatever he wanted and the world was almost destroyed for it.” -Robert Gonzales, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Genius, playboy, billionaire, Iron Man, Avenger– Tony Stark can be called many things. However, merchant of death, war criminal, super villain, are far more apt descriptions.

Let’s not forget as a child he hacked into the Pentagon on a dare by some friends. Of course, Tony was his father’s son. Marvel’s Agent Carter viewers may recall that Tony’s old man, Howard, was nearly responsible for the nearly destroying of New York. Why? Because Howard couldn’t be bothered to vet his weekend sidechick who was a Black Widow. What was her name? Felicia? Susan? Mary-Jo Lisa? Then, of course, Howard and Anton Vanko co-created the arc reactor which powers both Tony and his Iron Man suits. When Vanko attempts to sell the reactor, Howard has him deported and the Soviets send Anton to the Gulag. Anton’s son Ivan is out for revenge against Tony which sets up the events in Iron Man 2.

Most of the tragedies that transpire and shape the MCU ultimately trace back to Stark:

  • The Hydra controlled Helicarriers which decimated most of Washington D.C. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, were designed by Tony Stark.
  • Stark and Bruce Banner created Ultron behind the backs of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. The monstrous android destroyed the Eastern European country of Sokovia and nearly the rest of the planet.
  • The parents of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were killed by Stark munitions, thus galvanizing them to join forces with HYDRA to attain powers and get revenge on Iron Man.
  • Stark coerced Peter Parker, an inexperienced child, into traveling to Germany to fight other Avengers on Stark’s behalf by threatening to inform Parker’s aunt about his secret identity as Spider-Man.
  • Even after being told by Miriam Sharpe that the carnage in Sokovia, Ultron, and the death of her son, Charlie Spencer, is on Tony’s hands, Stark decides to klansplain to the rest of the Avengers how they are out of control and need to be reined in.
  • Stark pushes for the legislation of the Sokovia Accords which is analogous with racial profiling, where anyone with enhanced abilities, be it Avenger, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent or civilian are required to register with the government.

Character Tony Stark: A white man in his 40's with dark hair cut short and styled, and dark facial hair that emphasizes his jawline. Wearing a grey t-shirt, he is holding his hand behind his head, which showcases his bicep muscles, while staring moodily into the camera.

  • While Stark made a point to upgrade both his and Parker’s suits with both nanotech and a parachute, he couldn’t be bothered to do the same for his Black Best Friend, Rhodey aka War Machine which results in him being paralyzed when he’s shot out of the sky by Vision in Civil War.
  • The bombing of the Vienna conference which kills T’Chaka, King of Wakanda, and the framing of Bucky Barnes in Civil War were orchestrated by Helmut Zemo, colonel of an elite Sokovian commando unit who was seeking to avenge his family’s death during the Avengers’ battle with Ultron.
  • Following the Battle of New York, Adrian Toomes and his salvage company are put out of business by Tony Stark. This sets off the chain of events that result in Toomes becoming Vulture, the Big Bad in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
  • Captain America and his faction of Avengers being on the run because of the Sokovia Accords, left Earth’s mightiest superheroes splintered and the planet easy pickings for an invading Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Both films make a point to draw a number of parallels between Stark and Thanos. Two power-mad titans, both fathers, with a singular noble purpose who will engage in unspeakable acts to achieve their goals.
  • Even from beyond the grave, the sins of Stark haunt the MCU in Spider-Man: Far From Home. In the film it is revealed that Spidey-nemesis, Mysterio, is Quentin Beck; a former Stark employee whose ideas were stolen by Stark and he was subsequently fired. Mysterio’s entire network of operatives are all ex-Stark employees who, like Beck, are out for revenge and seek to destroy the deceased Avenger’s legacy.

While the Iron Man mantle (or a variation thereof) has been worn both in the comics and in the films by the likes of James Rhodes, Pepper Potts, and Riri Williams, Tony Stark was allowed to unleash the carnage he did because he’s a cisgender heterosexual white male. Because of all of these reasons and many more, the MCU’s greatest super-villain could only function as a heterosexual white male.

A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating social justice themed products: A brown apron covered in little baking illustrations and the words "Bake the world a better place," a sticker with five colorful intersecting circles and the words "The future is intersectional", a pink mug with a pair of ice cream cones making the shape of a heart and the text "you could never be ice cream you're too hot and a person."

So what does all of this ultimately prove? It proves that the Original X-Man, First Class Brother Malcolm was correct when he warned that “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”

These examples alone illustrate how white characters and by extension white people can do no wrong. Cannibalism, pedophilia, littering, there’s no sin that can’t be forgiven as long as it’s committed by white people. In many cases in the respective narratives of these examples, heinous atrocities are dismissed, ignored, and justified. The unmitigated gall and hypocrisy of Stark lecturing and arresting his teammates for opposing (racial profiling) the Accords, runs parallel to fellow war criminal George W. Bush denouncing President Trump.

Amy Dunne may be a work of fiction but the white female privilege she utilized to terrorize her victims is oh too real. Amber Guyger murdered an innocent man in cold blood and used a legal defense that a classic Paul Mooney standup routine foreshadowed decades beforehand (NSFW). When Guyger was convicted, she received a hug from the judge.

A black and white photo of Paul Mooney: A dark skinned man wearing a bandana over his head, wearing a black coat and white diagonal strap in front, smiling gently at the camera. Behind him is an artistic rendition of Richard Pryor furrowing his brows and pursing his lips.

(Credit to Paul Mooney for this article’s title!)

I’m not exactly suggesting that we live in a society that would sooner celebrate caucasian serial killers over Black superheroes. But we were subjected to television and films about Dexter, Charlie Manson, Ted Bundy, Lizzie Borden, Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, Red Reddington, and the Sons of Anarchy while we were waiting on that Black Panther film.

Speaking of SAMCRO, if we think these white power fantasies aren’t influential, even on a subversive level, think again. Despite the fact that the 2015 shootout between rival biker gangs in Waco, TX left nine people dead and 20 injured, prosecutors dropped all charges.

The brass tacks of it all is that be it fiction or real-life white people are generally held to a lower standard if any at all. And because it’s rarely acknowledged, much less addressed, one of the primary pillars of systemic oppression remains invisible and in place.

Be it fiction or real life, it’s long past time to change the narrative.

A picture of Dennis R. Upkins, a lean black man with long limbs wearing a well fitted navy and white pinstripe button up shirt. He's wearing black framed glasses and a warm smile, and has a black katana leaning against his shoulder.

About the blogger: Dennis R. Upkins is a speculative fiction author, a journalist and an equal rights activist. His first two young adult novels, Hollowstone and West of Sunset, were released through Parker Publishing. Both Upkins and his previous work have been featured in Harvard Political Law, Bitch Media, MTV News, Mental Health Matters, The Nerds of Color, Black Girl Nerds, Geeks OUT, Black Power: The Superhero Anthology, Sniplits, The Connect Magazine and 30Up. You can learn more about him at his website

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