Tropes I Despise: Innocent White Criminal

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Due to circumstances beyond Our Hero’s control, he has to enter a life of crime to make ends meet. He suffers. He fights. He becomes a monster.

Was I talking about Walter White from Breaking Bad or whosisface generico Everyman from Ozark?

I must put my hand up to not watching a lot of either of those, or any other TV series where that first paragraph is the main plot. Something about all of them just rubs me the wrong way.

Oh, but he’s under a lot of pressure…

Be it Walter’s horrendous hospital bill or Everyman’s threatening crime bosses, the threat is presented from the very first episode. The pressure is real and visceral and sometimes violent.

Oh, but it’s not his fault…

These are very definitely circumstances beyond Our Hero’s control. He has no say in things. He’s desperate. He’s in fear of losing everything he has. He may be in fear of losing his life. So he makes bad choices for good reasons, and he’s sympathetic.

Oh, but he works so hard…

The lengths he goes to are always extraordinary. He’s desperate to escape a bad fate, and the plots and schemes he enacts are almost ludicrous. Sometimes he just barely makes it by the skin of his teeth. His escapes are narrow. His victories are slim. And as for the spouse…

Oh, but she must have provoked him…

She cheats on him, or doesn’t trust him, or is otherwise portrayed as an unsympathetic character. She deserves him dumping her. She deserves to be abandoned. Nevermind that we, the audience, sees what she doesn’t. She deserves it all because she sparked off his behaviour. In Ozark, at least, I know that Generic Blonde Wife has been cheating on her husband for an unspecified time.

Oh, but he loves his children…

The kids are always left out of the conflict until the last possible instant. They’re treated to material goods, or spoken to softly, or otherwise shown to be the objects of true affection. Of course he loves his kids. We are shown again and again how gentle Our Hero is with them, sometimes how he worries about them and tries to protect them from the consequences of his actions.

Oh, but he had no choice…

The audience and the script are not in favour of choices, here. There aren’t options. There aren’t ways around the situation. Our Hero is between a rock and a hard place. There’s little enough wriggle room and trying to do things properly leaves him even less.

Now go back and read all those stand-alone, italicised sentences and ask: Am I talking about a hero, or enabling an abuser?

Not only are the narratives here actually about a white man getting away with crimes that a black man would be imprisoned for… they’re also about the monster that was there all along.

This is a fantasy. A fantasy that is too real. The fantasy that a white man could and should be able to get away with anything.

It’s not fantasy. It’s regrettable reality.

The courts in the US especially are overflowing with examples of how white people get lighter sentences for crimes that would incarcerate or kill black people. “White enough” people can literally get away with murder in broad daylight if the victim is black.

Back to the topic at hand.

In fiction, the hero becomes a victim to circumstance, The Innocent White Criminal. Doing things that people of colour are stereotyped for doing as a matter of course. Our Hero had to do that. No choice, remember? So he gets into the seedy underground, or already has connections, and has to do all the bad things that would see a “thug” -aka POC- in jail for 10-20 years if not sentenced to execution by the state.

We see Our Hero be victorious against anyone with a darker skin tone. Unless said POC is set up to be the Season Villain(tm). We see him slide slowly into monstrosity because that’s the only choice that the script leaves him.

I posit this: He was a monster the whole time.

It’s not about Our Hero slowly becoming a monster. It’s about Our Hero admitting his monstrosity. Glorifying in it. Being hailed and saluted for it. Being cheered on from the sidelines when he’s victorious over them because that’s what they truly deserve.

All that this fictional situation has done was give him a bloody good excuse to choose to be a monster. The script writers are on his side in all of this, because they want to get away with being monsters, too. This is their fantasy. To be the biggest, baddest, badass in town and get away with it. To be a monster that is terrible and violent and so, so very masculine… and to be victorious over all who are less than him.

It’s fucking toxic.

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