Mediocre white men and their inflated confidence have been a popular topic since Sarah Hagi’s famous 2015 tweet. In Ijeoma Oluo’s 2021 book on the topic, Mediocre, she describes the phenomenon like so:
I am not arguing that every white man is mediocre. I do not believe any race or gender is predisposed to mediocrity. What I’m saying is that white male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent.
We have many ways to examine white male mediocrity within our stories. We could look at the overrepresentation of white men or examine the way audiences treat white male characters in comparison to others. However, I’ve chosen one lens in particular.
Below are five of the many big-budget stories that tell us white men should triumph even when they don’t deserve to. Each story openly acknowledges the great flaws or misdeeds of a white male protagonist, yet takes it for granted that the audience will root for him anyway. And in each story, the white male character is either excused for causing harm to a woman or given a glorified role that a more deserving female character or character of color could have filled.
Content Notice: Discussion of rape and a near-suicide in fiction.
1. Jim, Passengers
In this thankfully controversial scifi romance, Jim and Aurora are in cryosleep for a 120-year voyage to a new colony on a distant planet. Something goes wrong on the ship, and Jim’s pod wakes him up 90 years early. While all of his basic needs are seen to by the ship’s automated systems, he has no way to get back into cryosleep. He’s destined to be alone on the ship for his entire life.
Then Jim sees Aurora sleeping in another cryopod and decides he wants her. Because there is apparently no privacy in the future, he’s able to watch interviews where she explains just how much this voyage means to her. She’s planning to visit the colony and then take another voyage back to earth, making her the first writer to travel 250 years into the future.*
Because Jim wants this hot woman he’s never met, he decides to wake her, thereby robbing her of her dreams and forcing her to spend the rest of her life alone on the ship with him. The ways this movie tries to make his choice more sympathetic are just as gross as the choice itself.
First, the story presents Jim as simply unable to control himself. He tells himself he’s not going to do it because it’s deeply wrong, only to find himself inexplicably at the cryopod doing the thing he resolved not to. Later, he tells Aurora he “tried not to” wake her up. Well he did his best, but boys will be boys, amiright? These types of justifications are designed to absolve men of responsibility for their own choices and put the burden of avoiding assault on women.
Second, Jim nearly dies by suicide before he sees Aurora. Besides the issue with using suicide as a quick storytelling device, it’s common for men to threaten suicide to control others, especially their partners. In Mediocre, Ijeoma Oluo describes the numerous messages she’s received from white men insisting that they’re going to kill themselves and claiming it’s her fault for advocating for equality. While this movie is less blatant, it still makes an implied threat: if Jim doesn’t get to kidnap this woman for the rest of her life, he’ll end his own.
Next, the movie presents a sequence that can only be enjoyed by viewers who sympathize with Jim and who want Aurora and Jim to end up together. Aurora doesn’t know Jim woke her up, so once she begins coming to terms with her situation, she starts a relationship with her kidnapper. They have adorable scenes of sharing hobbies, going out to dinner, and chatting with the robotic bartender, Arthur. And then there’s the sex scenes, of course.
It’s Arthur, not Jim, who tells Aurora the truth. Aurora is horrified, and so begins another sequence designed to give Jim enough punishment to absolve him. But the only way this could possibly work is if viewers already sympathize with him. Because the two characters end up together, Jim’s choice to control Aurora pays off for him big time, no matter what temporary discomfort he has to go through. Her anger is the cost of doing business.
When Jim’s life is in danger, viewers are supposed to want him to live. They are expected to feel relieved when Aurora begins to forgive him. Then when the two discover a way to put one person back in cryosleep, viewers are supposed to cheer when Aurora decides to stay with Jim instead of following her dreams.
Leading up to the climax, another person is mistakenly woken from cryosleep. Played by Laurence Fishbourne, Gus is an experienced Black crew member who figures out what’s going wrong with the ship and what needs to be done to fix it. Then, after he tells Jim and Aurora, he promptly dies from 612 disorders. No, I’m not kidding. These disorders were apparently caused by his cryopod malfunction, yet Jim was somehow spared the same fate, proving with 100% certainty that this scifi universe has no god. I guess the filmmaker didn’t want a qualified Black guy around to steal the glory from a white kidnapper.
Instead of insisting that Jim couldn’t help himself, the filmmaker had numerous ways to actually make Jim’s choice better. For instance, Aurora could have been a crew member he woke up thinking she could put him back in cryosleep. Or he could have had a reason to believe she didn’t actually want to go to the colony and would enjoy a life of quiet luxuries on the ship. Instead, the filmmakers assumed that his crime would be overlooked simply because he is the white male lead.
2. Liam, Teen Wolf
Teen Wolf begins as the main character, Scott McCall, is bitten, making him a new werewolf who’s relatively powerless. Since this show uses outdated theories about wolves, Scott evolves into a more powerful “alpha” werewolf in season three. In the setting, being an alpha is a magical leadership position, and only a bite from an alpha can turn humans into werewolves.
Unsurprisingly, Scott’s arc in season four is learning more about leadership. As part of his arc, he needs a new beta werewolf to look after. But having a beta that’s kind and cooperative would make things too easy for Scott. So season four introduces Liam, the young white guy with a serious temper problem. He was expelled from his expensive private school after he destroyed his coach’s car in a rage. Why? Because the coach benched him for bad behavior.
After a ridiculously contrived sequence where Scott has to save Liam from falling to his death by biting him, Liam and his temper become Scott’s problem. Naturally, Liam makes it frustratingly difficult for Scott to keep him from killing people during the full moon. But by the end of the season, Scott discovers that looking after Liam makes Scott’s own powers stronger.
Then season five rolls around. Liam’s girlfriend, Hayden, gets her own animal superpowers. Liam’s gay and Black best friend, Mason, learns about the supernatural and joins Team Good as one of the idea guys. And Liam tries to kill Scott. While Liam is being manipulated by a villain, it’s also quite clear that he’s easy to manipulate. Though he’s made progress on his temper, it can still lead him to make bad choices, especially once werewolf rage is added in.
Season six is the show’s goodbye. As Scott prepares to leave for college, Liam declares to Hayden and Mason that he is going to be the next alpha leader in Scott’s place. Hayden and Mason don’t appear to take this pronouncement seriously, nor should they, as they would both make better leaders. If superpowers are necessary, Hayden has them, and she’s much more level-headed than Liam. Mason is sociable and clever, just the sort that can keep up morale and hold a group together. On top of that, Liam doesn’t actually have the magical powers of an alpha.
Nonetheless, Liam’s arc for season six is his effort to become the next “alpha,” and viewers are expected to cheer for him as he does it. His obstacles in this arc are his own problems that he still hasn’t dealt with. For instance, he wants to be the next lacrosse captain now that Scott has graduated, but he disappoints the coach by not showing up at practice. Then Scott makes excuses for him.
I’m all for an arc where Liam learns to manage himself better, particularly since he has a canonical diagnosis of IED (intermittent explosive disorder). Emotional or organizational issues that cause him to miss practice are a worthwhile struggle for him to go through. But Liam should learn to manage himself before striving for a leadership position. Instead the show asserts that Liam should take on more responsibility simply because he is a white guy. And unlike Hayden and Mason, he is on the main cast – also because he is a white guy.
Only a white man would have a temper arc like Liam’s. If Hayden had a temper problem, no one would take her seriously as a threat; they’d treat her like she’s “feisty” instead. If Mason had a temper problem, he would embody a negative stereotype commonly applied to Black men, and he would be declared too unlikable. Even Liam’s basic character design shows his privilege.
The writers could have shown viewers why Liam was the right person to lead. Instead, they showed him embarrassing himself at every opportunity. That created more conflict for Liam, and they assumed that viewers would support him regardless of whether he’d earned it.
3. Scott, Ant-Man
In the 2015 Ant-Man, Scott Lang is a high-profile robber who’s just been released from prison. The movie describes only one of his crimes: a news-grabbing case where he broke into a corporate computer and refunded a bunch of money the corporation had unfairly taken from consumers. However, context makes it clear that he was a career criminal who specialized in tampering with technology and cracking safes.
After being released, he resolves to go clean but has difficulty finding work as a convicted criminal. That’s pretty sympathetic. What’s less sympathetic is that he takes another criminal job as soon as his first legal job doesn’t work out.
To cover for this, the movie gives him a young daughter, Cassie, who lives with Scott’s ex-wife, Maggie, and Maggie’s husband. Scott is eager to see Cassie after his time away. Defying all reason and laws regarding visitation rights, Maggie won’t let Scott visit Cassie until he gets his own apartment. Yes, Maggie is telling her criminal ex that he needs to get thousands of dollars real quick to see his daughter. Maybe she wants him to go back to jail?
So to see his daughter, Scott agrees to do the same thing that’s kept him from seeing his daughter. He breaks into a rich guy’s house, cracks the safe, and steals the Ant-Man suit. But as it turns out, the owner of the suit, Hank, actually let Scott steal the suit. You see, this was a test to see if Scott could steal the suit. Then Hank covertly watches as Scott puts on the suit, inadvertently shrinks to ant size, and gets thrown around aimlessly. Somehow this qualifies as passing another inept test.
Hank wants Scott to do a dangerous and illegal job: destroy a company’s shrinking suit technology before it’s sold as a weapon. In return, Hank promises to fix things so Scott can see Cassie. He doesn’t specify how* or give Scott any reason to trust him. In fact, Scott gets arrested for shenanigans with the suit, and Hank helps Scott escape. So Scott is only in more trouble because of Hank. Yet Scott thinks this is a quick path to being a hero in his daughter’s eyes. As Hank says to Scott, “The moment things get hard, you turn right back to crime.”
Then, despite Hank’s elaborate tests, it turns out Scott doesn’t have any of the skills he needs to do this urgent job. So Scott has to learn from someone who has these skills in abundance, and who could, in fact, do the job easily at any time. That’s Hank’s daughter, Hope. Viewers see Hope beating Scott up in combat training, controlling whole colonies of ants with her mind while Scott struggles to control a few, giving Scott detailed breakdowns on the enemy facility she knows intimately, and training him to use the ant suit that she is already adept with.
Hope is frustrated she isn’t doing the job herself, and, canonically, the only reason she doesn’t is that Hank forbids it. In another movie, she would just steal the suit and do the thing. But see, that would make her the hero of this story, and the unqualified white guy is supposed to be the hero. Please ignore how the story’s hero is actually less heroic than someone relegated to the sidelines. After all, she doesn’t count because she’s a girl.
If Hope had another role she needed to perform during the sabotage and Scott had just one essential skill Hope didn’t, his role would have been excusable. Better yet, what if Scott also had a history of doing jobs for the villain and felt responsible for stopping him? As is, Scott makes what looks like a deeply unwise choice to take on a dangerous job he doesn’t have the skills for.
And then the movie delivers an action sequence where Scott fights a villain he’s never met, but who Hope knows well. You see, Hope has been working closely with the villain. To prevent the suits from being weaponized, she’s decided to betray the villain and side with the father she resents. This means she is not only the most qualified to be the hero, but also at the center of the drama. Every aspect of this movie would have been better with Scott removed, but then the film wouldn’t have its obligatory white male lead.
4. Ed, The Orville
To create his own Star Trek fan fiction, Seth MacFarlane leveraged his popular comedy, Family Guy, to get Fox to pay for it. Then MacFarlane played the lead role of Ed himself.
In the first episode of The Orville, Ed is promoted to captain even though the promoting admiral says Ed hasn’t “inspired anyone with all that much confidence this past year.” To which Ed replies, “Yeah I know.” But don’t worry, there are extenuating circumstances. You see, this was all the fault of a woman. Ed’s now ex-wife, Kelly, cheated on him a year ago, after which he promptly divorced her. Obviously this means Ed’s not responsible for his bad performance, so it’s okay to give him life-or-death authority over a whole crew.
No sooner does Ed accept the promotion than he gives one of his own buddies, Gordon, an open helmsman position. He does this even though Gordon is, by Ed’s own admission, “checked out half the time.” Nor does Ed bother to look at the “excellent candidates” for helmsman that the admiral has ready for Ed to review.
Naturally, the first thing Gordon does after getting the position is drink alcohol on the job and disregard Ed’s order to stop. Then Ed fires him and appoints a helmsman who isn’t insubordinate. Just kidding, of course Ed allows his buddy to get away with this.
Next, Ed meets his senior officers. He tells an alien from a culture that doesn’t dance that “we’re going to work on you.” The ship’s head doctor is a Black woman who is clearly over-qualified. She says she took the position because she’s seen Ed’s record, and she thinks he’ll need her help. Unfortunately, she never declares Ed medically unfit so she can just take over command herself. Then the admiral tells Ed that Kelly, his ex, will be his XO.
This is obviously unrealistic and inappropriate, so Ed very reasonably objects. But MacFarlane really wanted this premise, so the show’s explanation during the first episode is that Kelly is literally the only XO available and, without an XO, Ed’s new promotion will be put on hold. On top of that, Kelly actually requested the position because she feels really guilty about cheating and wants Ed to get his promotion.
With all that in place, Ed now has a hot woman serving him who feels so guilty she will put up with all the abuse he throws her way. Meanwhile, she is polite, professional, and supportive. Viewers are meant to excuse the way Ed and Gordon harass and humiliate her.
At the climax of the first episode, Kelly comes up with a plan that saves the ship. Ed asks her to stay as his XO, admitting that she’s better at problem-solving than he is. Supposedly, some futuristic algorithm predicted Ed and Kelly had complementary skills, but there don’t seem to be any skills that Ed has and Kelly doesn’t. As the season continues, Kelly shows herself to be a more competent leader in every respect. This raises the obvious question of why she isn’t captain in Ed’s place.
Later in the season, the show answers this. Kelly was offered the position of captain but asked for Ed to get it instead because she felt so guilty about cheating. The show also reveals that when Kelly cheated, she was under the influence of a powerful alien sex pheromone, and, as Ed says, the sex wasn’t her fault. In other words, she didn’t actually cheat, she was raped. MacFarlane clearly doesn’t want to acknowledge this as rape, but that’s the story he created.*
This gives us fuller and more disturbing picture of how MacFarlane designed the story to exploit a competent woman in service to a mediocre man:
- Kelly is raped and blamed for it by both herself and Ed.
- Kelly’s supposed guilt is used to excuse Ed for his bad job performance.
- Even though Kelly still acts professionally after she’s assaulted and earns a promotion, she gives it to Ed, who hasn’t earned a promotion.
- Kelly lets Ed act abusively toward her while she is working because she blames herself for her assault.
- Kelly wins Ed over by being exceptional, and she becomes a love interest.
Similar to Liam, I have little doubt that MacFarlane made Ed look incompetent so he would be an underdog despite being a captain. Giving a leader character enough sympathy can be tricky, but in a situation like this, there’s an easy solution. Make him the captain of a ship that’s such a disaster no one wants to be responsible for it. That would even give MacFarlane the opportunities for crude comedy that he wanted. Instead, MacFarlane assumed that Ed didn’t need to earn his position, and that he would be excused for any misbehavior as long as there was a woman to blame.
5. Eddie, Venom
In the 2018 Venom, Eddie Brock is a hard-hitting reporter who advocates for the homeless and other vulnerable groups. At least, that’s what a montage of news reporting tells us.
Viewers first meet Eddie when his fiancee, Anne, wakes him up, delivers him coffee, and reminds him of an important meeting he forgot about. Eddie arrives at work, and an employee behind the lobby counter tells him that he “can’t park there.” Eddie just keeps walking toward the elevators with a flippant “no such thing as can’t.” For a guy that’s supposed to be cheering for the powerless, Eddie sure seems to delight in being more powerful than other people.
At his almost-forgotten work meeting, Eddie’s boss assigns him a big exclusive interview with Carlton Drake, a space CEO and the only person of color on the main cast. In repayment for everything the network has done for Eddie’s career, the boss asks Eddie to focus on Drake’s space program and not to “start your shit.” Eddie agrees, but apparently he doesn’t mean it. That evening he tells Anne he’s not going to do what his boss wants. Anne cautions him that success requires sacrifice, patience, and hard work.
Then Eddie breaks into Anne’s laptop and looks at confidential files from her law firm, which is defending Drake in court. He discovers a wrongful death lawsuit linked to pharmaceutical trials Drake is running. While it was wrong for Eddie to violate Anne’s trust by snooping on her computer, this information is pretty disturbing. So naturally Eddie starts a careful, long-term investigation to verify the allegations, gather evidence, and expose the CEO’s crimes. That way he can also conceal his initial source of information so Anne doesn’t get in trouble.
Wait, no, he doesn’t do that. Instead, he gives away everything he knows during the interview with Drake. After looking at his notepad frequently and struggling to form his thoughts into coherent sentences – you know, like prepared reporters do – Eddie brings up the lawsuit. The interview is abruptly discontinued.
Afterward, Eddie meets with his boss about the incident, clearly expecting to avoid any real consequences for breaking his promise. His boss wants to know what evidence Eddie has for the wrongful death allegations, telling Eddie “We don’t go in half-cocked based on a hunch. We do the work; we substantiate the accusations.” Eddie can’t provide evidence because he hasn’t done his homework. Then he’s shocked when his boss fires him.
Eddie’s behavior also gets Anne fired from her job. She leaves Eddie, telling him that he’s “pathologically self-absorbed” and that his “ego requires constant attention.”
This is a low point for Eddie. He misbehaved, he was punished for it, and now he needs to turn his life around. That’s all and well, but why should viewers root for him to do so? Other than Tom Hardy’s acting, we’ve seen nothing good about Eddie. His concern for the people being killed by Drake’s pharmaceutical trials might be enough, except stopping these deaths is less important to Eddie than his ego. Otherwise, he would have sucked it up and made pleasantries with Drake while secretly gathering evidence for a much more damning report.
What’s more, when a defecting pharmaceutical doctor comes to Eddie offering evidence of the deaths, Eddie tells her he’s done investigating. Why? Because this time, his hard-hitting journalism might actually cost him something. He tells the doctor that Drake is dangerous, citing that after interviewing Drake, Eddie lost his career, relationship, and apartment – as though Eddie weren’t responsible for any of that himself. Luckily, he decides to go creep on Anne next thing, so she can inform him of his own culpability.
The film also provides no reason why this pharmaceutical doctor would even want to go to Eddie with evidence. She feels that betraying Drake puts her life in danger, and Eddie has proven himself to be exceptionally bad at protecting his sources. After Eddie changes his mind about working with her, she even sneaks him into the lab to take pictures. Eddie isn’t a photographer, and it would be much safer for the doctor to snap her own pics with her phone.
The movie pivots when Eddie becomes the host for Venom, and the scenes people actually care about begin. But Anne stays on as the inaccessible love interest, so viewers are supposed to want her to take Eddie back, even though he violated her trust and got her fired. In fact, there’s even a scene where she plays host to Venom, and the joint Anne-Venom gives Eddie a kiss. Venom fades away from Anne’s face so viewers can watch an extended shot of Anne and Eddie snogging. Creepily, the kiss is Venom’s idea, which brings up questions of consent. Venom, if you want to kiss Eddie, you can just kiss him, okay?* Leave Anne out of this.
Over time, Hollywood has been making tiny efforts to improve representation for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. However, they only do it in ways that don’t require straight white men to give anything up. That’s a big reason why marginalized secondary characters have gotten more badass, yet their stories still revolve around the mediocre white dude in the center.
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