In JJ Abram's TV series Almost Human, John mistreats his android partner, Dorian, who is black, before John grows to respect him. The show was canceled after one season.

Some storytelling tropes are written with the best of intentions but still lead to disaster. Because we see this in editing more than often we’d like, I want to explain what this trope is and why it does so much damage.

Stories are using this trope if all of the following are true:

  • They feature a privileged protagonist. Generally that means the main character is a white guy, but any important protagonist who enjoys a higher status than other people in the setting qualifies.
  • The protagonist treats people who are less privileged unfairly. He might overtly hate those people, or he might just dismiss or demean them in subtle ways.
  • Those people belong to a real-world group that is underprivileged. They may be literally part of that group, or they may just appear to be a parallel for that group. If the protagonist hates elves, but the elves he mistreats happen to be women or people of color, that counts.
  • The protagonist learns that his behavior is wrong. He has a growth arc where he learns to appreciate less-privileged people and treat them with respect. By the end of the story, he usually apologizes.

Looks like a worthwhile story, doesn’t it? It has an important lesson, and isn’t that what stories are for? But as Admiral Ackbar would say, “It’s a trap!”

The Story Will Have Narrow Appeal

In Star Trek: Enterprise, Captain Archer hates Vulcans, and the one Vulcan serving under him is also one of the few women on board.

For your story to succeed, your protagonist must be likable. A likable protagonist will pull some people through your story even when everything else is a mess. An unlikable protagonist will not only annoy your audience but also reduce their investment in the plot. It will cause many people to discontinue the story even if everything else is done well.

You might say, “But a likable character should have flaws to overcome!” And that’s absolutely true. The majority of people don’t want to read about perfect characters. But which flaw you choose for your character is critical. You want a flaw that hinders your character while keeping them likable. If the flaw is too despicable, the audience won’t want your protagonist to overcome it. They’ll want your protagonist to die in a garbage fire.

Now, can you guess which audience members would want a privileged character to overcome their bigotry?

If you guessed “privileged people,” then you guessed right! In particular, people who have not personally experienced the kind of oppression your protagonist dishes out will feel more sympathetic to your character, and people who have experienced that specific type of oppression, or have just experienced a lot of oppression in general, will hate your character. If your protagonist is a white guy who acts bigoted toward black women, your audience is mostly limited to white guys.

Not all white guys though. Sure, most privileged people will like your protagonist at first, but then that protagonist will learn how bigotry is bad. When that happens, many of the privileged audience members will get angry and jump ship. They don’t want to be told to be less bigoted; they want to keep the advantages they have over others.

Who’s left? A privileged choir. Stories like this are told primarily by guilty privileged people for guilty privileged people. Sure, it’s possible your audience will learn a thing or two. But what they learn may not be good.

The Story Will Have Problematic Messages

In Almost Human, the audience is supposed to sympathize with John while he continuously abuses Dorian, the kind android partner who is completely in John’s power.

Just as it’s critical for the protagonist to be likable, it’s also critical for them to fulfill a central role in the story. They have to be the one to make important choices and solve most problems. They need to be central to resolving the story’s important conflicts. Their character arc must be front and center.

If your protagonist is going to express bigotry and then overcome it, that means your story will also need characters who are the target of that bigotry. Your protagonist will need to exhibit their big flaw by being mean to those characters, and then the story will need more character interactions that will convince the protagonist to change their mind. However, characters who are targeted by bigotry will be side characters less central to the story.

Combined, these two factors create an astonishing number of problematic tropes. Your good storytelling instincts will be turned against you, leading you to send terrible messages like these.

Underprivileged people should accept mistreatment.

In most of these stories, the protagonist learns to stop being bigoted because the people they target are super nice or even obedient despite being mistreated. It’s realistic for less privileged people to be put in a position where they can do nothing against a bigot who has power over them, but putting it in a story can still do damage. Depicting a male protagonist being an ass to his kind female colleague only upholds the double standard for men and women’s behaviors.

Underprivileged people exist to serve privileged people.

Because the protagonist is the most important character and their arc relies on interactions with less privileged characters, the underprivileged characters spend most of their time as storytelling servants. They give the protagonist plot clues and teach the protagonist life lessons while never doing anything for themselves.

Basic decency is praiseworthy.

Stories with a bigoted protagonist set the bar really low. Abusive behavior becomes the norm; simply refraining from abuse starts to look decent. Treating less privileged characters with respect becomes saintly. The audience is soon expected to admire the protagonist for having a black best friend. These low standards only reinforce bigotry in real life.

Underprivileged people can’t solve their own problems.

As I mentioned earlier, a protagonist needs to be central to solving the story’s biggest conflicts. So what kind of conflicts does a story about overcoming bigotry have? If the story stays in theme, then the largest conflicts will often involve less privileged people overcoming their oppression, perhaps overthrowing their oppressors. When the protagonist swoops in to save the day, it steals the agency of the underprivileged people in the story and gives the impression that they needed a privileged person in order to succeed.

Mistreated people should forgive their oppressors.

The end of a character’s arc usually involves the character being tested, proving their worth, and then being rewarded for growing as a person. The natural resolution for a bigot is to apologize, do something to make up for what they did, and then receive forgiveness and recognition from the people they wronged. Except this ending only increases the burden on less privileged people in real life. No one should be pressured to forgive someone who targeted them, and anyone who has harmed vulnerable people should not feel entitled to forgiveness, even if they didn’t mean to do harm.

The result of all these tropes is a work that exploits less privileged people to serve a privileged audience. If your intent is to teach people to be less bigoted, that’s the last thing you want. Don’t worry; you can turn it around.

You Have Better Options

Zootopia uses analogy and intersectionality to teach lessons about bigotry while avoiding the problems that can come with it.

My list of qualifiers for this trope was pretty long. To steer clear, you just have to stop following some of them. The more you break, the safer you are. In fact, there’s some wonderful stories out there that have similar themes and teach similar lessons by not quite fitting this trope. Here’s how it’s done.

Don’t focus specifically on bigotry.

Instead of having your protagonist be specifically a bigot, make them a selfish jerk. You’ll still need to be careful to avoid likability problems, but you’ll be less likely to hit close to home or exploit less privileged people. The TV show The Good Place did this to great effect. They made their protagonist likable by putting her in a situation where she can’t do much damage, and if she doesn’t shape up, she’ll be in hot water. The show’s comical tone also helps lighten the impact of her bad deeds.

Use analogies instead of real life.

Make your protagonist bigoted against a group that has no real-life equivalent. Be careful here; it’s easy to create a noticeable parallel by accident. If you have humans or human-like races in your story, make sure that less privileged characteristics like darker skin appear in the privileged group your protagonist belongs to and that the primary characters who are the target of that bigotry do not have those characteristics. Do not apply accents, clothing, or mannerisms associated with real underprivileged groups to your mistreated characters.

Embrace intersectionality.

Make your protagonist part of a less privileged group themself. Your protagonist will express their own bigotry even as they suffer from the bigotry of others. With a less privileged protagonist, your story won’t be about someone powerful beating up on someone vulnerable. Not only that, but you’ll have new tools to bring about a change of heart. Once your protagonist understands that they are doing to others what others have done to them, they’ll start rethinking their ways.

I can’t say this trope should never be done in any circumstances. However, I can say that if you weren’t aware of the pitfalls, you should run as fast as you can in the other direction.

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