White Boy Dangerous: The Mythology That Surrounds White Male Violence by Sonia Soans
A few weeks ago I was at the cinema to watch the new Mad Max film with friends. It has been called the new feminist film and of course lots of men were upset with this emasculation of a pop culture icon. Before the film began there were several trailers of forthcoming films. What struck me about all the films was how almost all the trailers were about white men caught in violent situations and saving the world.
Different contexts but the premise remained the same, the introduction to the film is made though how perfect the world is until something goes wrong (either in the heroes life or in this perfect cinematic universe), this is when our hero is called upon for his expertise. What follows next are acts of violence passed off as character building endurance with background music that can only be described as epic. Almost all films followed this formula.
Ten minutes before the apparently feminist film began the audience viewed images of white men performing acts of violence against people, animals and property. All of this was presented positively as necessary violence and always a single white male bringing normality to the lives of those around him restoring peace and justice.
When Mad Mad began the first scene we encounter is of a lone white man standing with his car in the middle of an arid desert wasteland. The first thing we see him do is kill and eat a reptilian creature. Mad Max we learn is a man haunted by a past, death and trauma have made him a hard man who has taught himself how to survive. While the rest of the film focuses on Charlize Theron’s character Imperator Furiosa, Mad Max as the strong yet deeply troubled man remains with the audience.
The lone white man who is out to save the world and use violence to subdue it a rule in most action films.
While there are some elements of the film that do touch upon feminist issues the clichéd white man with a troubled violent past are not new to cinematic history, they dominate the plot of the film. White male violence is mythologised in cinema. The superhero films heavily rely on providing the hero a difficult past. War films or films where a white man is playing a saviour almost always allude to past traumas. His violence is always a response to injustice. White heroes are always troubled souls with a deep and complex psychological history.
Popular culture loves the idea of the single white man who kills because he has a cause. Spiderman films play this hero with a traumatic past exemplify this idea, a white man is a hero because of his complex traumatic past. His actions are to be understood in relation to his experience, trauma is romanticised, crime mythologised. White male violence is sublimated on screen it acquires glamour and is almost understood as necessary to the plot.
Take James Bond for example, an assassin and a spy he kills people, forces himself on women yet he has come to symbolise class, elegance and a sophisticated man to be imitated. James Bond too has a past and the psychological damage of that past has turned him into a cold-hearted man. This begs the question who doesn’t have a traumatic past? It reinforces the idea that some people are allowed to act out their anger as it is acceptable anger.
Male aggression is almost always treated as healthy, laughed at, but very rarely condemned. White male violence is treated as normal. A few weeks ago my flatmate showed me a video of a young white American teenage boy shouting, swearing and throwing things around his house – this he said was funny. Yet when I say something about politics, art, films or casually remark about the weather I am an angry black woman.
I am very influenced by bell hooks work on examining race, gender and popular culture and like her I want to question why do our fantasies mirror our daily lives? Why is it that even when we create fiction we cannot think of erasing systemic oppression, we can create fantasy worlds where relationships work out, good triumphs over evil, aliens drop in and meet us but why not the end of oppression? My other observation is that cinematic representation very closely mirrors real life. White men killing people of colour, women, foreigners and other imagined enemies is not a fiction but a grim reality. To quote Kwame Nkrumah on this issue-
“Even the cinema stories of fabulous Hollywood are loaded. One has only to listen to the cheers of an African audience as Hollywood’s heroes slaughter red Indians or Asiatics to understand the effectiveness of this weapon. For, in the developing continents, where the colonialist heritage has left a vast majority still illiterate, even the smallest child gets the message contained in the blood and thunder stories emanating from California.
And along with murder and the Wild West goes an incessant barrage of anti-socialist propaganda, in which the trade union man, the revolutionary, or the man of dark skin is generally cast as the villain, while the policeman, the gum-shoe, the Federal agent — in a word, the CIA — type spy is ever the hero. Here, truly, is the ideological under-belly of those political murders which so often use local people as their instruments.”
I woke up this morning with my facebook feed being flooded with stories of black people being murdered in church by a white man in America. Last year it was Elliot Roger who monopolised social media with his infamous shooting spree. Then there was the German pilot who crashed a plane, mental illness was cited as a reason for the crash.
Mental illness is very conveniently used as a means to deny agency for these acts of violence. I have trouble accepting this definition because individuals who are labelled mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Attributing mental illness to crime does a great disservice to individuals who are mentally ill, it reinforces the idea that they are dangerous and violent. I digress, the issue is of damage control, of not acknowledging the impact of the violence, of denying the victims justice.
My facebook feed of full of stories that have invented a psychological history for the Charleston Church murder. He is shy, a loner, socially awkward, an introvert. Minimising his crimes is a deliberate attempt to normalise and legitimise crimes committed; it tries to heal the damage these crimes produce.
That the victimiser occupies a position of privilege is important, the more privilege the more excuses. Rich, white, able bodied, heterosexual cisgender men are never criminals at best they are psychologically ill.
White privilege works by sublimating the effects of racism by inventing reasons for racist violence. Dylann Storm has been treated well by the police and many in the black community who have noticed the difference in treatment between black and white criminals have noticed this. That we automatically deny black people such acts of humanity is telling of how we don’t feel a need to see black people as people.
Every time I hear of a black person being killed by the police I see people blame being put on the victim. The image below is a perfect example of how white male privilege operates. Smoking, drinking and even rap music acquire sinister meaning when black men consume them and a mass murder is described and quiet and soft-spoken much like the white superheroes in films.
Nkrumah, K. (1966). NEO—COLONIALISM: The Last Stage of Imperialism. https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/nkrumah/neo-colonialism/ch01.htm
Author bio: Sonia Soans is a PhD student based at Manchester Metropolitan University, her work examines intersections of gender, mental illness, nationality and violence.