BLACK VOICES
10/30/2015 04:51 pm ET

The Problem With Romanticizing White Male Criminals On TV

White privilege extends all the way to our TV screens.
ABC

 On Tuesday, ABC premiered its latest dark drama, "Wicked City." Set in LA in the 1980s, the series chronicles a seemingly "normal" couple's reign of bloody terror on the Sunset Strip. It's loosely based on the true story of serial killers Doug Clark and Carol M. Bundy, who together murdered seven women during the summer of 1980. 

The show joins a long line of TV series (and movies, but that's for another piece) that romanticize crime and violence. Think "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad," "Sons of Anarchy," Dexter, "Fargo," "Boardwalk Empire," and "House of Cards." All of these shows are critically-acclaimed, received accolades during awards seasons, and commanded high ratings -- or at least a devoted fanbase.

They also all center on white, male protagonists. 

For the past decade (or more), there has been a trend of glorifying and romanticizing white crime through popular culture. Television fans root for characters who would normally be the "bad guy" -- corrupt politicians like Frank Underwood on "House of Cards" or ruthless mob bosses like Tony Soprano. We root for them because, even in their wrongdoing, they are afforded a certain level of complexity and nuance. They may be criminals, but first and foremost, they are (interesting) human beings. 

It's a trend that finds its direct opposite when it comes to characters of color, who, overwhelmingly, are often depicted as thugs and deviants, without complication. There are obvious exceptions -- shows like "The Wire," "Empire" and "Power" have provided a counterbalance to this trend. But, for the most part, when you see a person of color committing crime on a TV show, he or she is painted one-dimensionally as the villain.

As Tumblr user daughterofmilan wrote in a blog about white crime on TV: "Viewers of these characters see past the atrocious crimes and into their humanity, a luxury that white characters always have while characters of color rarely do."

The fact that so many of the shows whose plots are built around white male rage and criminality find deep fanbases isn't necessarily the problem, but it's just yet another example of white privilege. White criminality on TV is far more likely to be glamorized and given a sense of complexity, simply because across the television landscape, white characters are the majority of characters who receive three-dimensional characterizations. 

That privilege and nuance we give to white criminals on-screen extends to the real world, where mass shooters like Dylan Roof are first described as "quiet" and "polite" by the media, while the behavior of the young girl at the center of the incident at Spring Valley High is questioned, despite the fact that she was needlessly assaulted. 

It's not a bad thing that shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Fargo" exist and are beloved.  The real problem is an industry that still perpetuates damaging stereotypes about black people and black criminality. These stereotypes have dangerous, real-world consequences. Perhaps if there were as many shows that humanized young black men in hoodies as there are that humanize white serial killers, the attitude towards black life these days would be different. 

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