Pop Culture

Dear Straight White Men: You Are Being Pandered to As Well

Fantastic Four is here…I’m not going to see it. The reviews are bad and until someone in Hollywood realizes that for the Fantastic Four to succeed they need someone to do to Dr. Doom what Heath Ledger did to Joker, every single future Fantastic Four movie is probably going to remain bad. However, the current movie is notable for another reason, and that’s the casting of Michael B. Jordan, a black actor, as Johnny Storm, typically depicted as white / on fire. 

For a more in-depth look at how some people react to this in our post-racial utopia, let’s go to the Internet…

The important word here is “pandering”, which means to distastefully indulge. Casting Jordan over a white actor is pandering to black people and white guilt, as was casting Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor. Making Ms. Marvel Muslim in the latest comic series is pandering to tolerance. Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn finally having their romantic relationship acknowledged as canon is pandering to the gay agenda. Michelle Gomez as a female Master in Doctor Who is pandering to feminists. So much pandering. Why must companies pander, oh why, screamed the straight white male whose only motivation is the unencumbered execution of art free from social issues and something something ethics in video-game journalism?

Okay, take a seat ’cause we’re going to have a Come to Jesus moment here.

You are being pandered to. Nearly every single movie, comic and video game you have ever enjoyed has been pandered to you as a straight white male. There’s even a trope named after it.

Did you honestly think that every poster showing a strong, handsome male lead holding a gun and getting ready to do some damage wasn’t designed to appeal to your need to feel and identify as powerful, and that making the lead actor white would make that connection easier? Do you think pumping up Keira Knightley’s breasts for posters was an artistic decision and not a blatant grab for heterosexual ticket dollars? Yes, yes, pre-emptive commenter, sex sells, but the point is that this particular version of sexual appeal is designed to appeal especially to you. It’s pandered to you.

It’s getting weirdly specific lately, too. Now, not only are movies still engaged in constantly pandering to straight white male power fantasies, they are laser-focused on the preservation of virility in older men. I first noticed it in 2006’s Firewall, thinking that Harrison Ford in his sixties was getting a little unbelievable as an action star with a 16-year-old daughter, but it’s gotten sillier with each year. Liam Neeson is old enough to collect Social Security and still doing Taken films. Bruce Willis will likely be that old when the sixth Die Hard film comes out. What is the entire Expendables series if not one huge pander to an aging male demographic that has money to blow but fears a loss of relevancy?

All of Mattie Brice’s articles are my favorite, but my favoritest of them was on what she called the Dadification of Games. Specifically, she was talking about The Last of Us, one of my favorite games of all time. Fond as I am of that game, it mirrors much of what you’re seeing in blockbuster Hollywood. To quote Brice…

Basically, our audience and developers are getting older, but are still not observant of how they make all other types of people serve them for their character growth. For some reason, we think making people assholes who might change to be nice one day morally complicated. All of this reminds me of when we talk about gun violence, and how much older men still sound like 18-year-olds with how much they still need video games to serve their specific purposes. TLoU was most likely not a comment on the dadification of games, but it stands as a great artifact to talk about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love The Last of Us. However, part of the appeal of that game to me was exactly what Brice talks about in her article. My daughter was four when the game came out. Money was tight, survival was hard and I was scared I was going to screw up parenting and life in general. So give me a protagonist to embody that and turn us both loose in a zombie apocalypse so I can work out some of my anxiety and escape. I was directly pandered to, and thank God, because I really, really needed that game right at that moment in my life.

The problem is other people need that, too. Black people need to see themselves as powerful in a world that still screws them over (keyword) disproportionately (end keyword) more than white people. Muslims need plucky, awesome heroines to read about in a country where the word "Islam" is often still equated with misogyny and terrorism. Gay people want to swoon over a love story they can see themselves in, and not just in the tiny upstairs auditorium of the River Oaks Theatre but in Imax and 3D just as straight people get to do. Women just want to get out of the freakin’ refrigerator.

My fellow straight white (and cis and abled) males, you’re under a delusion, and that delusion is called normal. We are not normal. Black people aren’t normal. Trans people are not normal. There is no normal. We are all categories with no default setting for the human race. However, for more than 100 years, the vast majority of stories that have been told have been pandered to us. Yes, other stories exist, but pick a medium, any medium. You start naming straight white male leads and I’ll start naming any other category. Who do you think is going to run out of names first?

A lot of this has to do with perception. Men, for instance, have a tendency to perceive equality when women are still the minority in a group, and female dominance when they actually just pull even. That feeling is brought on by the loss of hegemony and the perception that your personal normalcy is being invaded. The hegemony was real, but I’m sad to say the normalcy never was. The groups campaigning for better representation in media were always just as normal as you were. It’s just that very few people bothered to listen to them, let alone pander to them. Why risk it, when success can be achieved by pandering to you instead and pandering to others might alienate you?

That is over. Women make up the majority of gamers and are the fastest growing comic audience. A celebrity coming out as trans drew the biggest non-sports audience on a Friday night show in more than a decade. Hispanics buy 25 percent of the movie tickets in America despite being only 17 percent of the population, and black audiences as well are on the rise. These people have money, and they want their share of the pandering you have been hoarding all your life.

A final note before I let you go. Pandering is certainly a thing, and everything Bill Hicks once said about marketing is as true today as it was when he was alive. However, maybe, just maybe, there actually have been people out there in the world who want to have a gay love interest in a summer blockbuster but never could get the idea off the ground because the gay and gay-ally audience wasn’t enough to justify millions of dollars. Maybe there are people out there who want Black Widow to have her own film and a female Doctor on television not because it would be a thorn in the patriarchy but because they think it would kick all the ass and ass by-products.

Casting Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm doesn’t have to be a gimmick. Lighting himself on fire and flying is Johnny Storm’s gimmick already. Maybe someone just said Jordan would be a good choice and everyone around them went, “Yeah, okay. I mean he was great on The Wire. Why not?” And sure, one of Satan’s little marketing familiars probably rubbed his clawed hands together and whispered that the black dollar shall be theirs, but that guy did the exact same thing for you when they made Leia show some leg in the Star Wars poster. It’s time to acknowledge that. Your tastes are not the norm. You are just another demographic being pandered to.

Jef has a new story out now about robot sharks in Lurking in the Deep. He’s also on Facebook and Twitter
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner