City folk have always looked on their country neighbors with superstition. According to John Podhoretz at the Weekly Standard, this suspicion has carried a clearly political bent since the days of W. His evidence: Scary white dudes, like Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Bill Henrickson (Big Love) from middle America invading your TVs.
“In Difficult Men, Brett Martin’s book about the remarkable writer-producers who brought television to new cultural heights, Martin notes that there was something explicitly political at work in the early days of what he calls television’s “Third Golden Age.” Americans “on the losing side” of the 2000 election, Martin writes, “were left groping to come to terms with the Beast lurking in their own body politic.” As it happened, “that side happened to track very closely with the viewerships of networks like AMC, FX, and HBO: coastal, liberal, educated, ‘blue state.’ And what the Third Golden Age brought them was a humanized red state. . . . This was the ascendant Right being presented to the disempowered Left—as if to reassure it that those in charge were still recognizably human.”
…It’s the depiction of the worlds in which they live that is so striking, even more so in the series that have come along since the body politic’s shift to the left, beginning in 2006. The canvas on which these characters are brought to three-dimensional life isn’t a “humanized red state” at all, but rather the red state of liberal horror fantasy.”
Podhoretz concludes: “Still, rich Hollywood folk making mincemeat out of poor rural folk is another element of the ongoing American culture war that should not go unremarked.”
Fair enough, although any critical studies grad could tell you that whitey from the sticks, especially them man-folks, have been derided for a long time among the educated liberal elites who fill television’s coveted writers’ rooms. Educated liberal elites, mind you, who are primarily white dudes.
Take, for example, Breaking Bad creator and lead writer Vince Gilligan. Walter White is only the latest in a stream of strange white guy leads from the NYU Film grad that made his fame penning for the 90’s hit The X-Files and its spinoff, The Lone Gunman, two shows about white, male, morally questionable anti-heroes, that were created long before the Red State/Blue State debate began. Here’s where the black and white argument of conservatives begins to go gray: White dudes mocking white dudes? Forget the Red/Blue, Country/City, Right/Left default. The far more interesting question that characters like Walter White raise is: Why would white men constantly cast themselves as sociopathic anti-heroes?
To this day I recall a white male film student of mine walking into class with a look of shame on his face. “I just got out of film theory,” he remarked when asked, “and I feel like a rapist. I mean, I’d never do that, but white guys, we’re so…dirty. We’re horrible people.” A few weeks later he commented, “After college I’m moving back to Scotland. My ancestors came from there a few centuries ago; there’s got to be something better there for me than there is here. In America, I’m a white guy- I’m nothing.”
This – the way we characterize white men and men in general – is a cultural crisis that goes deeper than Right versus Left. Despite the many attempts to drag it into the realm of politics, this is a moral issue. Academia titles a sexualized perspective as “the male gaze” and loads classrooms with the second wave feminist point of view: The kind of programming that ends up on our TV screens isn’t shocking, it’s inevitable. Now is the time to draw attention to the inherent – and dangerous – power of higher education to shape students’ perspectives, not only about the outside world, but about themselves.