Event Title

White Masculinity in the 21st Century Imagination: The Moral Code of the Reluctant Outlaw on Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy

Presenter Information

Nicole Bishop, Niagara University

Location

Panel 09: Kearney 310

Start Date

27-10-2012 8:30 AM

End Date

27-10-2012 10:00 AM

Description

This presentation explores the construction of the white male as both victim and hero in two popular contemporary American drama series, Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy (2008-present) and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad (2008- present). Both shows use the argumentative devices of pathos, ethos, and logos to create a sympathetic relationship with the viewer, whereby the criminality of the protagonists is seen as reasonable, if not admirable. Unlike the depiction in both fictional and journalistic mainstream media of criminality in minority groups—African-Americans and Latinos in particular— the reluctant outlaws of Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad manage to escape having their moral character besmirched by their criminal actions. The popularity of the two shows hints at the appealing nature of this image of white masculinity to the contemporary American imagination as a response to and rewriting of the white man’s role in this society. In my presentation, which incorporates footage from both programs, I argue that the popularity of the characters is a result of the desire to remove the monolithic stereotype of the white male as the evil controller of the patriarchal hegemony and reconfigure him as a likeable, tragic hero.

Many scholars across a wide range of disciplines spent the last two decades of the 20th century examining the social construct of white, heterosexual male privilege and arguing his complicity with, if not benefit from, institutional and societal oppression of women and racial minorities. As Kyle W. Kusz notes in his essay “’I want to be the Minority’: The Politics of Youthful White Masculinities in Sport and Popular Culture in 1990s America,” this interest in the social construct of whiteness is “a response to the fact that critical studies of race have tended to focus on historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups, thereby overlooking Whiteness ‘as if it is the natural, inevitable, ordinary way of being human” (393). With the white, heterosexual male generally treated as the norm, able to be “both everything and nothing” by being both “visible and invisible” (Dyer, 1988; Nakayama & Krizek, 1995), it was easy to label masculinities portrayed by other races as deviant and “Other” while whiteness continued as the “unchallenged racial norm” (Kusz, 393). In the 1990s, a wave of backlash introduced the trope of the white male as victim (Savran, 1998). Scholarship and popular culture alike strove demonstrate the multiplicity of the experience of whiteness by asserting that white men have problems too. Even as story after story broke about the corrupt personal, business, and political practices of prominent white leaders, Americans searched for positive alternative images of white masculinity.

Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad take up the mantle of this pursuit. On both shows, the protagonists find themselves disadvantaged by a variety of factors such as poor health, membership in an undesirable group, and the inability to succeed financially. Unlike the super hero-esque Donald Draper of Mad Men or even the sinister complexity of last decade's Tony Soprano, Jackson Teller and Walter White appeal to the viewer as the good guys in a crooked world, trying to do what's best for their families. Their loyalty to their families is matched only by their sense of fraternal obligation. In Jax's case, his allegiance to the motorcycle club his father founded is his downfall, whereas Walter's quirky relationship with a former student leads him to make decisions based more on paternal sentiment than self-interest. Interestingly, both shows use Mexicans as foils to exemplify true lawlessness and extreme violence within the drug world.

My presentation endeavors to demonstrate how the construction of race on both shows puts the white male back on the top of the social hierarchy while simultaneously instilling him with a noble victimhood. I show the ramifications of such a construction of contemporary white American masculinity, which sometimes comes at the expense of other racial groups. My ultimate goal is to focus a critical lens on both race and masculinity in order to glean a deeper understanding of how they function in today’s culture.

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Oct 27th, 8:30 AM Oct 27th, 10:00 AM

White Masculinity in the 21st Century Imagination: The Moral Code of the Reluctant Outlaw on Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy

Panel 09: Kearney 310

This presentation explores the construction of the white male as both victim and hero in two popular contemporary American drama series, Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy (2008-present) and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad (2008- present). Both shows use the argumentative devices of pathos, ethos, and logos to create a sympathetic relationship with the viewer, whereby the criminality of the protagonists is seen as reasonable, if not admirable. Unlike the depiction in both fictional and journalistic mainstream media of criminality in minority groups—African-Americans and Latinos in particular— the reluctant outlaws of Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad manage to escape having their moral character besmirched by their criminal actions. The popularity of the two shows hints at the appealing nature of this image of white masculinity to the contemporary American imagination as a response to and rewriting of the white man’s role in this society. In my presentation, which incorporates footage from both programs, I argue that the popularity of the characters is a result of the desire to remove the monolithic stereotype of the white male as the evil controller of the patriarchal hegemony and reconfigure him as a likeable, tragic hero.

Many scholars across a wide range of disciplines spent the last two decades of the 20th century examining the social construct of white, heterosexual male privilege and arguing his complicity with, if not benefit from, institutional and societal oppression of women and racial minorities. As Kyle W. Kusz notes in his essay “’I want to be the Minority’: The Politics of Youthful White Masculinities in Sport and Popular Culture in 1990s America,” this interest in the social construct of whiteness is “a response to the fact that critical studies of race have tended to focus on historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups, thereby overlooking Whiteness ‘as if it is the natural, inevitable, ordinary way of being human” (393). With the white, heterosexual male generally treated as the norm, able to be “both everything and nothing” by being both “visible and invisible” (Dyer, 1988; Nakayama & Krizek, 1995), it was easy to label masculinities portrayed by other races as deviant and “Other” while whiteness continued as the “unchallenged racial norm” (Kusz, 393). In the 1990s, a wave of backlash introduced the trope of the white male as victim (Savran, 1998). Scholarship and popular culture alike strove demonstrate the multiplicity of the experience of whiteness by asserting that white men have problems too. Even as story after story broke about the corrupt personal, business, and political practices of prominent white leaders, Americans searched for positive alternative images of white masculinity.

Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad take up the mantle of this pursuit. On both shows, the protagonists find themselves disadvantaged by a variety of factors such as poor health, membership in an undesirable group, and the inability to succeed financially. Unlike the super hero-esque Donald Draper of Mad Men or even the sinister complexity of last decade's Tony Soprano, Jackson Teller and Walter White appeal to the viewer as the good guys in a crooked world, trying to do what's best for their families. Their loyalty to their families is matched only by their sense of fraternal obligation. In Jax's case, his allegiance to the motorcycle club his father founded is his downfall, whereas Walter's quirky relationship with a former student leads him to make decisions based more on paternal sentiment than self-interest. Interestingly, both shows use Mexicans as foils to exemplify true lawlessness and extreme violence within the drug world.

My presentation endeavors to demonstrate how the construction of race on both shows puts the white male back on the top of the social hierarchy while simultaneously instilling him with a noble victimhood. I show the ramifications of such a construction of contemporary white American masculinity, which sometimes comes at the expense of other racial groups. My ultimate goal is to focus a critical lens on both race and masculinity in order to glean a deeper understanding of how they function in today’s culture.