Guess who's the main character.
"Our team consists of two black guys, two white women, and one white guy, so I guess it’s pretty clear who’s in charge."
No matter how diverse a show's cast or how positive its portrayal of minorities, the lead character will almost always be a conventionally attractive, heterosexual, Caucasian, vaguely Christian male. Common wisdom in the Western entertainment industry is that a show or film needs a lead character with whom the largest possible swatch of audiences can identify with
, so this is usually an Enforced Trope
. The White Male Lead is often The Hero
There are, of course, shows and films with female and/or minority leads, but those works are almost always targeted towards those specific demographics. If a producer wants to appeal across all demographics, chances are they'll go with a white male lead (with the occasional Will Smith
and Jackie Chan
exception). This is because there is still some racism in the West, whites are the majority there and studios believe they are unable to relate to minority characters
. Men are not the majority, but in the world of writing most of them are
and there's still plenty of sexism in the west, so they thus believe that their audience can't relate to women either
. Advertising for a show or film will often show the white male in the front and centre with all other characters in the background. It is the advertiser's way of saying, "Yes, this show is perfectly accessible to the majority of Americans."
The WML is closely related to Mighty Whitey
. The difference is that while the Mighty Whitey is a white person who enters a non-white culture and masters every aspect of it, the WML can refer to any white male character who is the focus of the story. Many stories, both real and fictional, are often subjected to Race Lifts
in TV or movie adaptations so that there will be a white guy in the lead role. Another common tactic is for the adaptation to focus on a white male who was a minor character in the original story.
Compare Girl-Show Ghetto
and Minority Show Ghetto
(which this trope is intended to avoid), Ridiculously Average Guy
, and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
. Compare and contrast Mukokuseki
, making characters racially ambiguous so that multiple demographics can relate to them. Unless a work is consciously avoiding it, he is often the leader of a Token Trio
or Five-Token Band
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- Most films in which the lead can fit the description of Mighty Whitey. Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar etc. Similarly, many White Man's Burden films will fall into this trope.
- Averted in many martial arts films, especially those starring Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. The martial arts genre is perhaps the only genre in which a large number of films with Asian leads found success in the United States.
- The Forbidden Kingdom takes place in ancient China, but its lead is a white male from the present day. One reviewer said "As a Hollywood blockbuster, The Forbidden Kingdom offers no apologies for its American-centrism. In fact, it wears it with pride like a badge of honor." It was star Jackie Chan's own idea that the protagonist be a white kid, precisely to attract interest in the West for what was basically a Wire Fu movie. This example is unusual in that the White Male Lead is not featured prominently in any of the advertising. The purpose of a White Male Lead in a movie with a minority-heavy cast is usually to attract white audiences, but as mentioned above, Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies usually do not have this problem.
- Universal's 47 Ronin, based on the Japanese historical legend of The 47 Ronin starring... Keanu Reeves. Arguably a subversion, since Keanu Reeves is part-Asian. In fact, Keanu tends to play this role a lot — a generic-looking blank that is easy for audience members to project themselves onto (even if this doesn't speak well of his acting ability). Executive Meddling had several scenes reshot because the originals did not give enough focus to Reeves.
- The Last Airbender is based on a cartoon with two lead characters of ambiguous race (tan skin and blue eyes) and a culture based on Inuits. The film cast unambiguously white actors to play the lead roles and Inuit actors as the rest of their tribe.
- Come See the Paradise is a story about Japanese internment camps centered on Dennis Quaid.
- In the original novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the narrator is the Native American Chief Bromden. The film version centers on the white male Randle P. McMurphy without any narration from the Chief. This is a case of Pragmatic Adaptation, because Chief Bromden is a Supporting Protagonist who does not speak for the vast majority of the film (and it's a surprise reveal in the movie that he actually can), while the main conflict in both the book and the film revolves around McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, not Chief.
- Glory is about The American Civil War's 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first formal units of the U.S. Army to be made up entirely of African-American men. The movie's viewpoint character is Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the 54th's white commanding officer.
- Go For Broke, a movie about the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, starred the very blonde Van Johnson.
- Averted when Neil Gaiman was approached by film studios wanting to adapt Anansi Boys; he refused because they wanted to cast white actors in place of the all-black leads.
- Averted and parodied in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle . The opening scene contains two white guys rather than the actual lead characters and sets up their storyline, which happens almost entirely offscreen. The film's creators initially feared that Executive Meddling would turn Harold and Kumar into "Joe and Dave." The two white guys are the movie the creators were afraid that Harold And Kumar would become.
- Christian Bale played a funeral director in Nanjing Heroes (Now called Flowers of War), a story about the Nanjing Massacre during World War II. This example is unusual in that the movie is made by a Chinese studio.
- The 2011 film Tower Heist was supposed to have a mostly black and Latino cast with Eddie Murphy in the lead. The lead role instead went to Ben Stiller.
- Inverted in Lilies of the Field. Sidney Poitier plays a Jerk with a Heart of Gold who decides to help out some rather disaffected German nuns.
- In the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Quartermain is the lead character and the team leader. In the original comic, Mina Murray is the team leader. But he's Sean Connery!!!
- Every hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with their own movie is white and male. This seems to be changing with film adaptations of Black Panther and the Carol Danvers incarnation of Captain Marvel being announced.
- The Impossible, a film about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, takes place in Thailand but focuses on the experiences of a white family.
- However, there is a slight inversion in that the lead is female. Also in a case of irony, the film was a Spanish production rather than a US or UK production.
- The movie is Based on a True Story involving a Spanish family, but they were changed to unspecified Anglo-Saxon in a deliberate attempt to improve international sales. The nationality of the main characters is never stated in the film proper.
- Jack Frost of Dreamworks' Rise of the Guardians, though it makes sense for him to be white since his myth has European origins.
- As long as Jeff Robinov (who infamously said in 2007 that he would never greenlight a film with a female lead after the box office disappointment of The Brave One) is there, most of the films at Warner Bros. will consist of these.
- In June 2013, Robinov was finally fired (over greenlighting Pacific Rim) and replaced with a three-person committee (two men and one woman). It has yet to be seen if Warner Bros. will change their practices.
- Danny Glover blames this trope for his biopic of Toussaint L'Ouverture being stuck in Development Hell for years. The script was finished long ago, but every time he shows it around the studios demand the inclusion of "white heroes" as a condition to produce it. White heroes in a L'Ouverture biopic.
- The Last King of Scotland: A movie (and its source novel) about Idi Amin's dictatorship in Uganda, with a fictional Scottish doctor as the lead.
- Max from Elysium is a light-skinned Hispanic, but is played by the very WASPy Matt Damon, which tended to confuse viewers who believe that Latino Is Brown.
- One of the most common criticisms of the film adaptation of World War Z. The novel was a collection of interviews with a large variety of witnesses and survivors of varying genders and nationalities, while Brad Pitt's character — the sole protagonist — in the film might as well have been named Punch Whiteman.
- Played with in Gives Light. The main character is a light-skinned Native American boy (his father is Shoshone and his mother was Caucasian). As a result other children on the reservation see him as white, and because he was raised off of the reservation (but by the aforementioned Native American dad) he doesn't always fit in with them.
- Remnants plays the trope unfortunately straight. The cast was enormously diverse, filled with minorities, but Jobs, the lead, is a white male.
- One of the authors who co-wrote Remnants, Michael Grant, later did the exact same thing in Gone with Sam.
- Max in Bryan Miranda's The Journey to Atlantis. Not only is he this trope, even his (last) name is White.
- The Heroes of Olympus series:
- The series amps up the minorities compared to its predominantly Caucasian prequel, but Percy and Jason are still the attractive, straight, white, male leads of the Greek and Roman camps, as well as of the Seven.
- Subverted in Son of Neptune - Frank is the official leader of the quest. And again in House of Hades, when Jason promotes Frank to praetorship to lead the ghost army.
Live Action TV
- Outsourced, a fish-out-of-water story about a white male American running a call center in India.
- Glee has a very diverse cast, boasting characters of all different races, sexual orientations, and levels of ability, but the stars of the show always seem to be the white, heterosexual teacher Will, and the leaders of Glee club: white, straight couple Finn and Rachel. Lampshaded by Emma at one point.
- It gets to the point where one episode has a tacked-on musical number for the black Mercedes and the Asian Tina. This number is explicitly said In-Universe to have been added to give two underutilized characters something to do.
- ...Until the fifth season with the untimely death of Finn's actor Cory Monteith, which led to Kurt and Blaine becoming Glee's Official Couple, though they are both white males.
- Saved by the Bell Zack, Screech, and Mr. Belding are all white males. Zack is the protagonist during the most popular 1989-1993 run. Screech and Mr. Belding were in all the incarnations.
- Community probably qualifies as a subversion of this. When it was first being advertised, it came off to some as yet another show about a white guy and his new quirky minority friends, but the show's Troperiffic nature quickly put an end to that. While Jeff isn't the main character in all the stories, he often is. He is certainly the one the group expects to come up with solutions to most of their problems, even if they know he's often self-centred and egotistical. While the 'mother figure' in the group alternates between Britta and Shirley, the "father figure" is firmly in Jeff's ballcourt. The only member who would challenge him is Pierce, who is also white and comes with a whole host of problems.
- To be fair to the show, Joel Mc Hale was the cast member with the most TV credits to his name (save for Chevy Chase, who—not being the main character at all—was given the And Starring credit).
- All the Doctors on Doctor Who so far have been white males, even though it has been stated and shown that Time Lords can change race and sex when they regenerate. There's been debate among fans — and indeed, the BBC, who's considered black actors for the role — of getting a female or alternate race in, but this quickly degrades into accusations that it was wrecked.
- For the run on the classic show, The Doctor was treated as asexual, but the TV movie and the revived series frequently make overtures of The Doctor being heterosexual. Matt Smith and David Tennant in particular, we're known for having sexual tension with their conpanions. One of Peter Capaldi's demands upon taking the role was for the Doctor to become an aromantic again.
- The Singoff's third series was won by a now famous group called Pentatonix. Despite all the singers being diverse and talented, the lead singer during the show was definitely the conventionally good looking white male.
- The Law & Order franchise usually has one of these, typically from a salty, no-nonsense, working class background, plus or minus an Olivia Benson or two.
- Averted as of season 13 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when Olivia Benson moves into the role of lead character, and the male lead, Nick Amaro, is Latino. By season 15, all of the regular male cast members (Ice-T, Danny Pino and Raúl Esparza) are black or Latino. Though in season 16, one white man is added to the regular cast.
- Jim from The Office isn't exactly the only white male at his small paper company in small town Pennsylvania, but he often served as being the young, attractive, savvy wisecracker who would make fun of the middle aged eccentric losers around him. Naturally, the spotlight gets stolen from him on a regular basis. After a good deal of Characterization Marches On, he's learned to be Not So Above It All.
- The CSI shows, at various points. The two spinoffs, CSI NY and CSI: Miami all the time and CSI started out with white male William Petersen and then went into an aversion phase with Lawerence Fishburne as its lead, and now back to the white male lead thing with Ted Danson.
- As diverse as Star Trek: The Original Series tried to be in the racially charged 60s, they still had to have a white man as the Captain; the meddling executives wouldn't even stand for a female Number Two. This was followed by Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Jonathan Archer in Star Trek: Enterprise. It was averted with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which the eponymous space station is commanded by Bald Black Leader Guy Benjamin Sisko, and Star Trek: Voyager, in which the eponymous ship is captained by the female Kathryn Janeway.
- TOS went even further in its final episode, where a character is given a line which, in one reading, may be explicitly stating that in Starfleet, women can't be Captains. (It's possible, however, to parse this line as meaning Kirk doesn't have room in his life for a steady relationship, because he's too obsessed with the job. It's possible...)
- One episode of Deep Space Nine revolved around a war-weary Ben Sisko slipping between the world he knows and one where he's a struggling sci-fi writer in the 1950's who is writing short stories about DS9. The biggest problem he faces is that nobody wants to publish them. His editor suggests that Ben replace his black lead by applying this trope.
- Inverted on Benson: the main character is black while the rest of the characters are white.
- When the Sci Fi Channel adapted the Earthsea Trilogy into the mini-series Earthsea, they decided to make the main character white. This did not sit well with the original author.
- Although more properly an ensemble, Criminal Minds in its first two seasons billed Mandy Patinkin and Thomas Gibson as the show's leads. Furthermore, the pilot only had one female lead character (Elle Greenaway) and one African-American lead character (Derek Morgan) surrounded by white males, indicating that they were tokens. More female characters were added or became relevant, and Morgan's character has gained depth and prominence as the series progressed, but the show's "stars" are still white males- Gibson and Joe Mantegna.
- The UnSub in "Broken Mirror" lampshades this when he "profiles" the team while taunting them during one of his phone calls, deriding Morgan as simply a "side of beef" and telling Elle she had no chance of "joining the all boys' club".
- Orange Is The New Black is about Piper Chapman, who is a white hipster who ends up in federal prison after being a drug mule for her ex-girlfriend. The inmates in the prison are of varying racial backgrounds and the show tells their stories as well. In an interview with NPR, creator Jenji Kohan openly admits that the series is an example of this.
In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water
, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it's a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It's useful.
- Dexter: Taking place in Miami, the series features many hispanic characters and those of other races and ethnicities/nationalities, though Dexter himself is white.
- Elementary: Despite genderbending and racebending Watson (Lucy Liu) and having a host of genderbent original characters from the Sherlock canon and the racial diversity expected of a New York show, Sherlock Holmes remains the White Male Lead.
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Similar to the above example, the 99th precinct has a good number of racial minorities and women as main and one-shot characters, but the lead character is the white Jake Peralta.
- Marco Polo is about the eponymous Italian merchant's adventures in the court of Kublai Khan. He is the only major white character.
- In RENT, despite its racially and sexually diverse cast and high praise by the LGBT community, the two central characters are still the straight and white Mark and Roger (Ho Yay between them notwithstanding). Roger is the Romantic Lead; like Benny and Collins, his race isn't discussed much, but he's usually cast as a certain race, possibly having to do with the genre of music he sings.
- Subverted in the early Metroid games. For the first two games, Samus wears armor that completely covers her body and is described as male in the manual. At the end, it is revealed that Samus is a Girl.
- The party in Chrono Trigger consists of a (female) Gadgeteer Genius, a tomboyish Rebellious Princess, a Knight in Shining Armor who happens to be a frog, a repurposed guard robot, a pansexual blonde cavewoman, and potentially the game's flamboyant Disc One Final Boss. So, of course, The Hero (who's almost always in your party) is a spiky-haired, sword-wielding, non-talking teenage boy, though not necessarily white; like many Anime-esque game characters, it's hard to tell a character's ethnicity (if there even is one).
- The original North American localization for Persona, Revelations: Persona, turns the Japanese main protagonist into a white American red-headed teenager, along with making the rest of the characters diverse. This would be an example of a Race Lift.
- Averted in the online dollmaking game Doll Divine, in which most of the dollmakers are for female characters, but the default for skin, hair, and eye colors, shapes, and styles is totally random.
- Also averted in any other character customization system that starts out with a randomized appearance, like World of Warcraft.
- Cracked parodies this in A Trailer For Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever with Wealthy, Successful Protagonist. They cover this trope again here.
- The Nostalgia Critic likes calling these out in movies, often expressing belief that the female sidekicks/love interests should take over because they're usually more interesting. He's also called himself this, although if you know him, you'll get that he fits the description In Name Only.
- Deconstructed with Donnie DuPre from Demo Reel. He's the "main" Innocent Bigot in a show that has a woman, a black man and two foreign guys, but he's very bisexual, very nice and very woobie, really wants to be a good friend to all of them, and after some firm prodding, works to make up for his initial racist/sexist comments.
- The Daily Currant: Ann Coulter walks out of star trek claims too many minorities
Apparently in the future the liberals have extinguished all the white people, Coulter explained, I mean they got a black girl running the communications, an Asian guy driving the ship and a pointy-eared alien doing pretty much everything else. I guess we're supposed to just accept that minorities will be the new majority. This isn't an entertainment film - it's nothing but a pro-Obama, multicultural piece of propaganda. And of course its not even realistic. Since when have black people been able to speak foreign languages? And shouldn't Sulu have crashed the ship into a quasar by now?
Now Ann, you know I love you, a puzzled Hannity said, but I've seen the film, and although there were minorities, there were also plenty of whites. So I guess I don't see your problem.
Sean, the only other white people are foreigners, she retorted, you got one Communist from Moscow and a lazy, socialist engineer from Scotland. There's only one red-blooded American white person in the whole movie - and thank god he's the captain. The ship would fall apart in minutes without him.
- Chrono Hustle is fairly diverse in it's cast but, while it isn't explicitly mentioned, Jack seems to be white based the fact that his race likely would have come into play otherwise when he went to the Old West.
- Futurama's main cast includes a robot, a mutant woman, a Jamaican, a Space Jew lobster-thing and a Chinese-Martian woman, but the main character, Fry, is still a white male (admittedly, one odd in being from modern times).
- Notably, as the show evolved into more of an ensemble comedy, Fry lost his status as the sole lead character.
- Played straight in Teen Titans, where Robin is the leader, main character, and the only white male on the team (unless one counts Beast Boy, who is ethnically Caucasian but physically green). Justified in the original comics, where the Bat family are trusted mostly because they are unpowered (not because they are white men). Knowing that your boss can't casually mind-rape or lobotomize you with a glance is important.
- Notably averted in Young Justice, which also focuses on DC's young superheroes- while the show doesn't have a single central character, the closest is team leader Aqualad, who is black. Notably, this Aqualad, Kaldur'ahm, was created for the show.
- Averted in The Legend of Korra, in which the titular character is both female and the universe's equivalent of an Inuit and confirmed via Word of God as not straight. Notable because in doing so, the creators risked the Girl-Show Ghetto in addition to the obvious Animation Age Ghetto, though the former proved to averted when young boys responded very positively to the character during initial test screenings, and the show's first season proved popular enough to be renewed for three additional seasons.