The Redemption of White Men
Last night, I found myself watching CSPAN until 2 in the morning. I took a shower and came back just as the vote for the “Skinny Repeal” was beginning. Names were called. There was a sudden loud gasp and some cheering part way through the names. I went to twitter to see if they caught what happened.
McCain had voted no. His no vote ensured the bill would not pass and healthcare would remain just as it was. The headlines lauding him for saving the ACA began immediately. Last week when it was announced he had brain cancer, there was a similar reaction. He’s a war hero, he’s served his country well, he was so respectful to President Obama when they ran against each other.
McCain, the great hero, saving us all while fighting cancer.
It’s as if his past horrific actions never existed. His generally conservative values were irrelevant, his idea to bring Sarah Palin to the nation’s attention was no matter. Additionally, the work of others before McCain were of no consequence; McCain’s bravery and strength in coming to vote and save the ACA were remarked upon, while Senator Mazie Hirono from Hawaii, diagnosed with Stage 4 Kidney Cancer in May, barely had any headlines written about her battle. Senator Hirono, a Democrat, was vocally opposed to any sort of repeal of the ACA, citing her childhood without healthcare and her own cancer in speeches that were largely unrecognized before yesterday.
Plus, it’s not like McCain was the only person who voted against the Skinny Repeal — Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski have been against this repeal from the beginning, consistently voting with the entire Democratic Party to keep the ACA. They were open about their discontent with the current bill and made it clear that they were voting for their constituents, not for their party, despite immense pressure from their party. They stood strong through it all and in the aftermath, McCain is the one who gets the bulk of the recognition.
But this is just part of a grander trend of finding ways to redeem white men, to turn them into heroes. One we all seem to fall victim to.
Harry Potter famously said in the infamous Deathly Hallows epilogue. ““Albus Severus, you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.” Readers of the series know instantly the two men Harry’s referring to — Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Professor Severus Snape.
Albus Dumbledore certainly had his faults, but it’s the uplifting of Severus Snape’s memory that stings the most. Snape was awful to Harry and his friends from day one, with minimal explanation beyond his dislike for James Potter. The books go on and Snape just seems to get worse. Harry regularly believes Snape is the one out to get him, despite assurances from others. Often, Snape takes joy in hurting Harry and his friends, taking points from Gryffindor for slight offenses and trying to get him in as much trouble as possible. In the sixth book, Snape’s allegiance to Voldemort is confirmed and he even takes the initiative and kills Dumbledore.
But in the last book, as Snape lies dying, he gives Harry some of his tears so Harry can see his memories. Harry goes back and sees how Snape was always trying to protect Harry…because he was hopelessly in love with Harry’s mother, Lily. He was bitter and angry at how Harry’s dad and his dad’s friends treated him in school, but mostly he never got over the fact that Lily never felt for him the way he felt for her, that she went off and married James Potter. Even Snape’s patronus is the same as Lily’s — a doe, which Harry also uses. “Always,” becomes what Snape is most known for around the world, his eternal love for a woman who didn’t love him back becomes his legacy. The memories also reveal that Snape was allied with Voldemort as a double agent, acting under Dumbledore’s orders.
Which is why Snape took over Hogwarts and allowed all of the students to be terrorized for a year before the Battle of Hogwarts.
Snape was not a good guy. He was emotionally abusive, he was manipulative, he was Neville Longbottom’s biggest fear. He was a murderer, he was allied with the most evil wizard in the world — twice. And he was as vindictive and petty as he was to children all because a woman who was murdered over a decade ago never loved him. Yet Severus Snape is considered a romantic hero to many after they read the last book. Even Harry thinks Snape is great enough to give his son the (unfortunate) name of Severus. Because even after all he put Harry and his friends through, he was redeemed by his few kind actions.
All of this was already on my mind when McCain voted no last night because I had recently caught up on Game of Thrones. I had finished season six just a few days before and I was infuriated by this tiny point in an otherwise phenomenal season.
Ned Stark was always portrayed as a Good Guy. He loved his wife and his children, he was a fair King of the North, but loyal to the leader of the Kingdom, and he was generally well liked. His biggest flaw was that he once had an affair, cheating on his wife, then insisted on raising his bastard son with their other children. This caused a lot of tension between Ned and his wife, and continued to until their deaths.
Yet in the last episode of season six, we learn this isn’t quite true. Ned Stark never cheated on his wife and Jon Snow is actually the son of Ned’s sister, who died in childbirth. Due to the circumstances around the birth, Ned felt no need to explain Jon’s true heritage to anyone in order to protect his sister’s legacy and Jon from knowledge of his true parentage.
I’m sure there are narrative reasons for this that will become clear in season seven — it’s too big a reveal to make this late in the game for it not to have some significance — but at the moment, it feels like a way to redeem the one real flaw in Ned Stark’s character, five seasons and several years after he died. I couldn’t help but think how odd it was that the writers felt the need to give him this level of redemption.
Then I thought about Severus.
Then I thought about McCain.
It seems so often that white men never get to be wholly evil. It’s as if we as media consumers just have to sit and wait for the secret good, the twist that suddenly makes them heroic and perfect. Yet I can’t think of these sort of narratives for men of color, for women. Instead, it seems we wait for anyone who’s not a white man to mess up so we can tear them down.
When you think of famous men who have been accused of abuse, men who you wish no longer had careers, you think of Chris Brown, of Bill Cosby instead of Charlie Sheen and Sean Penn, even though none of them should still be allowed to have careers. Sheen and Penn continue to find success with little issue while Brown and Cosby both faced job insecurity in the wake of the accusations (though they ultimately continue to be successful.)
When Jose Fernandez, a Cuban ex-pat and star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died suddenly in a boating accident, he was celebrated around the league for the wonderful light he had been, for his energy and enthusiasm. Weeks later, stories surfaced of drugs and drinking before they went boating, the narrative mentioned continuously from then on, as if that should be Fernandez’s legacy. Similarly, Carrie Fisher’s death shook millions and months later, autopsies revealed there were drugs in her system and her history of drunks and drinking were brought up again. Fernandez and Fisher’s true legacies will not be erased, but some media outlets tried to boil them down to illegal substances and irresponsible decisions.
It’s exhausting day in and day out to see white men lauded and celebrated for minor things, all their flaws forgotten, while men of color and women are torn down as quickly as possible. I’ve seen this called out plenty of times on social media, so let’s hope that media catches up.