White grievance is a phenomenological magic that transforms words and actions into personal attacks, ensuring a moral high ground for the magician and justifying an escalated response.
In its victim-calculus, “wear a mask” becomes a violation of civil liberties, a vaccine becomes an attempt to humiliate, and an election becomes a heist.
The important thing is what this transformation allows for. With the magic of grievance, attempting to vaccinate people, an objectively good thing, becomes a fireable offense. Administering vaccines, a step up from informing people, deserves a violent response, so we shouldn’t be surprised when anti-vaxxers ram, bomb, or riot.
As Trump said last week, “You know when you win and when you lose. If I lost this election, I could handle it pretty easily. When they steal it from you and rig it, that’s not easy and we have to fight. We have no choice.”
The greatest example of white grievance is the Lost Cause, the myth that founded Jim Crow. Since the South had always wanted the best for Black people and never insisted on slavery anyway, the Civil War was unjust. The South wasn’t full of evil slave-holders, it was filled with the nobly misunderstood who had died defending their way of life. Fighting Reconstruction became a noble pursuit, and the Klan became freedom fighters.
White grievance takes as its logical basis the ancient “eye for an eye” but ramps it up into the Americanized “Stand Your Ground.” You have a right to protect your family and property even up to, and including, using deadly force, just ask Mark and Patricia McCloskey who were ready to kill protestors for the trespass of walking on their lawn. White grievance takes as its moral locus those phenomenal objects upon which white power has been built. P*ssy, property, and pride.
Within the system of white grievance, it is worse to give up on one’s cause than it is to fight for it since by its logic it is always morally correct. Now it is fight-for-one’s-country, fighting-for-my-manhood, fighting-for-my-family. To not fight for what one believes would reflect a lack of self-respect or confidence, since the moral thing to do would be to fight for what’s right.
This kind of logic is often couched in scientism with another paralogism, “survival of the fittest.” Life itself is a war against the “forces” of starvation, of death, of old-age, of evil itself. You aren’t necessarily guaranteed to win, but if you don’t at least put up a good fight, you don’t deserve to win either.
For reference: Harley Quinn (the animated series) was written by Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey, all white men. The writers of the 2003 Catwoman movie, John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and John Rogers, are all white men. The writers and creators of Batman (Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Frank Miller, Tom King, Alan Moore, the list goes on) with rare exceptions have been white men. And the Nolan trilogy speaks for itself.
The Girl Bossification of Harley Quinn
“We’ll continue to see reincarnations of the girlboss because she’s a manifestation of the American myth that says if you’re not succeeding, it must be because you’re not trying hard enough.” —Leigh Stein
Girlbosses are essentially aggrieved pseudo-feminist corporate women whose end goal is the settling of scores with capitalistic men by replacing them. The girlboss culture generally erases race as a factor entirely, so as to create a false unity it calls “women” when it really means cis-white women.
Harley Quinn originated as the sexualized, ditzy foil to the malignant narcissist, Joker. Preening over him and referring to him, her boyfriend, as “Boss,” her role originally was purely to serve the Joker as an apparatus of disaster and—as she’s called in Harley Quinn—a “porn clown.”
In Harley Quinn, the animated series, we substitute out the infantilized characterization for an “empowered” girlboss one. In this universe, Black men are plants (JB Smoove) or sharks (Ron Funches), and Black women are books (Wanda Sykes). Every episode in the first season is about Harley trying to escape the Joker’s orbit while also taking his place as the dominant crime boss in Gotham.
The absence of Black people, particularly Black women, is not coincidental; it’s an important piece of the girlboss ideology. To recognize Black women as Black women in these contexts would be to undermine the flattening of “women” into cis-white women.
Within the Batman filmic universe are absent or insulting inclusions of Black women. Catwoman stars Halle Berry as a scantily-clad jewel thief and the only Black woman in the universe, apparently. This is a movie where the police officer who stalks Halle Berry from her apartment to her workplace to ask her on a date addresses a class of Black and Brown third-graders with the following speech:
“Being good is something you keep in your heart because you choose to put it there. I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m not saying some people don’t choose to be bad…but I want something different for you. I want something better, you understand? I want you to be the good guys, you got it? Let’s go shoot some hoops.”
Halle Berry somehow shows up in the classroom to watch this speech, fawn over him, and play an extremely sexualized one-on-one game of hoops in front of a crowd of cheering elementary school students. This was the most successful woman-led superhero film until Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman.
In Batman: The Killing Joke, the first Black woman on screen is a sex worker. Some of the only Black women of note in recent Batman media are the Joker’s girlfriend and therapist in the recent Todd Phillips’ Joker. One of them is literally a figment of the main character’s imagination, and both are simple foils for the story of white male grievance. To entertain their political identity would be to undermine the moral imperative of white grievance’s victimization ethos.
In Hollywood today we see Black and Brown people plopped into prefabbed roles traditionally occupied by white people. Instead of writing Black people, you put Black people into white parts. But color-blind casting can be a tool of the disappearing of race; deflecting from structural criticisms that might point out the lack of Black, Brown, or women writers. Color-blind casting is the “but I have a Black friend” of Hollywood.
More than deflect criticisms, color-blind casting invites the viewer to ignore race as a relevant dimension of life. I’ve never bought that suspension of disbelief means pretending the actors are real people, after all, knowing something is real has never been a requirement for enjoying it. Most children know Disneyland isn’t “real,” they gather that from the tickets, lines, and parking lot. What Disneyland requires isn’t the lie that the mouse costume is a real mouse, it’s that the person inside the mouse costume is happy.
The disappearing of Blackness allows for a political entity of “women” to be depicted that doesn’t make any real-world steps towards forming the potentially transformative political unity which could exist between diverse coalitions such as Black and white women. The objectives of women within these fictional worlds are ultimately only those of white women, which are the only concessions the white male writers of these works are willing to even recognize.
I’ll start with a quick analysis of some of the basic characters of Batman.
Harvey Dent is the Good. He is how white men want others to see them. A handsome white savior fighting for justice, adored by women.
Batman is how the white men wish they could be. Black. Strong. Cool. Has the newest technology. Low sexy voice. Is a hero. Can beat people up because he represents the moral good. Has the wind of justice at his back.
Alfred is the petty bourgeoisie. He knows what Wayne is, yet he loves him because he knows him personally. Lives a comfy but dependent life.
The Joker is the truth of white masculinity. If the threat of masculinity is violence, and the threat of violence is death, the threat of masculinity is ultimately death. But most men are bluffing, which the Joker knows and exploits. The Joker, on the other hand, is not bluffing. He is death.
Bruce Wayne is how they feel they want to live. Super wealthy. Handsome. Aggressive. Swaggering. A Philanthropist. The lifestyle they aspire to.
Batman and his counterpart The Joker each experienced severe trauma at a point in their lives and use it to justify their own violence, a rule that applies to the entire universe of Batman as we see, for example, with Two-Face. Broadly, this rule applies to much of the action genre in America.
The Joker is convinced that society doesn’t exist except to benefit the strong and rich, therefore morality is a kind of class warfare imposed by the haves onto the have-nots. He’s taken his grievance and spun it into mass murder.
The clown in America represents the white male psyche. It’s the physical expression of a deeper truth; the painted-on smile, the symbolic whiteness, the ridiculous suit. We’re scared of clowns because they are the truth of white men; the smile’s not real. What it hides has often been violent.
The Joker’s green hair and purple clothing symbolically conjure cash and royalty. He uses white grievance as a tool to dispense violence. In one prototypical example in the episode “Joker’s Favor” of Batman: The Animated Series (the episode in which Harley Quinn first makes her appearance), the Joker antagonizes a driver into cursing at him, then hunts him down and confronts him:
“Now look, my rude friend. We can’t have people cursing at each other on the freeway. It’s simply not polite. I’m just going to have to teach you some manners.”
The Joker of The Dark Knight is a visceral depiction of white sadistic grievance who murders or tortures three Black men in eight minutes in the first half-hour. He does a “magic trick” where he disappears a pen into a man’s skull, he holds a knife to a man’s face and tells him the first story of where he got his scars before slicing his throat, and he forces two men to Mandingo-fight to the death for a job. Race is not broached in Nolan’s movies, as he seems content to conjure its savageries symbolically.
Batman can, at any time, end poverty in Gotham but chooses not to for unknown reasons. Instead, he uses his billions to enforce a system in which moral order is policed by the most powerful. The police are well-intentioned but they lack the firepower and pesky warrants. Batman is deputized by Police Chief Gordon, who relies on him to infringe on the civil liberties of the citizens of Gotham.
Batman as a story postures the idea that the system might work better if the good guys could break the law. Many of his tricks, such as tapping phone calls, seeing through walls, GPS vehicle trackers, and searching homes are violations of constitutional rights. Batman is essentially the Patriot Act for Gotham. In Chicago, the police aren’t allowed to initiate vehicle or foot chases anymore after they killed and injured so many people in unnecessary chases, but that wouldn’t stop Batman.
Batman’s big thing is his decision not to kill. Now, he might maim, disfigure, and paralyze, but he’s not going to kill you. This policy only rationally makes sense in a world with a functioning justice system. Batman doesn’t kill people because he can ensure they face justice within the legal system. Batman was created in 1939, and Jim Crow didn’t end until 1964, so the obvious question is how this is coherent—the answer is a suspension of disbelief, just have fun, man, c’mon. You’re bumming out the girls.
While maintaining faith in Jim Crow Justice is hard enough, there’s the fact that most of the villains Batman locks up escape from prison multiple times. Besides helping stop bank robbers, most of Batman’s days are spent re-capturing escaped and unrehabilitated criminals. He is the Dutch boy with his finger in the dam of the criminal justice system, which without him would break beyond repair. Despite his evident failure, Batman continues to try and solve Gotham’s problems with policing on one hand and philanthropy on the other.
HBO recently released a documentary called Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, which goes into details about the 1999 music festival that ended in a riot. We get insight into the thousands of aggrieved upper-middle-class white boys drawn into a vaguely anti-capitalist, but definitely anti-woman and anti-Black, fury.
The documentary posits that these white men viewed various innocuous events as personal attacks: being ignored by the women they felt owed, the passing of MTV to their younger siblings, the fact that they weren’t all celebrities. Some of these, like their hatred of MTV, make more sense when we remember these men were in high school when MTV aired the first season of The Real World, which frankly did anti-racist work thanks to Kevin Powell, a Black activist who was likely mistakenly cast.
At Woodstock ‘99, their grievances became rapes, assaults, and rioting; but later on, it would become 4Chan, Gamergate, weekly mass shootings, and Bernie bros. Drawn into a rage without an ability to articulate what they were angry about, these men were—and are—narcissistic and entitled enough to actually think of themselves as a persecuted sub-class.
As Richard Edwards said in Contested Terrain, “In the absence of a well-articulated critique of capitalism, the systematic roots of the experiences producing individual resentment remain obscure.” I’m not sure the thousands of white men and women who call-and-responsed the n-word at DMX thought they were racist, but that’s the problem, and until they wake up, our nation is doomed to bob along on the tides of white grievance.
Fire up that Bat-Signal!