DEA Agent Steve Murphy may have spent about a decade in Colombia trying to catch drug kingpin and narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar, but he didn’t have time to learn Spanish—or at least the fictionalized version of him in Netflix’s Narcos didn’t. In the second season, a frustrated Murphy lashes out at a Colombian officer he has been working with, demanding that he speak English. The scene is meant to undermine Murphy and his authority and perhaps the type of Americans who say, "This is America, speak English." But it also points to a larger problem at Netflix: the white Trojan Horse.
While the streaming company has revolutionized the way we think about television and has given us some groundbreaking diverse television, it’s hard to ignore that Netflix is the master of exploring other cultures while framing them through the most useless, annoying, and incompetent white characters. Piper Chapman (Orange Is the New Black), Marco Polo (Marco Polo), and Steve Murphy are all young, attractive, and overwhelmed—little jet-puffed marshmallow lambs thrown into the lion's den of black, brown, and Asian people, where they’re forced to either flounder or adapt and survive.
There is some sense to why diverse shows about communities of color are headlined by a white person: producers need to get that money. In a 2013 interview, OITNB creator Jenji Kohan admitted that Piper, the white woman everyone loves to hate, was necessary to sell the show so she could tell these other stories. Kohan told NPR’s Terry Gross:
"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."
To get buy-in from networks, white people need to be able to see themselves in the characters on screen and feel like they can relate to the other dynamic, magnetic characters of color. Netflix’s executives are pretty white (and male!), so perhaps it’s easier for them to see themselves in the wide-eyed hunk Marco Polo or the gruff DEA agent Steve Murphy or naive and business savvy (and sometimes manipulative) Piper Chapman.
(Makes you wonder: if it’s so easy to greenlight shows because they relate to white people, why is it so damn hard to understand why things like #OscarsSoWhite and the general lack of diversity on TV and in the writers' room are so frustrating and heartbreaking for those who hardly ever get to see themselves on screen?)
To the credit of these Netflix shows, the white characters—rendered hapless and incompetent—are often brushed to the side immediately to focus on the characters of color. And in each show, the white main character has easily become the least exciting part of the show. A quick google search of “piper is the worst” brings up several pages of results with blogs and news outlets discussing why Piper should be killed off, how she drags the show down, and a Tumblr tag that is literally “piper-is-the-worst.” But after four seasons, everyone knows Piper often appears to obliviously flex her whiteness, only to be mocked for it:
In Marco Polo, Netflix’s disappointing and poorly reviewed response to Game of Thrones, not only does the titular character suffer from incompetent white guide syndrome, but the show is an exercise in exoticizing a culture rather than exploring it earnestly. While there are some strong and dope female characters on the show, women in general are often hypersexualized. I mean, the first season had a naked Chinese woman performing martial arts.
But beyond the general stereotyping that pervades the show, Marco tends to inject himself into situations with the best of intentions, like attempting to foil the sale of a princess’s personal possessions and volunteering to wrestle some giant dude (only to be rescued by a Mongolian woman warrior). Probably the most telling example of how Marco is portrayed as an unskilled white person are the scenes of Marco training with Hundred Eyes, the blind monk/martial arts master who gives him a full on whooping every time.
Narco’s oft-criticized narrator and resident gringo Steve Murphy seems to have the sole purpose—other than being so annoying that you can’t help but sympathize with violent, ruthless drug kingpins—of mansplaining events as they happen and giving the audience a break from the Spanish dialogue which in itself has spurred controversy. Wagner Moura, the Brazilian actor who portrayed Pablo Escobar learned Spanish months before taking on the role—and while American audiences may not have noticed, Colombian audiences were definitely not impressed with his attempt at a Colombian accent.
On top of giving us cliche and redundant narration like “And sometimes, bad people…help you do good things” and “In this war, the innocent always seemed to be the ones who got hurt,” Murphy squeaks by without gaining any type of fluency in Spanish.
While these white characters are shown to be overwhelmed by the cultures they have immersed themselves in, and the point of these shows is to actually give a platform to voices of color, insisting on framing these stories through a white perspective only undermines them. Using white characters maintains the idea that whiteness is objectivity and neutrality, the default lens—everything else is suspicious. Whiteness is a marker of rationality when it comes to feelings and responses, the audience’s emotional compass. It also means that marginalized stories need white permission to be acknowledged or to exist.
Of course Netflix does have programming that truly drops that white point of entry, albeit only in an American context, not an international one: Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is basically a study of race and culture, and The Get Down explores the roots of hip-hop and only includes white people as corrupt politicians and things for Jaden Smith to kiss.
Undermining characters to show the nuances of other cultures is cute. But why not just cut out the white middle man or woman?