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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, Christian or Agnostic (if his religion is stated at all), heterosexual, cisgender, Caucasian 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 whites are the majority in the West, and studios believe they are unable to relate to minority characters. 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.
To clarify, a WML does not necessarily have to be in a diverse cast to fit this trope. However, shows with diverse casts will often make his presence more noticeable.
Compare Girl Show Ghetto, which is probably the main reason why it's White Male Lead and not White Female Lead, Minority Show Ghetto, Ridiculously Average Guy, and White Anglo Saxon Protestant. Unless a work is consciously avoiding it, he is often the leader of a Token Trio or Five-Token Band.
- 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 has planned a film based on the Japanese historical legend of the 47 Ronin starring... Keanu Reeves. Arguably a subversion, since Keanu Reeves is half-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).
- The Last Airbender is an example of a White Male Lead born from a Race Lifted character from the source material.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hachi is about Hachiko, a famous Japanese dog and his Japanese professor, starring Richard Gere.
- 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 the first Harold and Kumar movie. 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 will play 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. If nothing else, Stiller is Jewish.
- 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.
- Pixar's first twelve films all had male leads. Those that are human or vaguely human are white. Of the assorted mechanical and animal leads, none have any non-white characteristics (e.g., accents, religions, identified countries of origin, etc.).
Live Action TV
- Outsourced (TV series). Despite taking place in India, the lead is a white male.
- Glee has a very diverse cast but the stars of the show always seem to be the white, heterosexual teacher Will, and the Glee club is led by white, straight couple Finn and Rachel. Lampshaded by Emma at one point.
- Then again Rachel is Jewish, so technically a minority and she was unquestionably the main character of season 1 and still relatively prominent in the following two seasons.
- 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.
- Subverted in season 2, where Kurt takes center stage for a good chunk of the season, which danced onto a different trope.
- Heroes: The show has a very diverse cast and many of the minority characters have their own storylines. However, its minority and female characters are often Killed Off for Real or Put on a Bus. Also, the spotlight is almost always on the Bennet and Petrelli families.
- 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.
- All the Doctors on Doctor Who so far have been white males, even though there is no technical rule saying The Doctor has to be. There's been debate among fans -- and indeed, The BBC, whose considered black actors for the role -- of getting a female or alternate race in, but this quickly degrades into accusations of Ruined FOREVER.
- Hawaii Five-O
- The Law and Order franchise usually has one of these, typically from a salty, no-nonsense, working calss background, plus or minus an Olivia Benson or two.
- NCIS: Los Angeles
- 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.
- Inverted on Benson the main character is black while the rest of the characters are white.
- When The Sci Fi Channel decided to adapt Earthsea Trilogy into a Miniseries, they decided to make the main character white. This did not sit well with the original author.
- 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. Mark, the Supporting Protagonist, is Jewish.
- 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.
- Chrono Trigger's party members feature a Frog, a Robot, a Cave Woman, a Princess, one terribly flamboyant Mage a (female) inventor. The spiky-haired, boyish, dude with the sword is The Hero and Required Party Member through out most of the game.
- Cracked parodies this in "A Trailer for Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever" with Wealthy, Successful Protagonist. They cover this trope again here.
- Futurama's main cast includes a robot, a mutant woman, a Jamaican, a Space Jews 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).
- 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). 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 and is the only character to have a speaking role in all the episodes aired so far.
- On The Cleveland Show, while the main character is black he is voiced by a white man, Mike Henry.
- Subverted on Gargoyles--the main character is a gargoyle played by Keith David, and becomes Ambiguously Brown when transformed into a human in one episode. The main human character is a half-black, half-Native American woman.
- ↑ Miles O'Brien and Tom Paris, respectively. However, the numbers go up if you count non-human characters played by white male actors.