Often, writers look for short cuts. Quick easy tropes, themes, concepts or scenes to helpfully convey an idea to the audience without necessarily going into too much detail. This can be an excellent way of quickly getting a point across without being sidetracked. It can also be lazy, shallow, characterisation and world building
One such habit is what TV Tropes calls “Kicking the Dog” itself apparently a Hitchcock reference. Basically having your villain do something pointlessly cruel to show that we have a genuinely evil person here. Their evil is pointless, it’s shallow, it achieves nothing other than cruelty for the sake of cruelty
This simple villain labelling is now being rebranded from "kicking the dog" to "being a bigot, as media in general at least pretends to be more aware of marginalised people and prejudice, now starting to use bigotry as the dog kicking. Your Designated Bad Guy won’t kick a puppy, but they will drop the N-word or F-word or say something grossly and gaspingly misogynist.
The flip side to this is when our designated hero - or otherwise designated good guy, gets a special White Knight moment. Bigotry happens and they get to stand up and nobly declare that Prejudice Is Wrong, guys, sometimes with a convoluted PSA dumped into the story to make it clear how very much this character Does Not Approve of these things.
On the face of it this sounds like a good and noble intention - after all challenging bigotry is always good, right? But the point of these scenes are not to challenge bigotry or declare bigotry as wrong - these scenes use bigotry to build up their main character as a nice person we should support. The prejudice they’re challenging is somewhat irrelevant - the character could achieve the same effect by hugging a kitten or volunteering in a soup kitchen or being nice to their granny. The actual victim of the prejudice is generally forgotten or irrelevant; any analysis of the prejudice is incidental to the main point: that the Hero is a Good Person. It’s like the scene in Game of Thrones when Daenerys is hailed as “Mhysa” and raised up by a crowd of brown people: that scene wasn’t about liberation, freeing people, ending slavery - it was about the greater glory of Daenerys.
It’s not even a half way decent indication that the writers are even basically aware of the issues they’re challenging. Some classic examples include Mist using some random extras using the f-word to insult Adrian and Jay, eventual good guy and heroine’s love interest, championing him. This is from a show which managed to be one of the most epicly homophobic shows we’ve seen: and this was certainly not a show that covered the homophobia Adrian faced even remotely well. Or there’s the infamous House of Night Series where Zoe has several convoluted moments where she calls out homophobia, racism and sexism when faced with blatant, easy take downs to remind us she’s a good person (while doubling down on ableism, because someone once challenged the author on her repeated use of ret*rded so she had to include a DEFENCE of that). Yet this series fails on… just about every possible level one can fail on and most certainly does not develop any of these marginalised characters in anything resembling a decent fashion.
Or there’s the Anita Blake Series (and when you’re writing about something wrong in a book series, there’s ALWAYS the Anita Blake Series), especially in the last dozen books, where Anita has frequent PSAs against sexism, racism and homophobia. Dancing was a whole cringeworthy example. But while Anita speaks against racism, especially if she gets to call out someone abusing her, she also mentions her white and delightsome skin quite obsessively whenever we consider her Mexican mother. (Is there a racial equivalent of “no homo”). She will call out homophobia while, well, this hot mess applies. And nearly every book some misogynist will have a really unlikely rant at her about how he totally hates women and need Anita to call him out… while simultaneously loathing all women.
It’s also noteworthy that these characters always have a nice straw-bigot to bring down: it’s always overt and pretty extreme bigotry that is easy and simplistic to shoot down. Because it’s easy. Because it’s lazy. But it utterly fails to address the daily toll of bigotry; even perpetuating that same bigotry - like being a bisexual man and seeing yourself portrayed as an unstable vicious raping murderer, Mist; or being a woman and having Anita hate you for liking flowers and laying those nasty emotional “girl traps” rather than being one of the guys like her.
These characters use the call out to establish themselves as morally superior - while caring little for the actual causes they’re appropriating. They’re happy to climb on top of marginalised identity to gain moral high ground, but don’t care very much about the people they’re stepping on for their little lesson. It is, in essence, a form of appropriation. The whole battle against prejudice is turned into a throwaway, often undeveloped line, just to make your character a bit shinier. It is used, it is exploited, but it is given no real attention or focus.
The damage comes from devaluing these fights and causes and people, reducing them to a tool while also presenting both bigotry and the various struggles against bigotry in an incredibly simplistic and ultimately unhelpful manner. It encourages the idea that bigotry just means standing nobly in the face of the person screaming the slur (though it would be nice if more people did that) which, inevitably, will fade away the minute you confront them with your pithy come back (usually with fawning praise for you for being SO BRAVE). Bigotry is neither that simple nor easily banished. I can think of no greater indication of this than how these examples all have “champions” fighting bigotry yet all treat marginalised characters so terribly
Again, I have to say that we’re not saying don’t depict prejudice: you absolutely should. Prejudice free worlds can be very problematic; but there is an art to portraying prejudice well and respectfully. And a tool to tell us how very special your good guy is, is not respectful or well done.