The problem with heroism
Most American boys are raised with an idea of what it means to be a “hero.” These ideas seep in from all corners: parents, teachers, literature (to include comic books [or “graphic novels” as they might be called sometimes], Hardy Boys mysteries, Tom Swift novels [these latter two I’m sure only I remember, but remember well, having read them all] and all other genres available to the growing boy), and, particularly in my case, movies.
For many American boys, the initial exposure to the idea of a “hero” may have come from the Arthurian legends—knights such as Sir Galahad. We may even had become familiar with Percival and the quest for the Holy Grail.
Tom Swift probably moved in during the 1960s:
And Bruce Willis was close on his heels, hero-wise:
Academics spent countless hours discussing the concept: From Wikipedia:
Social psychology has begun paying attention to heroes and heroism. A work by Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo points out differences between heroism and altruism, and they offer evidence that observers’ perceptions of unjustified risk plays a role, above and beyond risk type, in determining the ascription of heroic status.
An evolutionary psychology explanation for heroic risk-taking is that it is a costly signal demonstrating the ability of the hero. It can be seen as one form of altruism for which there are also several other evolutionary explanations.
Complicating things, the idea of hero was absorbed into the Westernized concept of romantic love:
The conception of romantic love was popularized in Western culture by the concept of courtly love. Chevaliers, or knights in the Middle Ages, engaged in what were usually non-physical and non-marital relationships with women of nobility of whom they served. These relations were highly elaborate and ritualized in a complexity that was steeped in a framework of tradition, which stemmed from theories of etiquette derived out of chivalry as a moral code of conduct.
At some point, boys began to realize how difficult it was being a hero, and how often one would simply fail. Being a hero was part and parcel of being a man. And if we failed at being a man, what good were we?
We would go to the grocery store with a list of items, and we’d return without the hummus. Failure. We’d be laid off from a job. Failure. Another man would make a pass at our woman, or say something vaguely insulting, and we’d let it go. Failure. We’d return from war missing a limb or two, and we’d get depressed or feel sorry for ourselves. Failure. We constantly measured ourselves against the heroes we’ve been exposed to, and we’d constantly come up short.
Some men seem immune to this, and I envy them. They don’t seem to give a crap about heroes or society’s ideas of heroes or what they’re expected or not expected to do. Frankly, I think they’re putting on an act most of the time. The idea of heroism in a boy’s mind is just too solidly established for the average man to shrug it off in adulthood.
I don’t think psychiatry or psychology or the world in general has put proper importance on the concept of heroism as it exists in the minds of American men. We all, almost without exception, want to be Superman, or at the very least try to do what we think Superman would do in any particular situation. We understand that bravery is not the lack of fear, but the performance of an act despite the fear—and we realize it because our heroes have told us so. Sam Spade. GI Joe. Audie Murphy. Dad.
Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. After all, someone has to be a hero in many, many occasions in life. But the expectation that we should be heroes, always and in every situation, and the disappointment directed our way after our inevitable failures, are counterproductive.
We all have our moments. And these should be celebrated. But heroism as it’s depicted in literature and film is the studied creation of a writer or screenwriter, not an inevitable development of evolutionary biology, where all men possess it, like an appendix. And it should never be an expected result of American boyhood.
Postscript 18 October 2016: Just saw a blog post at MEL titled “Parents Now Prefer to Have Daughters Over Sons.” The explanation neatly ties into my post here.
In the same issue of the online MEL is a post titled “How to Be a Guy: My Pop Culture Role Models.” Again, a neat tie-in.
Posted on December 31, 2013, in Art, Autobiographical, Battle between the sexes, Cultural observations, Gender identification, Pop culture, Uncategorized and tagged failure, George Frederic Watts, heroism, PTSD, Tom Swift. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.