On Heroes & Idols, or “Superheroes are bullshit”
We were discussing heroes in light of screening The Lady (Luc Besson, 2011) and what an inspiration Aung San Suu Kyi is. I had asked them to prepare for their Learning Log assignment for that week to consider who they thought were heroes. In the past, when I’ve had similar discussions with students about who their heroes were, the inevitable litany of sports personalities and pop stars are mentioned. I thought I was being clever by preempting that discussion by also asking them what they thought the differences were between a hero and an idol. I appear to be cursed with an intuitively brilliant set of first year students this year!
None of them mentioned sports or pop stars as heroes and most felt that they were more idols, but were unable to articulate why. The list was pretty predictable: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Stephen Hawking, Oscar Schindler, Harvey Milk and Mother Teresa. I’ll return to this list in just a second…
One quick aside: one sweet innocent student wanted to include on this list the soldiers who were currently serving in Afghanistan and those servicemen & women who’d served in the armed forces. An interesting inclusion, but, I pointed out to her, soldiers, like police officers, firefighters and paramedics were paid to do what they do and I wasn’t sure a hero was paid for their actions. This student stared at me incredulously and I could see the thought actually form on her face: soldiers are paid?! The thought that servicemen and women weren’t serving simply out of the goodness of their hearts as volunteers just made her brain melt.
Right, back to the list. Mother Teresa’s inclusion was due to my pressing the issue to one student particularly dedicated to “feminist issues” as to why there weren’t any women on these lists of heroes. An interesting observation in its own right.
For me, a hero embodies a culture’s values: different heroes will embody different values, but what demarcates them as heroes is the embodiment. Idols are worshipped, but do not necessarily embody a culture’s values; well they do sort of … but we weren’t entirely sure how. We know where a hero stands – “Truth, Justice and the American Way” or “Along with great power, comes great responsibility” or even “Don’t get me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”. This brought us to the idea of superheroes: how, particularly in the Marvel universe, Peter Parker/Spiderman was an interesting character as he has to struggle with being both a hero and holding down a full-time job. But idols are more difficult to pin down.
We concluded that heroes were individuals who embodied cultural values. Idols, on the other hand, embodied cultural institutions: sports teams, The X-Factor, American Idol, Big Brother, etc. When we idolize Leona Lewis or One Direction, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney, or even (of blessed memory) Jade Goody, it is not their qualities which embody cultural values, it is the institutions which they represent. But those institutions are ideological constructs which exist only to perpetuate Western hegemony.
We then moved on to Wonder Woman, and Joss Whedon‘s on-again-off-again attempt to get a Wonder Woman movie off the ground. This was the man, after all, who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Why is Wonder Woman such a hard sell for Hollywood? If we think about women superheroes in general, when they’ve been allowed to exist at all on our screens, they’ve been as support to the male hero: Catwoman, Batgirl, Electra, etc. (and most of those movies bombed at the box office). As hot as Scarlett Johansson is, Black Widow is a pretty useless inclusion to The Avengers. The problem appears to be that Wonder Woman, the last survivor of the Amazons, is an independent woman warrior, and not automatically subservient to patriarchy. We can see the immediate attraction for Whendon – and for me, for the record – but also begin to understand Hollywood’s cold feet. Wonder Woman embodies the values of strong women and is not bridled to institutions like The Avengers. Watch and see if I’m right: the only time we’ll see Wonder Woman on screen is in a big-screen adaptation of the Justice League of America.
So, heroes embody the cultural values of a society in an individual, whereas idols represent institutions which exist only to perpetuate Western hegemony. But, even more significantly, the implication therefore is that women are unable to embody those cultural values – or rather, our culture doesn’t allow them space for such embodiment to occur – unless they are controlled by some kind of hegemonic institution.
My brain hurts. I need a drink.