To the observer of current fiction in its various forms, one thing seems apparent: the hero is out, and the anti-hero is in. Movies and novels in particular are more keen than ever to delve into the darkest sides of human nature without coming up for air, and it’s done in the name of honesty, of a “realism” that allows no room for such rose-colored naivete as belief in a hero. We’re all scum at heart, these stories say, so why not face it and give up trying to be more? I wrote in an earlier post that acceptance of “collateral damage” — the idea that innocent lives can and should be sacrificed to achieve some goal supposedly greater than the well-being of a few (thousand) individuals — is a distinguishing characteristic of a villain. When even Superman himself is okay with bulldozing over bystanders who get in the way of his battle with an enemy, we know we’re living in an age when heroism in fiction is hardly welcome, let alone valued.
Stories of anti-heroes and villain protagonists are obviously very popular with a lot of people; why else would the poorly-reviewed Suicide Squad, in which villains are the protagonists and no one at all is an actual hero, do well in its opening weekend? Yet this is a train I can’t bring myself to board. I’m still afflicted with rose-colored naivete. I still like heroes, protagonists who aren’t just as screwed up as I am (and thereby remind me of how screwed up I am) but instead are better than I am (and thereby offer the hope that I too might be better). I hold to the belief that what I term “aspirational fiction” still has a place, and that place should not be confined to children’s and young-adult literature and film.
The all darkness, all the time focus is sold as “realism,” but how realistic is it? We all know human beings are capable of great evil as well as petty cruelty, and for evidence we never have to look further than the evening news. It’s also true that darkness, what Stephen King calls the “potential lyncher,” exists in some measure in almost everyone. We can all recall plenty of times when we’ve been at our worst, when we’ve given in to selfishness, anger, intolerance, suspicion, jealousy. But for all that, human beings are also capable of great good — kindness, love, friendship, loyalty, courage, generosity, empathy. Focusing only on the darkest aspects of human nature is as unrealistic as denying that darkness would be. If the potential lyncher exists in all of us, so does the potential hero, and we do ourselves no favors when we deny that hero’s existence.
(True, Joss Whedon’s Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog does lampoon this idea when he has the arrogant “hero” Captain Hammer sing, “Everyone’s a Hero in Their Own Way,” but bear in mind that Whedon’s work as a whole shows the value of heroes, giving us flawed men and women who manage to tap into their better natures and do great good.)
It’s to this potential hero that the best aspirational fiction speaks, while at the same time not ignoring the darkness. I can recall a friend of mine, when I spoke of my desire to see more female heroes on the big screen, ask me, “Aren’t you a little old to be looking for role models?” Sadly I never managed a satisfactory answer to this question. “This isn’t about role models,” I tried to tell her, but I was wrong. The real answer to her question is No. I’m not too old for role models. Nobody is. We may “come of age,” as it were, only once, but after that we don’t stop changing. Our natures are in constant flux throughout our lives, as we continue to face fresh challenges and discover new facets of ourselves and the world. Why shouldn’t we look to fiction for a little inspiration, even if we’re fortysomething or older? Role models aren’t there to be emulated to the point of imitation. Rather, they offer possibilities of what we as human beings might be and do. Do we really outgrow that?
So, what constitutes a hero? Different definitions exist, but here are a few attributes that, for me, mark a character as heroic.
Heroes are not concerned solely with their own survival. They help and rescue others as well.
Heroes have a keen awareness of right, wrong, and justice. As one of my favorite heroes, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, sings in the musical that bears her name, “When it’s not right, you’ve got to put it right.”
Heroes form relationships. They have friends and loved ones whom they would fight and even die to protect. Even if they’re cynical and broken inside, like Marvel’s Jessica Jones, they can show empathy and kindness.
Heroes accept responsibility, and when they fail, they don’t blame others.
Heroes understand what Spencer Tracy describes in Judgment at Nuremberg as “the value of a single human being.”
On a recent episode of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, in which Suicide Squad was under discussion, Glen Weldon, who “writes about books and comic books for the NPR website,” noted the generally accepted theory that we love anti-heroes because they are “realistic,” and refuted it thus: “We embrace the anti-hero because we lack the courage to embrace the hero.” My applause at these words could have been heard in the next six counties (and deafened my husband while he was driving us- sorry, honey). He summed up in that simple sentence why I never had any interest in that particular DC movie even before the reviews started coming in, and why I’ve been slow to try out fantasy novels termed “grimdark.” He said what I just then realized I’d always been thinking. Embracing the hero is risky, partly because the hero isn’t always (or even often) “cool,” but mostly because heroes, and the aspirational fiction of which they are a part, demand something of us. They reach for our better selves, and at their best they shake us out of the passive apathy we may find so safe. We don’t have to be content with Things As They Are. We can do better. We can be better.