From the biblical narrative of David defeating the giant Goliath, to the historical account of Joan of Arc leading the French army to victory over Britain, to the Nordic fable of Sigurd slaying the evil dragon, the classic hero archetype is that of a lone warrior fighting the forces of evil and prevailing. Being that society reveres this archetype as the ideal, I find it problematic and suggest that we rethink it, for two primary reasons:
First, it divides life into a black and white picture of good and evil, and in doing so, it justifies violence. "John Wayne struts down main street and shoots whatever moves, because he's the good guy," says Michael Rich, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center on Media and Child Health. We don't "dwell on the implications of shooting everything that moves," he continues. "We don't realize these were people's children, lovers, and friends, and that they may not die cleanly, that they may spend their lives paralyzed."
While Rich uses an example from Hollywood cinema, the paradigm holds true in real life: We consider our soldiers to be heroes but consider soldiers of the enemy camp to be murderers. The reverse is true, however, for the opposing side. So who is right? I recall working with a Vietnam vet. During sessions of heart rhythm meditation, he was flooded with images of the Vietnamese people he had killed. "I am a murderer," he said to me.
Media reflects the cultural norms and values of society, which in turn is influenced by media, experts note. "The media clearly draws on the values, events, and trends of popular culture, but it is a central part of that culture as well and so shapes trends, interprets events, etc.," explains Michael Delli Carpini, Ph.D., Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of numerous books on American media. For this reason, media is a useful tool for evaluating our contemporary ideology about the hero archetype. Currently, the movie industry is flooded with violent thrillers following the classic hero archetype -- indicating that it is central to our culture and consciousness.
The basic story line, says Carpini, is that of an individual who, against all odds, is able to right the wrongs of the world. When I asked about the lure of this narrative, Carpini replied, "Most people have experienced or at least witnessed injustice; most people feel powerless to do anything about it; most people sense a kind of institutionalized indifference to these circumstances; most people crave simple black and white answers to complex issues; and most people, I suspect, while basically rules-following and civil, would like, every once in a while, to just punch the evil-doer in the nose." Hollywood movies, he says, play on "these deep-seated fears, frustrations, and sense of impotence."
"Many individuals feel disempowered by today's society and find vicarious power in [the violent thriller] genre," agrees Erik Gregory, Ph.D., executive director of the Media Psychology Research Center of Boston and director of the Organizational and Leadership Psychology program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. "Vicarious" is the key word here, because the classic hero archetype is removed from the everyday person. Who has the extraordinary strength, superhuman endurance, or arsenal of weapons available to the archetypal heroes depicted in action thrillers? Herein lies the second problem of the classic hero archetype: The heroic narrative is irrelevant and inapplicable to those but a scant few -- thereby doing nothing to inspire or empower most of us, especially in the case of women.
"Traditionally the women are there to admire the hero," says Rich. "They are supportive during the down times, and they swoon during the good times."
When women take on the same heroic qualities as men, Rich adds, they are feared and shunned rather than admired and celebrated. The archetypal hero, he says, is thus in some ways "not accessible" to a woman. In addition, he continues, women heroes typically have been hyper-sexualized. "You don't remember Wonder Woman's capabilities," he says by way of example. "You remember her bustier." Not only does hyper-sexualizing strong women allow men to feel they have some control of the situation, Rich says, but women heroes often are depicted as strong only because of a gadget or implant or some other mechanism above and beyond their natural human strength. Men need to assure themselves that women are inherently weaker, Rich concludes, and as Carpini points notes, "Most movie directors, producers and executives are male."
Fortunately, experts agree, the tide is turning, on the big screen and in our homes: We are beginning to recognize and value a new hero archetype. "We have to get away from the idea of the hero ... as the individual with superpowers who is the only one able to make change in society," Gregory says. "Heroes in fact are everyday people who make change in the face of need, adversity, or injustice." Some of these archetypes already have been celebrated on the big screen -- such as in the films Norma Rae, Erin Brokovich, and Silkwood, in which everyday people take the risk of fighting injustice -- but the main characters of the film are not necessarily recognized as "heroes" per se.
A hero, Gregory asserts, is in fact the woman in El Salvador who utilizes micro-credit loans to buy a sewing machine and discarded fabric, so as to launch a clothing business. It also is the high school student in California who stands up to faculty and administration, so as to bring attention to bullying issues. "These acts of heroism take place every day, by everyday people," Gregory says. "We are all able to be heroes, whether in our family, community, or state, by mobilizing resources for constructive social outcomes."
I could not agree more. When we move into a challenge instead of run from it, each one of us can activate the hero within. Being a hero does not mean that we are fearless or even that we succeed in saving the day. It simply means that we mobilize our inner and outer resources, so as to live our lives with dignity, purpose, vision, and passion. Through embracing our vulnerability, listening to the voice of our hearts, creating what we love, and celebrating our lives, regardless of circumstance, we too can be heroes.
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