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Why The Idea of Heroism Begets Further Violence

The idea of heroes is so ingrained in our minds that we all probably have a definition of what it means to us. There is always a way that we are supposed to act - the way that we aspire to act - which depends on our perception of this idea itself. However, the idolisation of “heroes” is something that has proliferated into something intensely different from what we need today. It naturally follows that there are questions that need to be asked in terms of how intense the repercussions can actually be.


Right from the beginning, the idea of having a central character that embodies all the perfect qualities of society at the time seems perfectly sound. We have Achilles and Apollo from Greece, we have the Beowulfs of the Anglo-Saxon era and the Gunnars of the Old Norse era, and the knights of the Round Table, right down to the contemporary movies that we see today, which no doubt draw from these ancient examples of heroes. This constructed chivalrous universe remains untouched even today. The pantheon, however, has remained intensely male. Representation of women in these epics and myths, therefore, has made an inevitable impact on the way that we view heroism today. The idea of the heroic emblem was always and has largely remained male-centric. The prowess of the male hero is always shown in terms of physical abilities.


In Beowulf, the kings are ‘wreckers of mead-benches’ and for the knights, their absolute power is shown through sexual infidelity and sword-play. These characteristics, themselves, may have had a hand in deifying the monarchial system. It could have helped people harbour absolute faith in that monarchy, due to these descriptive masculine aggressions. Even attempts to feminise the contemporary hero to fit more feminist standards of the time, resulted in women embodying male standards instead of the men. The violence, misogyny, and aggression are merely transferred onto a female-presenting character. This is one of the ideas that is analysed in the exemplary feminist text  - The Second Sex. Beauvoir argues that the way to achieve equality is to address and acknowledge these glaring differences between genders, which is hardly addressed in today’s rhetoric. So, it seems that there is very little space to move about in the structured system of ideal heroes. 


Apart from the issues of gender roles, there is also an inherent requirement for the existence of the hero - injustice. In every single one of the texts mentioned above, there is a society that is riddled with malpractices and tainted morals. It is this very instability in society that paves the way for the constancy of these toxic, supposedly perfect ideals. According to Gregory P. Shea of the Wharton Express, “For any leader, the ongoing presence of heroes is both, a cause for celebration and a reason for deep concern, because it indicates a failure of the wider system.” The concerning obsession with the “righting of the wrong” by vigilantes makes us ignorant of the more central and deep-rooted issues of governance and progress. The contemporary phenomenon of the “anti-hero” also shows us the recurrent obsession with the portrayal of protagonists that are made to be so flawed that we empathise more with their circumstances. One such example would be the Joker phenomenon. The immediate response, instead of mental health awareness, was romanticising extreme behaviour or glorifying these trauma responses instead of addressing them properly. 

The need for understanding this way of looking at popular culture is more important than ever. There is a gap in our perception of ourselves. If there is one end where one is extremely satisfied with themselves; there is another where there is a continual undermining of oneself for not living up to these extraordinary expectations. This may seem arbitrary, however, it seeps into our lives just the same. Although the scale of the problem has increased, is not new. “Even ancient models of heroism, like Plato’s and Homer’s are highly dependent on non-egalitarian and extremely socially divided societies”, D. Stefanson says in Man as Hero (2004). This is an attribute of heroism which continues to this day. It is necessary for society to have issues, so that the hero can, then, solve them. 


One can also argue that there is no perfect hero, there will always be some aspect which is lacking in the character. Pantheon gods are prone to bouts of jealousy just as much as humans, fate affects them just as much as it does, us. So, why are they untouchable gods? This argument then prompts the question - if the embodiment of all the perfect ideals still needs to be brought down a notch, what is the point of this exercise in the first place? Then, all we are doing is inciting the inverse of what we actually intend. The reason that this is a big question is because of the social impact it has. This concept of a “hero” has trickled its way down into our daily lives. People who have differentiating opinions are othered. Politicians are revered so much that to question them is to question the country itself. There are very real consequences that this is causing. Political complacency could be the biggest enemy of our time, which can be traced back to either indifference or laziness due to this phenomenon. All the solutions to world problems are highly dependent on politics. This can cause us to take several steps back from arriving at those solutions. 


A hero-less society seems simple enough in its conception. However, to really think of an existing society that has been built beyond its heroes is impossible to think of. How are we so dependent on examples of what we should be like? It is an idea that is dangerous if left on its own. We need to see beyond what is put in front of us. A little more thought to how mimetic media influences every one of us can be a step in the right direction to understand how we can overcome these missteps. Being critical of the information that one receives is the need of the time. There needs to be some form of safe constructive criticism in order to move forward as a society, which is something that seems further than ever.


Edited by; Victoria Muzio


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