The Myth of the Lone American Hero

You’ve seen it in virtually every superhero movie ever created. It might be the army, with tanks and camo and fancy helmets and radios which they use to shout orders back and forth to each other. It might be the airforce, who fly in and fire at the target and generally miss or fail because the Big Bad Guy is just too big and too bad to be defeated so easily. Or it might be the police, who are completely useless despite having arrived with approximately fifteen vehicles each containing two officers, none of whom appear to have had much training at all. Usually this is the point in the movie where someone says, “God help us all,” because it can’t be a fantastic action movie if no one pulls out that cliche.

This is also the point where the Hero (who is often a superhero and untrained or self-trained, unlike the military and police force who have had years of training apparently for nought) arrives on the scene to single-handedly save the day. He might have a friend, who gets the opportunity to do some behind the scenes work while the superhero does all the buttkicking, but for all intents and purposes its The Hero who saves the day.

Surely this is the sort of plotline Aliette de Bodard wishes America would stop exporting so relentlessly, as she says in her post “On the Prevalence of US Tropes in Storytelling.” One of those tropes is the relentless, constant, occasionally-maddening emphasis on the individual over everyone else. (She also addresses our love of violence, but that is a different post for a different day.)

This trope is such an American ideal that at first it’s hard to even imagine it as a problem. We are fixated on people who “go their own way” and “forge their own path” and “stand up to oppression.” (This last often leads to “White Stranger Arrives to Fix Problems the Locals Are Too Dumb to Fix” trope.) Thus Erin Brokovich, The Help, Dances with Wolves, Remember the Titans, the Pocahontas myth. Thus Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, X-Men, Avatar. Don’t get me wrong, many of these are great stories, but they exemplify our love for the lone underdog who achieves incredible success against incredible odds, and we love it so much that even when the story is based in truth we make it even more impressive for the screen.

We love our heroes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We especially love our heroes when they remain staunch and adamant while everyone else is letting them down — when they’re alone, and they decide to keep on anyway. We love that they have one, maybe two close friends, and an entire society arrayed against them, because for some reason we like to think that society’s malcontents are heroes in film, even though nine times out of ten we’re the ones in society who are shouting down the malcontents. Because we all know it’s only heroic when the malcontents aren’t making us out to be the bad guys.

In this cultural myth compromise is unheroic. A slow, steady, undramatic struggle is unheroic. Any struggle in which the main character has many allies is unheroic. Anything less than achieving everything you’re fighting for is somehow unheroic.

But compromise is necessary to a healthy society. Individuals who charge forward with little regard for anything but their own ideals are going to butt heads and get nothing done, because we can’t all be right. We can’t all have overwhelming success.

Why can’t compromise be heroic? Why can’t patience be heroic? And what would a different, less egotistical and individualized hero look like?

All of this is complicated, of course, by cultural conditioning. Even as I write this there’s a little inner voice screaming Individualism is the ideal, the right, the heroic! Stop blaspheming! And it’s true, America has a history of individuals who have rejected the status quo to enact reforms and other wonderful things we can’t forget or brush aside. This is great, but if we reject compromise and patience, what more are we really going to accomplish? And now Generation Me is coming of age, entitled kids who’ve sopped up the legend of the individual but don’t have any idea what real oppression is. Then again, white Americans seem to think they’re a repressed majority in this country — the underdogs, as it were, struggling to out those who would dare to claim they have a few unfair advantages. (For the record, that’s just absurd.)

The problem with the cultural myth of the individual is that we want to think of ourselves in those terms too. We want to be the heroes we worship — staunch, underrepresented victims who aren’t going to take this crap sitting down. Which becomes a problem, when we aren’t underrepresented victims.

So now I’m curious: What would a different sort of heroism look like?

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Lone American Hero

  1. Fascinating topic! I've noticed this before, too, how many of the books I read focused on inner strength and self-reliance and independence as the traits that won the day for the protagonist. I also agree with you that it's very much a Western thing; Eastern cultures tend to value conformity more than individualism. You've definitely got me thinking about how it would look to have a different kind of heroism. It'd be interesting to read about a hero who triumphs through compromise or silence or patience or conformity. But maybe that's just not as flashy and exciting to read about? At any rate, great post. Incredibly thought-provoking.

  2. This is indeed an incredibly thought-provoking post. I think, essentially, the lone hero is another example of fantasy fulfillment. In the real world we do have to compromise and fight the slow fight. So some would argue, why would we want to read about it? What we want to read about, usually, are the things we can’t really have: earth-shattering romances, life-changing battles, other-worldly settings. I don’t generally think there’s anything wrong with reading for fantasy fulfillment, so long as the reader is aware that that’s what they’re doing. It’s arguable that this could become a problem with young, susceptible, or under-educated readers who internalized these things and make them the goal rather than the entertainment. (i.e. There’s nothing wrong with Cinderella unless the little girl thinks Prince Charming is waiting for her when she grows up.) Wow, you’ve really got me thinking. Great post, Lura!

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