Monday, May 28, 2012

Why Do We Celebrate Heartless Heroes, and What Does That Teach Our Kids?

Got your beach balls and bathing suits? It's Memorial Day weekend! So starts the the blockbuster movie season. In keeping with the spirit, and because it's still a little too cold here for me to swim, I went out and saw The Avengers yesterday.

It has everything that you'd expect from a big budget superhero movie, big bangs, big trouble, big evil villans trying to take over the world and a troop of one-liner spouting champions who save everyone from certain doom!

It all sounds great, right? I thought so too, but as I sat there ruining my bathing suit figure with too much popcorn and root beer, I was struck by how little difference there seemed to be between the villans and the heroes.

With the possible exception of Captain America, what we see is a team of superheros who succeed through deception, manipulation, brute force and rage. They kill anyone or anything that gets in their way not only without showing fear, but also with the presence to pepper their mid-punch dialogue with zingers.

Now I'm not going to pick too much at The Avengers. It's not like that is the only story with questionable 'heroes'. Movies, TV and fiction are permeated with figures like Don DraperNucky Thompson, Gregory House and Katniss Everdeen just to mention a few. And this is not entirely new. Morally ambiguous protagonists have been around since...well...the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, even period mythology is filled with presumably good gods behaving badly.

The best of these stories show the consequences of the hero's antisocial tendencies even as they high-light his triumphs. Yet increasing we see stories where the hero is for all intents and purposes a psychopath but any bad behavior is celebrated as long it's in the name of a greater good, ie the end justifies the means.

Now hold on here. It's all well and good to use antiheros to illustrate a point, or drive a particular theme, but what happens when you gloss over those bad things and just leave behind our guy kicking butt by any means necessary to the cheers of a rapt audience? You get what I'm starting to call the 'good' psychopath archetype. Sherlock Holmes is an early example, but today no figure typifies this idea more than TV character Dexter Morgan, a serial killer who only kills other killers.

Dexter is a great show and it explores many of the uncomfortable areas that follow, but they never really tackle the ultimate question of whether such a creature could even exist. Worrying, but I'm still tentatively intrigued.

Lighter fair is where it gets even more troublesome. In movies like The Avengers, Pirates of the Caribbean, or any of the legion of superhero flicks, character development takes a back seat to special effects, plot movement and the next big action sequence. This allows our 'good' psychopathic heroes to save the day without ever facing the music for being otherwise rather crappy team players.

In a world where it is increasingly becoming clear just how much story disrupts our defenses and seeps into our unconscious this is not a good thing. Not long ago I wrote about the toxic myths that encourage narcissistic and psychopathic personalities. If toxic ideals make the roots of bad judgements, story is the vehicle that delivers them.

While I'm not in favor or throwing out a literary tradition that goes back to the start of the written word, I am for responsible story telling, and I believe that a proliferation of 'good' psychopathic heros is painting an skewed picture for our kids.

Fortunately it's relatively easy to do something about this. A good start would be buying into more narratives with heroes you can respect in the morning. I believe we also need to encourage our kids to question both the ethics they see at work in books, TV and movies and the reality of 'good' psychopathic characters.

So in that spirit and in honor of the day, let's remember what some real heroes look like. 60 Minutes featured some great ones on their Sunday broadcast. Here's a few pictures too.

It's a jungle out there folks. It's up to us to take care of the weeds. How did you honor Memorial Day?

Photos courtesy of Brett Jordan, USAG-Humphreys, popofatticus, cozmosis and Skyring

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