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What Can We Learn From the Hero and the Heroine?

“What can we Learn from the Hero and the Heroine?”

Are heroes born or are they made has been one of the most enduring debates in our brief but turbulent myth weaving history. People can be born gifted, sure, but that is as much as we know. From experience, we’ve come to understand that some have the potential to be great whether it would be great athletes or once in a generation mathematicians or musicians, it would be so but only if they choose to answer their calling.

The first of man’s creeds is not to have your head buried in sand, indeed, but what these mavericks all have in common is that once their potential is achieved they give us no pardon on parole for our faults. For they are the watchers from up on high and we inadvertently either celebrate their talents or suffer the consequences when we go astray. Like all good myth spinners know, however, a candid approach brings no surety of success. If nothing else their presence brings out the best of us and them. But what else does heroism get you the person they do it for? Heroic fame is prestige but not for you.

Famed psychologist Solomon Asch defined prestige as something “people are persuaded by messages differently based on the identity of the author. It seemed that the more prestige the author/speaker has, the more likely the person will believe them.” Often these very storytellers plod on mechanically through the process and tell their stories as an afterthought, a sin to which they eventually manacle themselves forever with stokes about their necks and legs like a chain-gang that savors each rustle of each small step they take though the brief history of show business. Now these faces change but their disposition stays the same for storytellers are no mere sentient puppets with no volition of their own though certainly full of ambition that would willingly prostitute itself for any sliver of self-expression. But don’t blame the writers blame the audience a little too.

We the spectators often bring our own prejudices to the experience and when displeased with the direction taken we often choose to wallow in limbo and complain as if one time, one change, one figure will matter in an ever-changing ocean of memories. True artists, however, always find a way to true self-expression, Michelangelo did it with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the next president will do it with mass incantations and movie directors have been pulling similar shenanigans since the studio system introduced the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930s.

If our myths reflect our desires then it might just be that they are tailor made for some detached psychologist or genius bad guy to pick us apart while we openly salivate over bread crumps they give it to us straight. There is undoubtedly a hierarchy of needs according to psychologist Abraham Maslow. The highest of which is reserved for the fulfillment of personal potential or as he deems it self-actualization. Could this desire of ours then be translated to our heroes and heroines as well? It seems in the end, it will not matter how they go about handling business, at least not to the fans, as long as they get to leer and cheer them on as unconsciously they identify with someone of a better social standing. It’s not all about the rush of danger for no hero would refuse so splendid a booty a day’s work offered and their slyness will not overshadow the feats they perform.

But it would certainly explain just why we are so willing to identify with savior and not with the person in need of saving. Can it be assigned solely to wistful thinking? If the old argument stands it is out of necessity for the audience to focus and identify with the protagonist then why, oh why do we so often object to casting choices and not trust the person that has been delegated the task of handling business? Perhaps we have a different streak that runs in our veins.

Somebody has to be the weaker figure and let the all-important protagonist save them, otherwise how would we know they’ve done something heroic. But what is the definition of heroism? By most accounts it appears differently to different people but there is a common thread found in performing the selfless act nobody else is willing to perform often in exchange for the thrills the audience yearns for. Psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz and Gotthilf Isler went a step further by elaborating on the significance of fairy tales “The figure of the hero as well as the whole story compensate what initially was an insufficient or wrong attitude of consciousness. The initial situation of need, misery and shortcomings is solved at the end having a structure which is more whole than the beginning.” More whole than the beginning. But if that is true Mother Teresa was no more a saint than she was a shelf bound, mercantile G.I. Jane.

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Nathan Drake is constantly pushed to work in a team despite his best attempts not to and when he does attempt to globetrot solo he gets chastised for it by the game overlords. Though he always finds the right quip for the right time to lighten up the mood and not let us dwell on it. The female characters of the Uncharted universe, on the other hand, are for the most part far more serious than Drake but also far superior in pretty much everything. The same courtesy allotted them by the writers, however, does not translate well in Tomb Raider , for example. Let’s elaborate.

A lonesome figure scuttles around the jagged edge of a cliff. Shots whoosh overhead. “Oh no!” our hero mumbles as he whips around the corner narrowly missing a tumble down its slippery slope and continues down this treacherous path. In momentary safety he uses a pair of pick axes and a rope to rappel himself up where at the top awaits an ambush! But never fear reader! He carries a wide assortment of grizzled combat weapons, bows, explosive arrows, pick axes, pistols, Kalashnikovs. “Duck you sucker” we scream at the screen as more bullets whizz by and scramble for cover behind a nearby rock that is so perfectly placed you’d swear someone meant to put it there.

One brave but foolhardy enemy foolishly tugs from behind cover and gets a headshot for desert. Yes! We cheer. The enemy falls slain, an arrow through the skull but as he falls the mask shatters in pieces, all movie like and all, to reveal the bloody face of a random Jane Doe. In fact all of his enemies are Jane Does, mercenaries who work for an even more ruthless egomaniacal Mrs Poe. and they all try to hunt down and kill our hero before he beats them to the punch. It’s strange how stories can change once you shift perspective. Let’s get back to Lara.”

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In her story every roll of the roulette she banks on brakes except for her. Guy who looks like a good old fashioned parochial father figure? Ka-ching dead. Guy who is set up as a possible love interest? Ka-ching dead. Guy who is confused? Ka-ching dead. Then who does she save? Her best friend Sam, of course, who doesn’t even make it in part two. Later, she even manages to save her own “real life” Teddy bear. Lara does not like to neglect her toys it seems.  The only man that is allowed to survive this onslaught is the nice chubby amiable fella by the name of Jonah who acts and speaks just like the fluffy toy the writers think she needs. She does, however, come out morally unscathed and of a better standing socially which is what we were after in the first place.

But why do we need one heroine in particular? Why does it have to be a hero? Hitchcock proved you need neither with his Psycho (1960) where our perspective often shifts but the dread doesn’t. So did all the old movie masters who would not be constrained even back then. Although John Huston’s opening scene of The African Queen (1951) feels severely dated by our standards in its portrayal of the early 20th century Colonial Africa the greater part of the film follows the two main protagonists as they work together to overcome the obstacles they have ahead of them. Thanks to the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn the film is lifted to two sharing equal time and the story makes it clear they need each other’s strengths and weaknesses to survive together.

The African Queen (1951) Directed by John Huston Shown from left: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn

One saves the other and later the other is allowed to return the favor. They have their strengths they have their weaknesses but the important part is the drudgery of the hardships the river brings never brings them down, for they complement rather than hamstring each other’s lives.

What would Pixar say to this I wonder? Personally, I think they would want to ask the question what is the point of all this if you end up becoming the same thing you claim to be fighting against. One’s weakness is directive while the other’s strength is love. Or was it the other way around? Was it not the same in Wall-E and Finding Nemo? It’s a give and take. Dory saves Marlin, Marlin saves Dory. They are essential for each other’s greater success. Maybe they could have had great standalone movies but they work better as a team. It showed us that the plot does not always need to negate the abilities of one in order to highlight the skills of another.

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Years later, however, several reviewers of 500 Days of Summer noted the fact that the eponymous Summer (Zooey Deschanel) only exists when the main character Tom is around, for it seems she lives exclusively through his lens. Is Lara Croft’s Jonah not the same? Are not all these secondary characters cut of the same cloth, called on by the same plot, dispensed with in the same way? And just where do they exist under the pantheon of stars while we, the heroes, do our thing?

Now back to that gullibly lovable Teddy bear. It is clear from the very beginning of Tomb Raider that Jonah is written as a real toy not a boy mind you. He gets in trouble Lara saves him, she feels downcast he offers a cuddle paired with some sage advice to boot. He has no romantic attachment to her or anyone else for that matter and neither does she. Like clay he’s molded by the game to serve solely her story. Sound familiar?

Though brutality does not faze anyone as in all things real and unreal the irony persists that we are completely okay with seeing mutilating kills in the name of justice but are averse to any signs of weakness in her. Are we as a species so contradictory that we’ll always have to pick and choose our stories though still pray for something different to come along? Meanwhile, the good guys are stupid and naïve, the bad guys rapists and foreign. It’s always the foreigners. Those pesky alien sounding dudes with their curt vowels and currish vodka don’t seem to have learned their lesson throughout the years. They truly are the entertainment world’s everlasting Jokers. In fact, they are so convenient for a writer in need of a bad guy that you can use them in present day scenarios, futuristic, terrorist or whatever your little heart may desire without anyone ever calling you a bigot outright. Because reasons.

How can we claim progress when we’ve silently acquiesced to nothing more than a glorified passing of the guard? The voyage of time seems to inevitably bleach hearts and minds but it’s not just for ego. We as storytellers, as audience, as participants inevitably pledge to commit the same folly we once railed against. How can this be claimed with confidence? Remember the things that informed the public to take pride in its opinion some 60 years ago are the very same things that would send them scouring in shame today.

Yes, yes sometimes a single heroic protagonist is necessary if they have a very specific journey they are inviting us to. Maximus had his grand odyssey in Gladiator (2000) and we trotted along trusting him and Ridley Scott with our time and feelings. Katniss, Tris, Rey all had their respective journeys too, and though they matter differently to different people, they can always be relied on to provide a respite from life’s troubles when we really need them to, though this time strictly solo to serve a new need. Nevertheless, it is good to know they’re not just a selfless sister who wishes to take on the system or a copy of a copy who sojourns our hearts and minds every other year until the next generation comes along and ask the same questions we are now asking. Why does it have to be this way?


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