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Hero, Icon, Role Model

A little kid comes home from just another day at school, unceremoniously dumps his backpack on the ground, stomps into the kitchen, and sits down at the kitchen table for a tasty afternoon snack. His father places a plate in front of him. “Ants on a log”. Delicious. As he picks up the first one, careful not to get the excess peanut-butter on his fingers, his father asks him the usual “what did you learn at school today?”
“Stuff”, he replies. –“Did you have a good day?” –“Meh.” –“What’s your homework?” The little boy stalks over to his backpack and pulls out a piece of paper. On the top is printed the following question:

“Who is your hero, and why?”

A deceptively difficult assignment, in my opinion.

Take a moment and answer that question for yourself — who is YOUR hero, and why? Answer this question before you read on. Alyssa has demonstrated this process already http://myhero.com/go/hero.asp?hero=Cooley_MMS_.

(Cover of “Hero” magazine, Issue #5…and 99% sure this image has nothing to do with this post except for the word printed on it.)

Thought of a hero yet? …Good.

Now, riddle me this: how did you define the term “hero”? WHAT, exactly, is a hero?

Checklist: Is your hero living or dead? Does your hero transcend nature? Is your hero male or female (and are you the same or different gender?)? Do you personally know your hero? Is your hero a fictional character? If the question had been “who is your role model” would you have chosen someone different? What about “icon”? Is your hero a celebrity, athlete, or politician? A martyr? Did you have a hard time choosing just one hero — if yes… who are your other heroes?

WHY is this person (or persons) your hero(es)?

Does your hero personify an idea you wish to portray or emulate?

Would you say you “worship” your hero? If so, how? Is it akin to religion?

In the case of the grade-school essay assignment, “hero” has an assumed definition of “role model”, or “someone to emulate”, “someone who inspires” – personifications of morally good values and ideals.

In the case of comic books, a hero is usually a “super” human figure, blessed with unnatural abilities, often strength, and cursed with equally unnaturally gifted foes.

A “super” hero, if you will. More than human.

“Hero” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. This is a shame (yet I am certainly guilty of this crime). The word “hero” should not be taken so lightly, methinks. When a soldier dies for her country, she is honored as a “hero”. When a husband opens the pickle jar, his pregnant wife exclaims “Oh! My hero!”. When Theseus slayed the minotaur and saved the people of Athens from having to sacrifice 7 boys and 7 girls for future years, he became a national hero.

Epic heroes have been around for a very, very, very long time (think Iliad, Odyssey, and Gilgamesh). Hero worship was part of the religious system in ancient Greece and Rome. Heroes were worshipped in a similar manner as were divine figures. With the rise of Christianity, one could argue that the idea of the saint replaced the need for the hero — a transcendental figure one could pray to who was once a living person. In the Middle Ages, heroes of old and new heroes emerged in the literature — Hercules and tales of King Arthur and his Knights. I could try and trace the path of heroes through history, but that would take a very long time, I fear.

What I would rather discuss are the ways in which heroes are categorized. There isn’t simply one type of hero, after all (or is there? I could be very wrong. It happens). Maybe the hero you chose fits into one (or more) of these categories. … and maybe the figures who fall in these categories are better described as “icon” or “role model” (you be the judge).

Category #1: Political heroes.
Whether we think of these figures as “good” or “bad”, their names are stuck in the history books as leaders who left their mark on the world. Some of them include: Mao (in fact much of Chinese hero worship scholarship was written during the 1960s, during the Mao era – “thought control in Communist China … a strict order to write about certain subjects in a certain manner” [Sheridan, Mary. “The Emulation of Heroes.” The China Quarterly, 33 (Jan.-Mar. 1968): 47]); Lenin; Kim Jong Il; Napoleon; Hitler; FDR; Jefferson; JFK; Washington; Lincoln; MLK …. Some of these leaders were heroized during their lifetime, and others posthumously. Interestingly… it’s the Americans I listed who were heroized posthumously. “Heroized” could simply mean “became a revered national figure”, but one must be revered in order to be considered a hero.

Category #2: Supernatural Heroes
Or, more colloquially, comic book heroes. The “Super” man theory is actually one that was developed by early philosophers, and should not be discarded as a childhood notion of a larger than life figure who saves the day. Though these heroes are mythological in character (ex: Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, X-Men), they all have extraordinary (physical) abilities that they use in order to protect the weak (except Batman… who has no genetic alterations yet takes it upon himself to use fancy gadgets and superior fighting abilities to catch the bad guys). These heroes are like “super cops”. And they have their “super villain” counterparts, as well. And ridiculously amazing costumes that many of us don once a year (it’s called “Halloween”, and it’s the best excuse to play dress-up after age 10). 

Category #3: Celebrity Heroes
That is, pop culture heroes, many of whom died young: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley (funny how the ‘young’ Elvis is more often revered, yet the older Elvis is more often imitated), Michael Jackson… I could go on. Popular heroes in America have shrines, and people make pilgrimages to these shrines, such as Graceland for Elvis. Other American pop heroes with popular shrines include Will Rogers, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock, and Jesse James.

 

Hero athletes might also fall under “celebrity hero” status. In America, baseball is the national past time, and when we think of baseball we think of Babe Ruth. Even before his death, “Babe Ruth Day” (April 27) was celebrated in baseball parks all over America.

Category #4: The Martyr/War Hero
A martyr is someone who dies for his/her (often religious) beliefs. War heroes certainly are no exception. They are people, just like you and me, who sacrifice their lives during the struggle of injustice. They fight for a cause, and do so selflessly. Heroes of war have always been revered and honored (the mound that covers the 192 soldiers who died at the Battle of Marathon when the Greeks fought the Persians is still a site visited today) . And, a little closer to home, one can visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, or battlefields, or military cemeteries in order to pay respect to those who fought for us. 

Even CrossFit, a fitness movement that is taking over the world (or so it seems), honors war heroes. There are certain WODs (“workout of the day”s) with names that form a group called (appropriately) “hero WODs”. They are named after soldiers who died in the line of duty. Whenever a CrossFitter performs one of these workouts, that person will often give more of him/herself toward the workout, fight harder through the pain, resist the desire to quit, because s/he is doing it “for that hero”. It’s a method of hero worship in its own way.The “worship” aspect is performing the workout with 100% intensity as a tribute to the soldier who gave his life for our freedom.

T. H. Auden wrote “no hero is immortal till he dies”. And yet, a 1993 sociological experiment done in Philadelphia asking people who their hero is found that the most common answer was “my mom/dad”, no matter whether the parent was still living or not. After that came celebrities, then politicians, then Jesus [Klapp, Orrin E. “Hero Worship in America.” American Sociological Review, 14.1 (1949): 53-62.]

One could hardly form an argument against modern heroes and modern hero worship, given that we erect monuments and memorials to certain individuals, which are usually larger and more magnificent than those to “ordinary” persons. “While honor creates status, commemoration expresses the peculiar value of the hero as symbol. Monuments, likenesses, relics, legends, and periodic celebrations may be taken as mnemonic devices to preserve the collective image of a hero” (Klapp 1949: 58).The idea of a monument is not just a way to honor the hero/es, but is a method of perpetuating the memory of the individual(s) commemorated.

So. “Hero.” Can we answer the “what” part of “what is it”? This topic gained much popularity by European thinkers in the 18th and 19th centuries: Rousseau wrote about the idea of the hero, the Romantics started to redefine the idea of heroism as it concerned the individual (it was in fact Shelley’s opinion that Satan, in his noble defiance, was the real hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost), and in 1841 Carlyle published 6 in-depth lectures On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic.

In the 1960s, the idea of heroes and heroism gained new popularity. Charles Horton Cooley (1964) connects hero-identification with religion and other transcendental metanarratives. For Cooley, hero-identification was precisely a way for the individual to mark self-transcendent aspirations associated with moral idealism. Joseph Campbell (1968) defined the hero as one who, in response to a call, leaves the familiarity of ordinary life to enter a sphere of transcendental conflict; in returning from which, the hero raises the level of ordinary life itself. Daniel J. Boorstin (1968) maintains that heroes in modern culture have been replaced by celebrities. Whereas heroes were famous because they were great, celebrities are great because they are famous.

…do heroes even exist anymore? Truly? Bertolt Brecht wrote Life of Galileo (1943) during the height of Nazism, and in it he immortalized the following conversation between Andrea and Galileo —
Andrea: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes.”
Galileo: “No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

 

And as for MY answer to the original question: “who is your hero?”. Well, I’ve had to answer to this question, and the answer came easy: my brother.