Throughout time, people have sought after heroes. Whether the hero is a god, warrior, artist, or other talented character, people need heroes. When these heroes begin to deteriorate, as they have in the last 150 years, a paradox occurs. Heroes barely exist in modern culture, and if they do they are poor representations. Modern culture must realize that a hero is within each person, and each person’s true hero is him/herself.
In ancient Rome, children and adults alike would idolize gladiators. It was widely believed that gladiators were mere steps below gods and the Emperor. The great ones were thought to have superhuman physical and sexual abilities.1 Their acts of violence were perceived as serving the society in which they lived to their best ability, and therefore they were heroes.
In the last Middle Ages, no one was thought more heroic than a knight crusading in Jerusalem. Though it could be argued in modern times that their acts were wrong, at the time most Westerners considered them to be on a mission from God. In the post-Renaissance era, knights fighting in tournaments were heroes. Even closer to modern society is the American cowboy, a traditional role of heroism in the United States.
In Montana 1948, David obviously idolizes cowboys. He makes varied references to how his sheriff/father, Wesley, should be more like a traditional lawman. Dressing in a fedora instead of Stetson and not even carrying a gun makes David turn to his uncle Frank to be his hero. Frank, being a doctor and a war veteran, is one of the most popular and powerful men in the county. However, as knowledge of Frank’s sexual crimes is uncovered, his status as a hero dissipates. After this, David is left not idolizing anyone and must discover life for himself.
Joy-Hulga of Good Country People has a similar quandary to David. With an unprecedented hatred of her mother, Joy-Hulga attempts to block the entire world out. It is apparent that she views her mother and her mother’s friends to be almost anti-heroes. She knows she can not change their ways, and so she is forced to take on someone who she believe is more easily manipulated. Pointer makes a perfect target; Joy-Hulga “imagines dialogues for them that that were insane on the surface but that reached far below to depths that a Bible salesman would be aware of.”2 Her hope is to educate him, but deep down I believe she wanted him to see her as a superior being, for that is how she saw herself. At the end of the story, Joy-Hulga and the reader are presented with an apparent truth: she is not a superior being and neither is Pointer – there are no heroes in their world.
In Everything That Rises Must Converge, Julian takes a similar path as Joy-Hulga, only with a different result. Julian wishes to inspire his mother to lead a better life than she does. After a grueling process of attempting to force her to see his way, she dies and he finds himself missing her and wishing she was there to teach him and be his hero. This shows that since heroes’ roles have changed from their earlier more recognizable roots. Consequently, they are not apparent and therefore stop existing.
Rules of the Game perfectly shows the modern scheme of heroism. It is apparent from the start that Waverly’s mother is her adversary. She even defines it later by saying, “In my head, I saw a chessboard…opposite me was my opponent…she wore a triumphant smile…I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.”3 Earlier in the story, she meets a character named Lao Po, who teaches her how to play chess and apply it to life. It would be easy to say that he was Waverly’s hero, except that he is never mentioned again in the story. Waverly makes herself her own hero by teaching herself what she needs to learn and acting as her own person. By not depending on anyone, Waverly shows that heroes are only necessary for those people not strong enough to be independent.
The days of the swashbuckling pirate, intellectual scholar, bold cowboy, and honorable knight are through. Modern culture has replaced them with characters like Tony Soprano and a modern, edgier, more violent batman (after the classic Batman was rendered paraplegic). People are so distant from true heroes that they will take whatever they find, including facades of characters that have no real moral value. The time has come for people to not only reevaluate what it is they want in a hero, but reevaluate themselves. Recently, American culture has made firemen and police officers “the typical hero.” This is the same pop culture that bought singles like “Fuck tha’ Police” by N.W.A. and “Cop Killa” by Ice-T only a decade ago. The truth be told, America needs to realize what Waverly realized: heroes are illusions. A person’s hero is within him/herself, sometimes he/she simply needs another person to show them what it is they want.
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