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No More Heroes

No More Heroes: How Celebrity Culture Killed Heroism

(06 October 2007)

So, the British have rapturously embraced the American smash TV hit Heroes. The new generation of superhumans join Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Harry Potter etc in the ranks of the supernaturally and magically endowed. We’re awash with heroes. Every big Hollywood movie has its protagonist defying impossible odds to save the day. What does it tell us about our society that we are bombarded with so many images of heroism? Why does every major movie seem to feature someone with Godlike powers? Even those protagonists who start out as ordinary folk at the beginning of the movie are transformed into extraordinary beings by its end. The character arc of any Hollywood star is the same: hero with hidden strengths is thrown into dramatic, death-defying situation where hidden strengths are revealed as hero defeats terrifying enemy.

This obsession with heroism signals unmistakably that we live in the least heroic of ages: we’re in sore need of heroes because there simply aren’t any nowadays. Why does real heroism seem impossible nowadays? No one makes the grade. Heroism is quite simply dead, murdered, lying ignored in a pool of its own blood. The identity of the killer is no mystery. Celebrity struck the fatal blow.

These days, the media immediately fetes anyone who does anything remarkable. Instantly, these individuals are elevated to celebrity status. Money and attention are showered on them. Any trace of heroism is soon negated by the cynicism of the money machine. ‘Heroes’ quickly look like they’re cashing in, that they’re on the make. In fact, you can be the precise opposite of heroic and still enjoy what Mammon is happy to throw at you. Look at the British sailors and marines captured by the Iranians in 2007. A disgrace to their uniform, many thought. Yet some walked away with a small fortune for selling their pathetic stories. Big Brother contestants – talentless nobodies without exception – dominate the front pages of several newspapers for many weeks each summer, and practically all of them are able to cash in big time.

A ‘hero’ is likely to be approached by a rapacious agent within minutes. The agent starts controlling press access, arranging exclusives, making book deals, discussing movie rights – all distinctly unheroic. Soon, the allegedly heroic act reeks of a manufactured incident designed to generate a lucrative income stream.

A true hero is someone who, beyond the call of duty, acts in the interests of others, often endangering his own life in the process. As soon as a hero seems set to profit from the incident, the essential altruistic element of his heroism is lost, replaced by self-interest.

As heroes recede ever further into the sepia-tinted past, we crave them more and more. Crucially, none of the band of superheroes presented in TV and movies are ever motivated by money. The good of humanity is invariably their concern. How ironic that if these fictional heroes ever repeated their heroics in reality, the first thing that would happen to them is that they’d become instant celebrities and extravagantly rich.

Of course, that’s exactly what the actors who play the main roles in Heroes are praying for. They have no interest in heroism, but plenty in embracing celebrity. And what an odd bunch they are in terms of their fictional jobs. The men are ostensibly an upstanding bunch: an academic, a police officer, a nurse, a politician and an office worker (note that none has the job of lawyer, doctor, actor, banker, architect, TV star, sportsman or any of the other lucrative professions). But look at the two women: one is a single mother with a job as a web-cam stripper on the Internet (!), and the other is a Texas cheerleader. We can be sure these two heroines will largely be in a state of undress as they go about their superheroic business. The modern depiction of heroism is never short of an injection of ratings-boosting soft porn. Once again, the whole idea of heroism is mocked and turned into a sleazy peepshow. Before our eyes, heroism is deconstructed.

If we want to have the opportunity to admire heroes ever again, we have to kill off celebrity, but don’t hold your breath. Why does heroism lose out every time to celebrity? Heroism is so much more positive than celebrity, so much nobler, but who cares? You can be famous now without doing anything that merits fame (the Paris Hilton ‘famous for being famous’ syndrome), but you can’t be a hero without a heroic act on your CV.

Wouldn’t everyone benefit from the death of celebrity culture? It’s trivial, ridiculous, unmeritorious. It lavishes rewards on a handful of chosen ones, turns its back on talent, and drags everyone into a drab gutter where we’re all looking at the stars, but not the ones in the sky.

How would we go about assassinating celebrity culture? We have to think of it as if it were as dangerous as crack cocaine or heroin (it’s actually much more dangerous!). We need to target the peddlers and the users. The supply has to be cut off. Instead of setting fire to poppy fields, we should be incinerating celebrity magazines. ATF agents should be raiding every chat show and arresting hosts and guests alike. Tabloid newspaper editors should be regarded as big-league pushers and driven out of business. The unholy alliance of advertising, big business, TV and movies must be stopped from ‘selling’ celebrity to the sad masses looking for their daily celebrity fix.

That great old band The Stranglers famously sang that there were no more heroes. How right they were. The only person who comes close is the Russian mathematical genius Grigory Perelman who turned down prestigious honours and a million dollar prize in 2006 for his brilliant proof of the intractablePoincaré Conjecture. Reputedly he is now jobless and living with his mum. But perhaps he was motivated by contempt for materialistic individuals and those less gifted than himself, and contempt isn’t a heroic quality either.

I stopped watching Heroes after one episode. It reminded me of how shabby we all are, how we sold out to celebrity, how we stood over the corpse of heroism, bloodstained dagger in hand, and asked the nearest money-grabbing agent how much he could get us for the exclusive pictures.