A new type of hero?

To begin, we saw Brave a couple of weekends ago.

While having a discussion about boy heroes versus girl heroes and gender appropriateness, I made the comment, “Up is the boy version of Brave…. Only that it’s about an old man and a boy scout instead of a mother and daughter.”

The Hubs stared at me blankly.

So I continued: “both films are about a generational relationship. They both have to understand each other.”

The lightbulb went off and he asked, “Have there been other stories with accidental heroes?”

To which I replied, “Of course. There are the accidental heroes and there are those that are called. What makes these heroes different is that they function as a unit.”

What followed was a list of recent heroes that don’t just work in tandem with a few supporting friends as we see with the traditional hero (i.e. Harry Potter and most other traditional heroes). The traditional hero gets to the end with supporting friends, but still has to face the final confrontation alone. These new heroes must do it together. The Hubs noticed this as a new take on the sidekick motif. The sidekick is now being elevated to a level of equality to the hero. While there are some heroes that come to mind, what is really interesting to note is that almost every single Pixar hero is this unit hero:

Toy Story: Buzz and Woody have to face the nemesis together as equals. The first TS film is about them coming to that realization.
Monsters, Inc.: Mike and Sully aren’t sidekicks. This is must be part of Randy Newman’s formula for friend songs.
Finding Nemo: Surprise! This film is NOT about Nemo. It’s about Dory and Nemo’s dad working together to find Nemo. They have to work together for Marlon to succeed. The generational bit is a MacGuffin.
Wall-E: Wall-E and Eve are constantly working together to save that plant.
Up: Gramps and the kid both have to figure out how to get home and defeat the bad guy.
Meet the Robinsons: current self vs. future self working together.
The Incredibles: it’s a family affair.
Ratatouille: Remy and Linguini work together to make the perfect batch of ratatouille and keep Gusteau’s restaurant alive.
Brave: Merida and her mom have to work together to mend the tapestry.
(I honestly don’t remember A Bug’s Life well enough to comment on it.)

And then there’s Cars. I haven’t seen Cars 2 yet, but in the first Cars, Lightning McQueen seems to be on his own. But, in the end, he needed all of Radiator Springs, especially Doc Hudson, to win the race.

It’s a slow transition, but it seems as though more stories are beginning to drift toward this new hero model, which also suggests that some part of the American psyche is also drifting toward this new hero model. Could this be connected to a slight decrease in individual heroes we idolize in our culture (ex: Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King) and a slight increase in collective heroes (ex: our soldiers)? Or perhaps this is a response to the idea that things are easier when we “get by with a little help from our friends.” It’s no accident that these stories are appearing at the same time as a push for community gardens, farmer’s co-ops, alternative transportation ideas, and even *gasp* government healthcare.

The pro-individualism model can only be sustained so long, and it seems as though we’re nearing the end of it. Speaking generally, of course. But if enough of us get behind this mythic movement, perhaps we can make the paradigm change happen.

Images of USPS Pixar-themed Postage Stamps. These won’t work as real stamps.

The Power of Myth: The Hero’s Adventure

I constantly find myself revisiting this episode in the Power of Myth series. It’s one of the best interviews between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, probably because it plays into Campbell’s expertise much better than the other ones. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen it so many times, it just seems this way because it is so familiar to me. So a bunch of us gather in the living room to view and discuss this chapter of PoM. This is essentially part 2 of the Mythopoetic Workshop from last month. The points in italics are from the show.

The hero evolves as the culture evolves. I think this is a forgotten point. Heroes of today are not the same as heroes of 100, 1000, 10000 years ago. Our needs are different. Notice that even the most successful hero remakes (ex: Marvel Heroes, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Star Wars, etc.) update the stories for the current era, and less successful hero remakes (ex: Troy), don’t. This is one of the points I find myself making over and over again these days: Cultural context is important. If you understand the culture, you can understand the heroes. For example, heroes today fight against something that is a little more difficult to identify. This is a result of a culture that is constantly battling against an ideology. We don’t have a clear-cut example of who our enemy is, who or what we should project our collective shadow on to, what actually constitutes as “evil.” Oh sure, we try to give a face to this “evil,” but then we make so many exceptions to the rule, that it is near impossible to keep up with who this silent enemy is. “Terrorism” has no single face behind it. “Recession” neither. The end result is name calling and backstabbing, meanwhile Hollywood and the literary world churns out some potent heroes who are constantly fighting this unknown shadow. It’s no accident that Sauron has no body, that Vader has no human face, or that Voldemort has no body (and the one he does wind up having is a magical homunculus body, not a real one).

Outer space as a whole new realm for the imagination to open into. I agree with this. The birth of true science fiction coincides with the modern era. However, along with the birth of true science fiction comes the idea of the fairy-myth. I don’t recall if I’ve written about this on the blog yet, but this is a term I coined when I was writing my MA thesis to describe stories that are mythic in magnitude, but content-wise more resemble the literary fairy tale, borrowing from Tolkien’s definition of a fairy-story. If outer space is the void, just waiting for our projections, then the fairy land is the realm of the inner imagination. Both story modes work in conjunction to address the complex nature of the modern Western inner life. One mode appeals to some more than the other, and within each mode is a ton of material. Speaking of this complexity, it’s also interesting to note that many of the more potent modern myths come in multiple volumes.

The world is a wasteland and the only way to bring life into it is to bring life into yourself. I agree with this, but only to an extent. While I do think that there is some truth to this – happy people are less likely to want to blow up other people – I do think there that there does need to be some extraverted work with the collective. When a bunch of people get together, no matter how centered they are, the possibility exists that they will fall into group think, for good or for bad. Working in a group of people takes effort, and this effort is just as important as the individual effort. Now, the part about the world being a wasteland. Campbell points out that humans have become the voice of the earth. This gives us the added responsibility of tending to her needs. See the point about the planet below.

You can tell what informs a society by the tallest building in a town. This is one of my favorite points in the entire hour. In a medieval town, the cathedral is, by law, the tallest structure in the entire town. In an Enlightenment town, it’s the political building (capitol, city hall, etc.). Though in some Enlightenment towns, the tallest structure is the bell tower from the university. In the modern world, it’s the skyscrapers, filled with offices and dwellings. So as a civilization we’ve gone from being informed by the church, to politics/reason, to corporations, to the individual at his/her computer. With each progressive era, those buildings get taller and taller, as though to negate any questions of their authority. Indeed, in Austin, Texas, where I spend a lot of my time, this can be seen in the downtown: The oldest building was at first the state capitol building (Austin is a post-Enlightenment city). Then the next tallest is the UT bell tower, which is often lit up to let the city know whether or not the Longhorns won a game. This was later trumped by the Frost Bank building. But now the tallest building is a high-rise loft building. From politics, to education (football?), to corporate finance, to individuals at their computers.

You can’t predict what a myth is going to be. True. Case in point: no one actually expected Star Wars or Harry Potter to be as successful as they are, but the reason for their success is that they gripped a whole bunch of people in the mythic moment. They speak to that unconscious level that myths speak to. The flip side to this point is that you can’t predict what a myth is going to be by recycling the same old formula. I think this is part of why Marvel heroes, Michael Bay movies, and sequels aren’t more successful. A good myth should speak to the psyche in a fresh way, giving new face to the old archetypes (if not creating new archetypes altogether, but this is a point that some in the Jungosphere might argue).

The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is going to be the planet and everybody on it. —“Until that gets going, you don’t have anything.”  This one single statement is usually taken to mean “let’s be green!” What I think Campbell is trying to push at is recognizing the global nature of the world we are currently living in, and working together collectively to transcend national boundaries and concentrate on humanity as a whole organism, rather than on our own cultural egos. Nations are arbitrary, and he highlights this point by looking at a picture of earth taken from the moon (I think). From space, there are no national boundaries. Physically and psychologically, we are essentially the same. The new mythology should bring us together. And I suspect that somewhere someone recognizes this, and finds their shadow triggered by it, which is why the liberal arts and humanities are currently suffering from budget cuts. These subjects emphasize our similarities rather than differences.

Harry Potter, Infinitus and the Last Airbender

I’m presenting this summer at Infinitus, a HPEF Harry Potter fan conference. I really enjoy presenting at the HPEF events, because they’re an opportunity to be a stuffy academic without the stuffy academic environment. For example, you can sit through several serious presentations about Harry Potter and things like education, religion, or literature studies, then at lunch go watch a live water Quidditch match or Wizard Chess. I’ve only every attended HPEF conferences, but they’re not the only ones available each year, but I think they were the first organization to offer the conferences.

My presentation is about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter section of the theme park. I’ll post the transcript of the presentation once I finalize it. When I made my proposal, I thought it might be kind of fun to explore my dissertation topic using Harry Potter as a practice round. Of course, that means elaborating on my dissertation topic: Although I haven’t received the official go-ahead from the school yet (hopefully in the next few weeks!), I plan to write about how Disneyland is a space where we can interact with our culture’s mythologies and how Disney and Disneyland have essentially helped define what some of those mythologies actually are. It it seems kind of far out, consider this: ask a handful of children under the age of 10 who their hero is, and I would bet that a number of them would list someone who is a Disney character. Is this simply the product of successful targeted marketing? That would be the answer of many of the negative Nancys who write about Disneyland, which is perfectly acceptable and understandable. However, it is my contention and the driving force of much of my academic research that popular culture has become the dominant mythic paradigm for a percentage of the American population, and two of those dominant myths are Disney and Harry Potter (and from Harry Potter, we could stretch to include many of the other myths that have arisen as a result of Potter’s success. Excellent stories are being written and published that would not have had that much opportunity before Potter; of course, there are many icky stories being written and published that are given the opportunity because of Potter, but they’re usually the ones I don’t find the inspiration or the mojo to bother writing too much about. Except Twilight, because someone needs to be a champion against campy vampire romance and bad writing. When Twilight comes up in my classes, I often ask my students to consider the importance of vampires in our culture right now at this point of time AND why many of these vampires are someone we should be in love with.)

In vein with exploring modern myths in popular culture, I decided last week to start watching Avatar: The Last Airbender in light of the recent negative criticism of M. Night’s adaptation of the show. I didn’t want to see the film without knowing the show, and since I haven’t had cable in over 10 years, I missed the initial phenomenon entirely. The story of Avatar is that the world is divided into four types of people (read: races) themed around the four primary elements of the world: fire, earth, water, and air. Each of these peoples can interact with their elements, controlling them and all that jazz. In each generation, an Avatar is born who is the one person in the ENTIRE WORLD who can control all four elements and keep all the people at peace. [the requisite chosen one complex of any successful hero] The current Avatar went missing for 100 years, during which time, the Fire Nation began the process of world domination. They have taken over most of the world by the time the show starts. The current Avatar emerges, and is an Airbender (meaning he is from the Air people and can control the air element). Since the next avatar was supposed to be an Air person, the Fire Nation wiped out the Air people, making Aang the Last Airbender. See? It’s not just a smart name. The show is centered around his education of the elements and his growth into the hero that will bring peace back into the world by restoring balance in the Force. I just started the second season on Netflix. I see the mythic advantage of this story: using an Eastern frame of reference, Avatar teaches us Westerners the benefits of balance over world domination – a theme that everyone would be good to learn and sooner rather than later. It makes sense that the dominant power would be fire, as that is the only element that cannot be easily controlled and can potentially dominate the other elements if not properly tended and monitored.

It’s interesting that the prevalent myths of the current generations surround bringing some kind of balance. From Star Wars through Potter and many other current stories, there is the theme that someone is off kilter, and it is up to the hero to make everything right again sooner rather than later, because later leads to more catastrophic results. in contrast, more “adult” sectors have been focusing heavily on Apocalyptic scenarios about the world ending in 2012 or what the state of the country will actually be in a few hundred years. Somehow, I’m getting the impression that many “adults” or “Muggles” are giving up on the future of the world, whereas “children” or those who believe in magic still have hope that someone will bring about the needed balance. My inner realist would like to remind everyone that it won’t take a single hero, but it is a collective effort from each of us who still believes in the future, and it won’t fix itself overnight, but over time if we all make a concerted effort.