My kids love the Berenstain Bears. Especially my oldest, it is currently her favourite show; as such my wife and I get to hear/see it sometimes as they watch on Netflix.
Sarah (my wife) pointed something out the other day which gave me pause. She pointed out that the Berenstain Bears remind her of who we want to be, they challenge her to remember things like family time, or the importance of Dad teaching the kids to build their own kite instead of picking one up at the store. This observation led to a conversation that I would like to invite you all into.
Now I’m not saying The Berenstain’s are without fault (I agree that it’s unfortunate that Papa is generally portrayed as an idiot etc…), however there is a certain goodness there. They live in a family who loves each other, they value their community, they are encouraged to help out the left out kids at school, and I could go on
However these aren’t the kinds of families the media usually puts in front of us, when we think of families from TV we are drawn to The Simpsons, Modern Family, The Family Guy (All of which also feature dolt dad syndrome). Sometimes we get to Everybody loves Raymond etc. which is okay but thrives on dysfunction.
Not often do these examples call us upward.
Now I remember making countless arguments to my parents as a teen that the media I was consuming wouldn’t drag me down, and in large portion I wasn’t totally wrong. What I was saying is that watching “Half Baked” wouldn’t make me start smoking pot, listening to Limp Bizket wouldn’t make me want to “Break Stuff”. They didn’t, but what about heroes and culture that challenges me to move upward? Not just that I can avoid being pulled down by, but that pulls me up? It’s rare.
It seems that now the majority of our heroes have become so “relatable” that we are pleased just not to stoop to their level. Anyone really look up to Dr. House? How about Jack Bauer, he’s cool but does he challenge you to be a better person? Iron Man?
Captain America has come back into the public consciousness lately thanks to Marvel and DC exploding the comic move market. The Captain is many people’s favourite Avenger. He has the worst powers. Why do people love him? Almost always, because he’s good. He’s a good guy who challenges us to be better, this was the function of heroes; they called us to something higher. If you are unfamiliar with the Captain America storyline the basic story (apologies to comic fans if I screw this up) is that Steve Rodgers was a small weak man, however he always was drawn to fight for the little guy and to stand up to Evil (specifically to join the war effort). Eventually he is injected with a serum and achieves the peak of human fitness, strength etc. give the guy an indestructible shield and we are off to the races! But at his core he remains a fighter for those weaker than himself, he can make mistakes, but he always tries to do things the right thing. This is who our heroes were.
And then came Spider-Man (again apologies to my comic fan friends who know FAR more about the genre than I). In my understanding Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, to reflect a more human super hero. Specifically a more teen relatable super hero. When you read the Spider-Man comics (or watch the movies) you see quickly that Peter Parker is a conflicted guy. He is still good and makes the unselfish choice more often than not, but there is always a conflict there. If he wasn’t Spider-Man he would be able to get the girl, get better grades, he wrestles with the selfish choice.
This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Art is at it’s best when we can identify with it, we all face these conflicts, we connect with characters who are conflicted too. We want to see how they wrestle through and many (like Spider-Man) come to admirable conclusions. however the trend continues, we keep moving along these lines, making our heroes more and more relatable, more and more conflicted. Pretty soon we are left with the anti-hero, the “hero” driven by revenge, the “hero” who can justify any means, the hero whose brilliance is seemingly fuelled by depression and contempt, the hero whose motivation is rebellion, the hero who we don’t want to be like.
Art should be relatable, we should connect with it, we should connect with the characters especially the protagonist.
But what does it mean when our societies heroes are more tragically flawed than inspiring? What happens when they don’t pull us upward?