Posted by: Mark | February 7, 2009

Heroes and Villains

The other week in class, we were discussing what movies can reveal about a society and its values. We all realized that in the post-9/11 Hollywood world, two film genres had made a strong resurgence: horror movies, and superhero movies. My students were quick to conclude that the prevalence of these genres reveal that Americans were scared in the wake of 9/11 (for real-world evidence, see: threat levels at airports) and looking for heroes to save us (for real world evidence, see: Pat Tillman).

And now we have just elected a president that has taken on a heroic air to many. The Daily Show likes to quip about the Messiah-like effect Obama has had on so many Americans. There’s this image of Obama as Superman, with other visual representations of the Superman Obama all over the internet.

On a recent This American Life episode, Ira Glass issued the position of the editorial staff regarding Obama: he should not have to quit smoking cigarettes. His smoking habit is the one major tarnish in his armor, the obvious point of his fallibility, and as one of the producers said, since everyone has their weaknesses, I’d rather have a president whose weakness is cigarettes than one who lies about wars or else is unfaithful.

The point is well-taken, but I also think it sucks that Obama is a smoker. I wish he’d quit, even if it does take away his “human side,” as This American Life pointed out.

So my question is: what’s so bad with holding people in the public spotlight up to high standards, to truly be our heroes? I’m also thinking about this in the wake of the recent news that a) Michael Phelps had a picture taken of him taking a bong hit, and b) Alexander Rodriguez, arguably the best baseball player ever, just got blasted in the NYTimes for his connection to taking performance enhancing drugs in 2003.

When you’re president, you’re a role model, whether you like it or not. When you are the greatest swimmer in history, you’re a role model, whether you like it or not. And when you are incredible at baseball and are the most recognized figure on the most recognized team in the Major League, you are a role model, whether you like it or not. I’m disappointed these figures who live in an obviously public times, with every individual equipped with a cellphone with a camera, have not fully considered the weight of their presence in people’s lives.

I’ve heard the many defensive statements for guys like Phelps for smoking pot, especially living in San Francisco, where pot-smoking is extremely fashionable in the adult world. (Side note: I always thought that pot-smoking was a phase that teenagers go through to be rebellious, and never realized till living out here that adult drug use is extremely prevalent, defended, and intellectually and socially justified.) And by contrast, since I’m stuck here disagreeing with the uber-hip 20 somethings of the web, I look like the stodgy old spinsters who think that “they should know better.”

But who cares if that’s how I look. I think they should in fact know better. Of course swimmers throughout the world look up to Phelps, and a whole bunch of kids now have to What’s wrong with holding yourself to a high standard, the highest in fact, especially when you’re so obviously a hero to thousands, if not millions, of people? And why does my argument sound so square?

I think it’d be nice for kids and adults alike to be inspired in entirety by their heroes. I know that no ones perfect, but doesn’t it feel good to feel like you’ve found someone who actually is, to be able to look up to and relate to someone who really does epitomize “good?” If that makes me old fashioned, so be it. I guess for now, I’ll just have to resort to Hollywood movies like “The Dark Knight” and the upcoming “Watchmen” to wrestle with the issues of good and bad character in our heroes.



  1. Full admission: I may be in my 20s, but I am far from hip. I used to smoke pot, but I haven’t in quite a while.

    I don’t view recreational drug use in itself to be immoral. It should be a personal choice, and as long as it doesn’t negatively impact one’s family, friends, or community than I don’t think it should be criticized. I see nothing wrong with Phelps smoking pot, in particular. He is a young man who is not responsible for anyone else’s well being, has no children relying on him, et cetera. Why exactly is it bad?

    The only (minor) issue I have with Obama smoking is that he has two young daughters who would suffer quite a loss if he were to die young due to lung cancer or some other complication. Ultimately it’s his choice, though, and quite frankly not a big deal.

    I won’t comment on steroid use since I know very little about sports or the specifics of sports medicine.

    I think the root of the problem is that we have a culture that deals in absolutes, that loves a good bout of jingoism, celeb chasing, and flag waving, and encourages us to idolize athletes or politicians or musicians or saints or anybody. I suppose it’s alright to have heroes, some people might even need them, but to expect our icons to be anything more than human and to forgo any earthly pleasures is, in my view, delusional at best and puritanical at worst. That sort of thinking will leave us disappointed every single time, because they are human. Just like us, in all our beautiful blemishes and imperfections and complexities.

  2. Very thoughtful, if inflammatory response. So here I go, firing back:

    I should have probably used the phrase “role model” as compared to hero. I see your point about jingoism, flag waving, and celeb chasing…but everyone needs, and should, have people they look up to. Yes, it’s regrettable that so many people look at athletes or movie stars as their personal role models, but they do. As a high school teacher, I see the very real impact that distant celebrities can and do have on the lives of today’s teenage students, the ones who are extremely powerful through their behavior, consumption, and tastes. So therefore, I don’t think it’s unrealistic in the least to imagine this scenario:

    High school swimmer sees that Phelps smokes pot, doesn’t think that smoking pot is so bad after all, despite being on the fence about it. Smokes pot recreationaly, and makes a stupid mistake while high, such as get behind the wheel of a car and drive. You see where I’m going.

    Unlikely scenario, but also not impossible. Kids look up to people for stupid reasons, and unfortunately, they often look up to stupid people for stupid reasons. It’s this mentality that has me extremely skeptical of popular shows like “Gossip Girl,” which set as the norm the most vile and duplicitous selfishness and behavior. Does that make me puritanical? I think not. Maybe just a guy who doesn’t want parents, teachers, etc to have to compete with the constant barrage of bad role models that are out there, contradicting their attempts to impart a sense of responsibility and self-dignity.

    I guess I just hoped that there were more regular responsible adults who took advantage of the limelight. I don’t think anyone’s perfect, but there’s a big difference between being imperfect as in “I lose my temper at the end of a long day,” and being imperfect as in “I’m the president of the US, I’m trying to initiative universal healthcare in this country, yet I willingly and knowingly smoke cigarettes despite all obvious health concerns,” or better yet athletes who use their physical being and athleticism to inspire, while enhancing themselves illegally to compete (purveying that it’s OK to cheat to get ahead) or just reckless self-destruction.

    You get my drift?

  3. I totally get your drift. I too dislike shows and the like that sell selfish and shallow lifestyles as acceptable. I don’t really think that makes anyone puritanical.

    But unlike television characters, Phelps and Obama are real people who will have some flaws. If smoking marijuana or tobacco are the worse things they do, I say let them have their fun. (‘Course, Obama has already approved the bombing of Pakistan, meaning he’s done far worse, but that is neither here nor there)

    I don’t at all doubt that a significant number of Phelps fans will be more likely to smoke weed now. Some of them will probably get in a car accident and hurt themselves or someone else. But to me, that is more a result of poor judgment and that whole hero-on-a-pedestal issue (my hero does something, because he’s a hero what he does must be good, therefore I should do it too) coupled with major problems about how we talk about drugs. The problem is not that someone smoked pot, its that they smoked pot and then went out driving. Obama probably drinks a glass of wine with dinner, or maybe even a dram or two of scotch to wind down some evenings. If someone were to start drinking and then drive drunk because of that, thats a problem. But the problem isn’t that Obama drank. Nor is the problem in that the follower drank. It’s that the follower made a reckless mistake: getting behind the wheel drunk.

    Role models are important, and children (and adults) often need others to look up to. But I see no reason why a role model has to be perfect. You’ll never find one that is. Even Jesus (I don’t mean to offend), MLK Jr., Amelia Earhart, and Gandhi had their faults. Parents and teachers would do well to explain to their children that people are complicated, and you can admire Phelps’ hard work in the gym and in the pool, his determination and work ethic, and still not agree with his recreational choices. Sadly, I think we’ve developed the mindset that whoever our media offers up as good role models have to be free of offense. Why not teach that people are complex? (I’m not trying to blame teacher or parents. We all operate in a large, complicated world, where there are millions of factors. I’m just saying that they are probably the ones who are going to have to combat the ridiculous notion that those we look up to must be above reproach. I doubt very much, sadly, that the media is going to change it for us.)

    As for the universal health care thing (Obama’s plan really isn’t universal, but that’s just me being pedantic) and smoking, I thought the point was that everyone should have the right to good medical care, full stop. I don’t see how someone’s lifestyle choices matter there at all. Sure, smoking increases risk for a plethora of health problems. Even a three pack a day smoker deserves to have access to treatment for lung cancer, regardless of the habit.

    I think you can be responsible (yes, even as a role model) and use recreational drugs. I think it’d certainly be easier if our country fostered an open environment where people could be honest about their proclivities, and discuss them in public. The right thing for Phelps to do, in my opinion, is state openly that yes, he occasionally enjoys marijuana, and that’s okay, because he makes sure it doesn’t interfere with the rest of his life or endanger others. You know, the “cookies is a sometimes food” approach. Sadly, that sort of thing is impossible in the current cultural climate. Imagine the witch hunt!

    Many people I admire had some truly dreadful traits and habits. Some of them did truly awful things. I criticize them for that, but I try to strive to follow their lead where they did get things right. I think that is a healthy and positive (yet realistic) framework when it comes to approaching role models.

  4. I think part of the problem is that American culture has a variety of different ideas of what should be admired and modeled by its heroes. Because of its diverse make-up America struggles with the idea of cultural norms and or values.

    For example, I find that the consumption of alcohol is a much more damaging and destructive habit than smoking Marijuana, yet most sporting events not only promote alcohol use, but are actually endorsed by companies.

    I don’t know much about the Phelp story, but I do know that if he was seen drinking a beer or a glass of wine, he may have a endorsement contract with Budweiser as we speak. It is this double standard that I find troubling. We are in an era that for whatever reason marijuana has been criminalized and with terrible results, but the reality is that this “drug” is simply an herb that has been used by human cultures for millennia. I don’t want to get into a legalize it campaign, here, but I do what to point out that while many Americans, yourself included, may regard recreational drug use as criminal and morally corrupting, others of us see no harm in it.

    The point I was trying to make, however, is that it is in this discrepancy of right and wrong that we find problems. No one hero will fit the mold for people. I agree that young people should have heroes, but I think they should be allowed to explore and discover people with who they relate, not simply which ever athlete the latest marketing campaign deems worthy.

    For example, one of my heroes was Allen Ginsberg, a pot-smoking homosexual, I am pretty certain that in most circles the adults in charge would have preferred I pick someone safer. But on my moral compass Ginsberg displayed much more admirable trust than say A-rod!

    Young people may need heroes, but not the ones we ram down their throats!

  5. Oh and I agree 100% with almost everything @spgreenlaw has said.

  6. Sorry for the grammer mistakes, i suck, and do not care for grammer or spelling

    comon, let the guy smoke a little weed and drink a couple of beers. he’s just won the biggest award he couple probably ever imaging, 7 gold medals, he deserves a little unwinding time and a chance to relax before he begings training agian, or whatever he wants to do in his life.

    Listen, society thinks that because phelps is such a big hero he should be a hermit, living the perfect life with some nice catholic girl and never, absolutly never, do any sort of sin.

    But man, he smoked a little pot and he got hella drunk, and he hit on some chicks, he got 7 gold metals, he burns 12000 calories a day, i think he deserves to be able to relax without the entire wold freaking out.

    Its true, by making him self such a big name he established himself as a hero/role model and as such has to act as a role modle has to do. But , he’s 24 and wants to party. who doesn’t at 24. Maybe when he is older and wise rw#he can settle down into the perfect role moldel charecter and promote wold peace or whatever, but noiw he is young, let him please have fun. His exceptionally skill at moving though water very fast is great, and very inspiring-he worked very hard to get to were he was today. But it would be great if the wolrd could let him ab#lone to pick up some girls, toss back a few beer, and maybe, if he wants, take a bong hit.

    ps. Anyone who can smoke weed and win 8 olimpic gold medals, deserves an additional medal in my book. thank you

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