Sunday, May 21, 2017

Whither the Everyman?

Just the other day, Russell Newquist made an observation that actually hits me where I live:
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the last four decades or so (and perhaps longer). The iconic heroes of my childhood were all ordinary men. Luke Skywalker, John McClain, Rocky Balboa, Indiana Jones, etc. At least, in their original incarnations.
Consider Luke Skywalker from A New Hope (and, for a moment, pretend that none of the other films exist). He’s a nobody farmer on a backwards planet. His parents aren’t amazing to speak of, and certainly aren’t shown as royalty. He’s the son of a knight, nothing more. Even so, it proves to be a huge step up from his own life. Yet he goes on to rescue the girl, defeat the bad guy, and save the rebellion.
Next consider Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Again, pretend that the other films don’t exist. He’s an ordinary, everyday American. His parents? Not even mentioned. He earns his position himself, through hard work.
John McClain? A New York cop, an ordinary guy. Rocky Balboa? Another nobody. Every single hero Heinlein ever wrote? Still ordinary, self-made men.
Now, consider the transformations even some of these same characters have undergone over the decades.
Luke Skywalker? It turns out he’s the scion of the greatest royal family in the galaxy.
Indiana Jones? His big-name archaeologist dad set the stage.
The trend isn’t universal, but it trends distinctly in favor of aristocrats and away from self-made, ordinary men.
I have a few quibbles with Russell's characterization of Tony Stark, who I think became Ironman through hard work and smarts and not by virtue of his massive inheritance (at least if you look at the MCU), but yes: There has definitely been a drift away from the sort of storytelling that uplifts the Everyman.

The reason this hits me is that Everyman characters are among my favorites in SFF. Consider, for example, Vir Cotto on Babylon 5. I'm actually famous in certain circles for my obsession with Vir; in fact, I get recognized at conventions if I happen to mention my old screen name precisely because, for a while there, Vir was all I could write or talk about. The thing I adored about Vir was that, at the beginning, there was absolutely nothing special about him -- unless you consider being supremely awkward and perpetually terrified a talent. Instead, he had to grow into heroism. He wasn't born the Centauri de Sousa Mendes who would one day be emperor; he became that man in the school of hard knocks.  He became that man by looking at Londo's awful decisions and choosing to go a different way.

Consider too The Lord of the Rings. There are aristocrats in Tolkien's work (just as there were on Babylon 5), but for me, the emotional core of the story can be found in the experiences and choices of the thoroughly ordinary hobbits.

Overall, I think you have a better story if you start with average joes who become heroic through effort and evolution. So why are such characters on the decline in popular culture? I think, first of all, that this trend is a symptom of our cultural elites' profound confusion on just what makes a hero. Look at how they lauded the rich and famous Bruce/Caitlin Jenner for being "brave" when he came out as trans (and by the way, I'm not using "she" here because I'm not sure Jenner's sincere). These decadent aristos are so wrapped up in their "identities" that they've forgotten that heroes have to do things to make the world better. Simply being gay is not heroic. Simply being trans is not heroic. Simply being black is not heroic -- unless, like Ben Carson, you came from legitimate poverty and boot-strapped your way to a medical degree and a career saving lives. But identity politics emphasizes what people are rather than what they do as a matter of course; is it any wonder, then, that its practitioners can no longer conceive of a character who's defined by his actions rather than by accidents of his birth?

I also believe - and have noted many times before - that our cultural elites are now almost completely divorced from ordinary people. They don't hang out with beat cops, factory workers, or farmers; indeed, they look down on common folk as fat, uneducated, tasteless slobs who - horror of horrors - have the audacity to vote against their "betters" and their peacock proposals. Therefore, they simply have no ability or desire to write these Everymen into their fiction as heroes. Besides, if we're talking about the US, "average" usually means cis, straight, and white* -- and as every good aristo knows, those folks should just suck it up and step aside for the revolutionary vanguard.  After all, the members of the new proletariat need to see characters that look exactly like them in every story that's written or filmed  -- because human universals and cross-cultural empathy are no longer things that exist.

On the whole, I think our cultural elites simply don't believe that regular working stiffs could ever really be heroes. To them, heroism requires breeding, education, the right political views, and - if possible - some sort of victim cred. The John McClanes of the world, on the other hand, are seen as gross -- byproducts of a patriarchal, racist, and less enlightened age.

And thus the collapse of our civilization proceeds apace.

*Which is not to say you can't write nonwhite, non-straight Everymen. That absolutely can be done -- but probably not by our elites, who've climbed into bed with minority radicals in their own class and don't really have contact with the rest.


  1. Well said. The notion that there's a hero inside everyone must scare the pants off of the sorts of people who prefer docility and acceptance among their populations.

  2. Great post! Spot on about Vir! Outstanding character development over B5 run.

    Favorite Vir scene