Saturday Flotsam: Heroic and Pseudo-Heroic

1. Somehow, I forgot all about the Flotsam yesterday until late, so we’re doing it today instead. Albeit still kinda late.

2. An idea that came to me that I haven’t quite fleshed out. There is today what might be called ‘pseudo-heroic’ fiction. This is framed as a heroic tale, but has this crucial difference. In a classical heroic tale, the hero’s primary goal is something beyond himself; either to render service to something higher than himself (e.g. Frodo trying to save the Shire and by extension Middle Earth, Robin Hood serving the absent King Richard) or to conform himself to a higher standard (e.g. Peter Parker striving to live up to the ideals his uncle left him, Number 13 choosing to live as a man regardless of his origins, etc.). In general, the hero is someone who subordinates self to something greater.

On the other hand, a character who acts positively without subordinating the self – who does good things, but less in service to another than out of self-will – is an anti-hero, e.g. Godzilla in most of his stories (he has a form of nobility of his own, but he’s not usually out to save anyone either; just to put down something that needs putting down). Usually anti-heroes do have a strong inner moral compass, but the point is they don’t submit or subordinate their will to the good of others. They do the right thing because they want to, or because what they want to do happens to be the right thing.

3. What we seem to have an increasing amount of are stories of a main character whose main motivations all come from within; where she (and it’s almost a female) starts off in a confined or restrictive setting, usually with some great aptitude or virtue that no one appreciates and everyone expects her to conceal, and the story is her learning to embrace her inner greatness without regard to the outside world. Then usually there’s some token good deed to be done, but the main thrust of the story is the protagonist conforming herself to her own desires and breaking free of outward restrictions.

(I heard a quote – second hand – from the star of the Little Mermaid remake saying “It’s not about her going to the surface for a boy. It’s bigger than that; it’s about her and her choices.” Which kind of sums up the mentality I’m talking about: love for another is lesser than personal actualization).

4. I’m sure I’m missing some details or some factors, but heroic, anti-heroic, and pseudo-heroic really do seem to me like good ways to classify the current crop of fiction. A good rule of thumb is whether the main character has to under go any kind of change, or whether the world around them does.

-Animated Mulan: Heroic, since her motivation is to save her father and her family honour and, by extension, the Emperor, she earns her victory by hard work and courage, and she’s ashamed when she consider that she might have done it for herself.
-New Mulan: Pseudo-heroic, as it becomes more about her embracing her inborn superpowers, to the point where she ‘heroically’ reveals herself as a woman just to be ‘honest’.

5. To dip back to My Hero Academia, one of the very smart things about it is that it tackles this very dichotomy head-on. The heroes are training to serve people, uphold their way of life, and pursue justice. Often they’re focused on living up to a particular idol or example in their life. At one point they’re even told that if they don’t have a higher reason for being there than just “becoming a hero”, they probably won’t make it.

On the other hand, the villains have, as their motivations, fundamentally just the desire to be able to do what they want and ‘be who we are’, which in their case means destructive psychopaths. Later on it turns out there is a whole organization of people who want to be able to use their powers whenever and however they want. They’re constantly railing against ‘society’ and ‘rules’ trying to keep them down.

Only, the series is smart enough not to dismiss this idea out of hand. It acknowledges failures and unreasonable restrictions in the society it depicts and shows good people suffering from them. But the thing is, those good people still choose to do the right thing, to act selflessly, and to conform themself to higher ideals. Hard as it may be, it’s what they ought to do, and by doing so they become stronger and so have the opportunity to make things better for others. While the bad guys only cause pain and hardship to others.

There’s often a one-for-one counterpart between the good guys and the bad guys, highlighting how much it is a matter of moral choice rather than social pressure:

“I was called a freak!”
“So was I.”
“I was abused by my family!”
“Me too.”
“My power scares people!”
“Join the club.”

It reminds me of the conclusion of The Man Who Was Thursday: “No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered’.”

6. This dichotomy of heroic and pseudo-heroic, though, stems from the world we live in; external standards and higher powers are less and less acknowledged. The self-actualization pseudo-heroic narrative is a popular and growing ideology.

Because, of course, ‘do what you want’ and ‘you are wonderful and perfect just as you are’ and such notions make people very easy to manipulate. Subjective desires aren’t hard to create or inflame, and a promise to satisfy them or protect the right to pursue them is enough for someone who can’t look any further.

There is a narrative in the post-Enlightenment world that dogma, tradition, and other concrete ideals are the tools of those in power to keep people quiet. Actually, it’s the other way around; concrete and established ideals make people harder to control because they are concrete and so have definite boundaries, which sets a limit to what people will do or tolerate. ‘Free thinking’ and ‘you do you’ can be made whatever you want it to be, especially if you can affect the flow of information.

Just ask yourself; which is easier to manipulate? Ancient dogmas or the ‘latest scientific findings’?

Again, MHA shows this: the main villain plays his underlings like a fiddle in order to get what he wants and they barely even notice it because they’re too high on their own self-destructive impulses. We the audience can see that their antics ultimately benefit no one but him. On the other hand, the heroes prove immune to the temptations and offers of the bad guys because their concrete values make giving in unthinkable. The villains simply have nothing to offer them.

7. As I say, a lot of this is unformed at present, but I think there’s something there. My Hero Academia continues to be top-drawer for contemporary storytelling, and I really hope it lands strong (it’s definitely heading into the Endgame now).

2 thoughts on “Saturday Flotsam: Heroic and Pseudo-Heroic

  1. Good call on the “pseudo-heroic” sub genre and your description of it. To me it parallels the Modernist move in the Church away from objective Truth, Goodness and Beauty and toward the subjectivity-driven “me universe,” which cuts souls loose from their moorings in most cases. I will read any well written story that attacks that two-pronged blade from a true heroic or even anti-heroic starting point. Those are stories of real heroism, in my view.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Regarding point 6, I happened to also read this:

    Which ends with:

    It’s easy to shrug and say ‘people should be free to modify themselves’. But assenting to this order isn’t assenting to greater freedom for anyone or anything, except desire: the ultimate prison, and the ultimate profit centre.

    I haven’t read any other posts from that blogger yet, so caveat emptor or whatever… (After reading that post though, I’m definitely going to have to take a look at the back issues.)

    Liked by 1 person

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