It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a supernatural person wearing colorful tights! The contemporary vision of the concept of a hero is very similar to that of ancient mythology and legends (Winterbach 114). To be more precise, the contemporary hero is, in most cases, a superhero – an individual with unusual abilities selflessly dedicating his or her entire life to serial life-saving. Numerous positive qualities that make the superheroes stand out from the rest of the society are present in their character compositions and descriptions. However, one has to wonder whether or not their bravery, resilience, generosity, loyalty, and ever-present readiness to help others are there primarily because these individuals are supernatural and are practically just as unique as their other powers.
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In other words, the integrity, bravery, and self-sacrifice of superheroes are diminished by their supernatural abilities and can be attributed to their superior nature and special background. Compared to the cartoonish and unrealistic heroism of superheroes, that of regular people seems not as spectacular but much more demanding and difficult. It can be hard to notice realistic heroes in the contemporary world focused majorly on comic book action, massive explosions, and implausible last-minute saves. Discussing the concept of a hero in literature, it is important to stay detached from the stereotypes driven and dictated by superheroes from comic books because they can serve as a distraction from the true essence of a hero that, in fact, is quite simple and minimalistic. The uniqueness of a real hero is in their heroism that can be controversial, flawed in nature and outcomes, and harder to detect in general.
Discussing the concept of a hero and heroism, it is important, to begin with, the definition of the two concepts. Due to the vagueness of these notions, it seems to be very difficult to provide a definition that would be satisfying and acceptable for all scholars (Wei and Xu 1458-1459). As a result, many go back to the definitions applicable to the literature and mythology of Ancient Greece where heroes were portrayed as demigods with supernatural powers encountering otherworldly events and struggles.
This image matches the contemporary cult of superheroes and their descriptions in stories. Evaluating realistic heroes, Zimbardo provided the following definition: “Heroes are people who transform compassion (a personal virtue) into heroic action (a civic virtue). In doing so, they put their best selves forward in service to humanity” (1). As a result, including the potential for flaws and imperfection in realistic heroes, it is possible to propose a new definition – heroes are people who act aiming at the achievement of positive outcomes for others and themselves employing the available means and promoting strong ethics. This definition takes into account the possibility of errors and misjudgment.
In order to be realistic, a hero has to possess controversy as a part of their character and nature. In particular, one of the good examples of a controversial hero is Michael from the poem Crazy Courage by Villanueva. The heroism of Michael is based on the bravery of this person in regard to self-expression – “man/woman/man” (Villanueva 11-12). Judging from the year, in which this poem was written, Michel was one of the people struggling with their gender identity in the 1990s – the time when awareness of this issue was not as high as it is these days. Bravely communicating his unique and complex true self to the audience, Michael fought for his own freedom and promoted the acceptance and tolerance to others like him acting like a real hero.
Apart from controversial scenarios, realistic heroism and heroes can be characterized by the presence of flaws in their actions and outcomes. In realistic heroes, flaws do not represent an allergy to a piece of green space rock. An example to flawed heroism is presented in Bodega Dreams where there are three different types of heroes – Mr. Tapia who attempts to protect Sapo from Juvie and tells him to lie and pretend, Mr. Blessington whose attempts to educate his students ultimately pursued a good purpose but failed due to the means he chose, and Sapo who was willing to stand up for himself and his peers but instead ended up getting hurt and misguided (Quinonez 121-125). All of these characters are real heroes; however, to see that, one has to look at them from different perspectives and apply critical thinking because their flaws and errors take away from their ability to fit into stereotypical images of flawless and perfectly reasonable heroes.
Due to the subtle and disguised nature of their actions, realistic heroes can be hard to detect. Unlike superheroes, realistic heroes do not always fly into burning buildings to reappear with a handful and unconscious women, screaming babies, and cute puppies. For example, the mother from The Train from Hate became a hero for her son by making a single statement about the nature of racial segregation and its irrelevance to the true value of people whose rights are oppressed (Franklin 150). Her heroism may be undetectable to anyone apart from her son to whom her words served as one of the most vital lessons about life.
The supporters of an opposing opinion may state that superheroes are better representations of heroism and the concept of hero due to their flawless nature and quintessential image based on great deeds, ultimate self-sacrifice, and endless bravery. In fact, the clearly established values and thought processes of this kind of heroes are interesting from the educational perspective and impact on the young audience. In that way, superheroes should not be considered completely pointless.
However, realistic heroes teach readers to do much more than to admire epic battles and last-minute saves. The global importance of the flawed, controversial, and hard to detect heroism is in its complexity. To be more precise, the complicated stories such as Bodega Dreams where there are many points of view, goals, and purposes leave readers wondering whether or not there were right and wrong choices made by characters and if these choices could result in different, more positive outcomes. Such stories teach readers to wonder what if everyone is a hero and everyone has to take risks, make hard choices, and responsibly face outcomes. Taught by works of literature and their authors, such perspective is highly valuable in the real world when people such as Villanueva, seeing a person like Michael B., are able to perceive their struggles, fears, and hardships, and understand the true nature of their controversial and hard to detect heroism. Practically, the complexity of a real hero in literature prepares readers to view the real world around critically, see complex and disguised heroism in ordinary people, and treat it with respect, sensitivity, and appreciation.
Franklin, John Hope. “The Train from Hate.” Reading Literature and Writing Argument. 6th ed., edited by Missy James, Alan P. Merickel, Greg Lloyd, and Jenny Perkins, Pearson, 2016, pp. 150-151.
Quinonez, Ernesto. “Bodega Dreams.” Reading Literature and Writing Argument. 6th ed., edited by Missy James, Alan P. Merickel, Greg Lloyd, and Jenny Perkins, Pearson, 2016, pp. 120-125.
Villanueva, Alma Luz. “Crazy Courage.” Reading Literature and Writing Argument. 6th ed., edited by Missy James, Alan P. Merickel, Greg Lloyd, and Jenny Perkins, Pearson, 2016, pp. 148-149.
Wei, Xiaohong and Jian Xu. “A Comparative Study on Heroism in Shooter and Water Margin.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 2, no. 7, 2012, pp. 1458-1464.
Winterbach, Hougaard. “Heroes and superheroes: from myth to the American comic book.” The South African Journal of Art History, vol. 21, no. 1, 2006, pp. 114-134.
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Zimbardo, Phillip. “Understanding Heroism.” Heroic Imagination Project, pp. 1-5.