Hero worship: the extraordinary ordinary hero

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Hero Worship: The Extraordinary Ordinary Hero

How does the, often hyperbolic, image of heroes in media have devastating effect, particularly on adolescents who absorb these fantastical media standards?

Gabrielle C. Canning

Virginia Commonwealth University

Authors Note:

This paper was prepared for University 200, 12:30 time slot, taught by Professor Bonnie Boaz.

Hero Worship: The Extraordinary Ordinary Hero

I can’t remember his name, which is silly. I can tell you exactly what he was wearing that day, word-for-word what he said, but I couldn’t tell you his name. He was one of those men that you could tell was a “sir.” I’d never referred to anyone as “sir” my whole life, but something about him almost demanded that title. Mr. Sir didn’t walk all that much—the combination of a prosthetic leg and old age left him rather stationary. He even sat while speaking into the crackling microphone, even though all his predecessors had stood up proudly. Still, Sir sat up with a sense of dignity—even in his chair he would tower over you. The clothes Sir wore were ordinary—just kaki’s and a button down shirt, but it was as if each button was clasped with a special care, each wrinkle pressed out of his pants, and his Vietnam War veteran cap settled onto his head with pride.

Even then, the whole situation seemed a bit silly; a war hero thanking a group of sweaty, acne prone teens armed with hammers and screwdrivers, for building a simple wheelchair ramp. And that’s exactly what he was: a war hero. His uniformed cap and proud stature marked him as such, the minute he walked into the room. The man had fought for freedom, and given a leg for his country—a fine act of bravery that you hear about all the time in the movies or on the news. That’s exactly what hero’s do. Hero’s wear uniforms (whether they be capes or camouflage), they are strong, they fight for what’s right, and they always beat the bad guy. That’s what a hero is—that’s what we are taught: to always respect a man in uniform, because he has made an unbelievable sacrifice that we could never understand. So then why was this dignified man, this hero, ardently thanking us group of ordinary teens for a wheelchair ramp that only took us four days to construct? Well, I wish I knew, but I couldn’t figure that out myself. I couldn’t figure out why he was so grateful for our small favor, and I definitely couldn’t understand why he said the words he did.

“You know, as a veteran, I’ve seen a lot of examples of teamwork, but never have I seen teamwork like this. You have restored my faith in humanity, and you are all my hero’s.”

The room was silent, and a few of us blinked in confusion. There was no way I could understand what he was saying, because there is absolutely no way I was a hero.

The word “hero” evokes all sorts of images—strength, power, uniform, respect, masculinity, dignity, obligation—just to name a few. Google hero, and the first several pages are exclusively bulky males with overly exaggerated muscles and wearing some sort of uniform or costume. Even considering the history of the title, “hero” can be traced back to the ancient Greeks where men would return from taxing battles or duels against the strength of mythological forces. Since the origin of the word, the image of hero has been deemed an exclusive title for only those who can overcome the impossible, but how does this impossible standard affect young boys and girls who observe such images. Given the world of media we live in, where images and ideas circulate around the globe in a mere couple seconds, the young adults of this generation are exposed to all sorts of images of what is deemed “heroism” as evident through superheroes, or war veterans and raging intellectuals. When teens and young adults, who are in a period of growing up where self esteem is notably lower than other age ranges, observe these images, they are swindled into discrediting any of their own achievements due to the overblown image of heroism which they have to compare themselves too. Young women will not see themselves as heroes due to the lack of female “hero” images they observe throughout media—the only ones ever making themselves conspicuous are tall lean women with large breasts and tight costumes. Likewise, young men will observe the bulky, muscular frames and fantastical stories of male heroes in media and feel as if they are ill prepared to compete with the male image which our world worships. Although I acknowledge that the hyperbolic image of heroes has remained relatively unchanged throughout history, the current age of media more efficiently distributes such fantastical ideas to adolescents. In reaction to the rapid proliferation and accessibility, many teens observe the absence of such glorified traits within themselves, causing many to disqualify their achievements.

When considering whether or not the ideals of the heroes presented in media today can be neutralized to represent a more relatable image of heroism, it is first important to consider the history of the “hero’s story.” The general perception of a hero has always appeared to amuse the idea of extraordinary achievements. Hero comes from the Greek word, hērōs, which was used to describe an individual who has incredible strength, and is often the offspring of a god and a mortal. Examples of such classical tales include the Iliad and The Odyssey, both of which are often required high school readings assigned to adolescents. Heroism, therefore, from its root carries the connotation of strength and super-human traits, and the classroom lessons regarding “heroes” refuse to acknowledge a more sober or ordinary evaluation of the title. Since the origin of the hero, the basic outline of the “hero’s story” has been relatively unchanged. A TedTalk given by Pat Solomon, discusses the outline of the “hero’s journey” as outlined by Campbell in the 20th century. Solomon (2013) shares that the Campbell theory states all heroes undergo the same journey: initiation, battle, and return (TedX “What is the Heroes Journey”). Though the wording of these three stages of a story have a very epic or fantastical connotation, Solomon also provides an example of how these observations can even be applied to more sober and un-dramatic experiences people undergo every day. Imagine an individual who has overcome years of alcoholism. Though this individual does not necessarily withhold extraordinary traits, his story of overcoming an alcohol addiction can still apply to Campbell’s model. O. E. Klapp directs his focus towards the more recent history of heroes through the observation of hero-worship. In his journal Hero-worship in America, Klapp (1949) states that hero-worship is observed through congregation—even if it is unintentional (60). According to Klapp’s model, a hero will rise in popularity or power and will therefore draw masses to either the hero’s location, or an enshrinement of sorts. The reason for this sort of congregation is because people want to feel a sense of closeness to the hero and because of this, heroes have taken the form of something similar to religion in America (61). What this model begins to introduce is how media affects the image of heroes. The media is fixated on what is of the interest of the masses. Less dramatic examples of heroism therefore go uncelebrated by media, and remain unknown to the public. In another one of Klapp’s studies, The Creation of Popular Heroes (1948), Klapp argues that heroes arise in four general ways: “spontaneous popular recognition and homage, formal selection in the case of canonization and military decoration; by the growth of popular legends and also as poetical creations of dramatists, storytellers, or writers (135).” Through this, Klapp explores the idea of hero worship and how once someone is deemed as a hero, they have to do very little to maintain this title. The problem with this is that individuals of very mediocre personality can be thought as much more fantastical than they are, simply because of one dramatized action immortalized through media; meanwhile individuals who consistently repeat much smaller acts of heroism remain unnoticed in the public eye. The recognition of the faults in the way media preserves heroes serves to contrast the long held belief that heroism amounts from individuals who perform extraordinary deeds, to more ideal and accessible examples of heroism.

Since the Greeks, the standard image of heroes has also remained hugely patriarchal. Not only does the narrow image of heroes exclude many female examples; it also entertains a very specific type of male image. Heroic ideals, particularly in superhero culture, create false expectations for males to fit a narrow image made iconic through media and fraternization. Without a doubt the superheroes we observe in media, from the big screen to pages in comic books, exhibit physical appearances that are deviant from our own evolution. Not only do these iconic heroes consist mostly of male figures, but also the bodies and powers deal almost exclusively with muscle, strength, and pure masculinity. Craig (1992) has observed the role of heroes in media and their influence on masculinity, and has found a common trend in the idea of what a “comic book superhero” is— a strong, muscular, white male who can save a weak young or frail old female (never equal in strength) (61). This comic book standard divides males and females towards two extreme opposite poles. While adolescent boys only have images of the “super male” to compare themselves to, adolescent girls are only represented as the “damsel in distress” or inferior. Sparks (1996) argues that these media sources benefit from the exploitation of masculinity—to the point where a characters ‘man-ness’ is entirely fantastical (349). The common trend which Sparks (1996) observes in these fictional storylines are the idea of a “man’s struggle and suffering” in order to acquire what may be deemed as more “masculine virtues”—namely dignity and manliness, which in turn, solidify their manliness (352). Young boys observe such stories are led to believe that true success is only validated by struggle. Adolescents compare their achievements to the trying tasks of these dramatized stories, and feel as if their success is no longer validated. Sparks (1996) wishes to lament that the current masculine gender identities we observe today, particularly in children through young adults, may be a great factor to the fantastical image that is so often paraded in the media wherever young men go. According to Craig (1992), adolescent boys, primarily in the age range of ten to fifteen, are particularly susceptible to the images portrayed in comics, and are more likely to think lesser of themselves due to an inability to matches this image (62). Not only do these images of superheroes often exhibit a body type that is unrealistic, but a great majority of superhero storylines promote the idea of action and violence, creating a paradigm of violence in order to prove one’s manliness. In the current generation, media has the greatest influence in creating role models for young adults. Craig (1992) notes that in a study where teens around the US were asked to reveal their hero, the list included names such as Martin Luther King, James Dean, athletes, Elvis, John F Kennedy, and Superheroes; additionally superman had a 100% recognition factor among boys ages five to ten (62). Even though this list of names includes both fictional and non-fictional individuals, the trend is still concerning for two major reasons: the mentions were all male, and all images distributed by media. It appears as if the images of media, in our modern age, are impossible to avoid—children will always be influenced with what they see paraded around them on TV or in glossy magazine pages. This isn’t always a bad thing, but media tends to favor stories that are dramatized and spectacular—less concern is given to the ordinary. The result of this is that the constant projection of extraordinary feats distributed through media lead adolescents into a false belief that the mundaneness of their lives makes them lesser of a person.

While the patriarchal dominance of superhero culture persists, a lack of female heroes being represented in media still remains the norm. As shared earlier, a quick Google search of hero required scrolling through five pages of male images before finally depicting a female—one who was lean, dressed in tight clothing, and could be perceived as posing with sexual innuendo. Even in throughout the investigation of this topic, very few scholarly sources provided research on the female hero; meanwhile, research on the masculine aspects of heroism remained prominent. In recent years, some attention has been raised about the lack of female representation in media. As a result, major stories of females have begun to make themselves more apparent to the public eye. Angelina Jolie, for example, has recently been applauded and deemed a hero for humanitarian efforts. The media worships Jolie’s generosity and character she has for her family—adopting children from around the world. While Jolie’s actions are applaudable and deserve attention from the public, there is still exclusiveness to the medias praise for her actions. Firstly, Angelina Jolie was already famous for her work in Hollywood film before the media began to address her humanitarian accomplishments. Jolie’s story, therefore, held a definite audience regardless of the content because of her preexisting fame. Jolie’s story, also, continues to entertain the traditional ideals of women. Her heroic actions are performed through a nurturing role—what is ideally expected of women. The criticism of Jolie’s heroic deeds being defined as nurturing is not intended to disqualify or diminish her achievements, but rather identify that this rise in female heroic representation still only pertains to a specific and even passé type of female. While the male images of heroes are depicted as hyper male, the female model follows the same narrow-minded filter, through the hyper female. Mary Ann Jezewski’s (1984) abstract for her study on heroes investigates the characteristics of the female hero and identifies that many traits of male heroes do not apply to female heroes, and females heroes therefore feature different stories and outcomes than the quintessential male hero. What Jezewski’s study highlights is that even in the progressive era of the current decade, where feminism has made a range of females more prominent in mass media, the quintessential female hero is still generic and fails to acknowledge the range in female capabilities. Additionally, this narrowness in media continues to stress the divide in males and females, while lacking representation of other gender identifications. In superhero culture alone, there is an absence of LGBTQ+ mainstream superheroes for adolescents to observe. It is, therefore, important to acknowledge that hero culture has been very minutely changed throughout history, and still remains exclusive to specific members of the population.

While this investigation serves to criticize the influence heroism in media has on adolescents, the hyperbolic image of heroism in society tends to be deemed unrivaled by what social scientists call “Gen Y,” our current generation of college students and young workers. A wide held belief is that Gen Y is primarily focused on the “self” rather than others, and therefore should not be affected by what is distributed in media. A 2010 article in the New York Post, featured a story by Brian Moore who illustrated that the Gen Y group of workers can be characterized by a “very inflated sense of self,” which can be detrimental in the long run due to eventual development of “unrealistic expectations and untimely chronic disappointment (Moore, 2010).” Observing the study Moore presents in his article, the long-term disappointment must come in some sort of effect of the narcissism developed by Gen Y; because the generation is so fixed on the self, they are lacking in the reward of doing good for others. Therefore, this belief is still counter-productive and continues to fail in promoting a successful example of adolescents capable of heroism. In the Gen Y model, the hero is entirely absent due to the “me” centric ideals. Giles and Maltby (2004), however, provide sufficient evidence that adolescents follow a pattern opposite to that of the Gen Y model. Giles and Maltby (2004) argue that rather than having an inflated sense of self, adolescents form extreme attachments to heroes in media in a celebrity sense, which leads to the eventual emulation of characteristics of these celebrities and a change in both the child’s personality and development (815). In the Giles and Maltby study (2004), social scientists utilized an attitude scale in order to determine the extent of emulated personality could be found in an adolescent’s persona—the results were notably high (806). What can be taken from the found results is that adolescents are not as “self” centric as many social scientists believe. Adolescents mimicking characteristics of individuals in media show that there is actually a lack of confidence in the “self”—likely because the “self” often does not appear to amount to much in comparison to what adolescents are led to believe is respectable given the inflation in media. Adolescents are therefore driven to do their best to obtain the traits that media deems heroic, masking the characteristics of their true self. Sgan and Averett’s (1985) study refutes the lasting effects of this, claiming, “Eventually, during the early ages of adulthood, individuals begin to observe the unreality of the feats of heroism and draft their own, more modest, idea of a hero (21).” Still, the years of adolescence are where the body undergoes the most mental and physical change. If the unattainable media standards of heroism cause emotional disturbance for the child, chances are that this decreased self worth will remain a lasting effect throughout the individual’s life. Even if, as adults, individuals can fathom a more sober image of heroism, they still missed out on the years of developing the self due to the practice of mimicking traits in media, and therefore will not have the necessary capabilities and understandings of the self as an adult.

Consider the different connotations between “a hero” and “my hero.” The term “a hero” is rather generic—it calls forth images of strong burly men, villain fighting figures, or names that have gone down in history. Oh the contrary, the expression “my hero” is personal or intimate, it’s someone who may not be well known or remarkable—they are “my hero” because their heroism has to be justified by me and me only. Arthur Ashe, an American tennis player and activist, once said, “True heroism is remarkably sober, very un-dramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” We must remember that, though the uniform or costume may evoke polarizing images of heroism—the clothing can often be a façade. How often are there reports of police brutality in Ferguson, stories of corruption in Miami Beach fire departments, or soldiers receiving a pardon on social crimes because the uniform suddenly makes them more worthy or honorable than the rest of the population? This isn’t a call against authority—it is important to remember that these uniforms also represent the bravery of those who rushed to the scene during 9/11 and have given their lives overseas for our own safety—but a uniform isn’t essential to be a hero. My hero is a youth group leader at a small Catholic Church in Northern Virginia. He is a scrawny, t-shirt wearing, converse loving, somewhat confused mentor. Nothing he has done is remarkably extraordinary, and I’d probably be surprised if my personal hero was anyone else’s hero, but this is exactly what Arthur Ashe meant by his words: heroism can be achieved by anyone, and can be defined by nearly anything. I do not wish to condemn the proliferation of stories of bravery circulating media today, nor do I intend to chide Marvel and DC comics for the fantastical stories they create. Heroism comes with a rich history, which celebrates spectacle and the extraordinary—all which are a very specific brand of heroism. It is rather my hope and intention to advocate for the consideration of a more ordinary standard for heroism. Being called a hero by a Vietnam War Veteran was a pivotal moment in my life. Not only did I develop a much greater sense of self worth, but I also became aware of the amazing actions and accomplishments of my peers that presented themselves regularly. Through the experience, I found a new sort of celebration for remarkably unremarkable. Small actions can go a long way, and it is absolutely counterproductive to compare our capabilities to the extraordinary stories heard through the filter of media. The title of “hero” is something built up upon intimacy and service—it does not require overcoming the impossible, but rather the basic intention to do good for others.


Craig, S. (Ed.). (1992). Men, masculinity and the media (Vol. 2). Sage Publications.

Giles, D. C., & Maltby, J. (2004). The role of media figures in adolescent development: Relations between autonomy, attachment, and interest in celebrities. Personality and individual differences36(4), 813-822.

Jezewski, M. A. (1984). Traits of the Female Hero: The Application of Raglan's Concept of Hero Trait Patterning. New York Folklore10(12), 55.

Klapp, O. E. (1948). The creation of popular heroes. American Journal of Sociology, 135-141.

Klapp, O. E. (1949). Hero worship in America. American Sociological Review, 53-62.

Layton-Peterson, L., Collins, S. M., Sgan, A. D., & Averett, J. (1985). Facets: Today’s Kids and Hero Worship: Who Can They Look up to?. English Journal, 20-23.

Moore, B. (2010). The worst generation? Retrieved February 9, 2015, from .

Solomon, Pat. (2013). What is the Heroes Journey?


Sparks, R. (1996). Masculinity and the Heroism in the Hollywood Blockbuster. The Culture Industry and Contemporary Images of Crime and Law Enforcement. British Journal of Criminology, 36(3), 348-360.

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