Heroic Reflections: Heroism in Popular, Visual and Digital Cultures, and Creative Production
Welcome to this issue on the theme of Heroic Reflections.
Heroism remains a persistent phenomenon in both lived experience and the media in contemporary Western and non-Western societies. Media constructions of heroism are being generated and shaped at a rapid pace as our very culture becomes a mould for heroic acts and figures, their preservation, exaltation and, at times, damnation. The hero’s journey explored by renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell is the bedrock of a plethora of Hollywood films and popular culture, with scripts persistently using the hero’s journey as a narrative tool. Heroism is either explicitly or implicitly invoked in television’s cultural products such as reality shows, news commentaries, documentaries and so forth, evidencing the saturation of these and other cultural forms with heroic symbolism.
This special edition of IM: Interactive Media explores the diverse, complex and problematic representations of heroism in popular, visual and digital cultures, and creative production. Through select contributions from the inaugural cross-disciplinary conference The Rise and Future of Heroism Science held at Murdoch University, 11-12 July 2016, it aims to showcase the communicative power of various creative mediums in conveying the heroic in its many forms, and serve as a springboard for future research in these areas.
First up, Lillian Allen’s article sheds light on an important but under-studied area of heroism research – the adequacy of the classical hero’s journey model proposed by Joseph Campbell in 1949, and later Christopher Vogler (2007), as a representation of a heroine’s character development. Allen asks if there is a need for a distinct journey to allow the heroine to undergo a unique transformation that connects her to her own feminine wisdom and power. The reader is taken through the application of both the hero’s and heroine’s journey model in popular films. Following a consideration of select interpretations of the heroine’s journey, and her personal reflections as a writer on its importance for creative production, Allen concludes that the two journeys can be explored concurrently, so as to deepen the creative output of writers and producers, enrich the art available to the public, and represent marginalised and diverse voices in fiction. This thought-provoking analysis offers a baseline for dialogue about the two models, their distinctions and overlaps, and how they can impact creative praxis.
If the hero’s journey is problematic from a gendered perspective, the concept of the ‘anti-hero’ extends this problematisation of the overall notion of heroism even further. In our next contribution, Christopher Comerford artfully illustrates the complex inter-relationship between heroism and anti-heroism. Through a close analysis of anti/heroism in specific case studies of popular culture – Doctor Who, Batman and 24’s Jack Bauer – Comerford argues for the complex nuances in the portrayal of these characters and their disruption of the traditional ‘good/evil’ and ‘hero/villain’ binaries. As our contemporary world becomes more challenging and problematic, so do our representations of heroes and the choices they are faced with, evolving to reflect the social and political concerns of our times. They are reflections of the liminal space between order and disorder, justice and lawlessness, ethical judgment and corruption, remedy and poison, Comerford demonstrates, in which meaning is intricately negotiated and complicated. In particular, Comerford concludes, anti-heroes depict a nuanced portrayal of heroism which establishes it as a somewhat relatable, flawed and ultimately human practice. Rather than close our eyes to the anti-hero as a mere antithesis of the lawful, just and pure hero, Comerford’s deft and robust analysis serves as a caution that perhaps all forms of heroism are highly situated and complicated forms of decision-making and ethical problem-solving that are never taken lightly by the hero-actor.
For my own contribution, I have chosen to focus on an innovative area of emerging research inspired by the work of Dana Klisanin and Jane McGonigal (the former’s game Cyberhero League is featured in this issue’s cover image) – the exploration of ‘heroic play’ as a distinct form of playful engagement with online, social, mobile and locative spaces and devices. I have interviewed a number of households in Perth, and analysed data in both Perth and Adelaide as part of my involvement with The Game of Being Mobile, the first Australian study to examine the social uses of mobile gaming. Ethnographies from the project indicate that a number of participants are engaging with their devices and gaming practices in highly creative and mindful ways – at their height, these practices seem to indicate the presence of heroic leadership (Allison and Goethals 2014), collaborative heroism (Klisanin 2015), the heroic imagination (Franco and Zimbardo 2006), resilience and social activism. These situated opportunities have the potential to be highly transformative, self-actualizing, inspiring, creative, planetary-centred, and, at times, rebellious. The domestic space is momentarily transformed into a heroic space through these intentional and very specific interactions with our devices, social media, gameplay and diverse engagement with everyday technologies, signalling a fruitful avenue for future research.
Tying into this notion of collaborative heroism, and creative, mindful and playful participation in online co-created spaces, the next article by Justine Poplin offers a unique and innovative discussion on an emergent shift in heroic symbolism in a non-traditional Western context – Chinese visual culture. Poplin takes the reader through the evolution of Maoist imagery and its representation in Chinese and Western visual cultures, leading up to what has been dubbed an Internet meme phenomenon: the Grass Mud Horse. In this rich analysis of the social, political, religious and mythical significance of Chinese visual culture, Poplin asserts that the powerful symbol of the Grass Mud Horse represents a distinct transition in Chinese heroic symbolism; this new heroic creature symbolizes a generation of Chinese who are writing, creating and shaping their own visual culture through online co-created communities. Originally born from dissident voices following Chinese Internet censorship policies in 2009, this series of online and offline narratives featuring imagery of alpaca, witty wordplay and subversive coding, has now become a heroic metaphor, Poplin demonstrates – a symbol of a freedom fighter on the Chinese Internet. It represents a new generation of Chinese who participate in this subculture in an effort to liberate themselves from the imposed imagery of the past, and negotiate their own meaning through code and metaphor in visual form by creating new heroes that reflect shifting ideologies. Poplin’s article offers a timely insight into the pervasiveness of the emerging phenomenon of collaborative heroism and playful online participation in diverse contexts.
Finally, Satrya Wibawa’s examination of children’s heroism in Indonesian cinema offers a critical and much needed analysis in two neglected aspects of heroism discourse: representations of children in the media and film, and non-Western cultural constructions of heroism. Offering his own personal insights as a native Indonesian, the reader is treated to a unique peak at the social and political agendas that drive the representation of heroic images in an Indonesian context. Through an analysis of two incarnations of the same film, Jenderal Kancil, Wibawa argues that the idea of heroism in both films changes given their social and political context. Through an examination of emerging heroism theories, he discusses how child protagonists in these movies undergo heroic and moral transformation, bringing about a broader transformation in their communities through their heroic pro-social act, as well as their reflection of Franco, Blau and Zimbardo’s (2011) civil and martial forms of heroism. Wibawa points out how these transformations are constrained and informed by deeply entrenched patriarchal, familial and educational structures. He surmises that both representations of children’s heroism in Indonesian cinema, in the end, proliferate these structures, by depicting the enduring image of the war hero and martial heroism as one’s civic duty.
These select contributions from our authors confirm emerging readings of heroism as a highly complex construct. We need more nuanced understandings of the phenomenon that can be adapted to specific cultural settings and social issues, yet retain its universality, and acknowledge but transcend dualisms. We are both fragile and brave, masculine and feminine, strong and weak as human beings. It is these very qualities and the negotiation in the space between these that makes us fundamentally human, and also fundamentally heroic.
To close, a word of appreciation to the anonymous peer reviewers for this special edition – a sincere thank you for your time and for your valuable critiques and suggestions.
A special thank you also to IM Editor, Associate Professor Mick Broderick and the NASS board for graciously agreeing to host this issue, and promote visibility and dialogue in this vibrant emerging field of research.
Allison, S. T., and G. R. Goethals. 2014. “ ‘Now he Belongs to the Ages’: The Heroic Leadership Dynamic and Deep Narratives of Greatness.” In Conceptions of Leadership: Enduring Ideas and Emerging Insights, edited by G. R. Goethals, S. T. Allison, R. M. Kramer and D. M. Messick, 167-183. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Campbell, J. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Franco, Z., and P. G. Zimbardo. 2006. “The Banality of Heroism.” Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_banality_of_heroism/
Franco, Zeno E., Blau, Kathy., and Zimbardo, Philip G. 2011. “Heroism: A Conceptual Analysis and Differentiation between Heroic, Action and Altruism.” Review of General Psychology 15 (2): 99-113
Klisanin, D. 2015. “Collaborative Heroism: Exploring the Impact of Social Media Initiatives.” Media Psychology Review 9 (2): 1-17.
McGonigal, J. 2011. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and how They Can Change the World. London: Penguin.
Vogler, Christopher. 2007. The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, third edition. Los Angeles: Michael Wiese Productions.