Do you have a hero? I’m sure that at some point in your life, you did. Whether you were once a nine-year-old athlete who thought Mia Hamm was the greatest soccer player, woman, and person ever to walk the planet, or a nine-year old scientist who wanted to be just like Thomas Edison when you grew up, you’ve probably had a hero somewhere, sometime. Many of us still have heroes now.
Well, guess what? We need to back off from that for a little bit. Because not only is it unrealistic to expect anyone – even the sublime Emma Watson, an actress and feminist activist who I admit I have looked up to as a hero – to sustain the level of perfection we demand from them, it keeps us from still seeing the best in the people we admire once we find out they have a flaw.
For example: a classmate of mine (I’m a junior in college) is writing her senior thesis over Zora Neale Hurston. My classmate, like Hurston, is African-American, and she has always thought of Hurston as the pinnacle of what an African-American authoress should be – in short, a personal hero. However, in the course of researching her thesis, she learned that Hurston had written some not-so-inspiring things about the African-American community. Namely, that Hurston believed black people were not as oppressed or ill-used as most of them claimed. Hurston was raised in a relatively prosperous, almost all-black community with access to most of the resources they needed, and her understanding of the needs and struggles of African-Americans who did not have her opportunities was somewhat limited by her lack of limitations, at least in her earlier life. At any rate, my classmate was shocked. What was she to think of her hero now?
Some of you may have gone through a similar experience with the (inarguably) most famous living author in the world: J. K. Rowling. Through her writing, Rowling has treated marginalized groups in ways that many fans feel are not true to the message of acceptance and understanding of others’ perspectives that the Harry Potter books stand for. One example is her write-off of Native American witchcraft as consisting of “plant and animal magic,” which is something like saying European wizards excel in person and thing magic. Even the books themselves have come under fire for similar reasons; there are relatively few characters of color in the Harry Potter books compared to the massive cast of characters Rowling has going at any given moment.
My classmate and the irate Harry Potter fans have good points. In many cases, these authors could have and should have been more considerate of alternate points of view and different cultures. However, my question is this: when we learn that someone whose art or social work we admire has fallen short of our expectations, should we throw the person away and never think of them again, or is it possible to esteem their good qualities while not condoning their bad?
Everyone has to come up with their own answer to this question, and if you can’t deal with the fact that people whose work you love have failings, some of them severe, I have no desire to force you to continue supporting them. But personally, at least in terms of art and artists, I think it is possible to separate the person from the achievement. I love The Great Gatsby just as much now as I did when I was seventeen, even though I now know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a beast to his wife, Zelda (who had faults of her own, to be sure). I don’t like Charles Dickens’s treatment of the young female characters in his novels (they’re rarely anything but insipid little ángeles del hogar, if you’ll excuse my Spanish), but I still believe that James Steerforth and Betsey Trotwood of David Copperfield are two of the most masterfully created characters in all of literature.
As difficult as it is, I’ve been trying to acknowledge the faults of modern people I otherwise look up to, moral and otherwise. Emma Watson, though intelligent, kind, well-spoken, and a champion for a number of worthy causes, is, in my opinion, a just-fine actress and no more. Yes, she’s the living embodiment of Hermione, but she was basically Hermione to begin with. When I listen to her thickly Autotuned singing voice in Beauty and the Beast, I try not to be disappointed that she isn’t naturally gifted as a singer. Instead, I try to see that she’s a human person, and human people aren’t naturally gifted at everything. In fact, they can be rather flawed.
Please don’t think I am forcing you not to be upset about the failings of your current or former heroes. I think you should be upset about those things, and you should be working to correct them in your own society and life. It’s what comes before that worries me, all this heroism stuff. The higher they are, the harder they fall, and sometimes we’re the ones who put them there. Just be mindful of that next time you want to make a hero out of someone who screws up just like you – someone who, long ago, could have had a hero who disappointed them, too.