Sunday, September 27, 2015

It's lonely at the top


I've been thinking a lot about heroism lately, reflecting on my long-held cynicism about the male heroes we are constantly sold in film, religion, sports and politics that don't match the reality of men I have known and studied for many years, and how it is we don't big up womankind in the same way but instead dumb her down, blame her and diminish her to make him - and Him - look better. 

I've blogged on this theme before, including in my last post, and you know my feminist cynicism well. But cynicism should be open to revision lest it become dogged and complacent. And I try to keep an open mind to having my eyes opened, as it were, to being proven not wrong exactly, no indeed, but less right, perhaps. 

Two films I watched recently, Everest and Foxcatcher, have given me some pause for thought on the subject of male heroism. We haven't time to go into the subject at any length here, but in sum I would say that if you want to get a truer idea of male heroism, watch films based on real events, such as these. 

Heroism (male or female) is defined as courage or self-sacrifice in the face of adversity or danger. I don't think climbing Everest qualifies as heroism in itself, especially if you leave loved ones behind who are counting on you to come home to help raise your children, as Everest climbers, mostly men, so often are, leaving wives at home to weep and worry. There is nothing self-sacrificing in this and as the adversity is contrived, of your own making, it is hardly courageous to overcome it. 

In Everest (spoiler alert) the Kiwi guide Rob Hall risked and lost everything; there was no happy ending for Hall and his pregnant wife left to weep into the phone and raise their unborn daughter alone. But... it was his work that took him up Everest, work which provided for the family - though his wife was/is a doctor so he did not carry the sole burden of feeding the family (just as well, as it turned out) - but that means he was not simply a self-motivated thrill seeker, but a responsible operator of a successful business doing dangerous work for himself and his family. There is a degree of self-sacrifice in that. 

But rather more heroically still, Hall died trying to save his weakest climber/client who had made two previously unsuccessful attempts at the top and this was his last chance. That climber died too, as did another client, the only woman climber, possibly in part because Hall was occupied with saving another, or at least trying to. He did get him to the top. So Hall was not entirely heroic here, though he did show self-sacrifice and courage in risking his life for another, even if he jeopardised other lives in the process and was likely in part motivated by commercial interests, as climbers pay to get to the top, not nearly there, and his reputation was on the line.

This half courageous, half reckless-risk-all-for-money-and-glory 'heroism' strikes me as a much truer representation of male heroism than the pure Hollywood heroism we're much more often subjected to with happy endings and women saved, not left to pick up the pieces of lives destroyed.

The same is true of the Mark Ruffalo character in Foxcatcher, a one-time Olympic gold medalist, who sacrifices all for his younger brother (whom he raised) but for the wrong reasons, or partly the wrong reasons we are left to assume, him being paid a small fortune to coach his brother to Olympic gold by the obscenely rich, but deeply flawed man who would end up killing him when he did not deliver the victory and glory he desired. 

This rich man struck me as another true male character we never see on our screens or even read about in our books, one who is more or less the opposite of a hero, all selfishness, insecurity and vanity, without any redeeming charms, who has to win gold and ultimately kill to feel like a big man. The world has met and suffered many men like this, not a drop of heroism in them.

Although this character is gay and tortured by a mother who doesn't understand his appetite for wrestling, a 'low sport', she describes it as, it is the vacuousness of his life of obscene inherited wealth that is his real undoing, and this again rings true for the money men running the world who effectively go mad on the power of being able to buy everything, including people and their devotion, though not their love, which is the kicker. 

Mark Ruffalo's character, by contrast, is (was) a loving husband and father, and indeed brother, and the quiet heroism of his life, outside of his Olympic wrestling glory, is the truth this film shows so well - he is not perfect - and again, a truth that is so often denied us in our fabricated heroes.  

It's lonely at the top, but it doesn't have to be, when 'the top' is not a mountain or a mountain of money, but the more modest achievement of giving and receiving love. If you have to choose between love, money and glory, and you probably will at some point in your life, especially if you are a man, a real hero chooses love.  

And on that note, I hope this blue cocoon is single - for her (or his) sake.        

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