Suburban Warrior Syndrome
From The Matrix to Harry Potter, heroic fantasy is hot stuff. These modern epics tap into our frustrated impulse to be 21st-century knights—and may even help unleash the workaday hero inside each of us.
By Ethan Gilsdorf published September 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
He pines for days when life seemed to be constructed around heroic deeds rather than menial mouse clicks. Millions of others also long to escape into brave new worlds: Fantasy and science fiction are now front and center in our culture. Nine of the top 10 all-time, worldwide movie box-office kings are Lord of the Rings- or Harry Potter- based (or else conjure up rival science fiction/fantasy empires like Star Wars). Last year, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix sold 12.2 million copies to become the biggest-selling book in the U.S. in 2003. Throw in piles of Xbox shoot-'em-up games, and you could say the geeks have inherited the Earth.
Why the surge in popularity? Legendary sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that in an increasingly structured society, fantasy books, games and movies create arenas for the "controlled decontrolling" of emotions. It's not socially acceptable to duel that surly human resources director with a stapler gun at 20 paces, and destroying a castle with a trebuchet isn't an option for the average white-collar worker. Instead, against a backdrop of magic and myth, heroic fantasy allows us to prove our mettle by saving some parallel world from easily identifiable bad guys.
Futuristic and magical scenarios now dominate because the cops-and-robbers thrillers and cowboys-and-Indians yarns of decades past just don't fit in our "increasingly multiethnic, culturally relativistic and journalistically examined world," says Gerard Jones, media scholar and author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence. No matter your politics, war stories or police stories just don't offer the same release anymore. "We can still enjoy police fantasies, but even those bring in so many complex political and ethical issues now that most of us can't really surrender to a wide-open good-guy vs. bad-guy fantasy in police garb. So stories of magic worlds, other planets and superheroes become our substitute."
Escaping to another dimension is normal: Most people spend about half of their time daydreaming and fantasizing, says psychologist Steven Jay Lynn, professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton and co-author of The Monster in the Cave: How to Face Your Fear and Anxiety and Live Your Life. "Daydreams and fantasy play a vital role in everyday life," he says. "They inspire us, regulate our moods and help us contemplate future possibilities."
That includes the possibility of violence and even evil. Parents who crusade against felonious games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City may not want to hear it, but idolizing villains and identifying with the Darth Vaders and Lord Voldemorts can be liberating, says Jones. As children, play and fantasy let us practice what we will be later in life—as well as what we will never be. "Fantasies of physical conflict and danger have been branded 'violent' in recent decades by people who don't trust or understand them, but they can be some of the most basic, most natural and most valuable tools a child can have for the hard work of growing up," he says. Kids with the greatest anxiety about risk and the greatest reservations about exploring their own strength and destructive potential have the most urgent need for fantasy, Jones says.
But while children role-play to explore themselves, in adulthood the game changes. Grown-ups turn to fantasy for stress relief, Jones says. They also identify with make-believe heroes, seeing them as guides for self-improvement. Unfortunately, most shoot-'em-up games are so shallow that players gain no personal insight, says John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University in New Jersey and author of The Psychology of Cyberspace. He believes the most beneficial heroic narratives depict essential human struggles: betrayal, revenge and overcoming great odds. "In everyday living, we re-enact the classic conflicts and victories of the hero. We may not be slaying actual dragons, but the monsters in our lives and psyche pose no less a threat," he says. "A good hero story or computer-mediated re-enactment crystallizes in a vivid and symbolic form the challenges we face in everyday life—and a really good story offers us ideas as to how to surmount those challenges." Suler says games like Everquest and SimsOnline, which create a complex social structure and let players assume roles, can instruct us.
In Western culture, "how to be a hero" instruction has roots that go back to 12th century Norse sagas and ancient-Greek epic poems, points out University of Michigan Law School professor William Ian Miller, author of The Mystery of Courage. These legends taught both psychological and moral lessons, and pointed the way to bravery. "In Icelandic sagas, the character would say, 'I have not yet done anything saga-like,'" Miller says. "This type of epic wasn't just escape, but was designed to fantasize yourself into this action and this behavior." These heroic narratives featured imperfect characters who accomplished great things, despite their flaws.
However, kids raised on Thor or Tolkien don't predictably gravitate to modern-day "hero" jobs like policeman or firefighter. Nor can you ever guarantee who will act bravely in wartime, Miller says. Courage is learned by practicing it day by day—by speaking up when you get cut off in line, not by waiting until you come across a maiden tied to the railroad tracks. "You have to train yourself to be courageous," Miller says. Taking small daily risks prepares us for unexpected tests of courage, and he worries that "the upper-middle-class disease of risk aversion"—meticulously organized playtimes, the rush to protect children from any potential conflict or harm—has deprived children of chances to test themselves.
Reality-TV programs like Jackass or Fear Factor, which do involve risk, don't do much to foster real bravery, says marriage and family therapist Tina Tessina, author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. "Jumping out of a plane without a parachute, climbing Mount Everest, and other extreme sports can be used as a way to avoid real life responsibilities and feelings, and to get high on adrenaline," says Tessina. The courage required in these televised tests of character—drinking blended pig parts before mobs of spectators, for example—are at best a temporary escape.
Yet because we yearn to be seen as bold, brave and courageous, we'll take stupid risks to prove our worth. Psychologists Mark Leary and Kathleen Martin interviewed 300 adolescents on risk-taking behavior. About one-quarter said they'd driven recklessly in order to impress people, and one-third of the young men admitted performing reckless stunts in an attempt to look cool—everything from juggling knives and jumping off a bridge to riding on top of a car.
Some blame these faux-heroics on modern society, arguing that our culture just doesn't offer enough opportunities for valor. That's not strictly true—after September 11, firefighters and police officers were nearly elevated to the status of saints. They are the exception, though: For many of us, struggling with mundane jobs and tedious hassles, heroism on the scale of saving lives will never seem attainable. But that doesn't make everyday quests any less important. It can be equally brave simply to stand up for what you believe in. "Quiet heroism is showing up for your child's school play when it's difficult to get off work, or being honest and ethical in the face of someone's disapproval or scorn," says Tessina. "That's the kind of heroism that really counts in life."
Ethan Gilsdorf (ethangilsdorf.com) is a freelance writer, critic and poet based in Paris.