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Heroes and Heart-Throbs

Updated on February 6, 2012

Idolization of people and things is by no means a new phenomenon. But today, hero-worship has reached unequaled heights - what is the secret of this success?

When Rudolph Valentino strode across the silent screens of the world's movie theaters, women swooned in their thousands. When Errol Flynn fought his swashbuckling way through the pages of history, he conquered thousands of wilting feminine hearts.

When Brigitte Bardot pouted her way to the title of the world's sexiest 'kitten', she followed in the footsteps of Mary Pickford, Myrna Loy, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe - and a host of women who represented the unattainable dreams of uncountable numbers of men. When four young men stepped on to the stage of Chicago's Shea Stadium to play their music, a nation's youth went beserk. So great was the impact of these young idols that a special term had to be coined to describe the phenomenon - Beatlemania.

Gripped by inexplicable and irrational emotions, fans idolize their heroes.

The list of twentieth-century idols who have captivated society seems endless - and ranges over a vast spectrum of human activity. Indeed, such hero-worship has become an integral part of life in modern society and has come to play a vital role in determining some of society's forms and values. But, just because it is so blatant today, it would be wrong to assume that idolization is a new phenomenon that has arrived with industrial society and the mass media. Men have always felt the need tO turn to something outside the limited range of their own experiences, and this process has been taking place since the most primitive societies began to form hundreds of years ago.

A number of factors have combined in the past to facilitate the growth of hero-worship.

For a start, society's traditional forms provide the ideal background against which idols can grow up. In any primitive society, the family is initially the basic unit - with its patriarchal structure and clearly defined roles and responsibilities for every member. Although status can vary, a fixed hierarchy always develops - the father is usually acknowledged as the most 'powerful' member of the family, and as such he enjoys a certain superior status.

When the family unit, in its turn, is seen in relation to a larger tribal society, it becomes part of a greater hierarchy. While the father may remain the leader within his own family, he also becomes involved in a new organization where he finds himself subordinate to the tribal chief. In any society, then, however simple or complex, there is a system of social structures and values. Once this system is established, it becomes inevitable that elites will emerge. Any society is organized like a pyramid, where a privileged few at the top enjoy power, wealth and high status. Naturally, the vast majority without advantages are envious and secretly desire to attain such status for themselves, even if they know it to be practically impossible.

So the people who enjoy privileges are both envied and revered. While this in no way amounts to hero-worship, it does set a social framework of inequality, in a society where, for various reasons, a privileged few exist whom the majority, secretly or openly, desire to emulate.

Because it is impossible for the masses to achieve equal status with the privileged few, the desire for self-improvement flows into other channels. Initially, the individual rationalizes the existing situation: he accepts his own 'inferiority' because there is no alternative, but is forced to find other outlets for his desires.

This is the real basis for hero-worship.

Humans always want more, especially when someone else has it. Status, after all, is the possession of those things, either physical or spiritual, coveted by the majority. So the average person fastens on to the next best thing, which is 'secondhand' status. If you cannot enjoy high status yourself, the next best thing is to identify mentally with someone who does.

A low-paid manual worker who goes to the bull-fight and watches the matador at work becomes, in his own mind, that matador and escapes from the drudgery of his own life into the world of money and success.

But the opportunity must exist for some to escape from the level of the masses and achieve high status, otherwise that identification process does not work. The matador can become an idol of the crowd for reasons quite apart from his skill as a bull-fighter, his courage in the face of danger and all the other socially-admired virtues he displays. These, in a sense, are the attributes of bull-fighting, not of the individual who actually faces the charging bull. Bull-fighting merely provides an acceptable opportunity for an individual to escape from his station in life and get right to the top.

A person becomes an idol because he reaches the top. His proficiency at the necessary skills may enable him to get there, but it does not automatically ensure that he will. A man can have all the skill, all the courage and all the grace to reach the peak of success and yet fail. If he does fail, then his skills - so revered in the example of the successful matador - bring no hero-worship at all, because hero-worship hinges on success. The matador's success enables the vast crowd to treat him as an idol, because each individual member of that crowd covets the success more than the skill. Of course, the crowd has neither, but, rather than accept that unpleasant fact, each individual can pretend for a brief and glorious moment that it is he who tosses the dead hull's severed tail into the midst of the screaming crowd.

As with the matador, so is it with all society's idols. They are idolized because they have achieved the elusive success desired by the rest. Men have always had to seek a refuge outside themselves, but the way in which they have done so has reflected the nature of their society. In the past, as society developed from its primitive tribal basis, the idols fixed upon were very different from the idols of today.

Men were primitive and superstitious, and the sum total of human knowledge was small. The elites consisted of those who could rule by physical force, so men had to turn to the mythical and the supernatural to fulfill their emotional needs.

Because they could not fasten on people who had achieved success on the basis of their own abilities, they had to rely on things, animals or graven images, which, in their minds, rapidly developed supernatural powers.

Men who could control and explain these mystic forces also inherited power.

Because they held sway over the idols worshiped by society, they also held sway over the emotions behind the creation of these idols. The individuals who had the ability and the skill to reach such a position then found that they had also become part of the elite, and were therefore idolized for this enviable achievement.

And so society developed steadily from small beginnings, growing in size and sophistication all the time. As it grew, the opportunities for an individual to reach the elite multiplied too- both numerically and in scope. Society went on to appreciate pioneers of many sorts, not just warriors and priests, who by their achievements opened up new fields of admiration and acceptable status. Explorers and physicians, merchants and artists - all began to achieve success in their own field, and therefore proportionate hero-worship from the envious masses. As soon as large enough numbers of people managed to emulate these elites, then new areas of achievement were opened up. Once there was a solid middle class of merchants, for example, this status was no longer sufficient to gain the admiration of the masses only the better merchants counted.

For this reason society's idols often spring from areas where achievement is difficult to measure - such as the arts. A great artist is particularly admired because his ability and skill (if recognized and accepted by society) is unique. The paramount importance of such idols in the society of today arises because the community has grown so large and complex that the range of acceptable achievements is vast. There are so many ways in which an individual can acquire the status that qualifies him for the elite that there are literally thousands of idols for an eager public to fasten on.

Many idols, too, have grown up for no other reason than that they have the power to lead and dominate their fellow men.

This charismatic power should not be underestimated, but the basic conditions must always be fulfilled, and even a person with this strange talent must still be able to use it to establish superior status. But why has the phenomenon of hero-worship and the creation of social idols become such a major and powerful aspect of twentieth century life? The first point has already been made - the twentieth century offers far greater opportunities for widespread advancement than society has ever known before. People can clearly see that opportunities exist, and that large numbers can take advantage of them.

Living standards throughout the world are rising rapidly, and whole sections of society are suddenly realizing that they can share in the boom. For them, there is the opportunity to idolize both those who have already succeeded ... and those who are dedicated to helping them succeed. Many American negroes idolized the late Martin Luther King because he offered them the hope of a fair deal.

Likewise, with the sharp rise in living standards, the mass of people - possibly for the first time in history - enjoy increasing amounts of leisure. Leisure, in its turn, throws up a demand for entertainment, with the result that a whole new field of opportunity opens. To the person who can satisfy these demands by the new class of people with money and time to spend on leisure, rewards can be vast. And because society is becoming more and more orientated towards materialistic standards, for someone to cash in on the need to entertain is enough of an achievement to win the admiration and sometimes worship of the crowd.

More specifically, the technology of the twentieth century - itself a factor that has deeply influenced the form of society - has facilitated the growth of 'superheroes'.

In addition to opening up vast new fields of acceptable achievements technology has 'shrunk' the world. Mass communications ensure that society becomes much more uniform and close together- and society can therefore accommodate a new kind of hero. Previously, it was sufficient to achieve high status in a restricted field - a tribe or isolated country.

But the mass media extend the scope of operations. When Pele, the Brazilian football hero, scored a goal for his team in the World Cup Final, he did not merely score a goal in front of the 150 thousand spectators in the Aztec Stadium- his particular genius was on display to a world television audience of 300 million. Thus, the twentieth century produced heroes to fit the scale of its society. The mass media, too, have not only publicized and magnified the idols already fastened on by society, but have also created their own. Because they catered for a society that wanted entertainment and were prepared to pay for it, people soon realized that the rewards in financial terms from media such as motion pictures were vast. So for the first time, the people's need for idols was deliberately exploited by a Hollywood 'machine' that soon became adept at creating its own heroes. The passionate welcome which Hollywood's idols received from the people - especially in the golden years between the wars - shows the intensity of that need of the masses.

In our modern world, then, the necessity for emotional needs to be satisfied by the provision of suitable idols is greater than ever before, and at the same time the opportunities for such success are correspondingly greater. The free communication necessary to reach the high status that means hero-worship is present on a scale that ensures that society's idols are as well known in London as they are in New York.

But a star is not just a list of attributes and a publicity machine; an aura of mystique surrounds these people. Potential heroes abound - rich, successful and beautiful - but they lack that 'special something', that indefinable quality that makes some the idols of society and means that the favored few will always exist.


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