Where Are Our Heroes?
Content Warning: This article contains discussion about sexual assault and spoilers for the television series The 100 and Dexter, movies Cruella, 50 Shades of Grey, and Maleficent, and the musical Wicked.
The 100 is a futuristic teenage dystopian television drama based on a novel series of the same name by author Kass Morgan. The earth has been environmentally destroyed and the last known surviving human outpost is a failing space station, where any criminal offence is dealt the death penalty, being floated out an airlock, unless the offender is under 18. The premise of the show is that 100 teenage offenders are sent back to the planet’s surface, 97 years after the survivors left earth, to determine whether it is inhabitable again.
The main characters consist of a headstrong and resourceful teenage girl Clarke Griffin, who has watched her father be ‘floated’ for trying to speak out about the dying space station, her scientist mother, Dr Abby Griffin, a military trained guard Bellamy Blake, his sister Octavia, best friends Monty Green and Jasper Jordan, engineer Raven Rayes, distinct rebel John Murphy, and politicians Marcus Kane and Thelonious Jaha.
On their return to the planet, the group discover that there are actually other survivors. There are tribes of people, known as Grounders, who have become immune to the toxic radiation. There are Reapers who have been made into cannibals by the Mountain Men, another group of privileged survivors housed in a military bunker.
What is interesting about The 100 is that there are no clear heroes. All of the main characters commit murder, acts of violence, are selfish and greedy, or are duplicitous. There is no one main character that shows a consistent level of compassion, care, or self sacrifice. Rather we see the far too oft used phrase ‘I had no choice’ being used to justify all manner of violence and death. Even Clarke, the main character and the leader of the original 100, destroys a military bunker and kills everyone inside. In the final test of humanity, she fails because she commits murder during the trial, excluding her from the experience of eternal transcendence.
As a viewer, one is left feeling that there is no one to look up to in this series, no one to aspire to, no one who is a true inspiration.
This type of anti-hero is not new. Think the tortured Batman in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy. The serial killer who only kills other serial killers in Dexter. The misogynistic and violent Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey.
It is hard to find a true hero or superhero anymore. They are now terribly “human”.
We can’t put these heroes on a pedestal. We can’t always emulate their behaviour. We can’t trust that they will always choose the right, noble, or good path anymore.
Perhaps that is the point. They are, after all, only human.
But nor should we demonise villains.
In the age of fractured fairy tales we discover that Maleficent was cruelly treated and betrayed by her beau, resulting in grave mistrust of deceitful humans. In Wicked we learn that the green skinned Elphaba, also known as the Wicked Witch of the West, was born out of wedlock, despised by her father and is wrongly accused of a series of incidents. Cruella was a misunderstood fashion genius whose mother stole her designs and murdered the only woman who ever cared for her.
In her powerful examination on sexual violence, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, survivor, counsellor, activist, and author Sohaila Abdulali warns about dehumanising perpetrators. It is imperative to prioritise the protection, safety, and healing of victims. It is important to believe and listen to victims. It is essential to allow them to process their experience in their own time. Abdulali also reminds the reader that rapists are humans, not monsters or animals or some sub-human species. This is an uncomfortable reality.
In a TED talk called Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation Thordis Elva asks: “How will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognise the humanity of those who commit it? And how can we empower survivors if we are making them feel ‘less than’?”
It is not just rapists who are human. Murderers are human, war criminals are human, thieves are human. All crimes are committed by humans.
The Bible has a number of human beings who the church often holds to be heroes of the faith, yet who commit all manner of unspeakable acts.
The tribes of Israel are somewhat united and the people have demanded a King like the nations around them. Saul is chosen, is replaced by David who is succeeded by Solomon. These greats are meant to be heroes, meant to follow God and lead the nation of Israel into a golden future. But they all fail. Saul starts well and even prophesies, highlighting God’s hand upon him. But he disobeys God and the reign is eventually handed over to David. The brave, Goliath killing boy becomes king and unites the tribes into a kingdom. He is meant to be a Messianic King fathering another Messianic King who will establish God’s Kingdom over all nations and fulfill the promises made to Abraham (2 Samuel 7) but sees much conflict and war with surrounding nations during his rule. He ends up committing adultery with one of his soldier’s wives and then plotting his murder.
In the books of Kings, the leaders who come after David fail miserably and ultimately run the nation into the ground. Some of David’s last words to Solomon include not only an imperative to follow God and remain faithful, but also a series of political assassinations to help consolidate the kingdom. Solomon is given unapparelled wisdom and knows peace during his reign, but gets distracted by his many foreign wives’ gods. He begins to erect altars and statues to them and his heart slowly turns from God. He amasses wealth, a huge army and a massive slave labour force. Solomon is breaking all the rules that were set out for Kings in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.
The nation is split into two, with Solomon’s son Rehoboam leading Judah in the south and Jeroboam leading Israel in the north. The kingdom did not survive three generations. Out of the forty kings that rule these two kingdoms, only eight, all from the Southern Kingdom, are listed as good according to the criteria for kings (worshipping God alone, removing idolatory, and faithfulness to the covenant). Even these are not all perfect. Not even the prophets could turn the hearts of the kings or the people back to God, and eventually the nations are taken into exile.
The expected heroes fail. Their humanness, fallibility and greed result in the total collapse of Israel. Just like in The 100, one suspects that these are not people to be admired or emulated. They are not quite the Sunday School heroes we think they are.
So, who should we follow? Who should we look up to?
The clichéd Sunday School answer, Jesus, is spot on. In one sense, Jesus is the only one that perfectly encapsulates all that we as humans should be trying to aspire to. Jesus’ compassion for the poor, willingness to challenge those who abuse authority, and demonstration of obedience to God, even to death on a cross, is inspiring. Paul encouraged the Philippians to emulate Christ:
So, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:1-11)
While this is a noble aim and one that Christians should aim for, there is also the need to remember the impossibility of achieving it. Jesus was indeed fully human, but he is also fully God, something we can never be. We after all are only human…just like the heroes, and, just like the villains in our world and in our stories. As such, heroes and villains can offer us both inspiration and warnings. What we need then, is wisdom and discernment to recognise which behaviours, attitudes and character traits we should be emulating and which ones we need to avoid. When we fail, and we will inevitably fail, we can trust in the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God who was able to use all those fallible humans of Scripture to continue moving God’s plans forward.
If this piece brings up issues for you, help is available. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Dr Katherine Grocott