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So Your Hero is a Monster: Dealing with Disillusionment

By Hannah Harkness

My Facebook feed lit up early last week with the familiar sight of my friends learning that their hero isn’t who they thought they were.

Picture via Loudwire

This time around, it was Glenn Danzig. He defended Trump’s travel ban and said that Planned Parenthood shouldn’t be selling baby parts “like a chop shop in Brooklyn”. I watched the melodrama unfold, one share after another, comment after comment. The reaction in my largely left-oriented news feed spanned from people saying they always knew he was a scumbag to people seemingly howling and clutching their Misfits shirts wondering if everything they love is a lie.

The internet has thinned the barrier between the public and private in a way that makes it increasingly difficult to hold celebrities to immaculate larger-than-life standards.

It’s easier to pretend that the person that wrote the music you cling to in an existential crisis is a transcendent godlike genius that understands everything you feel when they don’t have a Twitter account firing off their flawed personal opinions every five minutes. It’s easier to have a giant stylized poster of a celebrity on your wall as a motivational symbol when their social media paper trails and side comments in podcast conversations don’t turn up all of their dirty laundry.

When you find resonance with the work of an artist, actor, or musician of any kind, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to want to look them up as a person. Everyone wants and needs role models. When you form an emotional attachment to someone else’s creative output, it can act as a homing beacon for you. You want to meet them, even just for a second. You want them to sign your stuff. You want to tell all your friends about the time you bumped into them in the bathroom. You can go as far as building large portions of your personality around “What Would X Person Do?”.

Fans show off their matching Misfits tattoos

So what do you do when you find out that the person you got a tattoo of, paid $100, and waited in line for 3 hours to see, wrote music that kept you company when you were crying through your last breakup, thinks Planned Parenthood sells off baby parts? How are you supposed to feel when you find out the comedy album you’ve been laughing at for decades was penned by a serial rapist? Even finding out an artist had their work written by someone else can be deeply upsetting to some people. You thought you found a hero to personify the words that got you through a difficult time when really you had a fashion model reading lines handed to her by an unknown cog in the music industry machine that isn’t sexy enough for a dorm room poster.

In an age where everyone’s roaches seem to be scattering out of the woodwork, maybe it’s time to rethink the ways we idolize creative people so we don’t keep getting our hearts ripped out.

It’s hard to find things that everyone can agree on in this increasingly polarized society, but ironically I’ve never had anyone on any part of the political spectrum disagree with me when I say “everything is too polarized”. I think about polarization a lot when I’m looking for women role models.

I graduated with a BA in Women and Gender studies in what I now perceive as the eye of the third-wave feminist storm of 2011. Just a few years shy of the entry of trigger warnings and safe spaces into the public lexicon.

It was a time when I explained Intersectionality and gender identity to people because I had to respond to “What’s your major? Gender studies? What the hell is that?” and not “Hey, someone screamed at me about intersectionality on a comments thread, can you please explain it to me?”.  At the academic level, we discussed that feminism was an umbrella term spanning people with massively conflicting ideologies.

After all, feminist really just means “pro women’s rights” and with women making up half of the entire population on earth, the definition of what that means is extremely hazy and specific to the agenda of the person or group seeking equality. Because this movement is so fragmented, it’s easy to get quickly disillusioned by the transgressions of powerful women. You want to idolize a female politician. You find out about her corruption.

A picture worth a thousand questions. Via The New York Times

You want to look up to and praise the person who penned and acted in a female driven comedy series. Then you find out they have racist views, or they have fallen prey to the out-of-touch classist mindset that plagues people over a certain income and notoriety bracket. Just like your knee jerk reaction to elevate them to a holier than thou status when you first became their fan, you have a knee-jerk reaction to banish them to a place of disrespect in your mind and stop showing any public support for their work. So who are we supposed to look up to? I think about this and I wonder if we’re not supposed to be looking up at all, but sideways.

Treat creative people as what they are: imperfect humans.

Creative people use their talent to interpret the unique way they see reality in a way that is accessible to others. You can learn from them. You can love them. You can hate them. But maybe it would hurt less when you find out they are scumbags if you never placed them so high above your head.

I believe that the concepts these people push into the world with their work, like gender equality, can stand independently despite their shoddy moral conscience and inform and enlighten the masses. These concepts don’t belong to celebrities. They just might be the first people to successfully package, sell, and take credit for them. At the risk of going into a loopy hippie rant about the collective consciousness, I believe that all of these ideas are floating out there waiting for someone to piece them together. I don’t believe it’s necessary to feel guilty for supporting these people’s good work. It doesn’t mean you are excusing them from their failings, or not acknowledging their hypocrisies, or supporting the fact that they are appropriating these ideologies solely for the purpose of their personal gain.

People have a tendency to feel like they know their heroes and what others say about their heroes is an assault on their judgment. But your hero isn’t your friend. They never met you. You don’t know them, and they don’t know you. You know the image that they put out to the public and the content of their work. People will say “I thought I knew them”. Why? Unless you are friends, you don’t. They are liable to disappoint you.

It’s hard to separate creative people from their work because they pour so much of themselves into it, but for your own sake, it might be necessary to do that.

Don’t add yourself to their body count because you got comfort from a fictional story they wrote. Instead, learn from what they did right and use that to make yourself the person that you wish they were. If you think they deserve it, show gratitude by publicly supporting their work and giving them money. There are middle roads to walk. Someone’s work might be good enough for praise, but they themselves might be too much of a jackass to deserve your money. Always know you are giving that attention to someone who is flawed because no one is perfect.

I looked across the room while I was writing this and saw the Richard Pryor box set someone gave me. I look to my side and I see a Yellow Submarine poster attached to the wall. I clicked off the YouTube music playlist that was going because a suggested video came up of someone reading the Charles Bukowski poem “The Laughing Heart”. I listened to it, got emotionally moved and felt like what I was writing was that much more important.

With quick research I turned up this quote from an old article in Playboy from John Lennon:

I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved… I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace.”

I found this excerpt from a Barbara Walters interview with Richard Pryor in the middle of someone’s blog:

RP: “Well, I know there was a time in my life where I used to hit women…”

BW: “Why’d you hit them?”

RP: “Because they pissed me off. And because I knew inside me that I was weak.”

Fast forward to 11:50 to watch Pryor talk about hitting women

I found this response from Pryor’s ex-wife calling him out for misrepresenting his treatment of women from his loosely autobiographic film. And I know Bukowski wrote an entire book called “Women” where he, thinly veiled as a fictional character, ran around being a raging womanizer.

So is it okay for me to show any admiration for these men publicly?

I’m a comedian with a jazz musician as a father and one of the best things he ever said to me was: “Comedy is a lot like jazz. You have to know what’s hip and you have to know your history”. I found a great quote in an Elle article from 2015 called “Top 10 Misogynistic Novels All Women Should Read” that addresses this:

There’s also the unfortunate yet undeniable fact that the nearly everyone was sexist in the past, including the geniuses. This means that the bulk of the great cultural works created by humans throughout history is sexist. A lack of respect for women wasn’t a box one could check on a personality survey—it was a nearly unavoidable worldview. Women shouldn’t deny themselves the privilege of reading some of humanity’s best efforts to tell our stories and make sense of existence because of the inevitable misogyny we will find within it.

It’s for this reason that I haven’t set my Richard Pryor box set on fire and smashed my Yellow Submarine snowglobe against the wall. But if they were alive, they may not have gotten a lot of my money and you won’t catch me treating them as infallible godlike geniuses.

People get sensitive when you disparage their heroes. People might get uncomfortable when you bring up the egregious racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s work. They plug their ears and go “LALALALALA” when you bring up the allegations Roseanne Barr made against Louis CK. They might want to shoot the messenger, call you a buzzkill, claim that you are “ruining their heroes”.

You aren’t, and you didn’t ruin their work either. The work has the ability to stand independently of the creator more often than not. Heroes are humans, and when they are ruined, when their actions come to light, you didn’t ruin them by telling people. They ruined themselves.

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