In Prism’s Book Bag: The Myth of the American Superhero, by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett
by Rick Bonn
And I had just started liking John Wayne. After a childhood deprived of Westerns, I had seen The Searchers (1956) on DVD and was loving the guy: his gravity, stillness, and sheer presence. Surely, this was a hero of heroes. Then I read The Myth of the American Superhero by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett.
Turns out Mr. Wayne – along with Heidi, Pa Ingalls (the TV version), Superman, and many other popular heroes lauded by Americans over the last century – is dangerous, and not just to the bad guys. They are images of what Lawrence and Jewett call the “American monomyth”–a derivation of the classical monomyth where redemption comes through the individual rather than the community and often through violent means.
In this wide-ranging, diverse study of cultural expressions, the authors trace the historical development of what they claim to be this uniquely American myth, use it to examine our religious and political tensions, and detail its danger to democracy, blaming it (among other things) for disarming our nation’s intellect and “the emotional stance of peacefulness.” They coin the term “technomythic critical theory” to describe their method of demonstrating how technological advances continue to give new credence to these old myths.
It’s a compelling case that challenges easy acceptance of the traditional hero model, presents pop culture as a credible subject matter for academia, dares to link our entertainment myths to social policy, and stumps for discussing (rather than banning) these popular fantasies.
So what’s their problem with John Wayne? They call this American icon a key “mythic translator,” saying that his films repeatedly demonstrate the “monomythic themes of failed institutions, righteous vigilante killing, and the rejection of women’s values.” Beleaguered towns can only be saved by extralegal, and mostly violent, means. It’s a marvel to them that this “village cleanser, gunfighter/redeemer” posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from peace-loving Jimmy Carter.
The news for Buffalo Bill fans isn’t good, either. In remaking his real war exploits into Wild West shows, the authors say Bill ignored the atrocities of reality and reinvented the facts. His lies became crucial in spawning the legendary West our culture has riffed on ever since and in establishing violence as a prime means of redemption in the American monomyth. In contrast, the authors point to Michael Straight’s novel, Carrington, which shows the savagery of both races and the gloomy end of massacre. Those who seek reconciliation, rather than those who fire buffalo guns, are the real heroes, they argue. But that’s not a message you’ll find in the American monomyth.
Nor will you find the complexity of real life in what the authors term “the sentimental melodramas” of Heidi, Little House on the Prairie, or Touched by an Angel. These stories present “domestic superheroes” who meet the “crisis that no human agency can resolve” with a “controlling love,” the authors’ feminine parallel to the masculine call to violence, neither of which grant true redemption.
Using a legion of other examples, including the first film in The Matrix Trilogy, they illustrate how the American monomyth drives us away from accepting communal responsibility for maintaining our world, promising instead “that super agencies will solve our problems and make us happy.” The Matrix (1999), though surprising in effects, postmodern pastiche, and religious references, adhered to this longstanding myth, they say. (This book, by the way, was published before the second and third parts of the trilogy and doesn’t take into account its resolution, which would likely meet their favor).
The Myth of the American Superhero also points to a whole line of monomythic stories that preceded The Matrix: stories that laud superheroic presidents, lethal patriots, melodious lions, cheerful saints, and fascist faith (Star Wars) and push the individual over the community.
While the authors admit that examining this mythic pattern pales in urgency to social ills, they also suggest it might be strategic in addressing them. In other words, our myth is part of our problem and changing it might be part of the solution. Endlessly repeating the motif of a lone outsider returning a community to its Edenic existence through violence or controlling love not only repeats a falsehood, the authors say, but also downplays the crucial role of community in democracy. “We cannot afford to wring our hands waiting for a Superman or Heidi to fix our problems,” they point out, citing Americans’ response to 9/11 as an example of “democratic heroism” – common folk saving lives, banding together, and honoring institutions. In one sense, this book can be seen as a lament against a culturally accepted myth that, in the authors’ view, is crippling our nation’s will to seek peace and social progress, and as a call to change that through the creation of a more responsible and truthful myth.
So where does that leave John Wayne? Perhaps on the outside. That’s where director John Ford left him in the last shot of The Searchers. After returning a long-lost daughter to her family, Wayne steps from the home’s darkened door into the bright desert. The family sweeps inside to celebrate, leaving him alone. He stumbles as the wind bites his path and an offscreen cowboy sings, “Ride away ” Then Ford does the almost unthinkable: He shuts the door, leaving John Wayne, American Monomythic Superhero, on the outside.
Perhaps Ford was suggesting something crucial. Perhaps it’s time to follow that lead and let the heroes of our American monomyth wander alone outside. According to Lawrence and Jewett, our redemption lies inside – between the darkened posts of democracy and community with friends and family we love.
Perhaps I can still like John Wayne. It just might be time for me to say goodbye to him.