When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
Granted, today if one speaks like a man, understands like a man, and thinks as a man, he will probably be called a fascist or a Nazi and be banned from YouTube and all social media. A man-child has no such worries.
As an exemplar man-child, I offer journalist Rowan Lehr. Chances are you’ve never heard of him, but you probably know someone like him. He recently published a confession of sorts, “A Cosplayer’s Origin Story” in Fort Worth Weekly. If you’re curious, you can check it out at www.fwweekly.com.
Lehr, who appears to be in his late 20s, tells how the 2008 movie Iron Man was something of an epiphany to him. He found superheroism was an antidote to his teenage social anxiety. Better than drugs, I guess.
At any rate, he took up cosplay, impersonating superheroes for fun if not profit. He recently paraded around Sundance Square, in the heart of downtown Fort Worth, in a Captain America costume in conjunction with the Avengers: Endgame movie.
Lehr devotes a great deal of his spare time to perfecting his costumes and working out to achieve a physique more appropriate for a superhero costume. The death of legendary comic book artist Stan Lee last year brought tears to his eyes. Good to see that Lehr is in touch with his feelings.
Now let’s play compare and contrast. Let’s consider the life story of a young man from a previous generation.
You may have heard of this young man. He is a member of the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame, but he did not achieve fame as an aviator. I speak of Tom Landry the first and longtime (1960-1988) head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. No surprise that he is in the NFL Hall of fame, but what was he doing in the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame?
Well, it turns out he was a co-pilot flying B-17s (popularly known as flying fortresses…think Memphis Belle) on World War II bombing missions (30 total) over Europe. He was only 20 years old.
With this in mind, the reason for Landry’s renowned sideline stoicism was obvious. After all, how could anyone get agitated by a football game after what he’d been through? As he once said, “There are coaches to whom winning or losing means something close to life or death. If they lose, then their life has somehow been diminished. I’m not that way, and it keeps me steady.” In other words, this flyboy was grounded…but in a good way.
In our over-caffeinated world, football head coaches often appear to be courting a cardiovascular crisis on the sidelines. Today an aspiring coach with a Landry-like attitude couldn’t get past the first round of job interviews. If you don’t feel that fire in the belly, better learn to fake it.
When I first read about Landry’s wartime deeds, I couldn’t help but ask myself what I was doing at age 20. For the most part, I was shuffling from one college classroom to another. Accruing student loan debt can be hazardous to your financial health but it isn’t a matter of life and death. Getting shot down in flames was only a hazard metaphorically speaking…e.g., getting the brushoff when asking for a date or tanking on an exam.
Now I’m not big on jingoism and I don’t think that military experience is an essential component in one’s transformation into a man. The military lifestyle, even during peacetime, never held any attraction for me. Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Tom Landry’s deeds. I’m sure his parents never had any discussions about their son’s failure to launch. They were more worried about his walking away from landings.
As we compare and contrast Tom Landry and Rowan Lehr, I think it’s safe to say that their life experiences, though poles apart, are not atypical of their generations. Almost all American men born in 1924, like Tom Landry, were involved in World War II in some form or fashion. Business as usual just wasn’t possible from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day.
Lehr and his fellow Millennials have not had to deal with a global conflict or conscription. Not that Millennials don’t have their issues and concerns, but so far nothing so all-encompassing and unavoidable as World War II has arisen. With all the misinformation, disinformation and outright propaganda out there, it’s highly debatable as to which, if any, contemporary battles are worth fighting. Lapsing into slackerdom is understandable.
Famously, contemporary slackers are associated with superhero movies as well as video games. In fact, if you check out the offerings at your local multiplex, you might be hard-pressed to find a movie that isn’t one or the other, and sometimes a hybrid of both.
Admittedly, I never cared for video games, though I have some vague memory of playing Space Invaders and Pac-Man once or twice. Never cared much for superheroes either, though I do remember watching the old Superman (with George Reeves) TV show in the 1950s. I also remember kiddie shows that featured the old Superman cartoons released by Paramount in the 1940s. I enjoyed those cartoons then and still like them today. They were short, dramatically animated, and totally unpretentious.
It’s easy to see why children would be fascinated by superheroes. For little people in a world dominated by big people, the appeal of having magic powers is understandable. Employing one of today’s favorite buzzwords, a child feels empowered!
Certainly life would be much more pleasant if you were faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound – especially if you’re the only one in the world who could perform these feats. No big deal on Krypton maybe, but here on planet earth, it turns heads. It may well be that the superhero cosplay folks are channeling Clark Kent/Superman every time they doff conventional attire and don some sort of superhero duds. It may be harder to find a telephone booth these days, but clothes still make the man/superman!
Traditionally, superhero characters were marketed towards American children, boys in particular. If a superhero caught on, he might have a long-running series of comic books or a TV series; today the stakes are higher. Superhero movie franchises are marketed globally, and the audience has expanded from children to adults. Recently some of those adults stayed up past their bedtime and spent the night camped out in front of movie theaters to make sure they could see Avengers: Endgame the day it opened.
The current crew of superheroes dates back to 1938 when Superman made his debut in Action Comics. Bigger-than-life heroic figures are not really new, however. The Greeks had Hercules, the Hebrews had Sampson. In the 1920s, Americans had Babe Ruth. Note, however, that while the aforementioned possessed unusual strength, they could not fly, shoot laser beams out of their eye sockets or lighting out of their fingertips. Their strength made them mythical figures but they were not gods. They might have a special blessing from God (Hercules was supposedly fathered by Zeus, Sampson’s long hair was a sort of covenant with God) but at the end of the day they were mortal.
Atlas was kind of a superhero but until Ayn Rand came along, shrugging was not an option. Oh, it’s OK to go MGTOW for a little while (even Superman had his Fortress of Solitude), but sooner or later the superhero must develop a social conscience. He must champion the collective, however that is defined. Hercules was a hero of the Greek people, Sampson of the Hebrews. Batman has Gotham, Superman has Metropolis. The people demand a messiah and sooner or later there will be someone with a messianic complex to oblige them. One can see why a strongman politician (popularly known as “a man on horseback” in pre-automobile days) held so much appeal for the masses.
Unfortunately, hero (or superhero) worship in a society obsessed with equality is a recipe for cognitive dissonance. As much as the average Joe longs to be top dog, deep down he knows he is of meeker stuff. In a traditional society, he accepts his role in society and makes the best of things. In an egalitarian (yet upwardly mobile) society, every superhero is not only a role model but also a reminder of one’s own shortcomings. Having super powers would be really neat! But doesn’t that amount to privilege?
Well, note that a number of superheroes today have become social justice warriors! If you’re privileged but champion the underprivileged, you get a pass. That way you can have it both ways. Call it equity superheroism. Super powers in the service of the downtrodden!
Typically, underachievement has been a male affliction. Great things were not expected from females, so until recently superheroines were not a big deal. Today we can’t have too many positive role models for girls, even if they are fantasy figures. Now feminists promote the questionable slogan “If you can see it, you can be it.” In other words, if girls see female fighter pilots or Fortune 500 CEOs or Nobel-prize winning physicists, they can achieve same.
Hogwash. Horsefeathers. Hooey.
Consider how many boys have spent countless hours “seeing” athletes go through their paces but have no chance of “being” one. Wanna be a fighter pilot? You can see Top Gun any time you want on DVD, but no matter how many times you watch it, no matter if you memorize every line of dialogue, if you don’t have the right stuff…forget it.
Of course, you can always go the Walter Mitty route and fantasize (the poor man’s virtual reality). Or you can play pretend. Like Halloween, playing pretend used to be kid stuff, but now it has become more popular with adults. And more socially acceptable.
In addition to Halloween, now there are comic book, science fiction, horror, and fantasy film fests and conventions where Rowan Lehr and his ilk take center stage. As with Halloween and Mardi Gras, a great deal of thought, time, and sometimes money, is invested in costumes, in other words in playing pretend and dress-up.
Now some of it could be mere escapism from dreary jobs and pedestrian realities. It’s disheartening to realize that your destiny is not to save the tribe, the city, the nation, the planet, or the universe, but to sit in a cubicle for eight hours and manipulate a mouse and keyboard and occasionally get up to pick up something from the printer or go to the bathroom. Welcome to quiet desperationville. Population: billions and billions.
Unfortunately, playing dress-up has migrated from recreation to delusion. For example, men who wanted to be women were once content to be transvestites, in other words to play dress-up. Now they think wishing will make it so. If you feel like a woman, that’s all that counts. Never mind what your DNA says, never mind your external genitalia, never mind your hormones. Magical thinking – it’s not just for kids any more. When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. The perfect wedding of magical thinking and egalitarianism!
Speaking of stars, let’s not forget the legions of Star Trek/Star Wars fans. At its best, science fiction is a thoughtful exploration of the human condition and what twists and turns it may take in the future (think Michael Crichton). At its worst, it is another manifestation of magical thinking, which has a lot in common with social justice babbling.
The social justice component of Star Trek has been there since day one, but now it thoroughly dominates. Star Wars is going in the same direction, but at heart it is little more than a cosmic soap opera. At the risk of offending some readers, I propose that a Venn diagram of fanboys and soyboys would show considerable overlap.
But let’s not put all the stigma on the comics/science fiction/fantasy crowd. A lot of these folks are apathetic when it comes to sports, yet sports junkies are almost as bad. At least, sports heroes are real people. A right fielder is a real human being. No matter how strong his arm, he can’t hurl a lightning bolt. No matter how far he can hit a baseball, eventually the laws of physics kick in and the ball returns to earth. But he makes plenty of money and the chicks dig him. The result: a fan base!
If you ever look at old photos of fans in the stands at sporting events, you will note that almost everyone is wearing regular clothing. Now almost every fan in the stands is wearing some sort of home team attire. When a seating section is full, it almost looks like a solid bloc of color. Wearing red at a St. Louis Cardinals game is almost a requirement for admission.
In more recent years, replica jerseys for individual players have become popular. Team shops regularly offer such outerwear with the names and numbers of individual players. Hence the wearer can identify not just with the home team but with an individual player. The former is akin to joining a collective, the latter is akin to an assumed identity. Not quite cosplay but getting there.
If you care to, you can buy an authentic #3 Bryce Harper jersey (available from the Philadelphia Phillies’ web site for just $283.99; also available is a cheaper version for $119). If you’re strapped for cash, you can buy one of his old jerseys from the Washington Nationals. You can wear your Bryce Harper jersey to the ballpark. You can wear it away from the ballpark. You can sleep in it. You can even shower in it. But you will never be Bryce Harper. Hell, you can even be buried in it, but by then it’s too late to be Bryce Harper…or anyone else.
Now I’m not advocating you boycott superhero movies, comic book conferences, Star Trek/Star Wars conventions, and spectator sports. We’re all entitled to our diversions and guilty pleasures. God knows I have my share. In fact, I can’t imagine modern civilization without them. But what happens when they take on an importance far beyond what they deserve? If we don’t put aside childish things can we at least put them on the back burner?
Ironically, when Tom Landry returned from World War II he went back to playing college football and then on to pro football and coaching pro football. Well, a man’s got to earn a living somehow, and I guess that’s as good a way as any, though it likely seemed pretty tame after participating in multiple air assaults on Fortress Europa. I don’t think Landry would have resorted to fantasy football, even if they’d had such a thing in his day.
And so we come to the fundamental difference between Lehr and Landry, and hence their respective generations. In Landry’s day they had novels, movies, radio, and comic books but relatively little time to indulge in them. Today Lehr and his contemporaries have all that plus television, CDs, DVDs, video games, the internet, not to mention fantasy football baseball, and maybe other sports too, for all I know. Reality is getting more virtual and less real by the day. In days past, the phrase “real reality” would have been a tautology, but given the rise of virtual reality, it is regrettably apt. In truth, a wall of separation is needed between the two. Here’s why:
Screw up in Mortal Kombat and it’s “Game Over.” Screw up on a bombing mission and it’s “Life Over” – for you and your crew. Now that’s real reality!
So don your superhero costume if you want to. If that’s your virtual reality, so be it. It will never be your real reality. On the other hand, if you’re waiting for a superhero to save the day, that isn’t going to happen either. There are important battles being fought today. More important battles will be fought tomorrow. If you’re spoiling for a fight, there is a place for you in these conflicts. But lose the superhero costume.
And leave the light saber in the closet.