September 12, 2013

STALEY: Uncool But Sincere

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By HENRY STALEY

Heroes, more than anything, tell us a great deal about the people who make them heroes — the people that see their movies, buy their posters, imitate them and retell their stories. Advertisers, psychoanalysts and mythology studies majors can all agree: heroes, like gods, are outward projections of people’s inner values. They, by popular appeal, represent a culture’s ideal.

So who are the heroes of today? I can list many who would be singing at big award ceremonies, speaking from podiums, making news via goodwill and appearing in the box-office hits, but I’d rather discuss a new development in the history of cultural heroes: the sincere hero.

The sincere hero has both male and female flag-bearers. Because of the attention she’s recently garnered from her leading role in Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig is the best female example (Zooey Deschanel comes a close second). Gerwig is the salient model of a new sort of hero because she inverts the traits of the traditional female idol. She’s not idolized by her generation because of outrageous sex appeal like Marilyn Monroe or Jane Fonda, nor by ideology or outstanding talent like Janis Joplin or Grace Slick (although she is very talented). Rather, she’s representing a certain culture today because of her embracement of human shortcomings and non-normative behavior. Unlike yesterday’s sex symbol, she has square shoulders and misfit clothing. In Frances Ha, she even comments on her acne. Her on-screen persona has many non-desirable traits: she is awkward and makes a buzzing sound when a guy tries to make a move on her, she can be self-absorbed and tells people about things they don’t care for, she’s directionless and unmotivated. She is not perfect but seems to be saying that that that’s okay. It’s triumphant to not be ‘great’ and okay to reject the confinements of traditional femininity.

Our most popular male sincere hero is somewhat less revolutionary. In fact, he’s defined by his lack of boldness. It’s that skinny, turtle-faced post-teen wearing a cardigan and a hiked-up backpack from Arrested Development: Michael Cera. He didn’t just earn this status because he’s funny; his popularity has larger implications. Unlike female icons, male, non-conforming anti-heroes have been a part of our cinematic and cultural lexicon for decades. The heroes of Hemingway, Hammett and cowboy stories were often socially unpopular loners. The fifties and sixties gave rise to many iconic ‘non-conforming’ leads: Paul Newman, James Dean, Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper. Yet, however rebellious, they all stood out in a traditionally masculine fashion. In Sweet Bird of Youth, Paul Newman rebels against southern conservatism by sleeping with the governor’s daughter. In Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper rebels by taking drugs and riding a motorcycle. In The Wild One, Brando rebels by bravado and sporting tough-guy leather jackets. Cera, on the other hand, is an anti-anti hero via his inability to fill his masculine role. He struggles with girls and fumbles his words. In Superbad, he creates awkward situations and tries to mitigate them by a girlish giggle. In his most recent movie, Crystal Fairy, he alienates a car of stoic Chileans by his insecurities and garrulousness. We feel for him because he’s an underdog. His awkwardness and imperfections prevent him from becoming successful and enacting the archetypal, heroic male role. In his quirkiness, he’s championed a different brand of hero.

What’s unique about these actor’s on-screen personas is that, unlike former subculture icons, they are rebelling by accident. They can’t help the fact that, to most people, they’re abnormal. They’re not out to make a plea for rejecting normality either and, for this reason, they are the perfect heroes for the BoBo generation.

David Brooks, in his book Bobos in Paradise, argues that, after the progressive, bohemian ebb of the sixties and the reactionary, bourgeois flow of the eighties, bohemian and bourgeois values have merged to create a new ideology: the BoBo lifestyle. Cera and Gerwig resolve the gap between Bourgeois and Bohemian because they satisfy bohemians with their hip and misfit demeanor while not upsetting the bourgeois through unintended (and thereby not too radical) transgressions. If they were to deliberately act strange, bourgeois-minded people would think the two defy their predestined economic and social roles. Further, they confirm the bourgeois suspicion that people non-conform because they’re unable to be traditionally successful. Embracing compromise, Greta and Gerwig represent the ‘somewhat socially misunderstood power’ of today, rather than the ‘freak-power’ of yesterday.

So, Cera and Gerwig tell us that today’s subculture is more agreeable but somewhat timid. The mot juste of previous generations’ progressives — liberation — has been qualified by the specter of terrorism and post-recession economic insecurity. Further, bold self-expression can get a bit self-conscious in our digital hall of mirrors. The music tastes and fashions of this culture are largely retrospective (listen to Superbad or Frances Ha’s soundtrack) and thereby defensive to judgment. Making bold, forward statements in either music or fashion seems like a move against established counter-cultural norms. Regardless, Cera, Gerwig and similarly offbeat leading actors’ popularity marks a move towards a more inclusive, democratic pop culture that doesn’t generate unattainable platonic types and confining gender roles. They’re telling us that we’re not as cool as we think we are and that’s just fine.

Henry Staley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at hstaley@cornellsun.com. Politicizing Art runs alternate Fridays this semester. 

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