The classical hero was an alpha male, a semi-superman: whatever the odds he faced (yes, he was usually a man), instead of ruminating on his misfortune, he would remain strong, commit to action, go to the fight, and win. That’s what classical heroes did. The villains, on the other hand, were often motivated by greed, a need for power, a base emotion like fear or jealousy (unable to be ‘strong’ like the hero) — or totally incapable of being human: monsters.
In more contemporary times different flavours of hero have emerged, emphasising different aspects of ‘heroism’. The all-too-perfect classical hero seemed implausibly flawless, a comically one-dimensional cardboard cut-out no one could believe in. This is resulted in more authoritarian (masculine) heroes, or liberal heroes with traits that would, classically speaking, be seen as quite ‘feminine’ qualities. Liberal heroes usually have flaws designed to make them believable (to seem more like ordinary people), and their vulnerabilities gives an audience something to empathise with. They try to solve problems without resorting to violence, and they usually have to sort out their own internal dilemmas. They prioritise: bringing people together, solving issues by exposing secrets, possessing non-violent skills, often having a more ‘feminine’ side than might be expected from a classical hero. The ‘feminine’ side (creativity, expression, emotion) would have been seen as a sign of weakness in the classical world; the mark of a villain or antagonist. Liberal heroes find strength in openness, sharing knowledge, helping others, working towards a better society, and standing up for what they believe to be right, placing a high value on truth and honesty — and on being true to themselves.
The authoritarian hero exhibits traditionally ‘masculine’ traits, which are seen as a sign of strength, possibly a necessity in a world where he must defeat a senseless, brutal and violent foe. He is emotionally closed off, possibly only being able to survive by repressing his emotions to stay strong, and focus on the job at hand (even if he is internally devastated by his emotional experiences). He is more likely to be secretive, or act without the need for consultation and approval. He probably works according to his own personal sense of justice, along with his own value set. His version of a smooth working society is controlled, ordered, rule based: paternalistic. The authoritarian hero believes that defeating the enemy, by any means necessary, is the most primary objective. They believe that ‘truth’ has been twisted into a lie — society has become complacent, turning a blind eye to criminals and bullies.
Serpico, the hero of the film Serpico (1973), is a classic liberal hero. He is striving to make the world a better place, seeking to nurture the best from people, whoever they are, and he places a high value in doing what is right, solving challenges by talking and conflict resolution rather than violence. He believes in fairness, decency and is willing to stand up to corruption. The well-read, self-educated Serpico demonstrates a commitment to self-improvement and learning. His extreme quirkiness makes him too much of an odd ball to be a classical hero. Other liberal heroes include: Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967), fighting social convention, and the two journalists in All the President’s Men (1976) uncovering political corruption.
The ‘Dirty Harry’ character in the Dirty Harry series of films is an authoritarian hero, marked out by: paternalistic values, a fixed, conservative view of the world — a willingness to assume that every suspect is guilty, and to use extreme violence. It’s a world of right and wrong. There is no room for doubt.
Serpico believes in talking to suspects and treating them as human beings, using violence only as a last resort. His is conscious of the consequences of his actions and believes in taking responsibility for what he has done. Dirty Harry acts decisively without concern for abstract ideas about what the consequences might be. Other authoritarian heroes include: the Judge Dredd character who believes in the absolute rule of law, and Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974) who is motivated by revenge as an extreme form of justice.
While there are female heroes who have taken on traditionally ‘male’ roles, which involve physical battles with monsters, Ellen Louise Ripley in Alien (1979), for example, female heroes tend to fight authoritarian figures or organisations. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (2012) fights President Snow; Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) fights Skynet; Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977) fights the dark side. Men have also swapped gender roles, taking on traditionally ‘female’ roles: looking after a baby in Three Men and a Baby (1987), and merging the authoritarian hero with a caring, ‘female’, role in Kindergarten Cop (1990).
The liberal hero uses violence as a last resort, whereas the authoritarian hero seeks it out as his primary response. The audience’s empathy with the authoritarian hero reflects their own fear and anxiety: one in which chaos threatens the established order of things, and must be crushed. The authoritarian hero reassures the audience by bringing extreme simplicity to a difficult and threatening situation — through violent action. The liberal hero’s emotional openness, search for a wider truth, and sense of moral decency, resonates with the audience’s need to explore the psychological nuances of a difficult and complicated predicament — through peaceful means.