Heroes and Parenting: Achilles vs. Hawkeye

I recently read a Washington Post article claiming that President Obama’s most unusual legacy will be that he was a good father. It rang true for me. We rarely get messages about our heroes and parenting, which is a shame.  This lack of pervasive, positive role models for parenting is one of the greatest failings of Western culture. How many imperialist men went off in search of glory and riches, leaving their wives at home?

It’s a common motif in Western literature, from Kipling to Spaghetti Westerns to the recently cancelled television show Penny Dreadful.How many pitfalls could have been avoided had Sir Malcom Murray stayed home to raise his children instead of exploring Africa? Would his son still be alive if he hadn’t abandoned the sick youth to chart the Nile?

Not that Malcom is a particularly good example -- he fails at both herosim and parenting.
Notice how Peter isn’t the one getting hugs?

Sure, novels and movies struggle to encapsulate a truly nuanced, multifaceted perspectives. Just as well-written dialog is rarely “realistic” — rarely do you see the broken thoughts, umms and interruptions that characterize common speech — most stories have streamlined morals and punchlines. There is enough time to get one point across. Anything else would require the complexity of a philosophical tome, not an entertaining story. That’s why you can usually sum up the theme of a story very quickly.

Yet, we look to stories, particularly those that ascend to become a central mythos of our culture — be it the Iliad or Harry Potter —  to guide us. Sometimes those messages make me uncomfortable… particularly when they link heroes and parenting.

“You can live a long happy obscure life or you can die young and be famous forever.” — Homer’s Iliad

Achilles, for example, has always bothered me, from essentially my first exposure. His role in the Iliad boils down to the idea that it is somehow more admirable to be a well-recognized fighter than an obscure family man. Better to be remembered through the ages as a great warrior than to be happy. Sure, he had cause to regret this decision when his beloved friend Patroclus dies, but that doesn’t change how we view Achilles. Thousands of years later, he is still known as one of the greatest warriors to ever live.

Certainly, there is a social benefit to these sorts of stories that laud the pursuit of dangerous activities that benefit society in general. We need firefighters, police, and soldiers. They deserve our praise, and we need to praise them. Else why else would anyone want to do such a difficult job? As with teachers and doctors, a society needs to provide the building blocks of espirit de corps and motivation to pursue these dangerous but necessary tasks. We need warriors to defend us. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the values passed down to me as a result of the American Revolutionary War. Certainly other wars throughout history have had an important part in shaping the narrative of our world.

But our role models and heroes shouldn’t be so narrowly devoted to managing conflicts, either. Spartan mothers were accorded equal respect as Spartan warriors, after all. A woman who died in childbirth was as important as a man who died in battle. It’s an admirable ideal.

What I love about Sparta is that they gave equal weight to male heroes and parenting on the part of the women.
“Come back with your shield, or on it,” said Spartan mothers … according to Thucydides, who was actively at war with Sparta for most of his career. Never mind that Spartan warriors were buried at the battlefield when they fell.

Perhaps I am so uncomfortable with our admiration of militaristic herosim because I work in a school. I see entirely too many young men plan to join the military as the answer to their problems. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of what the military can accomplish for a youth’s future or the approximate good our military actually accomplishes. PTSD is not a good trade off for poverty, and even if it were, the number of soldiers on food stamps is eye-opening.

Courage Under Fire addresses it; the predominant subplot is about Denzel Washington‘s character’s increasingly strained relationship with his family, who he neglects in pursuance of his duties with the Army even after he is removed from the case. Yet it’s once again a story about a bad father justifying his neglect with military obligations.

But the idea of “patriotism” and “supporting our troops” is so loaded in my home culture. It’s hard to parse out how much of it is the fault of stories and narratives like Achilles, and how much is the fault of outright, purposeful propaganda; recruitment efforts like Uncle Sam’s “We Want You!”

The military never seems to pay much attention to heroes and parenting, but at least they let military spouses live on base.
Uncle Sam doesn’t seem to give much of a damn how good of a father you are, though. Particularly if you’re black.

I have noted that lately, there are a (hopefully increasing?) number of movies about things like being a good parent, a good husband, a good citizen. I think it’s an amazing cultural shift. Though Hawkeye isn’t most people’s favorite Avenger — speaking fairly, he isn’t mine either — I think it’s amazing that there’s a superhero whose primary point of characterization is that he is a conscientious family man… at least in the movies. Finally, we have stories about heroes and parenting.

Hawkeye is a poster child for herosim and parenting.
Hawkeye’s’ powers might not be impressive, but he’s been coded as “the heart” of the ensemble cast team; a better example of herosim and parenting than most characters who fit that trope.

Sure, he goes out and fights bad guys, but he also goes home to his wife. His children appear well-adjusted, and he not only worries about keeping them safe, he plays with them, loves them, and takes part in household activities. He wants to build another barn for the farm, and prioritizes friendship and honor over blindly fighting “bad guys.” It’s an amazing narrative, particularly for a culture that idolizes a snarky playboy because he’s smart and has a tragic backstory.

Tony suffers from exactly the sort of heroism and parenting I'm complaining about: Howard Stark was a hero, but an ass.
I’ll still take Tony Stark over Batman any day, though. At least Tony tries to use his money for something other than shameless vigilantism. That’s the thing about Tony; he does try.

Yet most of the stories we have about heroes and parenting really bother me. I think that being a good parent is incredibly important; after years of reading Heinlein, I became pretty sure that children are the meaning of life — if not your own, then those who carry on your legacy in other ways, as part of your family, community, or even culture. There’s a reason that so-called “mommy bloggers” like Lea Grover get a lot more clicks than tales of herosim on the part of the military.

It took me a long time to land on the moral that I have for the novel I’m currently working on, which is, in its shortest form, that choosing courage over safety leads to freedom — and yes, there’s a war, and heroes. Before that, I thought the theme might be that blunt force leads to catastrophe — even though that’s not always how I actually feel. I’ve spoken before about my views on the political relevance of violence, where I voice my disagreement with Asimov’s assertion that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent — an assertions that comes to us through fiction. Stories are how we pass down a lot of our values, and I worry a lot about the values we’re spreading. That I’m spreading, by ensuring that my novel has conflict and tension and cinematic moments.

It’s all well and good to say “it’s just fiction” and tell people not to take things so seriously, but stories are how we’ve relayed our cultural values to our offspring for thousands of years. Even our romance novels tend to end after the engagement, Disney films heading off into Happily Ever After. I’m heartened, then, by films like Shrek Forever Afterwhich at least address the idea that being a father is something to be valued… even if they don’t show much in the way of our heroes and parenting.

I just wish there were more like it, and more heroes like Hawkeye to showcase heroism and parenting — perhaps in the future they’ll even be protagonists.

Let me know what you think!