Thursday, August 1, 2019

Don't Look Now: Identifying with Heroes Is More than Demographic (or Skin Deep)

Don’t wait for someone who looks like you to live your dream before you do.

The whole “looks like me” movement is quite baffling to me. Who are all these people who’ve been waiting for some media figure (or some fictional character) to look like them before they could fulfill their potential? Who are these kids who need a sports or movie star, or Disney princess, to be of their complexion, nationality, or religion before they have the gumption to charge ahead? And where were all those real and ideal people who looked like something who modeled for the last two or three generations of minority achievers, who apparently didn’t have anyone who looked like them to serve as role models, but found their way to success despite this lack?

I don’t ever recall feeling that I looked like anybody growing up. I never saw anyone who looked exactly like me: blond with fine, wispy hair—the kind adult women always complemented and said they wish they’d had. I never knew any left-hand drawing, split-dexterity introverts with my proclivity to draw and make up stories. The first cartoonists and comic book artists I met—who encouraged me—were all African-American: James Malone, Keith Pollard, Arvell Jones. And they had all grown up reading mostly Italian- and Jewish-American-created comic books. Not skinny, fair-haired WASPs like me at all. None of them.

Kids of my generation who grew up to be writers and artists, generally, had no idea what the authors or artists they emulated looked like—or if they did, could not have cared less. Who wanted to look like Charles Dickens, or Shakespeare, or Homer—who knew what Homer looked like, anyway? The Bible was one of the most influential works of literature in nineteenth-century America, and the “J” writer of the Old Testament is believed to be a woman. Who knew what she looked like?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a portrait of Charlotte Brontë (let alone knew anyone who spelled their name with an umlaut); I don’t think I ever saw a picture of Jack Kirby before I’d read dozens of his comic books. There were probably scores of singers and musicians I listened to on the radio whom I never would have recognized if I’d seen them on the street. The Electric Light Orchestra was a flying saucer, not the self-effacing Jeff Lynne; Chicago was little more than a logo, even though everyone in Michigan saw them at Pine Knob every summer (they were white guys in blue jeans and long hair, by the way, just like everyone I went to high school with—so I suppose they did look like me, more or less; they were just shy about it until the album Hot Streets, which finally featured a photo of them). Other bands, like Kiss, hid behind makeup and costume.

Does not look like me.

More to the point, tons of people who didn’t look like me at all influenced and shaped me, growing up. I wasn’t British like the Beatles or Monty Python; I wasn’t a woman with a big nose and enormous talent like Barbra Streisand; I didn’t have dark hair like Major Don West (Mark Goddard) of Lost in Space (although we shared a first name). Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) in The Wizard of Oz and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) of Star Wars swept me along on their adventures, but they looked nothing like me (unless you consider all white people look alike); I wasn’t a grizzled middle-aged reporter like Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) or a bionic country boy like Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors, The Six Million Dollar Man. And I wasn’t an African-America with lifelike hair, like the G.I. Joe I bought (a special catalog order from Sears—I was a pretty weird white kid). I didn’t look like any of the heroes or protagonists from the TV shows, animated movies, or literature I read as a kid or teenager, and I don’t seek out characters or creators who look like me know (Maya Angelou, the author I’m reading at the moment, looks nothing like me—yet I identify with her on so many other levels; topic for another blog post).

How many kids did you know who were wise-cracking grey rabbits from Brooklyn (Bugs Bunny) or fat, bald, hyperactive clowns like Curly Howard (The Three Stooges)?

Whether I knew what somebody looked like or not, and even and especially if they never looked like me at all, this never prevented me from identifying with and being inspired by my heroes. That’s never been the way I’ve understood these things to work.

Human beings have never needed central characters who “looked like me” to be swept along in a compelling story—whether an epic saga or a real-life adventure of achievement. It’s great that so many storytellers who grew with archetypes to follow have in turn created archetypes that looked like them (I have a few characters I’ve created who are blond boys and men, and some who are even middle-aged, paunchy and bald—all of whom look like I did at various times in my life; I’ve also created dozens of characters who don’t look like me at all—because I’ve met a lot of people who look nothing like me in my life, and I want to represent them in my imaginary world and tell their stories too).

But looking like anything has never been a prerequisite for a compelling story, real-life or fictional, either for storytellers or for audiences.

If all the heroes in real life or fiction waited for someone or something to look like them before they gave themselves permission to go on an adventure, they might have waited a very long time. And if somebody that looked like them had gone before them and done what they wanted to do, they wouldn’t have been original, would they? They wouldn’t have been pioneers. They wouldn’t have been heroes.And they and their stories probably wouldn’t have moved us very much.

In short, I suppose it’s nice when heroes—real or fictional—look like us; but it shouldn’t be a prerequisite. Who wants to wait for somebody to do exactly what you dreamed all your life of doing anyway? If you’ve been waiting for someone in some role in life to look like you before you could give yourself permission to follow your dream—or the dream of Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland or The Little Engine that Could—I feel profoundly sad; I’m sorry that someone told you you had to wait. Because you never did.

Knowing that a human being somewhere did something or could do something—and that you’re a human being too—has always been and should always be enough.

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