Term Paper: Hero?

Pages: 10 (2822 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Communication - Journalism  ·  Buy This Paper

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[. . .] For example, Wayne's movies encourage us to think of soldiers as heroic rather than to consider heroic and manly the diplomats and politicians and ordinary people who try to stop war.

In trying to understand how mass media like Wayne's movies affect our idea of the heroic (or of anything else), part of what we are asking falls under the more general rubric of how public opinion is formed. Public opinion, both research and our own common sense and experience tell us, is formed both by ongoing and relatively permanent events, qualities and circumstances as well as by often transitory ideas and values. These relatively permanent values include such values as the importance of beauty, race relations, the relative worth of the young and the old in society, the importance of class and education in determining social status. Far less permanent are the impact of current events like the terrorist attacks, the recently stated opinions of those who are for the moment powerful and influential and the mass media themselves - what is playing at the Cineplex near you.

It is important to remember that a number of other aspects of modern society affect people's opinions, including their opinions on heroes and the heroic. No one knows exactly how public opinion on an issue takes shape in large measure because the process is so complicated and differs from time to time and event to event. But increasingly in our mass media age, the media themselves have ceased simply to reflect opinions already existent in society and have instead begun to be an important force in creating those opinions. We may in fact view the years in which John Wayne was making his movies as the decades in which this phenomenon was developing, the time in American history in which the media became undeniably and irrevocably active agents in the shaping of public opinion. The movies (along with other mass media) now help to define some of the most important values for our society, including both who counts as a hero and who is a villain.

How effective in shaping our ideas the mass media are depends in at least some measure on exactly how mass they are. A medium like television reaches far more people than a magazine like The Nation, but it is important not to assume that one can simply multiple the number of viewers or readers a form has by some baseline to determine how much influence it will have. The larger the audience, the greater the dilution of the message and the effect may well be, especially given that one of the primary ways a message can achieve such a large audience is by being diluted.

Thus while we must acknowledge the importance of the mass media-produced image of the hero that Wayne was so instrumental in creating and the number of people who have over the years been touched by precisely this image, we must also acknowledge the fact that most of these people have only been affected in a relatively superficial way.

It is interesting to note that the entire notion of the mass media (or mass arts) implies that the artist communicates with her or his public through the mediation of some type of mechanical or electronic machinery - that he or she does not know even the kinds of people that will be the eventual audience for the work. An actor and director like John Wayne would certainly have met many of his fans, but these would have been only a very small percentage of the total of people who had seen his movies. In other words, he would have been creating the image of a hero for people that he had never met, just as members of his audience would incorporate his image of the heroic even though they knew nothing of him as a person.

The ways in which mass media affect our perception of the heroic depends greatly on which arena of human behavior we are concerned with. But they tend to create heroes by placing them within "agonistic venues" - social situations in which there will be a conflict and one side will win. Politics is one of these arenas, sports is another. (Sports may even be argued to have taken the place once held by Westerns in the popular imagination.)

The mass media make heroes of politicians because they flesh out to a mass audience the life details of a person already known to be powerful. In both the cases of sports and politics, however, it can be argued that the mass media have one important similarity: They look to an agonistic arena and create heroes out of those who do well during the struggles therein, making ESPN not all that very different from Beowulf from The Shootist.

Conclusion

John Wayne, in his over 150 feature films, become the uncontested symbol of the masculine hero. He was strong and tough, but not afraid to rely on other strong, tough men. He kept his word and did not sway with circumstances. He shaped an image of himself that was in part his own doing, but in even larger measure reflects the ways in which mass media in 20th century America came to be the arena in which many people's attitudes about important values were shaped.

Wayne's particular style of heroism was also shaped by the conventions of the Western itself. Especially during the decades of the studio system when the studios were forced to come up with a constant flow of new products to satisfy patrons returning to the movies every Saturday (and this was of course the era in which Wayne rose to stardom) the film companies relied on tried-and-true genres to help create a ready well of new story ideas that could be counted on - because they were already known in another form - to help sort of "presell" the movies.

Because of this, Westerns became one of these genres and the success of each Western movie was enhanced by the popularity of previous films in the same genre even as it helped to ensure the success of the next Western. People coming to see a Western knew, to a great extent, what to expect from it. They did not come to be surprised: They came to see a movie in which they could recognize right away (through the actor playing the part, the theme music, the ways in which lighting was used, and a variety of very familiar plot devices) who was the hero and who was the villain and how everything would all turn out. It was these familiar elements that helped to make the Western one of the most successful genres of all times in the movies.

And it was the fact that Wayne played exactly the same kind of hero in each of his movies that they were so popular, further enhancing the sameness from one movie to the next that the audiences of Westerns wanted. But even as he was helping to strengthen the genre of the Western, the conventions of this genre were helping to cement Wayne's reputation as a certain, unchanging form of hero.

Works Cited

Boorstin, Daniel. The Image. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Boorstin, Daniel. The Creators. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Drucker, Susan and Robert Cathcart. American Heroes in a Media Age. New York: Hampton, 1994.

Gumpert, Gary and Susan Drucker. Voices in the Street. New York: Hampton, 1996.

Gumpert, Gary and Susan Drucker. The Huddled Masses. New York: Hampton, 1998.

Hirschman, Elizabeth. Heroes, Monsters and Messiahs. London: Andrew McMeel, 2000. http://www.screenwriterscorner.com/film_thesearchers.htm

Jones, Dudley. The Heroic Figure in Children's Popular Culture. New York: Garland, 2000.

Hawks, Howard. Rio Bravo, 1959.

Siegal, D. The Shootist, 1976.

Sinclair, Marianne. Those Who Died Young: Cultural Heroes of the 20th Century. New York: Plexus,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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