Why do I want to be a hero?

January 29, 2009

I was sitting with my friends Ben and Kristen in a children’s bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. Kristen loves to ask questions, and she came up with a good one for us: “What one word would you use to describe little boys?” I chose “Rambunctious” but have since forgotten what the other two said.

“What about little girls?” she asked next. I said, “Pointless,” and that drew a dirty look. Ben made a prudent decision by avoiding sarcasm. He mulled it over for a few moments before offering, “Princess.”

I think he nailed it. I have an older and younger sister, and when I think about them and all the other little girls I have met throughout my life, including my two nieces, I think that “Princess” sums up who little girls are and want to be.

I don’t mean to be reductionistic or oversimplify gender. I do believe that much of what we think is true about gender, especially gender roles, is socially constructed, embedded, and reinforced. If I were a three-year-old little boy, would I choose a train or a barbie doll? Which would I carry around and play with if I were given a choice between the two and no one swayed my decision either by limiting my choices or offering subtle hints of disapproval?

My friends Jeff and Meredith allowed their son Jasper to choose for himself. He chose the train. Most interesting, however, is what he did with the engine and train cars. He made them talk to each other. He gave them names. They had friendships and unique dynamics. In other words, he did with trains what a lot of little girls do with dolls.gingkotrees

I believe that we are essentially relational. So, I guess I do believe that gender is essential to who we are. I studied Judith Butler and some of her colleagues in a Literary Theory and Criticism class in grad school. Yes, separating men and women into two rigid genders–masculine and feminine–can cause problems. What about hermaphrodites and transsexuals? What about the woman born in a man’s body and vice versa? I hurt for people who never feel comfortable in their bodies, who must feel like they must suffer for some cosmic mistake. I cannot imagine how painful their confusion must have been as children and adolescents, not to mention how most communities ostracize anyone who is different in that way.

I don’t have all the answers, and I must confess some of these issues are uncomfortable to think about. Yet, when I think about the little boy I was and all the little boys I have ever known, I am amazed by the consistency and regularity of how we all played and how we play even in our adult years. We created situations in which we got to be heroes. Our games and our exploits always drifted the same direction: competition, victory, conquest. Feats of strength and endurance. Exploration and adventure. Fishing and hunting. I was the only one of my friends who rode my bike with no hands all the way from the neighborhood swimming pool to the dead end on one edge of our subdivision. Who cares? Why was this accomplishment so important to me? Why did it earn me the admiration and respect of my friends?

Consider professional sports. We pay to watch grown men throw around a ball made from leather or some synthetic material. We create rules that they must keep. Sports are this artifice through which we get to live out our boyish fantasies of heroism. I wanted to score the winning touchdown, catch the Hail Mary pass. I wanted to sink the half court shot at the buzzer. I wanted to play the tennis match of my life and win the state title for my high school team. I no longer have the opportunity to be the hero, so I enjoy the experience vicariously. I’ve heard somewhere that sports are men’s way of acting out their impulse to go to war.

Why? Is all this a complicated ritual of conjuring purpose and meaning where there is none? Are we hanging an elaborate curtain between the stage and the existential void on the other side? I think not.

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