FMA 1202 Seminar 11

Media and Genres: Every Difference Makes a Difference?


We have talked quite a bit about archetypal (deep, psychological) impulses behind the hero figure; we have also talked quite a bit about social change leading to changes in the construction of heroism; but we probably haven’t paid enough attention yet to the different media in which heroism is constructed.  Do these media and genres make a difference to the construction of heroism?  On the one hand the answer is “no” – society needs heroes, and needs particular kinds of heroes based on the particular needs of that society, and media is just the means of displaying and disseminating those kinds of heroes.

           But on the other hand, even if our society needs particular kinds of heroes, the way heroes are constructed in different media and genres is different (a manga hero is not necessarily the same as a novel hero, even in the same age and society; a comic hero is very different from a tragic or action hero).  The most striking example is what might be called “real life heroes,” which as we have seen are still narrated and constructed – but are narrated and constructed by particular discourses which we associate with “non-fiction” (even though they are narrated and are selectively constructed) – e.g. newspaper articles, social media, documentary films etc.  There are very peculiar rules to the construction of heroes in these “real” discourses, which are very different from the rules for constructing heroes in film, TV etc.

We might say that the differences of genre and media remind us of the range of heroic types that our society needs, and that each type of hero may need different media and genres for their depiction and construction.  This in turn reminds us that all heroes (including so-called “real-life” ones) are narrated and constructed, and the means (media, genre, semiotics, narrative) of their construction are an important component to understanding their heroism.  After all, we live in an era of proliferating/multiple media, and these very much shape our consciousness and thoughts.  It is interesting to ask to what extend our primal notions of heroism are also influenced by media.


Genres and Narratives: this is a slightly more straightforward topic, so we can consider this first.  What are the genres of heroism?  How are heroic narratives commonly told?  What kinds of variations on these are permitted?  What cannot be permitted, and why?

The oldest heroic narratives were the epics and folktales – oral stories (many of them not written down, but retold by professional story-tellers, or acted out by professional travelling troupes.  Because they were committed to memory, there had to be a strong basic framework that was easy to remember, plus minor variations that could be improvised (like jazz) without serious damage to the story.  In a way, this strong framework reinforced the archetypal qualities of the hero, by emphasising and reiterating the basics: the exceptional hero (demi-god origins, superhuman qualities), an elemental threat to humanity/community, the struggle/battle to overcome the villain/threat. In other words, hero narratives are very much plot-driven, strong on action, very elemental/basic in characterisation.

           Subsequent genres followed this pattern of a strong plot, even if other things changed.  For an action-driven narrative, a fairly big/lengthy narrative pattern was required: the epic, or the 5-act tragic play structure.  With the rise of the novel in the 18th/19th C, this became the most popular form, including for hero-construction: although it did not have the specifically martial/heroic quality of the epic, or the tragic pattern of the 5-Act tragedy, the novel was flexible enough to deal with a variety of themes, and big enough to pack in epic/historical action.  Even in modern times, when characterisation of these alternative heroes became more important, there was still a predilection for strong plots in fairly lengthy narrative genres.

           This also meant that some types of genres were patently not suited to hero-construction: the lyric poem (too short, too emotionally introspective), for example, or short stories and essays (too short – although it is possible to construct heroism, it’s not easy to do so), or comedies (although there is such a thing as a comic hero – but this is very unconventional, very un-archetypal – in the majority of comedies we are encouraged to laugh at, and in many ways to demean and look down on all characters, including the protagonists.  More on comedy below).  But we also see some unexpected genres which are surprisingly good at constructing heroism: dance, for example (especially of the ritualistic/religious drama variety, which tells a story through dance and action, and can very movingly evoke a heroic story).  Painting, although a static medium (only 1 still image), can nevertheless tell a heroic story through the semiotics of posture (chest puffed out, hand on sword, big muscles bulging etc) and symbolism (background/foreground of conquered territory, enemy generals painted in submissive positions, the similarly symbolic use of flags, crowns, even symbolic animals etc).

           In terms of narrative, the basic heroic narrative pattern is action (what the Latin writer Horace called “in medias res,” in the middle of the action, and what Aristotle also defined as a whole “action,” with its own organic “beginning, middle and end.”  i.e. it is action trimmed down to its most powerfully significant elements, without any distracting and superfluous bits – even the hero’s birth and origins do not have to be depicted as part of the action, they can be “sung” by the chorus as a brief recap during the action, etc).  The typical heroic action involves the timely entry of the hero, the description of the dire threat/evil/danger, the battle/struggle/temptation etc, the victory. 

That’s it, in archetypal terms.  There are certain basic variants: certain pre-adult elements of the hero can be shown, to a greater or lesser degree (e.g. do we see a bit of his childhood and growth, bildungsroman-style? Are there earlier childhood battles that foreshadow the big adult one?  Are there prophesies of his later victory?).  In terms of the action, there can be a bit of variation as well: is there an initial defeat, followed by the final victory?  Or does he simply overpower the villain once and for all?  Is there a sequel/rematch?)  And of course there are many variants in terms of the villain/monster.  After the victory, there is a major variant: does the hero live “happily ever after,” or does he die?  The latter enhances the sacrificial element and makes the narrative tragic rather than epic.

So we have the basic heroic narrative: typically the long-form of the epic or novel, with a core action depicted “in medias res,” and with either an epic or tragic ending.  If we were to stick with just the formula, then we probably wouldn’t have much heroic narratives past the middle of the 19th C (with the rise of realism).  Heroic narratives survived by adapting to modern times – the variations, which seemed so insignificant prior to the 18th/19th centuries, became more prominent and with wider variations after that, in order to allow for heroic construction in modern society. 


Media: with the very rapid and very significant changes in media technology in the modern era, narrative cannot remain unchanged, but actually gets modified by changes in media.  Although there are certain foundational (archetypal? Cognitive/hard-wired?) and non-negotiable aspects of narrative (we expect narratives to somehow “make sense,” to have some kind of logic; and to have some kind of organisation or “beginning, middle and end,” even if the definitions of those terms get changed a lot), other aspects of narrative (duration/length, voice/narrators, point of view, plot, characterisation, symbolism) all get changed quite significantly by changes in media.  Changes in media also come together with changes in audiences (the size of the audience, the consumer markets created by types of audiences, the “literacy” levels and expectations of audiences, etc), and these in turn reinforce the changes in narrative (there’s no point writing a type of narrative which hardly anyone can or will read or purchase).

           Some of the major changes in media and audience/readership in the modern era include:

1.   The rise of a mass public readership, around the middle of the 19th C.  Prior to that, even up to the middle of the 18th C, the English literate/reading audience (and probably true of other European nations too) was a relatively small and elite group, by far a minority group (but one which dominated all literature and reading).  So poems/novels/essays were written with a very homogenous and small readership in mind.  Over the course of the 19th C, a wider public readership grew, and thus also grew the popular novel, with a mass readership in mind.  This gave rise to more titles, the rise of instalment/serial writing (most novels first appeared as chapter-segments published in literary periodicals, appearing week by week) and also a writing style that catered to a wider and less sophisticated/high-brow readership – lots of sensationalistic events, coincidences, “scandals” (by the standards of that day), crime/thriller elements, last-minute disclosures, etc (best represented by the novels of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins).  Also the rise of short stories, popular/light opera and plays, and the decline of poetry, especially epic poetry.

2.   This (19th C) was also the rise of European nationalism (some had a much older history, some more recent; but certainly the idea of the nation as a collection of people with rights and duties, rather than as peasants under the control of an elite aristocracy who alone had any rights, was a peculiarly 19th C European idea).  One of the unheralded features of nationalism, as Benedict Anderson famously tells us in his book Imagined Communities, was national media like newspapers.  Newspapers with national distribution (although not universal readership – typically there would be several newspapers with national distribution, and citizens would choose 1 of them, but the community of readers of each paper would be spread throughout the nation) were obviously driven by sales/impact/advertising (from which they made the money to survive).  But they had an impact way beyond companies paying for advertisements, or readers searching the classified advertisements or being influenced by which car to buy.  National newspapers (like related media, e.g. TV news, “official” news sources on SMS/blogs etc) created the sense of a serious public forum with reliable or “authoritative” information that were perceived as trustworthy, objective, non-fictional. (Of course the truth is that a newspaper or public discourse report is no less subjective and narrated than any other discourse – a fact which became more and more evident as competing newspapers arose with different emphases, and as the public domain became more and more heterogeneous and plural in an age of digital media/blogs/chatrooms etc).  Newspapers and related media thus created the notion of the “public” hero – a “real” hero (in contrast to fictional/mythic ones), engaging in a real/serious endeavour and serving the public good (fighting for the nation, serving the nation’s underprivileged, fighting crime, etc).  In other words, news and public domain discourses created the “real”/public hero by first creating the notion of a unified “public” and a “public good” that needed its champions. 

3.   Public radio, and the TV – the BBC began broadcasting publically-accessible radio content from the 1920s onwards, to which was added TV broadcasts which grew in reach and popularity in the 1930s and 1940s.  These created a new kind of plot: also episodic/serial like the Victorian popular novel, also sensationalistic and attention-grabbing, but much more fast-paced (because it was easier/faster to follow action aurally and visually than to read and process words).  A growing emphasis on sound and visual effects: voices, faces, clothes, props gradually took center-stage.

4.   Film and cinema grew in the same period as radio and TV, and had some similarities with them, but with some differences too: it was not really episodic (except in some small way and much later, with the phenomenon of the sequel/prequel).  It had some aspects of theatre, with the intensity of a 1-2 hour collective experience viewed by an audience sitting together; and the big screen also created its own semiotics, focussing even more on the face and appearance of the actor.  Film/cinema thus created the phenomenon of the “film star” (a significantly bigger phenomenon than the TV star, even today), a larger-than-life figure around whom the plot and action often revolves.  Today film stars have a huge influence on plot, sometimes stipulating changes to the script in order to play it their own way.  The role and action of the hero in film depends heavily on the charisma of the film star, rather than on any set/original story.  Later on, stunts and special effects (especially computer/generated ones) also took on a very important role in determining and driving action/plot.

5.   Pop culture media: this is a very loose term, but I use it to group together and discuss the rise of entertainment media from the latter half of the 20th C onwards, targeted at mass and especially pre-adult consumers, not as serious as news media or even some film and TV, and before the rise of digital culture.  This is a group that includes comic books (a very important part of the pulse of society, even if it initially targeted pre-adults), anime, manga and video games (and the related field of cosplay).  Because of its largely teenage audience (but certainly not exclusively so – it’s big business, and lots of adults and companies are involved), pop culture tends to have very exaggerated qualities – anime characters with huge eyes to express extremes of emotion (tears, shock), a kung fu or ninja leap that lasts minutes in the air, swords or guns that cut or shoot through several bad guys at once, etc.  Pop culture is the realm of exaggerated heroism, a kind of 20th-C version of myths and legends, with more variety, even more action, and no constraints of realism or the real-life.  In fact, the whole point was escapism – pop culture was in many ways a kind of escape from the pressures of modern life, and thus tended to be deliberately escapist and non-realist in its stories and heroes.  Also it reinforced the absence of Aristotelian plot unity (beginning, middle and end), because pop culture tended to be episodic and perpetual – characters never ever die, they get perpetuated through cosplay and movie adaptations and other media cross-overs, an anime series can last for decades.

6.   Digital technology was a huge sea-change in media, and consequently in plot and heroism.  If film made the hero synonymous with the film star, and made the film star “larger than life,” digital media (desktop filming/editing/viewing, “home” clips posted on Youtube and Facebook etc) made the actor and hero small but personalized and endlessly-variable (since practically anyone could shoot their own story, digitally alter or add effects, featuring any kind of hero they chose, remove the clip, add a revised clip, make a digitally-altered series of the same clip, email the clip to friends, etc.  Digital media created a sense of the impermanence, individual freedom/creativity, and proliferation of the story, and this had very profound effects on the construction of heroism: an emphasis not on archetypal notions of greatness, the “more than man,” permanence etc, but rather on the particular, the local hero (the guy I saw doing something on the street today and filmed with my handphone), the impermanent (because tomorrow I may post another clip of another guy, without deleting the first clip, but which makes the first clip/hero “out of date” now). 


Media has a very complicated effect on heroism, not just because each of the main media has different permutations and variants (TV has broadcast versus cable or satellite/subscriber TV, digital media has almost endless and ever-new variants), but also because they overlap (news discourse is found in print, TV, and even digital forms).  Another major complication is that these media, although they arose historically, have not really been superceded but continue to co-exist: although it was predicted that TV would kill off radio, that never happened, nor has digital media killed off print media (books, newspapers) just yet.  Just as these plural media co-exist, so too do their effects on hero-construction. 

           One consequence is thus that we can have different media influences on our ideas of heroism, and a wide variety of hero-constructions influenced by different media.  Some of the variants are slight, while some are striking: how do we compare an internet phenomenon like a 1-minute clip of a guy doing awesome parkour or cat saving its owner from a fall, versus a newspaper account of a hunger-striker against government corruption in India, versus the awesome larger-than-life pecs of Chris Evans in the film version of Captain America, versus a cosplay version of an exaggerated hero from Streetfighter or Ghost in the Machine

           The simple conclusion would just be to repeat our point about alternative/boutique heroes in the modern era, and point to the media’s proliferating influence on heroes as just another aspect of boutique heroism.  This is certainly true, and worth noting.  However, media is not just about different consumer taste and preference (although it is about that – which segment of the market prefers print newspapers, versus online/ipad ones, etc) – it is also about a kind of multiple consciousness in the modern subject.  Apart from very extreme and small segments (e.g. very old people who were completely left behind by the digital revolution, and who can only listen to radio), most modern subjects subscribe to a variety of media at the same time: an individual can read print newspapers and novels, listen to radio, watch TV and films, download clips on Youtube and Facebook, do cosplay and play computer games, etc.  What happens to that individual’s sense of heroism?  What are that individual’s psychological/emotional needs, in terms of heroism? 

           These are not easy questions to answer, and are worthy of much more detailed research.  To offer just brief suggestions and guidelines, one possibility is that our notions of heroism get pluralised and relativised – i.e. we now think of different notions of “heroes” (small “h”) rather than dismissing these in the name of a single big notion of “Hero” (capital “H”).  The thing is that we do so without necessarily being conscious of this pluralisation – it creeps in because of our different media-exposures and our different media-competencies, the way we learn to read different media differently (and thus also to process content from different media in different ways).  We learn to be more trivial and fantastical in processing anime content, and look for deeper symbolism in art films and novels.  But there will inevitably be some cross-influence: our treatment of “serious” heroes may also become rather more trivialised due to our anime-competency, etc. 

One last question remains: what happens to the most archetypal qualities of the hero in modern media?   Do our plural-competency minds switch off the archetypal, deep-primal need for heroes (as human preservers/protectors)?  Do we trivialised and pluralise to the extent that we lose any kind of deep singular idea of heroes, at the level of human need/desire/anxiety?  These are questions we can probably only consider (much less answer properly) when we think about human cynicism and social dissatisfaction in the contemporary age, which we will do in the next seminar.  For now, we can consider 2 open-ended possibilities: Yes, the pluralisation and trivialisation of heroes does replace and wear out the older need for an archetypal/deep hero (in which case, how would you support your argument); or No, pluralisation takes place at a kind of surface/everyday level, but there is a deeper human need lying as it were unactivated and unfulfilled beneath all this.  We may wait our entire lives for a symbol that corresponds to that deeper need for a hero, and it may never be answered for some people; but for others, when it happens, that deeper level gets activated and responds (how would we show this?)