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'Heroes' and the Coming Out Narrative

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Wednesday, Jun 10, 2009

At first I was afraid/I was petrified


Claire Bennet can heal. Cut, stabbed, scrapped, slashed, electrocuted, diseased, burned, beaten and hurled from high places, the obstacles that this young heroine faces show us that she girl can always bounce back. The only other super-being like Claire in the TV series Heroes lived for centuries and manipulated a major conspiracy to take over the world. Yet, the super power to heal cannot mend the heart. Being different is her constant, imposed strain.


Save the Cheerleader, Save the World


An ongoing theme in Heroes calls ‘fate’ into question. Are we victims of fate, or, are we making history? The answer would seem as plain as the show itself: We manifest destiny. In other words, there are indeed several seasons of the show. The show must go on, and so in the Heroes world, we make history, both in the literal and proverbial sense.
  
By seizing opportunity and stepping up to the plate, by starting where we are, using what we have and doing what we can, we can all be heroes. This is another clear message of the show: Mutant or mortal, normal or not. Indeed, the Heroes narrative crosses that of X-Men and even Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four and X-men made a candid appearance.


As an ongoing series, we get to see the many faces of each character, and see the development of each individual from normal person to hero. Hence, we are shown many “coming out” narratives vis-à-vis friends, family, school, work and, importantly, coming out to the self.


In season one, the immortal hero, Claire, finds out about the Heroes world on the night she was to be killed. A man who the show ultimately reveals to be her paternal uncle saves her life. She is adopted, and in addition to not knowing her roots, her adopted folks actively isolate her from biological kin and friends alike. All this sounds like coming out in normal American families, just the sort that adopted the unlikely superhero.


Claire grew up in an average, middle-class-looking household, where people forget instead of forgive. Her dad even co-opts a big, black henchman who does all the dirty work and says little of his own intentions. Through three seasons, “The Haitian” never gets the luxury of a name: He’s just a stigma, yet the first of only few in the show to accept his own difference as divine; he’s Claire’s first ‘out’ mentor. He freely offers moral support, despite doing the dirty work of ‘The Company’. He’s a powerful n**ger on a leash awaiting the command: Sic ‘em!


Throughout the first season, Claire lives in a home where people keep secrets and never learn to rely on one another until severe crisis strikes. The father even erases his own wife’s and daughter’s memories in order to protect the façade of normalcy. The poor women’s health is ultimately so dilapidated that she faces collapse. And, in addition to her biological parents, the prejudice and secrecy at home leaves those adults to abandon Claire of care as well. And then there’s Claire the super heroine.


Come out, come out, wherever you are


Like the classic coming out narrative, Claire’s only real issue is feeling out of place, and being made to feel out of place by those who would normally express care, but are totally out of their league. Despite the violence and heroics of the show, it is the feeling of abnormality that regularly haunts the invincible girl.


Parents, teachers, friends and classmates consistently abandon her for being a freak. No one, including her own father, who not only had suspicions as most parents do, but grounded proof that Claire was special.


Yet, in Claire’s father’s silence and silencing left the young heroine to fend for herself. To drive the point home in season one, Claire’s best friend at school is gay, and makes poignant and ridiculously mature, ‘heroic’ statements about accepting people as they are. Claire’s gay best friend helps her make a video, proving to the world that she is not crazy. He helps her come out.


“You knew all this time,” she accuses her father, who readily dismisses the question. The show’s writers abandon the answer. “We can’t tell anybody,” the normal looking dad says. With blood on her face, he tells her that he’ll ‘handle’ anyone else who has found out, and orders her to destroy any evidence. Is this what parents do when they know?


How do responsible adults behave when they think that a child is queer? Silence? Secrecy? Stigma and labeling? These are the normal ways in which parents and educators deal with queer youth. Worse, fearing their own inability to judge character and threat, many parents and educators take the even greater step of sanitizing environments of anything queer, and going out of their way, like Claire’s father, to maintain an appearance of normality.


The Cost of Normality


This normality comes at the cost of many. The currency is violence through physical abuse and coercion. The reality is that most queer people are born and reared by vehemently heterosexual families, all of which gets reflected in schools and societies. Each Hero is born into normal families as far as they are concerned.


As adults, we regularly abandon kids when it comes to sex and sexuality. We relegate both sex and sexuality to gender, and then enforce and reinforce ‘normal’ gender roles even before birth. Normal boys and girls are given clothes in gender-appropriate colors. Adults buy toys appropriate to gender, teaching boys hierarchy, violence and domination, and girls skills of negotiation and care. It’s easy to feel abnormal in the face of this narrow idealized sense of normality.


Even more hypocritical, our society laments over why men are more apt at using their fists than words, both on the inter-personal and international level. Are we all awaiting a heroine or hero to save us from the apocalypse? Certainly, we are, as most of our sci-fi reveals that we are genuinely fascinated with our own eventual destruction; as if life were a series of Biblical style Revelations. The Earth can take care of itself, it is humanity which needs salvation- hence the litany of resurrection stories.


Rounding off the message, as in-school educators we bring the very same gender, race and class baggage, dealing this hot garbage out to our kids. Normally, though girls both outnumber and outperform boys in classrooms, as adults the story of success is different. Men normally out earn women as well as perform most of our physically risky jobs like construction, law enforcement, mining and drilling, sewage and the high stress of being the bread-winner.


Although we have been taught that men are privileged and woman are oppressed, this simplistic view ignores that we may all feel limited by our gender-appropriate roles. Girls and boys, women and men may all find ourselves silently complying with the status quo for fear of retaliation- violence, abuse and exclusion as forms of shaming. As this TV series aptly demonstrates, we use shaming or outright violence to discourage heroes and if anything prefer martyrdom as an impetus to change.


We normally reject the idea that we all have the capacity to be heroes. All of this is as normal as the witch-hunt for queer teachers happening in too many American schools right now. Gender, including sexuality, is a serious construction area for contemporary American pop culture. Who’ll be the Hero?


All this silencing and secrecy leads to shame, and this is the message that each young hero gets. Hence, a clear moral lesson of Heroes is that coming out is primarily an exercise of learning pride and power.

Tagged as: heroes
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