Wannabe Heroes In A Post-Heroic World

Watching the carefully cultivated images of everyone from faux-tough-guy Chris Cuomo to the latest transgender activist, I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with “Doug,” an acquaintance in Hollywood. As we sat on the patio of a Mexican restaurant conversing on all subjects topical and political, he abruptly changed the focus by pointing to the television high on a wall which showed the most recent addition to the Los Angeles news reader community on one of the three major network affiliates.

On the screen was a strapping young man in his early thirties, broad-shouldered and square-jawed. Doug observed that this young, healthy specimen of virility seemed out of place reading the news. He pointed out that, in another time, an earlier time, one would expect to see a man with this physique working on a fishing boat, logging crew, or some other occupation requiring a strong back and an abundance of courage. Yet here he was, meticulously coifed, slathered in make-up, beaming health and goodness from the comfort of an air-conditioned studio a few blocks away.

At the time I did not understand Doug’s point. Clearly, this tele-journalist had every right to choose and pursue his profession based on his personal desires and abilities. Why should we expect him to choose a line of work that required strength and courage when he would prefer comfort and adoration? Should our expectations be based on preconceived notions of appearance? Could not a man be fully a man and still pursue a profession that required none of the virtues we associate with manliness? The answer is yes…to a degree.

The reason this decades-old discussion came to mind was a CNN broadcast showing an anchor, Chris Cuomo, lifting weights and flexing muscles. Watching him, I reconsidered what Doug had said more than 25 years ago. Why would a cable news reader post video of himself lifting weights and speaking as though he were a tough guy rather than what he really is, which is the ultimate son of privilege and Ivy League comfort? On the surface, the answer is that he posts these videos for the same reason tens of millions of Americans post videos of themselves on a daily basis: vanity and narcissism.

But scratch the surface and you find something much more significant happening. Cuomo could have satisfied those base emotions by showing his privilege with images of himself reclining poolside in the Hamptons or interviewing prospective au pairs. Instead, he wants the viewer to believe that he is masculine, a tough guy, a man who has made something of himself by doing the difficult and dangerous. But lifting weights is not the same as actually doing something difficult and dangerous.

Our lives have become performative. We manipulate others so they see us as we wish to see ourselves. Cuomo (and his brother Gov Andrew Cuomo, for that matter), know that they are not tough guys. They are the sons of a political machine. They never returned home from work bruised and broken, hands calloused and back stiff worried about being able to work the next day. They have never toiled under the hot sun or in the freezing cold to pay the rent and put shoes on their children’s feet. It is these things that make a man or woman tough.

It’s all performative, and we all do it to one degree or another. I have an acquaintance who, during the week, brokers commercial real estate. On weekends, when the weather is nice, he dons leather riding apparel and rides his Harley Davidson around the countryside.

I once asked him why he would buy a motorcycle with one of the lowest ratings in reliability and the highest in cost of ownership to which he replied that he liked it. I am reasonably certain it is not the motorcycle he likes. Rather, he enjoys the illusion that he is a tough guy when, in reality, he is a real estate broker. For Harley Davidson, it is branding genius.

Consider Bruce Springsteen, the blue-collar voice of a generation. He performed songs about the working men and women of the heartland while never working in the heartland. In fact, Springsteen’s image is a fraud, a façade erected for marketing purposes. And yet millions of people see him as the part he plays, the blue-collar saint of the downtrodden.

The performative aspect of this reaches deep into our culture and involves all of us. When the pandemic panic started my wife was furloughed from her job through which my family received medical insurance. I quit taking construction work and took a job at Target to be eligible for insurance. The pay was low, but we had to have a plan B for insurance.

One day, while stocking shelves and picking orders, I overheard a conversation between another employee and a manager. The worker asked the boss if he had seen the new Adidas on display in the sportswear section and if he was interested in buying a pair. The manager replied he saw himself more as “a Nike kind of guy.” He saw a brand of sportswear defining, at least partly, who he was and, by extension, how he wished others to see him.

Next time you visit Target or Dick’s Sporting Goods, or any other clothing retailer, notice how the store is arranged by brand, not by item. Then try to find a sweatshirt, shoes, or a jacket without branding emblazoned across its front, back, or sides. Everything is branded and we in turn are segregated by the brands. Brands have shifted from marks of quality to totems of identity.

Whether you are a newsreader, pop singer, or just a regular Joe/Jane, identity has become so plastic that anyone can pretend to be anything. A man can pretend to be a woman, a woman can pretend to be a man, and a cable channel son of softness and privilege can be a tough guy.

Chris Boland can be reached cboland7@outlook.com.