Time to be Heroes Again: What Media Teaches us (and We Teach It) About Our Values

I grew up loving my country. I loved the traditions, and the landscapes and the values: knowing that we were the “good guys.”

I loved that we, as a nation, would do the right thing, even if it was the harder thing. ’Cause we were the good guys!


And what was the right thing? Well…..to value people over money. To take care of the weak. To defend honesty and decency. To give everybody an equal chance.

You know, Luke 6:31.

The Golden Rule: treat others the way that you would want to be treated.

I didn’t just learn this lesson from my parents, or in church (though I certainly learned it there).

I also learned it from media: television and movies. I learned what our values were as a society based on the heroes and villains we invented, and how we then mirrored and mimicked those heroes.

The cultural studies scholar Henry Jenkins (along with others) argues that fans are not passive consumers of film, television, or games.

We are actively engaged in a dialogue with production entities who seek to give us what we want, at the same time that we learn from them new modes of behavior. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek visualized both new technologies for scientists to pursue and also new levels of diversity and respect to aspire to.

And then, when those lessons were learned and absorbed, fans demanded more, and newer, and better versions of the show. 

Communication, as fan studies reveals, is a two-way street. We learn some values, and also demand to see our values reflected in what we consume.

These values were very evident to me as a child of the eighties. There were clearly bad guys and good guys.

In every show, the bad guys were the ones who abused others. The ones who tortured people. Darth Vader, interrogating Princess Leia. The Nazis in the Concentration Camps. Biff was the bad guy in Back to the Future, because he was a bully, and when he got power, he only used it to enrich and glorify himself. So was Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life.  

The bad guys lied and cheated: the Soviets doped their fighter in Rocky III; the Cobra Kai swept the leg.

The good guys of the movies of my youth were the scrappy, poor, and middle class. They persevered like the Karate Kid or Rocky. They were the earnest, honest, hard-working farmers of Tatooine, managers of the building and loan, and the caddy at the Country Club. I understood my heroes (and heroines) as humble, and self-sacrificing, compassionate and strong: Wonder Woman hid behind the secret identity of secretary; Obi Wan sacrificed himself to save Luke. 

They were also flawed and fallible. And we were allowed to see them that way. Indiana Jones hurt everywhere (except that one elbow). The Greatest American Hero lost the instruction book to his suit.

I’d argue that this type of characterization has continued for some time. Pretty much every movie that James Cameron has ever made gives us a humble, scrappy, and earnest hero or heroine (Ripley, Jack, Jake Scully), confronting an evil, bullying, money-obsessed, dishonest rich man or organization. All of the highest grossing (and therefore arguably most popular) films in American history follow this dynamic: Star Wars, Titanic, Avatar, Gone with the Wind. Yes, we love Scarlett—not for the early petulance and privilege—but for the way she survives and makes do (and makes dresses out of curtains).  

Growing up, I learned that our strength as the good guys was something summarized by Bill Murray in Stripes:

“We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts! Here’s proof: his nose is cold! But there’s no animal that’s more faithful, that’s more loyal, more loveable than the mutt. ….But we’re American soldiers! We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re ten and one!”

I grew up proud of this. Proud to be an American. Proud to be a mutt (in my case a German/English mutt). And proud to be a Christian whose church stood on the golden rule and the belief that “to whom much is given, much is expected.

So now I’d like to call out to every other media consumer who learned these lessons with me. To fight bullying, self-obsessed, money-chasing leaders. Leaders who would propose a federal budget that actually cuts funding for feeding hungry senior citizens and undernourished children while spending millions of tax dollars on golf weekends for themselves.

In some ways we are faced with the archetypical villains of our media consciousness. The corporate executive cutting down the Home Tree of the Na’vi while practicing his putting. The landlord who owns the slums and refuses to give alms to the poor. The privileged poodle who inherited all his wealth and has never had to be anyone else’s employee.

I shuddered and gagged when we, as a nation, started torturing others. So did many of our military leaders, who fought to protect their honor. Let’s help them.

We are mutts. And we are strong. What’s more, we are not passive consumers of media or governmental power. We have the right and the power to stand up and demand a federal budget that does not starve the elderly to pay for fighter jets, and that does not fund school vouchers at the expense of children eating.

Remember: it may only take (the non-violent equivalent) of one scrappy hero in an X-wing fighter to find the flaw in the death star. Our strength need not be in our individual wealth or our physical brute force, but in our cold noses and warm hearts.

Scavenge like Ren, friends. Be agile like Marty McFly. Stay true to yourself like Rose. Lay low behind a shower curtain costume when necessary. Choose to do the right thing like Han. Let’s all do it together.



About Elizabeth Gackstetter Nichols

Dr. Elizabeth Gackstetter Nichols is a Professor of Spanish, Chair of the Languages Department at Drury and the Mom of a teenage girl. She researches beauty norms, beauty work and the representation of women and image in Latin America.

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