Official Heroes, Outlaw Heroes, and . . . Charlie Sheen!?

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One of my favorite readings in Signs of Life in the USA is Robert B. Ray’s “The Thematic Paradigm.” In this selection Ray discusses two types of American hero that we can find in both history and in fiction/popular culture. One is the “official hero”—someone like the historical George Washington or the fictional Mr. Smith of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”  (or, for that matter, George Bailey in “It's a Wonderful Life”:  James Stewart made a career out of playing such figures) who works for the good of society from within society. For the official hero, who can be a teacher, doctor, lawyer, politician, firefighter, police officer, and so on, society is governed by rules that all must follow. The other type is the “outlaw hero,” someone like Davy Crockett or the Lone Ranger who operates by his own moral code—there to help society but only on his own terms. It is a rather fun class exercise to identify which kind of hero any given popular cultural character happens to be. (Is Superman an official or an outlaw hero? It’s hard to tell.) But much more significant is the fact that at different times in our history one hero has held sway over the other, and a survey of the dominant hero type at any given time can tell a great deal about society’s consciousness and mood at the time. In the conformist and Cold War fifties, for example, official heroes like Eisenhower and Dick Tracy ruled, while in the rebellious sixties outlaw heroes took over. In fact, from the 1960s to the beginning of the new millennium, outlaw heroes absolutely overwhelmed official heroes in popularity—a reflection of the disastrous effects of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and other official scandals and betrayals. The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 brought official heroes like firefighters and policemen back into favor (just look at all the cop and rescue-themed television shows these days), but the appeal of the outlaw hero has been scarcely dimmed at a time when mistrust of official institutions (especially government institutions) is so high and widespread. So there are still plenty of outlaw heroes to be found in both fact and fiction (consider the current transformation from traditional (physician) official hero to outlaw hero in the person of Dr. Gregory House). Which brings me to Charlie Sheen.  His current popularity (attested to by sold-out appearances throughout the country in the wake of his firing by Warner Brothers, along with viral celebrations of his conduct and attitude) would seem to indicate that he has become a real-life outlaw hero of some kind. And, by doing things his own way and by his own code, he is, sort of. But there are outlaw heroes and there are outlaw heroes.  Abbie Hoffman, for example, was a real-life outlaw hero in the 1960s, standing for resistance to an Establishment that brought on the Vietnam War and a great deal of social inequality. And Hoffman paid the price for it. While Sheen is certainly standing up to an establishment, it can hardly be compared to what Hoffman defied. Sheen’s rebellion is personal—not the stuff of which social revolutions are made. And it is hardly being conducted for the good of society. His real message, as an L.A. Times headline put it recently, is "I’m Charlie Sheen and you’re not," which is to say that he is flaunting the fact that he is different from the rest of us, enjoying power, wealth, and privileges that only the upper classes can have. So, without getting into the details of Sheen’s behavior, my semiotic question is “what does it say about American consciousness today that someone like Charlie Sheen has become a culture hero?” In other words, what does he represent to the many Americans who are rooting for him? Is it the freedom to do whatever you like, no matter what the consequences? The ability to flaunt one’s individual freedom in the face of any sort of social standards? A great many cultural signifiers in evidence today suggest that the answer to both questions is “yes,” which signifies the emergence of an anarchically new kind of outlaw hero—one who no longer serves society on his own terms, but serves himself, in a society that is falling apart.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.