Evel Knievel, the stuntman daredevil who died on December 1, left a legacy that goes beyond his inspiration to countless little boys on banana-seat bicycles as they took running starts up boards set up as ramps against cinder blocks. In his heyday, the 1970s, a sense of moral defeatism about the Vietnam War pervaded the airwaves. The only victories allowed men in those days of the sexual revolution were of sexual conquest by no conquest. Evel Knievel became a media symbol of the only form of machismo still allowed: encounters with danger to no other end than to prove personal ability. I still remember the shouts of Evel’s name by my younger neighbor, while his older brothers were off smoking joints.
No doubt many other younger baby boomers will see the passing of Evel in the same way I now view the commercials that include Chatty Cathy dolls, as not only evidence of our aging, but of a passing of a less anxiety-ridden era.
But Evel, I think, represented something new in our idea of machismo. As an icon of the ‘Me’ seventies, he represented the narcissistic turn heroism had taken.
Certainly, for little boys, like my next-door-neighbor, there were few role models or media images of the old-fashioned hero. The hippies and the sexual revolutionists had done a good job of demolishing the image of their fathers, men who had fought in World War II. They were presented as ‘squares.’
The rebel without a cause, the narcissistic whiner about parents’ lack of understanding, as the movie by the name reveals, became the role model. One only need look at the poster boy, James Dean, to notice the difference in the philosophy between him and the man in uniform fighting for his country and fellow soldiers. If the rebel had any allegiances it was to a gang of outlaws who were united only by their animus toward all that they deemed square: their parents, their teachers, their country.
Although, Evel Knievel aged, suffered ailments (some from his injuries), and retired from the stunt circuit, his legacy lives on.
His legacy is the devaluation of heroism, not only in purpose (to demonstrate bravery only for the glory of oneself), but also in content. Today, everyone is a hero.
This is a notion accepted by the young if the shows on television (especially on MTV and VHR) that appeal to teenagers and young adults are any indication. The idea that everyone is a hero certainly is the mantra of our schools; it comes through in the curriculum and class discussions.
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