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.
Take a look at the offerings of “reality programs” that have become popular in the last decade. Young men and women, showing off physiques honed at the gym, climb, propel, dive, dangle, and devour in displays of derring-do. They, however, are not larger-than-life inspirations for little boys’ fantasies, but are peers in McMansions next door. This is democratic heroism; it’s based on the assumption that all have access to the gym, pool, and gymnastics lessons.
The “challenges” that are presented rarely go beyond the skill or physical ability of the young person who has had the opportunity to hone his healthy body. Sometimes the challenge is to touch and eat squishy, squirmy things blindfolded (but always scantily clad and with an even tan). Even dating shows offer challenges of a not-too-subtle physical demonstration of crude foreplay.
The prevailing attitude among the young who can afford the regimens for such beauty and pumping up is cynicism and lack of admiration or acknowledgement of anyone or anything better than themselves. Young women pose unashamedly in bikinis, mistaking this for daring. But, to them, to condemn such display is to engage in judgmentalism, the closest they have been exposed to the idea of sin or wrong. Bonds formed by such “acceptance” produce the fake sense of camaraderie we see on these television shows. These young people display an upper-class, artificial concept of equality; they strive to overcome superficial fears and physical challenges. We have the narcissistic heroism of the pouting James Dean or the man surviving in the wild with a camera crew.
How different from the Greatest Generation, young men who had experienced Depression years, who lived in a time when it was expected that adults would care for their aging parents and would wait until marriage for cohabitation. The iconic image of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima involved brothers in arms. This image of heroism was symbolic of life sacrificed and suffering withstood for a larger good, for the country of their families.
But today’s iconic hero—the one who fills our airwaves—is the young man with sculpted muscles and gelled hair, who has practiced his expressions in front of a mirror. Of course, we still have the real heroes, our soldiers. But they get little media attention or acknowledgement of their heroism. What icon greets the little boy turning on the television or opening a book his teacher has recommended? In the book, the hero will likely be a girl. On television, the boy will see a cynical and self-glorifying young man rappelling off a cliff, smearing something on a nubile woman’s body, or eating worms.