General George Custer and Why Movies are Important

Custer_PortraitBy J. A. Schultz

Movies aren’t history.

That goes almost without saying. Very different skills are needed between recording something for posterity and bringing a rousing tale to the screen. And as such what is shown to an audience should always be taken with a grain of salt. Facts can be altered for the cause of entertainment. Events can change, sometimes beyond recognition, for the sake of the plot.

However, movies should not be dismissed completely out of hand. For while they are not an accurate recording of history they are in fact preserved moments in time. What film and television record are how people (the writers and the audience they were made for) perceived the world around them. What made the hero? What made the villain?

A good example of the intersection of fact and fiction is the life of General George Armstrong Custer.

The Custer of history, the man of flesh and blood, is best known for the worst day of his life: the Battle of Little Big Horn when the 7th Cavalry met the united tribes of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne. Custer and his regiment would not survive but odd, at times nearly unrecognizable, doppelgangers would be born from that moment of time. Doppelgangers that continue to exist to this day.

The first of those fictional creations actually occurred within a few short years after the battle, though not yet on film. “Buffalo” Bill Cody incorporated thecusterslaststand event in his wild west show, that for a while even starred Custer’s lifetime nemesis, Chief Sitting Bull. The show portrayed what would become the familiar tale of Custer: the noble warrior valiantly fighting a hopeless battle against impossible odds.

It wasn’t long before the story told before a live audience found its way to the burgeoning medium of film. Custer the hero would make his way into films like The Santa Fe Trail (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), 7th Cavalry (1956), and much later in TV series like Cheyenne (Season 4 episodes “Gold, Glory, and Custer”). The man standing on the hill, surrounded by enemies and betrayed by allies, making his last stand. It would become the version of Custer that most people would become familiar with, whether they agreed with it or not.

Yet oddly this wouldn’t be the only doppelganger to come to life in the realm of the screen.

The first embryonic version of a less noble Custer came in the form of Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday in the 1948 film Fort Apache. While not actually playing Custer, actor Henry Fonda portrays a character whose overconfidence and arrogance eventually leads his command into a massacre very much like that of Little Big Horn. But the full iteration of this new Custer would come in later films like Little Big Man (1970), The French/Italian farce Don’t Touch the White Woman! (1974), the alternately-historical The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1977), and A Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian (2009). Custer was now a bumbling fool at best or a murderously insane madman at worst. The nadir of this version of Custer came in the 1990s TV series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman where Custer was a brutal sadist who was a threat to friend and enemy alike. Custer the Hero still exists but now he has to share space with Custer the Villain and Custer the Buffoon.

Yet these doppelgangers — the noble hero and the bumbling killer — actually say more about us, the writers and the audience, than the real man. In the time since Little Big Horn society has changed. Attitudes towards Native Americans, tastes in entertainment, and the Custer2tendency to deconstruct heroes rather than build them all conspire to change how we view historical figures. It’s no longer popular to portray a General of an aggressive, expanding power — as the United States was in the 1800s — as a heroic figure (and even that sentence alone could likely cause heated debate).

And this is why movies and television are important when it comes to understanding heroes. They are our collective unconscious where our dreams and fears are given form. Our concepts of morality and nobility are played out. Frozen moments, like insects trapped in amber, that tell us what the world was like when they were made. They tell us what was important to those making them whether we agree with them or not. Modern sensibilities cannot alter them. Films and television may be suppressed, “re-imagined”, or edited but something of the tales will remain. We may not always like what we see in these shadows on screen but it is important that we see them for what they are and learn from them.

And maybe be aware of what we’re leaving behind, for today’s on-screen heroes can become tomorrow’s villains.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, is looking forward to seeing the fictionalized versions of his life.

The Grinch: A Villain Makes a Hero’s Journey

tumblr_lwoa32M1pW1qcyr71By Suzanne Lucero

Around this time of year a person might find his or her thoughts turning to a well-known literary character whose ultimate redemption holds hope for even the most hard-hearted of individuals.

I am speaking, of course, of the Grinch.

In the first sentence of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (by Dr. Seuss), we are introduced to the villain of the piece.

Every Who

Down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot …

But the Grinch,

Who lived just north of Who-ville,

Did NOT.

That’s terrible, we think. Who doesn’t like Christmas? A few sentences later, though, we are given the probable reason for the Grinch’s dislike. His heart, you see, is two sizes too small. Suddenly, the Grinch is a tiny bit sympathetic, and we sort-of understand when he declares,

“Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!

“I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!

… But, HOW?”’

This is the inciting incident. The Grinch thinks Christmas means noisy toys and feasting and singing, so how does he stop all this from happening? The Grinch comes up with a plan, a “great, grinchy trick,” and puts it into action. In other words, his journey begins.

He begins by making a Santa Clause hat and coat. (He foregoes the snowy-white beard, though. Maybe it itches.) Then he decides grinch+with+doghe needs a reindeer to complete his St. Nick impersonation. For this he enlists his tiny dog, Max. The Grinch ties a horn on top of Max’s head, thereby changing the dog from a mere pet to a minion: Max will be aiding the Grinch by pulling his sled.

The plan starts well. The Grinch has Max pull the sled into Who-ville and proceeds to steal everything from the first house he sees. The only obstacle that presents itself to the Grinch comes in the shape of a child who has woken up to get a glass of water. When she asks why he is taking the Christmas tree, he placates her with a lie and sends her back to bed. The Grinch continues to ransack the village until all the presents, all the decorations, and all the food for the feast is packed into bags, loaded precariously on the sled, and pulled:

Three thousand feet up! Up the side of Mt. Crumpet,

He rode with his load to the tiptop to dump it.

(You’ve really got to be feeling sorry for Max at this point.)

The Grinch gloats. He’s won! Christmas can’t come, now. Everything is gone and the Whos will all be crying. He pauses to savor his victory and puts his hand to his ear to listen.

And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.

It started in low. Then it started to grow…

But the sound wasn’t sad!

Why, this sound sounded merry!

It couldn’t be so!

But it WAS merry! VERY!

In the hero’s journey, there comes a point where he or she must “enter the cave.” This is the ultimate low point in the story. The hero is alone, either physically or emotionally. Everything he or she has been working for is crumbling and the antagonist has triumphed; the hero is, actually or metaphorically, dead.

This is the Grinch’s cave. This is where he realizes he’s failed.

 He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming.

IT CAME!

Somehow or other, it came just the same.

But How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a hero’s journey, not a morality tale. For all villains, unless they are true psychopaths (which is a medical condition), the cave offers a final chance to redeem themselves. When their defenses have been beaten and they are no longer fighting but only trying to understand why they failed, their hearts can be touched with a little thing called grace.

Then the Grinch though of something he hadn’t before!

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

“Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”

That was the elixir the Grinch found in his cave, the piece of him that was missing. He realized that material things don’t bring happiness. Simply being together with those we love is reason enough to sing.

the_grinch_cut_the_first_roast_beast_by_rhetoric_of_sushi-d4jyzdfAnd what happened then …?

Well … in Who-ville they say

That the Grinch’s small heart

Grew three sizes that day.

With this new understanding and (we hope) love in his heart, the Grinch completes his hero’s journey by returning everything he has taken from the Whos and sharing in their celebratory feast.

Merry Christmas everyone.

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Suzanne Lucero is a wife, mother, and pre-published author who knows a little about a lot of things and is constantly learning more. She is passionate about writing and is determined to publish her novel-in-progress within 5 years.

 

 

Clarice Starling as a Prototypical Hero

By Paige Delsa

Amongst the countless heroes who’ve graced the silver screen, few have had both the charisma and ability to captivate an audience like FBI trainee Clarice Starling. Aided by the imprisoned, cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Jon Demme’s psychological thriller Silence of the Lambs explores in gripping detail Starling’s attempts to capture serial killer Buffalo Bill.

Starling exceptionally displays her prowess as a hero, guided by Lecter, and establishes herself as a prototype for not only FBI agents to aspire to, but also other film protagonists. Starling is immediately presented as an underdog of sorts, operating as both a student and a woman in the male-dominated FBI. This status as an underdog does little to limit her desire to succeed and overcome her past trauma. If anything, this status amplifies her exceptional actions.

As a trainee, Starling perpetually exists in a vulnerable state due to her inexperience and lack of agency. Starling, after being approached by FBI Agent Jack Crawford, attempts to receive Lecter’s help in profiling Buffalo Bill, another prolific serial killer. Though just a trainee, she manages to impress the psychopathic, highly intelligent Lecter with her honesty and strength despite her discomfort around the now disgraced psychiatrist.

We see the first glimpse of Starling’s heroic capabilities in her interaction with Lecter; the courage and selflessness it took to honestly engage with the amoral man would again appear in her confrontation with Buffalo Bill. Starling’s actions apprehending Buffalo Bill display exceptionality in both the courage and the general selflessness involved in resolving the precarious situation. Completing an action that is not only morally good but also exceptional is one of the core tenets of heroism.

After accidentally identifying Jame Gumb as Buffalo Bill, even before her amply resourced colleagues at the FBI, she engages in a heated confrontation with both her life and the life of the girl hidden at the bottom of Gumb’s basement on the line. In only a few short minutes, Starling displays immediately recognizable attributes of heroism, namely intelligence, strength, shrewdness, resilience, courage, and selflessness.

It would be in gross neglect to delve into Starling’s heroic performance without mentioning her foil, the distinguished Hannibal Lecter. The characters’ existences are inextricably linked to one another. Lecter, more so than Buffalo Bill, acted as a cultivator and amplifier of Starling’s heroic capabilities by provoking one of the most recognizable and crucial elements of heroism: transformation.

When she first appears before Lecter, Starling was no more than a scared little girl wearing the guise of a full-grown woman. Her traumas haunted her waking hours and nightmares, motivating her to succeed in law enforcement, but leaving her with a perpetual uncertainty in herself. With his pointed questions into her macabre childhood, Lecter strips away Starling’s protective exterior and forces her to confront the traumas of her youth.

In finding and killing Gumb, Starling resolves the primary conflict of the film and fully actualizes her status as a hero. Without Lecter, Starling wouldn’t have transformed into a fully fleshed hero, capable of successfully hunting Buffalo Bill and addressing her traumas. It’s tempting to think the best or most heroic characters are perfect in their strength, intelligence, beauty, ability to lead, and any other traits commonly associated with heroes.

Clarice Starling is not perfect. She is scared. She is traumatized. She is weaker physically than Jame Gumb and lacks Hannibal Lecter’s sharp wit. But these traits, these imperfections do not take away Starling’s status as a hero. Rather, they elevate her to the upper echelon of cinematic heroes. Her imperfections make her accomplishments all the more extraordinary and let the audience engage deeply with her. She is like us. She is imperfect and pained but capable of great strength.

Bringing down Gumb and enticing Lecter to assist her manhunt displayed the elements of courage and morality fundamentally necessary to distinguish oneself as a hero. Starling has transcended the mere classification of protagonist, proving she deserves to be called “hero.”

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Paige Delsa is an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond.  She is enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes & Villains course and composed this essay as part of her course requirement

Ashton Kutcher: One of Hollywood’s Heroes

By Brooke Gibson

Hollywood has facilitated a plethora of cultural influences over the past century. America places high earning actors/actresses on a social pedestal where they are often respected for their work strictly in the industry. These entertainers, often with net worth trending into the millions, use their platforms to broadcast personal beliefs and debut their successes. This is because the media allows this opportunity to be taken. Of course, people in the spotlight want as many supporters as possible to benefit their fanbase; however, does this mean their actions are authentic?

For some of Hollywood’s stars, philanthropic actions may be genuine. Foundations, organizations, and other institutions are often begun for the greater good of society. These stars have the ability to make this happen. One star in particular, Ashton Kutcher, has taken time to work outside of Hollywood’s light to advocate for a social injustice he is passionate about.

Ashton Kutcher is a happy-go-lucky actor with a handful of notable roles, one being Michael Kelso in “That 70’s Show”. Kutcher’s character is a funny, “bad-boy” who pokes fun at many other characters throughout the series. In real life, he is married to his “That 70’s Show” costar Mila Kunis. I consider this to be somewhat heroic because historically Hollywood couples are not able to facilitate a successful marriage in the spotlight; however, this is not why I think he is one of Hollywood’s heroes. I believe that his work to combat the sexual exploitation of girls globally is one of the most noble and selfless actions Hollywood has seen.

In 2012, Kutcher (along with other American actress Demi Moore) co-founded the organization “Thorn” which has been working to develop and perfect technology to identify victims of trafficking. Their goal is to locate and prevent child victims of sexual exploitation while simultaneously educating the public on this global issue. One may wonder, what makes this action so heroic and worthy of attention? Well, one reason is that Kutcher simply does NOT receive attention for this. He does all of his work voluntarily outside of the Hollywood spotlight, making this contribution to society truly genuine and selfless. Kutcher did not start this organization to benefit his own platform, but for the benefit of children globally.

Some people consider heroes to be “risk takers”. In this case, I do believe that Kutcher has taken many risks and sacrifices to be a part of this program. He has taken the time to fund this technology (which was offered to law enforcement for free, meaning there was no personal gain), testify in courts, and balance his family and career life. This level of personal sacrifice is something that I believe to be incredibly heroic.

The transparency of Kutcher in this project is another trait I believe qualifies Kutcher as a hero. While he clearly advocates for the eradication of child trafficking, he does not pride himself on his success so far and is continuing to work to combat this issue. When one types “Ashton Kutcher” into a search engine, his filmography, family life, and social media is presented. He does not try to let the whole world know what he is doing so they are on his side. He avoids the press in order to prevent the abuse of his power as a star in Hollywood, which is not something other colleagues have followed.

Ashton Kutcher can be considered a hero inside and out of Hollywood’s spotlight. His voluntary and selfless actions as a celebrity are made for the exceptional good of society are incredibly heroic. Thorn aims to find the solution to eradicate all child sex trafficking and has saved numerous amounts of children with its technology. Stars in Hollywood should aim to follow in the footsteps of celebrities like Ashton Kutcher who aim to make a difference not only in America’s entertainment industry, but globally.

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Brooke Gibson is an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond.  She is enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes & Villains course and composed this essay as part of her course requirement

Heroism Science: The Field, the Journal, the Conference

By Scott T. Allison

Although the field of heroism science is roughly two decades old, many people still wonder what the science is, and what it seeks to accomplish.

So here’s a brief description:

Since the year 2000, roughly, there has been a new (or renewed) scientific interest in topics such as morality, cooperation, altruism, wisdom, meaning, purpose, resilience, hope, flow, human growth, courage, empathy, spirituality, health, public service, self-control, emotional intelligence, and character strengths. The past decade especially has witnessed a surge in research on exceptional individuals who best exemplify these positive qualities: heroes and heroic leaders.

Heroism science is a multiple disciplinary field which seeks to understand heroism, the hero’s journey and heroic leadership through three lenses. First, scholars seek to understand the origins of heroism. Second, they aim to identify the many different types of heroism. Third, they seek to illuminate the many processes associated with heroism. These processes can be biological, psychological, sociocultural, and more.

Heroism scientists use of a mix of traditional and new approaches in a wide variety of settings — pedagogy, crisis management, healthcare, counseling, workforce, community development, popular media, online activism, human rights, international relations, digital humanities, to name a few. Heroism science is part of a broader movement that aims to foster holistic well-being, promote heroic awareness and action, civic responsibility and engagement, and build resilient individuals and communities.

As Editor of the field’s flagship journal, Heroism Science, I’m happy to report that the growing multidiscipline of heroism science is doing quite well.

The journal has published dozens of articles authored by the top scholars in the field. In the past two years, there have been over 25,000 downloads of articles published in the journal.  In addition, three special issues in the journal have enjoyed great success. The latest, our special issue on whistleblowers as heroes, has just gotten off the ground and is proving to be especially interesting.

Here are the stated aims of the journal:

Heroism Science is a peer-reviewed open source research journal that aims to advance heroism science theory, research, and application from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives to researchers and the broader community. Contributions from all disciplines are welcome, and cross-disciplinary work, student contributions, non-Western perspectives, and approaches that address racial, ethnic and gender disparities and issues are especially welcome. Heroism Science is the official journal of the Heroic Imagination Project.

I am especially grateful to our Associate Editor, Elaine Kinsella, and to our Production Editor, Smaragda Spyrou. We’d be in dire straights without the contributions of these two outstanding colleagues.

Elaine, in particular, is to be commended for successfully co-hosting (with Eric Igou) the latest biennial Heroism Science conference. The meeting was intended to be in Ireland in 2020, but with the pandemic Elaine and Eric had to postpone until 2021. They wisely decided to make the conference a virtual one, and the entire event was a rousing triumph.

The next heroism science conference will be hosted by Peter Bray in New Zealand in 2023.

Heroism scientists have recently started a Listserve that communicates the latest activities in the field and allows for an open discussion of topics of interest to devotees of heroes and heroism. If you’d like to be included in this Listserve, please contact Golan Shahar at Ben-Gurion University.

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Cognitive Biases That Can Undermine Good Leadership

By Scott T. Allison

People are known to distort reality and show bias in their judgments in systematic ways. Leaders themselves are all-too human in demonstrating these cognitive biases.  Steven J. Stroessner and Brett N. Hu at Barnard College have recently written about these biases in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies, co-edited by George R. Goethals, Scott T. Allison, and Georgia J. Sorenson, which will be published in 2023.

According to Stroessner and Hu, there are three classes of cognitive biases that leadership must be especially careful in navigating. These biases are: (1) conservative biases; (2) information processing biases; and (3) egocentric biases.

1. Conservative Biases

Write Stroessner and Hu: “People tend to be excessively conservative regarding information processing, regularly forming premature conclusions, holding them too firmly given new information, and defending them even when they are no longer tenable given changing conditions. Therefore, leaders regularly demonstrate a status quo bias, a preference to maintain current states.”

One tragic example is when political leaders justify the continuation of a war based on the number of lives already lost rather than on the prospects for a successful outcome. In the early 1970s, the US remained in the Vietnam conflict despite knowing that the war was unwinnable. Leaders’ excuse at the time was that “honor” needed to preserved.

Leaders also show a confirmatory bias, looking for information that confirms their opinions while simultaneously ignoring contradictory information. Confirmatory bias at a group level can lead to groupthink, a diseased form of group decision making in which group members suppress arguments that challenge a leader’s expressed preference.

2. Information Processing Biases

Leaders must gather information to make decisions, and at times leaders are over-reliant on simple rules of thumb called heuristics. The availability heuristic involves the ease with which information can be accessed from memory. For example, people tend to erroneously judge that dying from a tornado is more common than dying from stomach cancer. More people die from the latter but media coverage focuses on the former.

The representativeness heuristic refers to an over-reliance on the similarity of an event to a typical instance of that event. For example, people erroneously believe that six coin-tosses heads-tails-tails-heads-tails-heads are more “random” than six tosses of heads-heads-heads-tails-tails-tails.

A leader’s judgments can also be biased by how a problem is framed. Psychologists have found that the pain associated with loss is greater than the pleasure associated with gain. Thus, a decision problem framed as a loss will lead to different judgments — often a more conservative judgment — than the same problem framed as a gain.

3. Egocentric Biases

The egocentric bias refers the tendency to view oneself or one’s group as superior to others.

The false consensus bias leads people to think that their own preferences and views are widely shared. When this bias is challenged by people expressing opposing views, they tend to be criticized or dismissed.

The self-serving bias refers to the tendency of people to view themselves in a favorable light, exaggerating positive attributes and minimizing negative ones. For example, people view themselves as more moral and competent than others. This bias explains the all too common tendency of leaders to take responsibility for successes but avoid blame for failures.

Ingroup biases involve the belief that one’s own group is better than other groups. While ingroup bias can facilitate ingroup cohesion and self-esteem within the group, it leads to prejudice and discrimination directed toward outgroup members.

The more leaders are made aware of these biases, the better their decision making can be. Awareness does not always eliminate cognitive biases, but they can reduce them. Here is the reference/citation for the encyclopedia:

Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., & Sorenson, G. J. (Eds.) (2023). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

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