We ate our Christmas dinner at the Moss Beach Distillery, a restaurant on the Pacific coast just south of San Francisco that dates back to the early twentieth century, when it was known as Frank’s Place after its founder, Frank Torres, and was a significant location for liquor smuggling during Prohibition.
Frank’s Place was apparently the inspiration for the White Shack in Dashiell Hammett’s short story “The Girl With the Silver Eyes.” I remembered the story, but not the name, so I came home and looked it up. Jim, who has not spent as much of his life reading hard-boiled detective novels as I have, read it, and commented that neither the silver-eyed woman (the villain) nor the Continental Op (the hero) were very nice people.
And that got me to thinking about the classic male hero, of which Hammett’s Continental Op is a significant example along with his Sam Spade (in The Maltese Falcon) and Ned Beaumont (in The Glass Key). This hero is honest on his terms, out to get the bad guys one way or another, but will cheat to do it. And he’s a loner. Even the Op, who works for Continental, is a loner, and many of the other classic heroes are outside the system entirely.
Because the system is always corrupt. And the good guy is always the only person who challenges it. He’s a “means justify the ends” guy.
We’ve all grown up on these stories. More than a few action-adventure stories with women heroes use pieces of it. There’s certainly some of it in my novel The Weave. I know I started with the idea of a woman breaking the rules to do the right thing; I’ve modified the story somewhat — she has friends and works well with others — but there are a couple of places where it comes through.
I’m a sucker for these stories (I’ve read a lot of them), but I think it’s time to let them go. The lone hero is not how we protect ourselves from dangerous people or get rid of the crooks. In fact, if you read enough of these stories, you begin to notice that the hero never does anything about the corrupt system. He stands up to bad guys both inside and outside the law, but while he drags some folks to justice, nothing else changes, because that’s not how things change.
Change takes way more than one hero. In fact, to start with, it takes each of us recognizing our ability to be our own hero, to take care of ourselves and stand up for our family, our friends, our neighbors, others we see being harmed. To do that, we have to recognize that we have the ability and the courage to do that.
I come at this — no surprise here — from the point of view of empowerment self defense, of women recognizing their own power and using it.
But I’m also coming at it from the point of view of a lifetime in co-ops and from observing good social change groups. Working well with others is key to change. Right now I’m chewing over the ideas in this essay, in which the author suggests forming crews of five to eight people to work on projects, as part of a larger community. He also talks about developing a relationship with oneself, and having a “dyad” – a partnership with someone else, an adult relationship though not necessarily a love one.
We need more stories about the group that did something, the people who supported the hero, who laid the groundwork. You can still have a hero, a focus for the story, a leader. It’s just that it should be clear that person didn’t do it all alone.
Or, as my empowerment self defense teacher Yudit Sidikman put it the other day, “Behind every great woman there’s probably a bunch of other great women.” I’m thinking of some good organizations I know about that were started and inspired by powerful and charismatic women, but that also include a lot of other effective people. They’re making things happen.
I’m working on a novel that is built on this idea. It takes place over hundreds of years, so it of necessity has more than one hero. But the community that develops will be the real hero. Some individuals will do powerful things at various points to make things happen, but even they don’t do them on their own.
Huh. I started writing fiction because I couldn’t find the stories I wanted to read. I guess I’m still doing that.