The Hero Within: How the Events of September 11 Changed Our Ideas About Heroes and Masculinity

We all remember where we were that day.

Ten years ago, I was editor of a Minneapolis magazine. At the first news bulletin, my staff gathered in my office around a television with bad reception, where we sat for hours watching grainy images and tried to comprehend how we should react as journalists, as Americans, and as human beings.

The cultural and personal devastation of the events of 9/11 became etched in the minds and hearts of all of us—not just firefighters, not just New Yorkers, not just Americans. The entire world was affected and bore witness. Suddenly one Tuesday morning, the way we thought of ourselves and each other shifted and there was a new order of things.

We struggled then to comprehend the incomprehensible and to make sense of senseless tragedy. We struggle still. The events of 9/11 put into motion thousands of cultural ripples and waves, evolutions and fractures, forces and reactions—all rich resources for understanding ourselves and the world we live in more completely and compassionately. Exploring what happened and how we and others reacted to it may help us decipher who we are as people, what we can expect of ourselves in times of trauma and great stress, and what we might become for ourselves and each other.

The lost labor of women rescuers of 9/11: “Let’s boil!” v. “Let’s roll!”

After the initial shock of 9/11, media scholars began to sift through coverage and note how newspapers, magazines, and television depicted the events: men were represented as heroes and women were represented as passive observers or were entirely absent. I wondered if photos of women actively involved in heroic labor existed and went in search of other, less public images of 9/11.

Working with graduate student Brittany Husted, I first surveyed images of 9/11 in major national magazines and newspapers. We found images of men digging through rubble, raising the flag, directing rescue efforts. We found images of women mourning at vigils or hugging each other. Then, we looked for images of 9/11 that were not presented in mainstream media. Our sources were an art gallery that collected images taken by survivors and witnesses, as well as two collections of photographs taken by New York police officers. We found that many of these images were quite different from the ones we all remember seeing in mainstream media. We found images of male and female rescuers working side-by-side, women helping each other breath through the dust, women administrators giving orders, and women firefighters digging through the debris with their search-and-rescue dogs.

Our third step was to look for stories of female heroes. We found them. Three women rescue workers were killed that day. Six women first responders earned the National Liberty Museum Police and Firefighters Award of Valor. And then there was Sandra Bradshaw and the other women of United Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Much media coverage focused on the group of passengers—repeatedly referred to as “tall, athletic men”—who apparently rushed the cockpit to take back control of the plane. The story of passenger Todd Beamer who said “Let’s roll!” is well-known. But what is less known is the story of Bradshaw, who phoned in identification of three hijackers and boiled water at the back of the plane to use on the captors.

Not seeing the women who were heroes in 9/11 is an important absence for all of us. Such images show us that sometimes men need saving and sometimes women are rescuers. And, they give women something men have long had: heroes to look up to.

The new television heroes: Changes in television masculinity since 9/11

Not so many years ago, television heroes—The Rifleman, Dragnet, Ben Casey, Adam-12, Marcus Welby, M.D.—were nearly perfect. They knew right from wrong, caught the bad guys, said wise things to their children, and saved the world without a single self-doubt. But it seemed to me that a distinctive new television hero seemed to be emerging from the ashes of 9/11. He appears in male-centered television dramas such as The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Boston Legal, Dexter, and Mad Men.

Post 9/11 television heroes are not lone drifters on the Western frontier, as were the cowboy heroes in 1950s and 1960s television. They are not surgically altered with bionics to be six million dollar men or dwell in fantasy space ships, as did the sci-fi heroes of 1970s and 1980s television. Although they save people from fires, solve crimes, and make brilliant diagnoses in the nick of time, they are not superheroes. They struggle to pay the rent and buy the groceries. They have money woes, wives who annoy them, and children who misbehave. They are disappointing husbands, straying lovers, fumbling parents, and struggling addicts.

Why did this new type of new hero appear when it did, and what might this mean? The events of 9/11 and how America has redrawn its ideas of heroism since then may have something to do with it.

Although many heroic moments no doubt occurred during 9/11 and were likely performed by professional rescuers and office workers alike, in truth, very few people were actually rescued that day. The Towers fell too fast, the firefighters died too quickly. Most survivors rescued themselves by walking out on their own two feet. Faulty radio equipment, bad communication between rescue organizations, and the improbable nature of the disaster combined to doom rescue workers to death before they could do their work. In fact, it was the rescuers themselves who required rescue—and did not receive it.

The enemy on 9/11 could not be identified or repelled; U.S. soil could not be effectively defended. The uniformed force on the ground standing in for the military—firefighters, police, port authority officers—were killed along with civilians. In this environment, the nation made space for flawed and uncertain heroes, heroes who are imperfect, heroes who do not always succeed, and venerated the attempts at greatness made by mere mortals.

The characters in post-9/11 male-centered television dramas openly acknowledge the instability and uneven terrain of both masculinity and national security. The perfect, infallible hero is gone. In the post-9/11 world, he cannot save anyone. The new, flawed heroes need liberation and salvation as much as they promise to deliver it.

The legacy of 9/11

Of course there are many legacies of 9/11. My work is about just one legacy that I see reflected in certain media representations. The images we see on television and the images we do not see in media, such as photographs of female rescuers, have something to tell us. They reveal our assumptions about who and what is heroic. We can challenge those assumptions. Of course women can be feisty and brave. Of course flawed humans can be compassionate and tender and contribute something of value that the rest of us need. The classic Greek hero was an imperfect human who achieved moments—but not a complete lifetime—of greatness. Being a hero may not be as much a full-time occupation as a full-time awareness of our potential to be, at any given moment, someone’s rescuer, in ways large and small. Living an ordinary life with grace and insight can be a hero’s work, too.

 

This article first appeared in Marquette magazine in November 2011. See the article here.

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