Millennial Generation Hero Interview with Daniel Debowy, M.D., Ph.D.

On July 23, 2009, I attended the “Comics Arts Conference Session #5: Fan Power” at Comic Con San Diego. I was attracted to the words “fan power,” thinking it might be about squeeing fangirls and glowering fanboys, and wound up with more to think about than I’d anticipated. This interview is the product of my ruminations on Dr. Debowy’s talk and the questions I either didn’t think of or was unable to ask at the panel.

Ginger Mayerson: If I understood your talk at Comic Con, the millennial generation hero wins by not engaging in the competition and sacrificing himself. The way our society in the U.S. is now, how would new leaders emerge based on this new myth?

Daniel Debowy: The key here is that the millenial generation hero competes, but avoids traditional conflict with the prior generation. This is not to say that the values of the prior generation go unchallenged. In fact, it is precisely by avoiding conflict on the prior generation’s terms that the Millenial Hero advances real change. This can sometimes be by avoiding a fight, as Peter Petrelli does on Heroes, when he refuses to take sides between his older brother and his father. Or it can be by fighting back in a novel fashion, as Peter does when he assists an “underground railroad” for fellow super-humans in response to his brother initiating mass arrests and detentions. At Comic-Con, I highlighted the most striking novel form of protest in the Millenial hero, sacrificing self and/or power. This is what Luke Skywalker does at the climax of the Return of the Jedi. It is what another protagonist on Heroes, Hiro Nakamura, does at numerous points in the series. This is not the same as giving up the quest, so self-sacrifice can only occur if the hero is already an inspiration to others, and heroic action continues after the hero has given up his/her powers.

New leaders might occur in the real world, using such mythic themes, by inspiring others to carry on the torch even if they are killed, and then continuing to campaign for their cause despite losses or risk to self. This dynamic did not just start in the last 30 years, but it could become more prominent, even within leadership roles that have traditionally been unitary sources of supreme power, such as presidencies, super-celebrities, and military leaders.

GM: The question that I was too cowardly to ask at your presentation and the first question everyone I talk to about your presentation asks is: How and where does Barack Obama fit into the millennial generation hero mythology? Or does he?

DD: I think that before I answer that, I should clarify that what our fictional heroes inspire us to do is somewhat separate from real world inspirations. Real living leaders use mythic themes to tap into a zeitgeist, but they can never act completely within the mythic framework. All realities fall short of the fantasy, which is one of those things that even Jung and Freud could agree upon.

Obama is a bit of a cross-roads figure. He has pop sociologists talking about Generation Jones, which somehow exists between the Baby Boom and Gen X, and seems to consist of everyone born on the same day as Barack Obama. In all seriousness, he manages to unify many Americans from various generations in a way that hasn’t been seen since GenX first started to become politically active in the mid 1980s. He does this partially by fulfilling needs for Oedipal mythos as well as transcending them. He is the fatherless child, who is attempting to succeed in reforming and revitalizing his homeland in a way that his own father failed to do in his. In this sense, it is no coincidence that he has referred jokingly to the Superman myth on more than one occasion, as the emotional resonance of his own life story is the same as the one in the original story of Kal-El (Superman) and his father Jor-El. As an aside, this might be one reason that the pernicious rumor that Obama is not “really from here” persists, because the mythic trope Obama utilizes taps into the flight from someplace foreign (Krypton); intriguingly enough, within the Superman mythos, this same allegation is actually utilized by the hero’s nemesis (Lex Luthor) to rally support against him on several occasions. As a traditional heroic figure, Obama comes forward as the singular righter of wrongs, meant to save us from the brink and to save us from ourselves. In this way, he is much like all other Presidents.

However, Obama is also the Community Organizer as President. He relies on appeals to the strength of his supporters, even as executive. He presents his point of view, but then announces that it is up to Congress to do the work. Given great power by his predecessor, he deliberately makes public show of the elimination of these powers as part of the repair of the nation. We see evidence of this when he retains some of the Bush era powers, or fails to eliminate them rapidly; many on the Left are upset, but particularly those under the age of 45. Also witness that older liberals are much more likely to be calling for Obama to utilize restrictive measures, such as the full force of the Patriot Act or The Fairness Doctrine, to deal with political opposition. I suspect that many younger supporters of the President would react to such steps as I would, as a betrayal of the emotional core of his presidency, that the President is not the ultimate arbiter of justice. In a way, what Obama attempts to do is harken back to “Jeffersonian” ideals, although even Jefferson retaliated against supporters of Adams in kind and regularly treaded upon Congress once he was in the office.

In the end, though, Obama cannot BE the Millenial hero, any more than he can have actual super-powers. To briefly emphasize this point, one could also see that young conservatives rallied even more closely to Sarah Palin once she quit as Governor. They saw it as an indictment of the system and her political opponents, rather than irresponsibility. This is because she too tapped into the Millenial heroic journey, stating that she would rather yield power than persist in an office that was bringing Alaska so much negative press. This is not to say that she would quit halfway through a Palin presidency, but the act intimates that she would be a less unitary executive than Bush or Reagan or Nixon, and that this reduced attachment to power has appeal to both left and right. I am not entirely sure that Palin the person can measure up to that heroic ideal, or even that she actually wishes to do so.

GM: I think you called it the integrated personality, where fear and anxiety are accepted parts of a personality and not something to be overcome, which is all good because there are some fears and anxiety that are helpful in life and one shouldn’t feel like a failure or freak for not overcoming them. But, I must ask, how does an integrated personality succeed or even survive in our hierarchical, rankist, elitist, winner-take-all society and economy?

DD: By not being afraid of surviving. The question implies the threat of the traditional power structure, that one must not only accrue as much capital (money, prestige, power, social capital) as possible to come out on top, but that the rat race must be run simply to exist. Once one rejects this notion, and still persists, one sees that one can put certain fears in perspective and reason with the rest. Again, this is the ideal. No one person, even the complete ascetic, can achieve this 100% of the time. After all, I have elected to accrue two graduate degrees, so it would be rank hypocrisy to say that Millenials don’t have any sort of ambition. However, I think I am most useful to my friends and patients because of what I have learned (including outside my graduate training) and my continued quest to optimize my fit within the greater society and discover who I actually am. Obviously, no one would come to a psychiatrist if he didn’t have a medical degree, but I don’t think the power of the degree is actually the ultimate measure of my success. The question is not “how do I succeed in a winner-take-all society?” but “how can I be successful at being myself?” The crisis of the stereotypical Yuppie, that they have “made it” but feel as if they don’t know who they are, is centered in not thinking about what they really want to do or who they want to be for a very long time, such that a large part of them is a false self constructed for the purpose of winning in the hierarchical game. If one prioritizes the cultivation of individuality, and makes the other stuff secondary, then it gives breathing room to see one’s negative emotions in perspective. It’s actually no less self-centered, but it has far lower costs for your fellow human beings, because you are forced to acknowledge the degree to which you have a whole range of emotions towards them.

I was very curious to see the sub-genres of “Green Lantern” fans at Comic-Con, which now come in a whole rainbow of colors (literally). Rather than just having adherents of Will (the Green Lanterns), there are people wearing T-Shirts for Red (Anger), Purple (Love), Blue (Hope), and even Black (Death) and Yellow (Fear). It’s definitely a phenomenon consonant with some of the ideas I was presenting at the talk, that Radical Acceptance of reality involves acknowledging that a whole host of responses and drives are involved in life, and that the goal is to balance them rather than repress them.

GM: I’m horrified and fascinated by celebrity worship. Is there any explanation, or possibly a cure, for the current obsession with celebrities in the integrated personality and/or the millennial generation hero?

DD: Oh, no. That would be horrible. We need heroes. That includes believing in actual figures as larger than life. To go back to an earlier question, people still need to see Obama the Hero even as they recognize he is Obama the Human Being. I think where things may evolve, if we’re lucky, is a wider occurrence of people fully embracing that dialectic and seeing that their heroes that inspire them are just constructs within which the real person resides. A little like battle armor in a Japanese cartoon, with the “pilot” being the actual human being operating a much larger image in the world.

Think of what is happening as organized religion is waning a little in the world. Even those atheists, agnostics and free spirits that avoid subscribing to any kind of magical thinking whatsoever still tend to fall in love with magical stories. This is really one of the prime drivers behind the massive increase in popularity of Speculative Fiction. Instead of Moses, we have Superman. Instead of the Archangel Michael, we have Batman. Instead of the Ramayana, we have Iron Man, Part One. I’m with Jung on this one: something in the human brain craves archetypes. I don’t think the collective unconscious is a non-biological entity existing in some mystical form, but if you actually read what Jung wrote, he never really said that either. We need to be inspired, to look up to something, to aspire, and to separate out both the good and bad in ourselves in narrative form so we can examine it more comfortably.

I think one specific instance of celebrity worship that is quite curious is Miley Cyrus. This is a girl who specifically set up as her celebrity narrative that she has a celebrity identity of Hannah Montana and a “real” identity. Now, she is transitioning into having a Celebrity Miley Cyrus, within which we can know there is a more real human.

GM: From your talk, I now see where the millennial generation hero has made a place for itself in pop culture, but where and how has it gained any traction in the rest of society?

DD: As part of our culture. These are the new types of stories we are telling ourselves. In a way, there’s really only a shift in modern Western society, which had become the global standard. Many of the ideas and trends in the heroic narrative come from the Eastern societies, which are more communitarian. And to some extent, although the myth had been primarily Oedipal for millenia, the underlying society had only become “rat-race” in the last 250 years as it transitioned from feudal hierarchy to a more egalitarian form. This is the next step, and I’d be lying if I knew exactly what form it will take.

GM: Is the millennial generation hero a U.S.-centric or based in the U.S. type of myth? If not, how are other countries expressing this idea?

DD: Not at all. First of all, our speculative fiction has become the global standard. Even when our stories are not rebroadcast or republished directly in other countries, they strongly influence the stories being told there. But as I said, Indian and Chinese heroes were already more societally focused, and the communist period in Eastern Europe has had a lasting effect on the narratives there as well. It is we in the “West” who are changing the most.

GM: You mentioned Luke Skywalker and Heroes as examples of millennial generation heroes. Are there any examples in current or recent history?

DD: Other than ordinary members of these generations walking away from jobs they don’t like or can’t stomach ethically? Christopher Reeve redefining his image fundamentally after his accident, to one in which perseverance was the highest form of power; this was integrally connected to the type of Superman he had already portrayed, whose heroism was aided by his strength rather than dependent upon it, and thus facilitated the public accepting his transition. Jimmy Carter, who has arguably done much more outside of the Presidency than within it. I would even point to a massive shift in global Christian theology, where the crucifixion has taken prominence over the resurrection, even among those who are far from seeing themselves as humanist Christians. It is the sacrifice and the shedding of power that is most heroic and mystical.

GM: If the rejection of the usual male path to power and power structure is changing, how will this affect the institutions (such as government, business and religion) that rely on it? Would you anticipate a surrender or a backlash? Or would the revolution be co-oped in the same way cool became something you could buy in the 60s and 70s? And, other than the usual moral panics, how would those manifest?

DD: We’re seeing the backlash and the panic right now, as people have a sense that institutions that persist in the old ways are failing and there is nothing clear about what will come next. And of course whatever comes next will be co-opted, because popular myth exists by being accessible to the great majority. It won’t be Xanadu, because it will still exist on planet Earth. It will be subject to self-centeredness, because individuation can be just as narcissistic as cut-throat competition. My hope is that we’re headed to a slightly less flawed set of social structures, where people compete to meet their own goals of making meaningful contributions. It’s still going to be susceptible to egotism.

I don’t see it as male or female, by the way. It’s only been the usual male path to power because males have typically held the power. As one of the other lecturers that morning at Comic-Con pointed out, when Wonder Woman underwent her own voluntary shedding of powers in the late 1960s, second-wave feminists pushed back and forced DC Comics to erase the entire episode. Here were women finally rising to power, and they needed their superheroine to be maximally powerful. For them, there was no higher purpose to Diana losing power and continuing her heroic quest. I pointed out during that question period that this might have set back the comic book heroine a whole generation, as Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and the other females in the DC Pantheon have not undergone the same crises and redemption as Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern. Marvel has moved somewhat in that direction, but nothing on the scale of Thor stepping down from the throne of Asgard, or Professor X going into a coma for decades or gaining the ability to walk at the price of most of his mental powers. It has happened on TV, both on Buffy and in Heroes, where the heroine continues her quest despite losing her powers.

GM: If the millennial generation hero is a rejection of the Oedipal myth and complex, then is there/could there be a corresponding rejection of the Electra myth and complex? And if so, how and in what ways is the millennial generation heroine a rejection of the Electra myth and complex? And how would that affect the way we live now?

DD: To me, it’s the same thing. I’m waiting for Claire on Heroes to be on a path where she isn’t destined to be the same defensive paranoid government agent her father has been. It would require a certain degree of Radical Acceptance on her part, which would be particularly interesting considering that much of her character’s imperviousness to physical pain and injury is a metaphor for the fantasies/symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. Marsha Linehan’s DBT will then have come full circle.

GM: Are there any models for a millennial generation heroine? If there aren’t, and there might not be, why do you think that is?

DD: There are tons of candidates. In the Whedonverse, there is Buffy, who sacrifices herself TWICE. Claire Bennett on Heroes. Jean Grey, who turns against the Dark Phoenix within at risk to her own life. I’m sure all of your readers have their own favorites.

GM: If there weren’t any millennial generation heroines, do you think we even need them?

DD: They couldn’t be prevented from coming forth.

GM: J LHLS readers are very big on links and bibliographies. Are there any online or print resources you could recommend for further reading?

DD: I would re-read the beginning of Man and His Symbols, the part actually written by Jung. Also there are quite a few articles by Jeff Arnett on the phenomenon of “Emerging Adulthood,” the period between 18 and 35 years of age that many Millenials have gone through or are going through. There are also a tremendous number of books published by other members of the Institute for Comics Studies, such as The Psychology of Superheroes, edited by Dr Robin Rosenberg. I’m hoping to publish some of my ideas in the next few years, so keep an eye out for those. Those are all good places to start.

GM: Many, many thanks, Dr. Debowy.