Messiahs and Their Faults: Why We Look to Figures as Examples and Are Disappointed When They Fail
When Hugh Hefner died, many people, including women, commented on how important he was to the sex revolution of the sixties and seventies. That his magazine, Playboy, was cutting edge for its articles and interviews that other magazines would not cover, like one with Fidel Castro. Playboy became famous for its glamorous depiction of nude models and a lifestyle that was considered classy. Whenever I watch an old James Bond flick from the era, it always seems to have that Playboy swagger to it.
However there were also many people who attacked the praises for the Playboy founder. Many people said that rather than pushing the revolutionary agenda ahead, it set it back by objectifying women in the magazine’s pictures and with girls dressing up as sexy bunnies in their clubs. The parties at the Playboy mansion and Hefner’s claims to have had sex with many of his models didn’t exactly help portray him as a positive figure for feminist change either.
The interesting thing about both these perspectives is that they’re both true. Hefner’s influence did go a long way to loosening America’s conservative perceptions about sex and in fact his magazines were very popular with soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Even the women posing nude were more girl-next-door types rather than blonde bombshells like Marilyn Monroe. At the same time, yes, the clubs and pictures did show gorgeous women for their bodies as models and not for their intellect or ambition.
It could have been worse. Penthouse was created on the idea that men didn’t just want to see naked women: they wanted to see naked women fucking.
The main problem here (is not just the perceptions of Hugh Hefner, but also regarding any popular, mainstream figure) is our tendency to project our black and white values onto them and make them into social messiahs.
This effect can also be seen with other figures: Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barrack Obama, and Abraham Lincoln just to name a few. It is seen with actors and artists who make it big and are suddenly expected to do public service announcements. It also happens with historical events like the aforementioned Sex Revolution, Counter-Culture, and World War Two eras.
This need to see great cultural icons in a positive or negative light comes from how we understand and relate to our world. If you step back and leave the assumptions, bias, and morals aside, the world really is a chaotic place. Events happen at random times and intervals that often times are not able to be predicted.
In nature, animals and plants embrace this reality amorally. When seasons change or migration patterns are altered, animals change with it and adapt to it. When global warming or an environmental catastrophe happens, the weather patterns adjust themselves to the new scenario over the course of many years. Humans however don’t do this.
We like stability and predictability. We like to know up will always be up and down is always going to be down. We like control. And we create structures, both physical and mental to establish this regularity and one of them is the messiah complex.
The messiah complex takes our values, priorities, and changes we want to see and pins them onto a figure that is at the fore front of society: a lightning rod. Someone who is seen and heard: not necessarily respected but not ignored either. They can be politicians, religious figures, celebrities, or some average person who rises to the occasion at the right time. These figures or events then transcend into something other than what they actually are: they become ideals embodied and our ideals are always very definitive, no matter how chaotic things get. Black should be black and white should be white.
Messiah figures/events are held up as examples of what we believe life is supposed to be like or used to be. However like our relationship with life, change is never permitted, nor is their any room made for an evolution of the messiah. It is that desire for stability in life made manifest through the messianic vessel. That is why people see Hugh Hefner as either a sexist pug or a champion for sexual change and masculinity.
Step into the Grey
What neither side sees or acknowledges though is that he was both. Our messiahs are either people, or events that revolved around people and as such always have a grey element to it. George Washington led young America into its independence and help set up its ideals, while at the same time continuing to own slaves and had no love for Native Americans. Albert Einstein was a genius, but was also a cheater. Wild Bill Hickock was arguably the best gunman the Wild West ever produced, but he was also a drunk. John Lennon was one of the greatest song writers and philosophers of the 20th century, and was also a wife beater in his first marriage.
The element of A and B together equaling C is something we do not like because it makes our life structures unsteady and uncertain. It is compromised somehow and that compromise then reflects on us who stand on that foundation. Rather than be like nature and adapt to the reality playing out before us without prejudice, we let-no, demand, that those messiahs submit to our prejudices instead. We demand our messiahs be static icons rather than dynamic personalities/events that have multiple factors at play, all at once, in the same place and at the same time.
Seeing What is
This messiah complex is very important because it is in large part what is driving our social conflicts today. Problems that social justice warriors and conservative voters want to solve in their society are portrayed through a very narrow lens where you’re either on one side or the other. There is no in-between, nor listening to those caught in between.
Yet that is exactly where the truth of the matter lies. What happens to the space in-between when matter and anti-matter collide?
I am not saying that we must let go of our ideals and messiahs. I am saying that we must let go of our insistence that they must conform to a certain way when in it doesn’t in reality play out that way at all. To ignore the dynamics and grey changes of life is to be choosing only half-truths, and then choosing stagnation when we don’t to get the truths we want. Conflict is only extended and misunderstanding is allowed to fester.
And then we ask why our society is as fucked up as it is.