Some years ago, I wrote about what I called the ‘Loving Hero Paradox’, aka what happens when a fantasy hero/superhero needs to go off and save the day, and for this noble purpose, breaks up with an extremely understanding girlfriend. The girlfriend usually has no choice in the matter (after all, she’s not the focus of the story), and displays almost fantastical understanding and support for his decision, an attitude I myself have never seen someone display when broken up with out of the blue (and certainly not at the sort of venues the men usually choose to stage said break up, like, say, a funeral of a close friend or mentor). Maybe this is the girls’ superpower, in which case, I’d say they’ve gotten a pretty weird deal, both man- and power-wise.
The whole point of the Loving Hero Paradox is that it’s created to make the heroes look, and feel, good. They are sacrificing something, you see. They are giving up the thing that makes them who they are, and distinguishes from the loveless villain. And they’re doing this so unselfishly, so bravely. Saving the world is more important than a romance, after all.
The thing is, the men never get punished for their love. Yes, there’s usually the fear that the dastardly villain will force them into a horrible choice—love or the world—but often, the hero wins both. Except for poor Spiderman, who lost the light of his life, and the Amazing Spiderman franchise which lost the wonderful Emma Stone.
Now, I’ve identified the parallel syndrome for women. Actually, someone else identified it centuries ago, I just did the lit student thing of finding his work and connecting the dots to more contemporary cultural products. I’m speaking of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s beautiful poem, The Lady of Shalott.
I was introduced to the Lady in her tower in 2005, or thereabouts, an impressionable 11th grader, surrounded by fellow dying-to-be-artistic ladies in an all-girl literature class. This extremely imbalanced gender ratio meant that classes often turned into personal discussion territories, in a way that might have been hard if there were budding men about. We were all awkward adolescents after all, still figuring out love and hormones, no matter how we pretended otherwise with our dreamy fangirling over Sylvia Plath or Frieda Kahlo. Even the fact that we idolized these women, and men like Keats and Hughes, safely dead and gone, should tell you how not getting into formation we were. Beyonce would be yelling at us, if she had come across us then.
The story of Tennyson’s poem is tragic, and appealing in a way that is certain to make dreamy girls with artistic ambitions sigh longingly. A mysterious lady, placed in a tower on an island in a river, weaves beautiful tapestries day after day. A mirror is her only outlook on the world; she cannot look outside directly because a ‘curse’ rests upon her. What that curse is, we do not know, and neither does she, but in the way of women have been forced to do for so many centuries, she thinks it’s better not to tickle a sleeping dragon, and decides not to look.
Until Lancelot gallops by on his horse, singing a lusty song that goes like this:
Tirra lira by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot
The stuff dreams are made of.
It’s too much for the Lady to resist, and when she dares to look outside, and feast her eyes upon his manly form, her tapestry floats out the window, and her mirror ‘cracks’ from ‘side to side’. ‘The curse is come upon me!’ she cries, and with great solemnity, she makes her way down the tower, into a boat, and floats to her death. When the boat reaches the banks of Camelot, and the citizens crowd about, wondering who she is, the oblivious Lancelot comes out to say ‘She has a lovely face’ and absently passes a blessing on her.
If she wants to be an artist, and create things of value, one of the readings of the poem seems to say, the Lady should stay locked away, and not dare to fall in love, let alone lust, with a passing knight. A sacrifice, yes, but one made without even knowing what exactly it was she was giving up, and not even sure what the consequences would be.
This is not a weird idea to us, even now. We’re fed the idea, from various sources, that to be a truly great artist, you have to suffer. You have to be unhappy, and what more romantic (or Romantic) unhappiness is there than the pain of unrequited or sacrificed love? And while it’s a choice that male heroes often get to make consciously (after enjoying love’s fruits for a while), women have the decision take out of their hands, with society—the unaware but slightly stunned citizens of Camelot, for instance—passing the sentence of ‘who is this’ and ‘what is here’ when they dare to step out of bounds.
Now to turn to the more contemporary manifestation of this syndrome: Damien Chazelle’s much awarded movie, La La Land.
Let me get this out of the way: I love La La Land. I know this is a horribly mainstream way to respond to a movie that has a lot of problems, but I have now watched it three times and I have loved it more with each viewing. I try not to let this cloud my judgment of the way in which it treats gender and art, and I think I’ve succeeded. Besides, if I can do it with Harry Potter, I can do it with anything. After all, Sebastian is no Sirius Black, is he?
Okay, before we do this, warning: there are spoilers for the movie ahead.
What’s interesting about La La Land is how it braids the Loving Hero and the Lady of Shalott into the same fabric, and lets their syndromes play out equally well. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) takes on the traditional hero role, even going so far as to say that jazz is ‘dying’ and that he wants to ‘save it’. He wants to do this singlehandedly, refusing to listen to people who might know better than him (ie, John Legend’s character, Keith). His plan for saving it? Open a club where only ‘the greats’ will be played, though how he’s going to get the money to do this without lowering his standards, or getting off his high horse, is a question he’s struggled with. Until Mia (Stone) waltzes into his life, and provides the impetus he needs to join up with a more popular, contemporary group called the Messengers, selling his soul in the process. He’s going dark to save the world.
For Mia, things are slightly different. Sebastian convinces her that what the world needs is her one-woman play, and when things take off for her, he tells her that she needs to go ‘do this’ unencumbered by anything else, including their relationship. She needs to Shalott herself, her tower being the movie deal she’s gotten, and refuse to look outside of it to see him singing tirra lira, or whatever the jazz equivalent is. Knowing Sebastian, it’s probably a brooding chord on the piano.
As they end things, they tell each other they will ‘always love’ one another, but this is it: this is the sacrifice. Love needs to go, for her art, for his savior mission. And tellingly, it’s him who tells her this; once again, man exercising Loving Hero muscle; once again, woman taking it, because he has a mission, and she has success to find.
It just bugs me that he had to be the one to tell her that they had to end it, especially since it was him who caused so much of the trouble in the first place (not turning up for her play? Honestly). Some things even Gosling’s attractiveness can’t make palatable, and this is one of them.
At the close, we have a picture of Mia’s success: she’s a famous actress, her face all over billboards, people staring at her in awe as she walks into the same coffee shop she once worked in. She’s even got a partner, and a cute little kid. She’s done well for herself.
Seb? He owns his jazz bar. It’s packed, which means the music is probably good (though Seb’s made it very clear on multiple occasions that people’s opinions are ‘pishikaka’ to him). He’s clearly better off than he was at the beginning. Does he have a love life? We don’t know, and we’re not supposed to care. The longing look he shares with Mia seems to indicate that those feelings are still there, for both of them, but hey, their sacrifice has paid off, so it’s all good, right?
That’s a matter of personal opinion. Me? I teeter between yes and no. For what it’s worth, I don’t see why Ladies and Loving Heroes have to exist in today’s world, but that’s just me with my newfangled notions. Also, I accede that yes, there is no pathos like lost love, and pathos is what makes a movie ‘profound’, even in the vague manner in which La La Land is profound. As long as people want that, Ladies will weave away tragically, Heroes will give up lovers bravely, and 15-year-sold readers will sigh at the beauty of it all, only wondering why more than a decade later.