Shazia Mirza’s Weekend Column

An artist called me up this week: “Can I interview you about your ideas on heroism?” he asked.

“I don’t know much about heroes,” I replied, “but I suppose I could talk about Batman and Superman – I’ve always liked them. Wonder Woman was a hero, but she didn’t have the same powers as Superman, just a better pair of hot pants. When I was growing up, you see, it was always assumed only men could be heroes; women were just child bearers and cake bakers. The closest thing to a female hero was Delia Smith.”

So I turned up to a dark studio and was immediately asked, “Can you name some heroes?”

“Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, John F Kennedy.” I reeled off automatically what I knew to be the correct answers.

“You are the first person I’ve interviewed that has been able to name some heroes,” the artist said.

It seems that a lot of people, especially kids, have difficulty in naming heroes these days. While I was in a queue for the cinema recently, a young boy in front of me,about five years old, pointed to a poster for a film with the word “Hero” in it. “What’s a hero?” he asked his mother.

She said, “Think of someone famous who you like.”

“Zac Efron,” he piped up immediately.

“Well, that’s your hero then.”

We all smiled at each other. Iturned to the mother and asked, “Who’s your hero?”

“Victoria Beckham,” she replied.

“Why’s that?”

The woman tutted at me as if Iwas stupid and said, “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? She’s got it all: money, bloke, kids, nice hair, nice shoes. What more do you want?”

When I got home, I looked up this Zac Efron and it turns out he’s a beautiful young man – so beautiful that he could pass for a woman; he has a nice body and he spends a lot of his time on beaches flaunting his bits in between filming something called High School Musical. There’s no hope for the boy if that’s his hero.

But then, I am so out of date. Gandhi is so 1940s. These days, young people see heroes in Kerry Katona and Prince Harry. They couldn’t relate to a man on a hunger strike unless it was a new diet to help them get thinner.

A person’s heroes are defined by what that person believes in. If you have a passion for exterminating Jews, then clearly Hitler is your hero. For some, shoes are the road to heroism, although Gandhi did pretty well without Louboutins. Young people with low self-esteem may respond negatively to the inspirational stories and accomplishments of people such as Nelson Mandela. They may think the likes of Mandela had better opportunities than they have had, which is why they were able to change the world in the way they did. Today’s heroes, however, are admired for things such as having celebrity status, a big yacht and big breasts. Moral goodness is portrayed as something unheroic and boring. The hero is not what it used to be, and many of us are clearly looking for the wrong things in today’s heroes, which is why people can’t seem to name any.

This may explain why, when the artist asked who my heroes were, Iimmediately thought of famous people. I forgot about Maureen, awoman who lived down the road from us when I was a child. She had burgundy hair and walked down the street in an apron with Rolf Harris’s face on it and rollers in her hair. She was always happy and always busy. She took 20 children into her care and brought them up as her own, and to earn extra money she washed other people’s clothes by hand and did their gardening. Just because she wasn’t caught doing cocaine off her microwave, punching a toilet attendant in the face or posing with all 20 kids for a magazine cover every week doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be recognised as a hero.

A select list of stereotypical heroes is presented to us by other people and the media. Maureen wasn’t on that list, so I didn’t say her name. But I should have.