No more heroes

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about two related things:

1) How utterly uninterested I am about anything relating to ‘digital’. I’m interested in weird ideas, what’s inside things, discovery, performance and invention – meaningful things that affect me and people like me, and physical stuff. The internet and its many social media networks doesn’t feature. I know nothing about any of it. The phrase ‘digital art’ is guaranteed to make my heart sink.

2) How so many of our problems are about our need for heroes. And get this: heroes are male. The reason there are so few female superheroes is because there are so few female heroes. If you support a hero culture, you support a masculine one.

Bear with me.

I mean something fairly specific by the hero culture. I see it in the world of technology and ‘digital’ cultural commentators. Not all of the male ones are heroes, but all of the ones who are heroes are male. It feels very bold to say, and I’m so keen for it not to be true that I’ve tried to come up with reasons I might be mistaken, but it’s no use: I keep coming back to it.

Think of a woman you know who works in this space – someone you think of as being pretty famous – and look her up on Twitter. How many followers has she got? I’m looking at one right now. She performs constantly to extremely high acclaim, she creates, she’s been on national radio multiple times, she can turn her hand to anything, everyone who’s ever seen her work agrees she’s fantastic (I have in all honesty never heard a bad word) – and she has fewer than 1,500 followers. She gets very little press attention, and more importantly, very little boosting by her male contemporaries. I mean what more does she have to do? Why isn’t she the most famous icon of our times? I can think of a number of men who have acquired agents, book deals and newspaper columns on considerably less. There is an unspoken expectation that they will want to be heroised. Women aren’t considered candidates for hero stuff, because to be a hero is to be a guy.

Of course, being a hero isn’t something to aim for!

But it signals a culmination of power – you are listened to. You are quoted, endlessly – usually by other heroes. Check out a blog, newsletter, links list etc by any white guy you’ve heard of in the creative tech community and see how many pages you have to scroll through before you find a token women mentioned. It isn’t conscious, this “Oh and of course, here’s someone else I read, who is a woman of all things!” – but you can see how it makes us feel. Think, too, about how you consider women in this community. Are they generally a bit more friendly and approachable? Perhaps, facilitators? People you see as, more or less, serving YOU in some way? Or are they mysterious towering genius playboy megaliths you’d talk about in hushed tones and travel the country to spend money to see? Can you imagine someone saying, of a woman, “I declare this the year of [her name]!”, after she got some media traction behind her ideas, and it getting 500 RTs?

This need for heroes – where heroes are equated with power – you don’t get it everywhere. There are other communities I’m involved with that aren’t dominated by a sort of grand jury of ‘masters’. There are other worlds where the idea of all-knowing heroes is considered a bit funny and embarrassing and people are just people, who basically just want to get on with their own lives without referring to ‘the legend’ or ‘the god-like’ so-and-so every time they create any media or write anything on the internet.

If this is what it means to be in the ‘tech’ community, you see why we want to opt out; why we might find it less than thrilling. In fact, we (not just women) are precluded from the thrill. The excitement that pushes ideas forward in this world and makes things happen arises out of the opportunity to be heard. Basically, it’s much more exciting to be heard than to have something to say. Voices are power, not words. The voice is what’s rewarded, not what’s said. And voices are amplified in this echo chamber. It’s not a community of ideas at all, it’s a community designed to bolster the careers of a few hero-people, and a few of their mates.

So, the reason I can write so frankly here is because I know so few people will read it, even fewer will have read this far, having decided they knew what I was going to say. And part of the reason it won’t be heard is due to the invisible obstruction that prevents the community from seriously hearing me out. The only way to be heard is to be a Hero, or be amplified by a Hero – everything else is just a background crackle, unworthy of attention.

It’s a kind of freedom, but don’t for a second imagine we chose it.





6 thoughts on “No more heroes

  1. Pingback: Five years.

  2. Alex

    Hey Leila!

    Thanks for writing this. Some of us are reading not to worry :) I’m wondering if this issue of amplification by the amplifiers wasn’t always the case online esp in the world of blogging circa 2004ish and not a gender issue per se.
    Would love to know your thoughts.


    1. leila Post author

      Cheers Alex. Yeah, amplification echo chambers have always been around on the internet, but I think it’s a gender issue, because women simply aren’t amplified to the same point of reverence, or if they are it takes a lot longer and has far less of an impact in terms of reach. I think one of the reasons for this is that women are just *seen differently*; if people don’t, for whatever reason, expect them to be superstars, they never will be. Same true of both genders. But men, it seems to me anyway, are more readily accepted as potential superstars and people sort of subconsciously try to make that happen for them.

  3. Bruce

    I know you’re expressing a strongly-felt subjective ‘feel’ rather than a statistical analysis — and such contributions are often extremely revealing, born as they tend to be out of a million informal but perceptive human observations rather than a dry series of measurements.

    That there are more male heroes than females (using your definitions) is probably beyond dispute. Like you, I’m puzzled why this is the case — there have been many discussions on this topic in the light-hearted playground of Reddit and in the more serious theatres of debate. If you’ll permit me a wild guess, I’d say this could be as much to do with fewer females being interested in competing in the hero-space (and like you in your first para, in the digital realm), and hence simply not playing. Ergo, fewer females get voted in as heroes/heroines.


    1. leila Post author

      Bruce, thanks for your comment. Yes, there are fewer females competing in the tech space, but of the ones who are, I don’t see talent or ambition being acknowledged with the same reverence and excitement – the same ‘acceptability’ as it is for males. When women are ‘heroised’ it often feels like it’s being done to make some sort of other point; to gain a sort of hipster kudos of liking something a bit unexpected and unusual.

      I think hero is something that happens to you as much as something that you volunteer for. I think you have to volunteer a lot harder to get the same treatment, if you’re female. But I also think this isn’t a particularly meaningful measure of anything, and that’s partly why so many people end up just not bothering to try (there are other reasons people opt out, not least that the whole set-up leaves people feeling, not even necessarily consciously, that it’s just ‘not for them’.)

      It’s a trap, though, because to be revered by one’s peers, to have ‘fans’, is both a huge magnifier of power and often utterly unrelated to quality. You want to be in it, but of course it’s rubbish to be because it’s just a big stupid game… but it can feel like it’s that or *nothing*. I mean, in an ideal world, *no one* would be competing for the hero space. But these are industries that seem to hinge on leading voices; it is the currency – literally: these are the people who get the big paid gigs. When it comes to art and tech there’s a massive amount of rubbish, an enormous stock in what you’re able to say about yourself and your work. There doesn’t even need to be an any criteria of objective merit (in many cases it’s not something you can measure!) – you’re judged by your fans. The power comes from believing you’re worth listening to, and a lot of that belief comes from – as you say – a million tiny imperceptible things you see every single day.

  4. Pingback: No more heroes | Final Bullet | Subjects

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