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The Heroes Who Aren’t

Like all boringly self-congratulatory hipster parents, I force my children to absorb the pop culture I deem groovy. Maxine, at 2, wears her Coney Island Mermaid Parade shirt; Josie, 5, bops around the house to the Ramones. We avoid eye-singeing tacky microchippy toys in favor of the Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys of my own childhood. Yes, I embrace my own bobo clichedom, thanks.

Anyway, when I heard that They Might Be Giants was doing the theme song for the Playhouse Disney TV show “Higglytown Heroes,” I was in. TMBG’s kids’ albums, “Here Come the ABCs,” “Bed! Bed! Bed!” and “No!” are awesome. These musicians are funny! They have indie parent cred! Surely a TV show they worked for would rawk!

Incorrect. Tragically, “Higglytown Heroes” bites. Yes, the theme song is good, but oy, the rest of the show. The main characters are perky yet inexpressively animated Russian-nesting-doll creatures who invariably experience a problem and need help. They then sing, “Someone special, who could it be? This job’s too big for you and me. We need some help, but never fear-o! It looks like a job for a Higglytown Hero!”

In one show, the doll-kids are running late, so a Taxi Driver Hero gets them to their destination on time. In another, they can’t find the right pasta in the grocery store, so the Grocery Clerk Hero bails them out. The rescuing hero always sings, “I’m a Higglytown Hero, bold and true; I help the town with the things I do. So work real hard and you will see that you can be a hero, just like me! A hero just like me!”

The show clearly has celeb cachet, because famous people keep popping up as heroes: Kathie Lee Gifford as Mail Carrier Hero, Cyndi Lauper as Telephone Operator Hero, Susan Lucci as Weathergirl Hero, Rocco DiSpirito as Baker Hero, Serena Wiliams as Snow Plow Driver Hero.

But I’m sorry, when does just doing your job constitute heroism? Saying that people who (gasp) perform the tasks they’re paid to do are heroes demeans the concept of heroism and feeds into the whole “everyone is extraordinary” lame-o self-esteem movement touchy-feely you’re-fabulous-for-simply-breathing hero-inflation lampooned in Brad Bird’s brilliant Pixar film “The Incredibles.” That movie was a great way to talk to Josie about individualism, community and heroism. And as that movie said about our culture’s reflexive you-go-girl applause for basic competence, “When everyone’s Super… no one will be.” If everyone’s fabulous for simply existing, why try harder? (One thinks of Will Rogers’s line: “We can’t all be heroes, because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.”)

Perhaps celebrities are drawn to “Higglytown Heroes” (other guest voices have included Ed McMahon, Smokey Robinson, Ricki Lake, Jamie Lynn Sigler and Wayne Brady) because the show’s heroes are often blue-collar workers applauded for doing seemingly dreary jobs. What better way to show your affinity for the common man than by playing Sheep-Shearer Hero or Waitress Hero? Sure, you may go to “swag suites” where you’re handed gazillion-dollar watches, sunglasses and cell phones just for being famous, but you’re still keeping it real! Animatedly speaking.

As our culture continues to inflate the notion of celebrity (which can now exist in an absence of any actual skill Ρ Hi, Paris! Hi, MTV reality-show denizens!), I wonder who we idolize and why.

Maybe I’m particularly humorless about questions of celebrity, heroism and role models because my mom is a professor whose field is moral education. But I want my kids to know that Harriet Tubman was a hero; Hannah Senesh was a hero; Helen Keller was a hero. A random beekeeper is not a hero, even if she is voiced by Kate Pierson of the B-52’s.

Mom (uh, who has a name: Carol Ingall, Dr. Bernard Heller Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary) told me, “My view is that heroes are always connected to the virtues that are historically valued by a culture.” Heroes are transcendent, larger-than-life figures who convey big-picture Values. In traditional Judaism, the hero, called a godol, is on a higher plane than us schmos. As mom writes in her book “Transmission and Transformation: A Jewish Perspective on Moral Education” (The Melton Research Center, JTS, 1999), “Joan of Arc is the concretization of French nationalism; Paul Bunyan embodies the physical courage of the American frontiersman; Abraham, the much-vaunted middah [value] of hakhnassat orhim (hospitality). Mere mention of their names conjures up all sorts of associations with a religious or national history and a vision of the future. These exemplars stir the moral imagination through the moral values they stand for.” In other words, true heroes are a source of social and emotional community identity.

The Higglytown Heroes may well be role models, exemplars that kids can look up to as they figure out who they are. Role models aren’t the same as heroes; they’re personal, not gigantoid. My role model is Laurie Colwin, who made a living writing beautifully and amusingly about family and domestic life, using personal stories to illustrate something bigger. The Higglytown Heroes can show kids that it is good to seek fulfillment in your job and strive to do it well; it is good not to be a snob about work that lacks prestige. But that’s not heroism.

I also don’t think that the self-esteem movement, which relentlessly fuels “Higglytown Heroes” and almost all crappy children’s television, is completely bad. It came out of the cultural revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s, which brought us feminism, pluralism, the notion that diversity is of real importance. Those of us who are not able-bodied straight white men can now see ourselves in the stories of people we’re encouraged to emulate. That’s good. But brainlessly cheering for everybody for simply showing up? Not so much.

This is the first installment of an occasional East Village Mamele Feature: Mamele on Media. In my next column, I will look at a children’s TV show that does not stink.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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