The heroes we create (and destroy)

Simone Biles did what she did. The only thing that matters is how we react to it.

Brian Moritz wrote an interesting newsletter piece yesterday about the reaction to Simone Biles’ withdrawal from two Olympics events, how it shows the way news narratives both create and reinforce athlete culture. It’s worth your time to understand the ways in which media theory can inform how we see the coverage in front of us.

My own Twitter feed was filled with support and praise for Biles prioritizing her own mental health over the outsize demands of Olympic competition, but there also was a smattering of hot takes from professional contrarians using the opportunity to inform us that America Has Gotten Soft(TM). The praise outweighed the clowns profiting from Biles’ situation, but I’m also aware that my own social media network is going to be full of people who get it when it comes to mental health. Given how social media algorithms operate, it’s probable there’s a pretty large echo chamber on Facebook hammering the latter view home.

I won’t belabor the point and amplify too many fools, but a fairly common example from a prominent right-wing media personality:

Uh, yeah. Sure.

I was thinking yesterday afternoon of Biles and how the moment was well predicted by Daniel Boorstin’s “The Image,” a seminal work of media sociology. You might not have read "The Image," published in 1962, but you sorta know it. "Famous for being famous" is derived from his famous aphorism about a media celebrity being “a person who is well-known for his well-knownness.” While written at a time when TV was just starting to take over American culture, the book foresaw a lot of what was to come in arguing that we are transitioning toward a highly visual media culture that would have consequences for how we see ourselves, our society and public figures. His work explains the cult of TV and film celebrity, social media influencers, and Kardashians, yes. But especially predicts the celebrity sports culture that I want to talk about here today.

Boorstin’s key thesis was that the expansion of media channels and choices created the need for more variety in news and entertainment by virtue of having more time and space to fill. More content, but more importantly it has to be different than what we already have. In Boorstin’s view, there wasn’t enough real legitimate news to cover with all of that time and space, and so in the long run the media industry would be forced to create (“reimagine” if we are being charitable) new forms of news so it’d have something to publish or put on the air.

News and infotainment media, then, need spectacle to survive because otherwise they’d be lacking any sort of compelling content to justify their existence. They hunt for it where they can, and they create it when they can’t find it in the wild. Enter Boorstin’s concept of the “pseudo-event,” a happening that exists solely for the benefit of media. The classic example is a press conference, with a person of note or politician standing before the press to answer questions but in a performative format that’s made for TV (with a lectern, stagecraft such as American flags, etc.). It’s something that would not exist but for television and image-based media.

Media coverage of the Olympics are an example of a pseudo-event that serves spectacle, or at least the modern version is. Athletes from all over could gather in nondescript places and compete for the love of the sport, but that’s not what we actually do. We pack stadiums, we have TV rights and international press gaggles, we have Jim McKay’s classic “up close and personal” segments to tell stories about athletes beyond the sport while the games are played. It justifies hours of coverage and the huge amounts of revenue that the Olympics generate, to the point where the coverage becomes the point over time. People don’t tune in for the Olympic events only, otherwise that’s all you’d see on TV (give me archery, damn it, not some softball story about an athlete!). No, we are tuning in for the spectacle media creates around the games.

But with spectacle comes other side effects. Spectacle creates attention around acts we might call brave or heroic, but the visual nature fused with high media attention and consumption has a tendency to turn heroes into celebrities, Boorstin argued, to the point where the public cannot distinguish the difference between them. You see this everywhere, with NFL players being called “warriors” and heroic superlatives applied to athletic feats that are independent of the personal qualities that classically define a hero. If you think about Greek mythology, for example, heroes such as Hercules or Achilles were known as much for what they did as who they were. The act and the person were inseparable and definitional to the notion of hero. Boorstin argued that the need to create spectacle creates categories of their own that define what great acts are and should be, and bound within that system are people who gain celebrity for excelling in that artificial environment built around narratives created and reinforced by media.

Biles is a hero, a GOAT, because of what came before her relative to her own performance. Katie Ledecky “settles for silver” because the media narrative that was constructed around this pseudo-event predicted she’d win, and thus she failed. The celebrity hero’s journey isn’t a great feat or self-discovery. It is doing what the public expected of you and walking the path the public pre-determines as being valid. It’s getting better, winning more, playing until you break your body or else you’re a bum. You exist to serve the public’s reality, its expectations, its hopes and dreams.

Boorstin believed in heroes. He wrote about many examples. But while in his view heroes were people who accomplished extraordinary feats, they were still regular people with flaws that get exposed as the spotlight shines with increasing glare. Media consumers, he said, had a hard time separating hero vs. celebrity and thus created unfair expectations that heroes-turned-celebrities inevitably could not live up to. He wrote a compelling section, for example, on how Charles Lindbergh’s heroic trans-Atlantic flight made him into a celebrity that exposed character flaws and led to his downfall. But that’s just one way it can go wrong. Sometimes it’s merely banal, even good choices people like Biles make out of autonomy that bring down the fire of public backlash and judgement.

People start as heroes, but as fame breeds coverage in news and exposure on TV (and let’s add Twitter/Instagram/TikTok to the pile) there’s a shift to celebrity that often is outside the hero’s control. You can go along for the ride and profit off it before it gets you, or you can check out entirely.

But one of the takeaways from Boorstin’s book is that in visual media culture, the hero journeys to celebrity status, and then they fall. That is, media and consumers create celebrities so we can destroy them.

#NotAll, sure. But enough of us crave the next new thing such that we inevitably will toss aside people who failed to live up to the narrative we made for them. What professional athletes experience isn’t the hero’s journey. This instead is the circle of image-media life: create, destroy, create, destroy. On and on it goes.

To be clear, none of this was ever in Biles’ control. She only controls what she does in this system, and on Wednesday she asserted herself. And while it’s heartening to see so much support, the backlash from some corners is predictable as hell. And Moritz gets at this in his post, from a different angle. We create these images of athletes that they must live up to. Athletes are defined now in culture by the decision to play hurt, compete to their detriment, and sacrifice all for the chance to win—and news coverage reinforces it.

But look, it’s all bullshit. It’s all spectacle. 

Biles is a hell of a gymnast, probably the greatest ever. But at some point she became so big, such a ratings draw, so newsworthy that she became celebrity. Not by her choosing per se, but by fiat of coverage and public imagination. And with it came unreasonable expectations. To meet the public demand, she HAD to push through and compete. Oh, and she had to win. Can’t get a silver. Otherwise we move to the next new upstart and call her washed up (“Time creates heroes but dissolves celebrities,” Boorstin wrote). 

There is no winning. All the greats reckon with this. Biles, heroically, did it on her terms. 

Biles doesn’t need to change or apologize. The public would do better to learn she doesn’t owe us anything, and never has. Her celebrity exists to aid the media machine, for ratings and ad dollars, and she stopped feeding it. A media consumer’s life isn’t altered or made better by Biles’ decision to compete or withdraw. We have nothing riding on it. That we even have an opinion on it is what’s telling.

Watch and learn from the coverage and the social media conversation in the aftermath. Her decision to withdraw also was heroic, but coverage won’t celebrify that on the balance. There will be thoughtful pieces, but the carnival barkers calling her weak and coddled will always get more play in this system. 

One thing I’d like our media to do better at is not turn people who do heroic things into larger-than-life people. Performing a great feat doesn’t make you great at everything. Or even a great person in some cases, as Lindbergh’s life shows. You can be successful and live an outwardly good life without being a good person, but media culture creates types of blind spots that are hard to see past.

And yet Biles is, by many accounts, an extraordinary person; she has personal qualities that allow her to shine in a spotlight that made Lindbergh wither, and yet she still has to face public backlash despite all the goodwill she’s earned and success she’s had. So much of the heat today forgets she’s human making choices for herself because she’s the only one qualified to do so. She has her struggles, and even in strength there is doubt and difficulty. It says more about some of us than her that she’s not allowed to step back and be her own advocate. 

Boorstin was trying to warn us. There are implications to creating a spectacle-obsessed culture whose only endgame is to topple the old celebrity in favor of the new. Naomi Osaka asked us to think about it, and now Simone Biles is too. I hope we are listening. 

In this case, we should pause over the idea that our expectations of athletes are artificial and co-created by media consumers and the media industry (and comprise too much of ESPN content on a given day … EMBRACE DEBATE!).

These expectations turn athletes into our playthings who exist to satisfy our need for them to be great as we define greatness, but in doing so we strip away our ability to understand that these people have agency and humanity. Then we get angry when they violate our arbitrary expectations. The right to choose, to self-determine, gets lost when someone is a celebrity rather than a whole person in media culture.

There is no way to describe the anger some are spewing about Biles without acknowledging that this is about the public’s random standards, not her own goals or sense of what greatness means. Shouldn’t heroes be allowed to define that for themselves?

Anyhow, that’s how it should work even if that’s not how it goes down in reality. Unrealistic standards for celebrities create a mechanism for narrative drama, and media then is created to accommodate that reality. Arguably, media exists to serve that created reality. Wash, rinse, repeat … eventually discard. Good for Biles that she didn’t hesitate to get off the ride someone else put her on.

Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Find him on Twitter at @jeremylittau.