As the X Factor reaches the climax of its 8th series with controversy swirling over preordained winners, perhaps it is worth taking stock of this global cultural phenomenon. In 36 countries across the world, 57 winners have so far been anointed. Each UK series averages approximately 15 million votes each, with over half of these being cast in the season finale. How does it reflect on people all across the world that this is how we choose our idols now?
As of 1938 it was possible for $10 – about the same as a telephone vote – to access a very different kind of hero. Superman had arrived. Part Moses allegory, part military propaganda, Superman embodied all the public seemed to want from their heroes; miraculous acts, an iconic image and little information about his personal life. He was literally from another world. Real life heroes from this time and earlier can be defined in similar terms. Robert Baden-Powell, famous for founding the scouts, first came to prominence as a war hero. His bravery and cunning during the Siege of Mafeking – such as planting imaginary minefields to deter intruders – made him a staple of Boys Own Adventures. That his personal life, consisting of confused sexuality and the inadvertent support of fascism, was unknown is not surprising. He symbolised enough without them, they were not part of what made him a hero.
As any History undergraduate can tell you; for the last two years of Winston Churchill’s second term as Prime minister he was almost completely incapacitated due to a series of strokes. The country was run by the then Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister Antony Eden, yet the public were none the wiser. It was not in the public interest for it to be reported, the press was self-regulating. Personal and professional roles were separated. Just like Clark Kent and Superman.
In 1988 Die Hard captured changing attitudes towards the hero. John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, was the perfect Reaganite hero. The underdog pitched against overwhelming force, the little man hampered by the bloated, inept state; McClane was a new brand of hero, the Beta male. This Beta to Alpha narrative is familiar in popular culture – it is the central premise for everything from Clearasil adverts to Kung Fu Panda 2. McClane reflected an era of opportunity when even grammar school girls from Grantham could lead the country or you could carve out a pop career even if you weren’t sure of your own gender. Everyone could buy their house, there was Loadsamoney about.
25 years on, now everyone has gone from John McClane to Peter Parker; updating their variously narcissistic social media to say that they’re waiting for their very own radioactive spider to pluck them from obscurity and make them Super #becauseyou’reworthit! Personal lives have become ‘journeys’, a commodity traded in order to attain celebrity status. As Syndrome, villain in Pixar’s The Incredibles, notes; ‘when everyone is special, no one is’. Superman can’t exist anymore. There is no distinction between Clark and Kal-El. Heat or OK! has to delve into his dirty laundry (presumably there would be twice as much if there’s always an external pair of undies as well) and prove that heroes are in fact merely mortal too. Another reality sensation, that has just finished its 9th year, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, hinges on this revelation that our heroes are in fact human, with cellulite, wrinkles and bad hair days. They’re just like you. You can be a hero too. You will be a hero soon.
Simon Cowell’s genius was to recognise this trend and to give the people what they want. The X-Factor doesn’t offer the public 16 of the most talented singers to choose from. That wouldn’t be entertaining. Instead, it gives them contestants just like them, with the odd novelty thrown in, because then each viewer is compelled to vote, to achieve vicarious success through their on screen avatar. Then they’ll be famous one day too, and what’s more heroic than being famous?
From the hairdressers, students and barmaids who enter each year, a hero, in whom millions are emotionally invested, is produced. The X Factor makes a Captain America every year. A normal person transformed into a hero through public investment (although we can only hope the process is not as biologically invasive for the contestants) and then owned by the public. However, unlike Captain America whose career has spanned 70 years, whoever wins the X factor this weekend will be doing well to sustain media coverage through to their pre-booked guest appearance on the 2012 series.
These are our heroes now, transient and mediocre, not super. They’re just like you and me.