No need for a knight in shining armor…
Once upon a time, a beautiful young maiden was trapped in a high tower—but lo and behold! Then came her handsome knight riding on a steed to save her! Save her from whom, you ask? From the evil dragon, from the wicked witch (who’s often her mother if not a maternal figure), from the ugly villain (and subtly suggested potential rapist), and many times, herself. But life rarely follows fairytale plotlines, and women aren’t just helpless damsels in another person’s story. I’m talking to you, men—before you step off campus and enter the real world, just know that women don’t need saving.
You don’t need a fantastical Grim Brother’s narrative with sword fights and monsters to stir the male savior complex. Challenges as small as math homework are enough to evoke the need to save the day, conquer the beast, and dominate the room. Because that’s what the male hero complex is—a way to flaunt physical or mental superiority in a way that makes it seem like he is helping someone else. Of course, there’s a difference between being a hero and having a hero complex. You run into a burning building to save someone’s life—that’s a genuine hero. Talking down to women to make them feel inferior or dependent—that’s the hero complex.
Perhaps the most notorious form of the male hero complex in college is mansplaining—when a guy interrupts a girl to explain something she already knows, or even knows better, for the sake of seeming at or above her level. Unfortunately, both women and men interrupt women more than they interrupt men. Society seems to value what women have to say less than men, which heavily impacts the role of the male hero complex in academia.
In Penn’s hypercompetitive intellectual environment, mansplaining is normalized, if not expected. Many women, myself included, grappled with feelings of unworthiness upon their acceptances to an Ivy League Institution. Did I deserve to get in here? Am I here only because of X-Y-and-Z? Now that I am here, I’m definitely not as smart as my peers who seem to know so much! Society undervalues genders that aren’t cis male, which makes women and nonbinary individuals less self assured than men; men in the room are often more confident to voice their thoughts, even if they are inaccurate. But because they act like they know what they’re talking about, we view them as more intelligent—and maybe even more deserving to be at Penn.
Almost all female students can recount at least one experience of a male talking down to her, oftentimes on subjects that she understands better. This happens when men feel insecure about being with women who have greater expertise in one subject field, and thus feel inclined to chime in with their own knowledge to prove that they’re not lesser than women.
*Advice: Just because you aren’t an expert in her field doesn’t mean you’re not as smart—so don’t pretend to be an expert! Whoever you’re mansplaining to will likely see through your actions and might be offended by the condescending nature of your rhetoric.
Another form of the male hero complex is the actual role play hero stuff—physically saving a damsel in distress. Hollywood has offered us ample examples of men most literally sweeping women off their feet to save the day—maybe they’ll run off into the sunset and get married at the end, too. But before I continue to talk about present day hero role play, let’s take a moment to acknowledge where these romanticized stereotypes actually come from. The tradition of sweeping the bride off her feet stems from bridal kidnapping practices; the ‘kidnapping’ was sometimes performed as a reenactment at the end of the wedding, while other times it was real, in which women were most literally forced by her new husband out of the ceremony and into bed with him. But even in reenactments, the purpose of bridal kidnap was to make her appear unconsenting before her new life partner could physically and metaphorically dominate her.
The role play male hero is very much still present in the modern day. In college Greek life, we see the hero complex interestingly twisted by the male narrative. Frat houses often set the stage for uncomfortable if not dangerous encounters for those who aren’t heterosexual cis men. The irony of situations that stem from college Greek life is that the people who often create the problems are the ones trying to “play hero”. Of my brief experiences in college thus far, I’ve already encountered some “well-intentioned” men trying to make sure I’m “okay” at the end of the night. At first, I thought it was sweet when someone I didn’t have in my contacts DM’d me the next day just to “check in”. But when he kept DMing me, I soon realized he was really gaining more satisfaction revelling in the narrative he was exacerbating than if I was actually alright.
And quite frankly, I was alright, thank you very much. I was in no danger, there was no threat, I was with my friends. Yes, it’s polite to check in and see if a girl got home okay; but when men try to rewrite the narrative to victimize the women in the story for their benefit, that’s when a line needs to be drawn. Thank you, knight in shining armor, but there’s no need to play hero. I’ll get out of my tower on my own just fine, thanks.