I need a hero: finding courage, defiance and joy in the dark days of 2019

Josephine Tovey

I’m a true cynic who has never believed in role models. I’m wary of the Inspiring Woman Industrial Complex™ and its exhortations for us to Lean In or Eat, Pray and Love. Heroism is a label I would bestow lightly, if ever, knowing how the milkshake duck quacks for us all, eventually.

And yet there is something about the chaos and awfulness of 2019 that has softened me up for inspiration. You could be forgiven for almost flinching at breaking news alerts at this point – our politics is so woefully scandal-ridden, our leaders are so comically terrible. Traits we were raised to believe were wrong – lying, cruelty, greed – are embraced wholeheartedly by leaders like Donald Trump. In many parts of Australia, we end the year shrouded in smoke and ash.

So in Gotham-esque times, I’ve found myself looking for heroes. Not people I worship or believe are without fault, but people who have helped push back against the tide of hopelessness and despair; people bringing courage, excellence, compassion, defiance and, in some cases, just pure joy into the world.

Here’s a very incomplete list of some who made my year – tell me yours in the comments.

Volunteer firefighters

Australia’s unprecedented and seemingly intractable bushfire crisis has taken a heavy toll in lives and homes, buried cities in smoke and ignited anger over our lack of action on climate change. What is usually our happiest time of year has been marked by tragedy, dread and mounting anxiety.

Every day of this emergency, though, thousands of firefighters – primarily volunteers – have acted with selflessness and bravery. “Everything that was already burning was burning even more, everywhere you looked was burning,” was how the captain of the RFS brigade in the NSW town of Balmoral described the horror around his team on Friday. “The firefighters that were here, they were … not only were they fighting for their own lives, they were fighting for this community.”

There are necessary political debates going on about how sustainable the current volunteer model is – but in the meantime we are awed and grateful.

Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe (right) celebrates scoring her side’s first goal of a July 2019 game with team-mate Alex Morgan. Photograph: John Walton/PA

The Pose said it all: arms outstretched and smiling face turned to the sun, both basking in her own success, taking up as much space as she could and inviting the world in for an embrace. Megan Rapinoe, the co-captain of the US women’s football team, was one of the biggest sporting stars of the year. She led her team to victory at the World Cup and was named the tournament’s top scorer and best player. But she transcended the game and gave even non-soccer fans a jolt of hope with her fearless advocacy – leading her team’s campaign for equal pay, refusing to sing the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and being unapologetically, joyfully open about her sexuality, posing nude with her partner, Sue Bird.

She became a Twitter target of the president when she stated matter-of-factly, “I’m not going to the fucking White House” in the event of a World Cup victory. Instead, her team got a parade in New York City, where she partied hard, basked in her success and used her speech to plea for a better world. “This is my charge to everyone,” she said. “We have to be better. We have to love more. Hate less.”

TikTok teens

Most social media platforms have long been colonised by brands, Nazis and your older relatives sharing political disinformation, but TikTok has not only been a shelter from the storm, it’s been one of the most fun corners of the internet. The low-fi, high energy short video-making app is a geyser of creativity, nihilist humour, dancing and politics, driven primarily by teenagers displaying astonishing wit (and incredible moves).

Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old Muslim American from New Jersey, became one of the biggest TikTok stars of the year with a short make-up tutorial that quickly segued into a PSA about the imprisonment of millions of Uyghurs in China.

For the “Walk a Mile” challenge, users attempted to wear household objects – loaves of bread, pencils, chairs – as shoes while prancing around their houses. While Australia burned, and Scott Morrison slipped out of the country to Hawaii, teens took their revenge by roasting our absent leader. As an adult you can sometimes feel like an awkward chaperone at a high school party on the app – uninvolved and uninvited – but you always leave thinking the kids are all right.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shook up American politics when, at just 28, the political novice challenged her local Democratic congressman with an insurgent, grassroots campaign. She promised to deliver for the working class and communities of colour – and won.

In 2019, she underscored how she pulled off that victory with her relentless work ethic, passion for social justice and deftness at politics in the internet age. Most notably, she has transformed usually staid congressional committees into a spectator sport. She filleted Mark Zuckerberg during his recent appearance, exposing the hollowness of Facebook’s claim to act in the interests of democracy or its users’ privacy.

Politics is tough on women, especially women of colour, but AOC hasn’t shrunk or changed herself – she is unyielding about her values and about who she is (the Instagram makeup tutorials are a delight). In the process, she is changing the game. Her confidence is infectious, too. One of my favourite onscreen moments this year was AOC in her tiny New York apartment, geeing herself up before a debate in the Netflix documentary about her campaign.

“I need to take up space. I can do this,” she tells herself.

Lil Nas X

There were plenty of pop-cultural thrills in 2019: watching Jennifer Lopez pull off an all-time comeback in Hustlers (and shaking her perfect butt), watching Lizzo bring relentless energy and joy to every music awards show (and shaking her perfect butt), the Little Women trailer (butts very much obscured by civil war-era fashions, but perfect nonetheless).

Up there has been the Lil Nas X ascendancy. This year the teen rapper rose from obscurity – at least outside social media – to dropping the hip-hop country mash-up Old Town Road, which sat atop the singles charts for a record-breaking 19 weeks. Gay, funny, deft at social media, dazzling on a red carpet, Montero Lamar Hill’s (his real name) success story has been described as akin to “A Star is Born, but starring a teen in Atlanta with a dream and a SoundCloud account.” Old Town Road is not my favourite song of the year, but it’s catchy and fun and silly and impossible not to sing along with. It also seems to hotwire the happiness receptors in the brains of small children – show me a club on this planet that goes harder than an elementary school hosting Lil Nas X.

Hong Kong protesters

“Be water” has been one of the mantras of the Hong Kong protesters – fluid and formless, surging through city streets. For more than six months, mostly young pro-democracy Hongkongers have marched in their millions and waged small street battles with police in a stunning, scary and seemingly unending show of defiance.

In a year marking the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the protesters, dressed in DIY battle fatigues, have brought incredible ingenuity to civil disobedience – using leaf blowers and traffic cones to contain tear gas canisters, bringing down “smart” lamp posts used for surveillance and using technologies like AirDrop and Telegram to communicate safely.

2019 has been a year of escalating protest – from Santiago to Beirut – and while it’s hard to be optimistic about their success in many cases, it’s not hard to be inspired by their bravery and resolute belief that things could be better than they are.