A Reflection on the Heroism and Heroes of 2021

It’s the New Year, so again we’re being encouraged to make promises to ourselves: to get an exercise routine, sleep for eight hours, live more sustainably, and be more organised, positive and ambitious. We might look for inspiration from those who have been labelled as ‘heroes’ or recognised as a ‘Person’ or ‘People’ of the Year. This Juncture Review will reflect on the ‘heroism’ of Elon Musk (Time ‘Person of the Year’), and some ‘heroes’ of the coronavirus pandemic such as vaccine scientists (Time ‘Heroes of the Year’), frontline healthcare workers and Sir Captain Tom Moore. ‘Heroism’ and ‘Heroes’ are distinguished, and it is argued that the heroes of the coronavirus pandemic embody a blurring of heroes being created by either mostly the state or mostly non-state actors.

Defining ‘Heroism’ and ‘Heroes’

Cubitt’s following definition of a hero is utilised: ‘a hero is any man or woman whose existence, whether in his or her own lifetime or later, is endowed by others, not just with a high degree of fame and honour, but with a special allocation of imputed meaning and symbolic significance – that not only raises them above others in public esteem but makes them the object of some kind of collective emotional investment.’ (Cubitt, 2000, 3).

Whilst someone may display heroism and be famous and/or honoured, a hero must also have ‘symbolic significance’ that brings ‘collective emotional investment’. If one extends Cubitt's definition to animals, then Larry the Downing Street Cat can help explain such a distinction. In 2019, when Donald Trump visited Theresa May whilst they were leaders of the US and UK respectively, anti-Trump protestors did not stop Trump getting to Downing Street. However, Larry stopped the movement of Trump’s vehicle as he sat under the ‘the Beast’ until he was moved by a Downing Street official (Sippell, 2019). Larry may be a famous cat, and he may have (momentarily) displayed an act of heroism for those trying to obstruct Trump’s visit, but no collective emotional investment followed such a display to make him a hero.

The disputed ‘heroism’ of Elon Musk

Time Magazine chose Elon Musk as ‘Person of the Year’ 2021. He is the richest man in the world, his Tesla car company sparked and controls two-thirds of the multibillion-dollar electric-vehicle market, and his rocket company, SpaceX, was selected by NASA to fly people to the moon for the first time since 1972. He is a ‘clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad’ (Ball et al, 2021). Musk was chosen by Time because he is seen to be a ‘marker of influence’, shaping the world ‘for better or for worse’ (Felsenthal, 2021). Whilst Musk does not compare to Hitler and Stalin, it is on such aforementioned criteria that one may understand why they have all been named ‘Person of the Year’.

It certainly can be argued that Musk is an influential famous individual and has ‘symbolic significance’. For many, Musk symbolises futuristic modernity and ambition. He wants to make humanity a ‘spacefaring civilisation’, to send humans and animals to Mars ‘like a futuristic Noah’s Ark’ (Musk in Ball et al, 2021). Indeed, Time Magazine wrote, particularly during this ‘liminal age’ where the coronavirus pandemic has brought uncertainty and redefined the normal, ‘Musk is our avatar of infinite possibility, our usher to the remade world, where shopworn practices are cast aside and the unprecedented becomes logical, where Earth and humanity can still be saved.’

Importantly however, although Elon Musk has ‘symbolic significance’, it is questionable how much ‘collective emotional investment’ surrounds him. He may have groups of Twitter followers emotionally invested in his memes, and significant support for his developments in the tech industry, but the controversy surrounding some of his actions and developments limits his ability to reach hero status.

Whilst Time Magazine mostly praises the influence of Musk, they do mention ‘Perhaps no one man should have all that power.’ Others have been more critical of his influence. Coren from The Times emphasizes that he would not have chosen Musk as his ‘Person of the Year’ if this equated to ‘good person of the year’. Musk is a ‘cheese-faced leccy car despot’ with an ‘evil face’, and his plans to send us humans to Mars symbolise an almost apocalyptic future whereby we would ‘die a paradoxically lonely mass death, silent in the vast vacuum of the universe’ (Coren, 2021).

As well as controversy over how much tax Musk pays, others have questioned his treatment of Unions. On hearing he was chosen as ‘Person of the Year’, former labour secretary under Clinton, Robert Reich, stated that this was the time to remind people that Musk “illegally threatened to take away stock options if employees unionised”. This comment is in relation to a finding by the 2019 National Labour Relations Board concerning Musk’s tweet which included ‘Why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?’ (Farrer, 2021). Musk also broke local health regulations when he initially kept a Tesla factory open despite there being a ‘shelter-in-place' order aimed at ‘non-essential’ businesses (Ball et al, 2021; Wong, 2020). His symbolic significance is seen by some as the triumph of individuals against a powerful state, and by others as the failings of capitalism whereby ‘wealthy, mostly white men play by their own rules while much of society gets left behind’ (Felsenthal, 2021).

‘Heroes’ of the coronavirus pandemic

Perhaps to clarify that Musk displays ‘heroism’ but is not a ‘hero’, Time Magazine had a separate category entitled ‘Heroes of the Year’. This was given to the Vaccine Scientists. Although Time particularly praises Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman for their work on COVID vaccines which pioneered new mRNA vaccine technology, there is still praise for all COVID vaccine scientists.

They are ‘heroes’ because ‘they gave the world a defense against a pathogen, but also because the manner of that astonishing achievement guards more than our health: they channeled their ambitions to the common good, talked to one another and trusted in facts’ (Park and Ducharme, 2021). The COVID vaccine scientists have ‘symbolic significance’ in symbolising scientific development and trust in facts during a time of scepticism.

However, this heroism turns into hero status with the ‘collective emotional investment’ that one arguably finds in the widespread appreciation most people have for the development of such vaccines in providing protection and a partial route to ‘normalcy’. Park and Ducharme (2021) make an interesting point that it is not uncommon for ‘miracle[s] of science to defy belief’, as they note 30% of Americans surveyed a year after the Apollo 11 mission stated that they did not think any human actually walked on the moon (Park and Ducharme, 2021). Nonetheless, scepticism over the efficacy of COVID vaccines working at all is a minority position, with a larger group of people holding some emotional investment for the people whose work brings hope of some ‘normality’.

Pandemic Heroes created by state and non-state actors

The coronavirus pandemic has also seen the emergence of other heroes such as frontline workers and individuals like Sir Captain Tom Moore. They were centres of ‘collective emotional investment’ as the public were grateful of the sacrifices workers made for them, and felt an affinity for Moore as they desired to emulate his persevering morale.

More explicitly than the vaccine scientists, one can see how their heroic status was partially created by the state for instrumental purposes. However, the heroic status of frontline healthcare workers and individuals like Sir Captain Tom Moore still originated from non-state actors and apparatuses. The weekly 8pm ClapForCarers was started by Annemarie Plas, a London resident of Dutch nationality. Moore, who raised £38.9 million for the NHS during the first lockdown for doing 100 laps of his garden with a walker before his hundredth birthday, initially had a target of £1000 pounds which was set up on a fundraising page (The Captain Tom Foundation, 2021). Thus, the pandemic saw an increased inability to distinguish state and non-state actors/apparatuses as the primary route for encouraging ‘collective emotional investment’ which is required to make acts of heroism the acts of heroes.

It is indeed this partial role of the state that leads some to question the use of the term ‘hero’ in reference to frontline healthcare workers. Many do not doubt that frontline healthcare workers have ‘symbolic significance’ as symbols of perseverance, and there is ‘collective emotional investment’ from most of the population who feel a connection, respect and admiration for the workers, as displayed in the 10-week run of ClapForCarers. However, some people, including workers themselves, have criticised the creation of such ‘heroes’ when facilitated by government participation. This is because they feel the utilisation of such a term serves instrumental purposes of showing a supposed appreciation when in practice the government was struggling to provide PPE, and continues to be sceptical of the full pay rises that many demand. Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock; most MPs joined in with the ClapForCarers. As one carer argued, “Clapping is all well and good – it makes me proud – but a pay rise would be more rewarding. In this day and age, essentials are not cheap” (BeCaring, 2021).

ClapForHeroes2021 did not gain much traction. Plas released a statement hours before the first ClapForHeroes, distancing herself from the initiative after she received online abuse from a ‘hateful few’. She emphasized that she ‘did not set out to make a political statement’ and is ‘not employed by the government’ (Annemarie Plas, 2021). Indeed, Plas called for the end of ClapForCarers in 2020 as she felt the public had ‘shown our appreciation’, the ministers should now decide if to ‘reward’ key workers, and like others she believed it was ‘becoming politicised’, ‘the narrative is starting to change and I don't want the clap to be negative’ (Plas in BBC, 2021).

Vaccine scientists, frontline healthcare workers and individuals like Sir Captain Tom Moore provided miraculous avenues to ‘normalcy’, made sacrifices for the common good, and exemplified morale, respectively. This encouraged a significant number of the population to feel an emotional connection to them. Therefore, whilst 2021 saw the recognition of Musk's 'heroism', it was the three aforementioned groups that became 'heroes' as they were symbols of perseverance and manifested collective emotional investment.


Plas, A. (2021). Official Statement from the founder of # ClapForOurCarers and # ClapForHeroes 7 January. [Twitter]. Available at: <https://twitter.com/Clapforheroesuk/status/1347187352867897344>.

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Sippell, M., (2019). Larry the Cat brings Trump’s Armored Limo to a Standstill During UK Visit. The Wrap. [online]. Available at:<https://www.thewrap.com/larry-the-cat-brings-trumps-armored-limo-to-a-standstill-during-uk-visit/>.

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Wong, J. C. (2020). Elon Musk downplays coronavirus as Tesla factory stays open amid crisis. The Guardian. [online]. Available at:<https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/mar/19/elon-musk-coronavirus-tesla-factory-california>.

Park, A. and Ducharme, J., (2021). TIME 2021 Heroes of the Year: The Miracle Workers. TIME Magazine. [online]. Available at:<https://time.com/heroes-of-the-year-2021-vaccine-scientists/>.