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How do you deal when your heroes fall?

Contributed by
Apr 23, 2018

When it comes to hero worship, geeks navigate a strange space between fiction and reality. For many of us, some of our biggest heroes and main role models are not actually real people. They are fictional characters in books and comics and movies and television. These are archetypes, idealized versions of characteristics we admire and people who struggle with the same things we do. They offer us a touchstone, a roadmap, a personality we can attach ourselves to and use to discover new things about our own desires and strengths and weaknesses. They are our friends. Sometimes they are us.

But they are creations, and like all creative work, there are real people behind them. And real people are flawed. They make mistakes, they say terrible things, they do worse. So what happens then? What happens when a real person’s real-life drama taints a fictional creation?

What happens when your heroes fall?

Unfortunately, a great many of us will have to struggle with this question: what do we do when we discover that people we’ve looked up to are not worth it? We’ll have to navigate the discovery that our favorite author is homophobic, or that our favorite Superman is a Trump supporter who dislikes immigrants. Me? I have to deal with the fact that an actress who played a formative character during an important time in my life is under indictment for sex trafficking. 

Allison Mack played Chloe Sullivan on Smallville for 10 years. Now she’s been arrested for her role as a key player in what has been referred to as a sex cult, reportedly branding women and forcing them into sexual acts against their will. I have to be honest; I’m not sure what to do with that.

As a feminist, as a woman, and even as a fan of Mack’s Smallville alter ego, I cannot look past what she’s allegedly done. I side with the victims until I am told otherwise. I want to see justice done for them and for what they have been made to suffer. My adoration of a fictional character Mack played when I was a teenager will not color my opinion of her apparent crimes.

As a fan, as a woman, and as a feminist, though, I find it very difficult to put Chloe’s influence on my life aside, even as I condemn her real-life actions. 

It might sound silly, but Chloe is important to me. Yes, she was a made-up character on a show about superheroes, but she was also the absolute ideal version of the person I wanted to be. She possessed characteristics I saw or strived to see in myself. She was headstrong and intelligent. She was a loyal friend, a caring, funny person, and she picked up skills right and left. She was the most important player on any team because she made herself indispensable, but she also knew that her strengths lay off the battlefield. Basically, she was the world’s greatest sidekick. 

But even with all her strengths, she still had her weaknesses. Her need for the truth drove her to make questionable decisions and she had a thirst for knowledge that became, in many ways, a hunger for power and control. These flaws were just as important to me as her more positive aspects, because the heightened stakes in which they became visible made them more glaring and taught me to be wary of these proclivities in myself. 

I placed a lot of my personal identity in the things I saw in Chloe. Writing it all down, it sounds silly or immature, but I encountered this character exactly when I was most confused about who I was and who I wanted to be. I didn’t watch Smallville as a kid, or even in high school. I watched it as a senior in college, in my final semester, as I was about to be thrown out into the real world without a life jacket and no guarantees that I could swim. Like many young people, I had an education, but I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do with it. Finding a character like Chloe helped. She made me see my strengths and gave me the confidence to leap into things. She inspired me to start writing again.

In many ways, I owe my career to Chloe.

Which brings us back to the woman who played her, and the strange predicament I find myself in seven years after I first met this character. I admit I do feel a sense of betrayal, a sense of sadness, and no shortage of anger. I have watched episodes of Smallville since this most recent news was reported and yes, it is a different experience. To have something meaningful to me damaged in this way makes the whole thing much deeper, much darker, and much more than a joke or a conversation at the water cooler. 

So, what do I do? I’ll probably be wrestling with this question for a while, because so far I have not found an easy answer. Maybe the right answer is to put Smallville away, to lock both it and Chloe in the past and look toward the future, to find a character who I can identify with going forward. Maybe the right answer is to boycott, even personally, this thing that she made as I have done with other problematic material in the past and will likely do in the future. 

And so I resolve to do so, and then I stop. I stop because while Allison Mack may have played Chloe, she wasn’t the only person involved with the making of Smallville. There were writers, showrunners, directors. There was me and my perception of the character which shaped the way I came to understand her and by extension myself. 

And so instead I try to reconcile these two warring ideologies. I have my role models — thankfully Chloe is no longer the only one — and I continue to know myself and my goals through these fictional characters. But I also have my principles. I report the news of her arrest, I read the court documents, and I write this essay. 

Because that’s what Chloe would have done.