Most boys and girls have admired a superhero at some point during their childhood. Indeed, superheroes are everywhere; in comic books, cartoons, major movies, videogames and on the packages of the food our children eat. They save the planet and make our world a safer place. Or do they?
Superheroes made it to the press last week when a study conducted with 674 boys, aged 4 to 18, revealed these boys are primarily exposed to two main male role models; the slacker and the aggressive superhero. The lead researcher, Professor Sharon Lamb of the University of Massachusetts, believes today’s superhero is different from those of the past who had humane, vulnerable sides.
“Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.” – Professor Sharon Lamb
Reading this makes me think of Tony Stark in the hit movie series Iron Man (the first of which grossed over $585M worldwide, while the second surpassed that at over $621M). He embodies aggression, sarcasm, narcissism and hypermasculinity.
Perhaps today’s superheroes are simply amped up versions of those of yesteryear. Perhaps they simply mirror the aggression and hypermasculinity of today. Are they enough to make our boys (and a few of our girls) angry, aggressive and chauvinistic? The answer may lie in the impact superheroes have on our children’s lives.
Many of our boys imitate the moves of their favorite superhero. I recall hearing the story of my uncle’s failed attempt to fly, after he jumped off a balcony, wearing little more than a sheet for a cape. Many child health professionals are concerned over superhero play, its safety and its consequences. But the positive side to superhero play is that it encourages creative thinking and expression.
As caregivers, we can make the most out of superheroes’ influence by ensuring that our children’s superhero play is supervised, that aggression is not allowed, that viewing aggressive superhero shows be limited, that discussion take place, inclusive of the values that are desirable in the characters. We can also encourage the creative aspect of superhero play by having an art and craft project to create masks and capes. Most importantly, because children often have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, talk about ways they can be mini-superheroes in their own lives and then, help them make it happen. For example, a superhero may be someone who helps those in need, and so they can start a canned food drive.
While we fight to protect our children from the negative aspects of culture and the media, we also need to appreciate what we stand to gain. A life without superheroes is no fun, frankly. They give us all a little hope for a better world. So enjoy the caped-crusaders and their brave friends and ensure your children appreciate them for their underlying positive attributes.
Read More: Why Don’t We Doubt Spider-Man’s Existence?
Thanks to Sonja, who secretly wears a cape at night.