Superheroes Are Bad Role Models? Far From It

by Olly MacNamee

Over the weekend The Guardian posted an article by journalist Tanya Gould that took the view that the rise of the superhero movie were setting bad examples for her son, but citing only male superheroes as the problem, and thereby immediately getting my hackles up before I’d even got past the headline. Talk about a one-sided, narrow argument.

Now, The Guardian has, in more recent years, become far more aware of superheroes with Punks Not Dead’s David Barnett a regular champion of comics and contributor to the broadsheet newspaper. It’s got pedigree. It’s also a paper that includes any number of diverse opinions, albeit mostly left leaning. My kind of paper, really. Not one I necessarily disagree with on most subjects, I admit. But this one…no. Just, no.

Reading through the article, I found myself taking umbrage over some of Gould’s viewpoints and it got me thinking of my own experiences as a child with such movies, and also my life-long experience of reading superhero comics. I grew up with superhero films, although admittedly there were far fewer to choose from back then, but that and decades of reading and collecting comics hasn’t done me any harm! Has it?

One of Gould’s main arguments seems to be that the “superhero is the unexceptional man made exceptional by tragedy.” She clearly hasn’t seen Wonder Woman or Supergirl then? Furthermore, throughout the course of literature’s development across time the hero, or heroine, has often come from such similar tragedies. Whether you turn to the Greek myths, or even closer to home and our own legends of King Arthur, you’ll find many a hero starts off as an orphan, whatever era you pluck the story from and whatever gender they are. It’s a powerful position to start a hero’s journey as the hero has no fatherly or motherly figure other than those mentor archetypes they meet along the way, along with other tests, allies and enemies.

That and the odd magical talisman picked up along the way, be it a wand, a “laser sword” (to quote Luke Skywalker) or a ring of invisibility. And, lest we forget, many young girls in many a fairy tale have to suffer under the yoke of their evil step mothers, too. Not quite the orphan, but with a next-to-useless father, they may as well have been. It’s from this very same literary tradition that the superhero genre has borrowed. It’s “The Hero’s Journey”, well known to many readers here I imagine. That, and any successful media product – and let’s not forget Superman is just that, a product – always emulates the success of others. What’s good enough for Superman in 1938 would be good enough for any number of caped crusaders that followed in his mighty footsteps.

We witness this common trope in more contemporary Hero’s Journey texts too, such as the omniscient Harry Potter or Alex Rider. Are we to blame all such literary characters, then? What of the training that these men undertake to become superheroes? Moses was an orphan of sorts, even if he doesn’t have his own Lego set. Although, as an aside, I did pick up a Playmobil Nativity set one Christmas that is still proudly displayed every holiday season, so it looks like even Biblical characters can be monetised too and given their own play sets. Y’know, if that’s what Gould is really worried about. Besides, I see that both Harry Potter and Alex Rider have their own fair share of violence as well. Should I be taking them down from my daughter’s shelf maybe?

Gould also seems to complain that now “60% of his [her son’s] conversation is now superhero-related” being annoyed that he’s asking about “heavy-water and gamma radiation”, like that’s a bad thing. Seems to me that superheroes have given him an appetite for discovery and the sciences. Remind me, how’s that a bad thing again? It was certainly something I was interest in when reading tales of time travel, parallel universes, and the laws of physics often being stretched to beyond belief by these super powered people.

My own personal views are very, very different to this one mother’s views. My daughter was brought up in a household full of superhero comics, posters, prints and collectibles (toys, if I’m honest). She grew up knowing that before films like Brave, Frozen and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Wonder Woman was one of the few princesses that didn’t need saving by anyone, male or otherwise. She did the saving. And the ass-kicking.  Does that sound like a bad role model for young girls? Needless to say, my daughter adored the recent film. Not sure if Gould’s own feisty young boy did the same, as it seems in her household gender reinforcement is the norm and not questioned. As for her informing the readers that her husband taught their son to punch in slow-mo; how is that the media’s fault when her child admits to liking hitting people?

Surely this is a parenting issue? Most media effects research is still of the conclusion that the media is not the magic bullet some still seem it to be. We choose what we watch, read and take in, and take individual experiences and gratifications from these texts. Besides, why not inform our kids about violence, but have a discussion with them whenever it crops up in the media? How can anyone relate to this world of ours without an understanding of violence in our society? Without a knowledge of violence in the media, how can we even begin to comprehend some of the greatest works of art in existence? I’m not asking you to plonk your kid down in front of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, but they’ll have seen enough cartoons to realise that the world isn’t a peaceful place. Ever. But, no, it’s the media to blame, not the parents and the choices they’ve made.

Furthermore, new research conducted by BBC America actually takes a similar view to my own, noting that films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther go a long way toward being positive role models amongst teens, stating, “girls say there are not enough female role models or other strong, relatable female characters in film and TV”. That is a feeling only strengthened amongst girls from ethnic minority communities.  When girls do see characters on screen they can relate to, rather than wanting to punch someone, it makes them feel “brave,” “strong,” “confident,” “motivated,” and “inspired.”

It would seem that this is an article with good intentions, but poor research and narrow experiences of the genre other than the odd film her son’s seen. She has read Grant Morrison’s book Supergods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero, almost as a defence to writing this article, but doesn’t really take anything away from that book other than  that super folk are ‘Magical beings”. But that’s about it. Time again, her viewpoint comes back to her and her husband’s upbringing of their son. Showering him with the costumes and accessories that only help fuel his obsession. Gould can’t seem to even recognise that this all seems nothing more than a phase in his life, as he flits from one hero to the next before, finally, discovering Star Wars and her implied fear that this cycle will all start again. Well, it’s in your hands to help nurture him through it then isn’t it? “Don’t let the media bring up your kids”, is the one clear message I would be sending in her direction if I could. I doubt this is the only type of film he watches, anyway.

Ultimately, any superhero film we watch is but one part of the varied experiences we have daily. I would like to think it’s what Superman, Batman and all the other colourful capes represent that I have instilled within myself. Truth, honour and sticking up for the downtrodden. And, it’s all about perspective, too. Gould sees these (male) superheroes as characters that “can subvert the dominant culture (Superman began as a spokesman for all that suffering) or they can prop it up” but that’s one viewpoint. For Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, Superman is nothing more than a government lackey. A Marxist reading of Superman would see him as a corporate stooge, no doubt, taking on gaudy villains while the true bad guys – the real Lex Luthor’s and Doctor Dooms of our own world’s multinationals and dictatorial governments – go unpunished.

In fighting for the “American Way” (whatever that is anymore) isn’t Superman really propping up the Neo-liberal hidden agenda that has seen the rich get obscenely more wealthy since the crash of 2008, thereby propagating the 1%ers Capitalist-fuelled “greed is good” ideology? Rather extreme, right? But then, so is blaming a handful of movies on what one parent perceives as her child’s unhealthy obsession with them. Another viewpoint is this: to many, Superman is the story of immigration in any decade, and also of the struggles “aliens” have. This is a story, a factor of Superman, that has been more relevant than ever, and while it isn’t necessarily depicted overtly in the films, it’s there in Luthor’s hatred for Kal-el’s alien origins. Sci-fi can hold a mirror up to our society, and not only reflect our fears, but offer up suggested solutions.

When I see the core values of superheroes, I see the potential for them being great role models. With great power comes great responsibility, right? And, watching how, month after month, superheroes in the comics (and on film) sacrifice so much of themselves to a never ending battle against crime, tyranny and villainy – even if it is often all sorted out with a good old dust-up – it’s the message of hope that even Batman adheres to in not killing criminals –  that I have always taken away with me. As, I believe, has my own daughter.

Besides, Gould could always stop enabling him, and cut down on all the superhero costumes she’s filling her house with, couldn’t she?

Olly MacNamee

A unashamed DC Comics fan and sometime teacher for over 20 years! I got lucky and found the escape hatch. Now, I just read and write about comics all day long. Co-host of the ICE-Cast podcast and one third of the brains behind Birmingham's street art and graffiti festival High Vis Fest.

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