Boys and Masculinity–Are Superheroes A Good or Bad Influence?

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As I read this excellent post from Pigtail Pals’ Melissa Wardy about media literacy for preschoolers, I felt a pang of guilt at one particular line, made in reference to the types of toys Melissa’s son plays with: “my son does not have war guys or weapons or uber-muscly superhero guys.”

That passage caused a strong reaction in me because it hit upon a dirty little secret of mine: I like superheroes. I have a Superman bank on top of my desk. A Perry White action figure, complete with a miniature Daily Planet building, sits to the left of my computer. Superman stickers adorn the little organizer on my desk.

There’s more. When my sons were too young to decide on Halloween costumes, I dressed them each as Superman. The first action figure my older son received was a gift, but I purchased more during his Batman and Green Lantern phases. I did all of this before I began researching my book and I was, clearly, oblivious to some of the messages superheroes send, at least until I set my eyes on my first superhero cartoon. (After seeing the intense violence in those programs I began to pull back on the superhero toys.)

As I wrote my book, I wrestled with the whole superhero issue. In the end, I concluded that superheroes are not all bad, but neither are they all good. Body image—alluded to by Melissa’s “uber-muscly” description and discussed in an article I wrote for Adios Barbie—is just one of the negative aspects of superheroes. Violence is another, at least as it is manifested in current animated superhero shows. Yet superheroes have a good side too. They are decent, unselfish, and willing to devote their lives to helping others.

And, like Barbie and Disney princesses, superheroes are everywhere. The adult Iron Man films spawned two animated series and a ton of licensed merchandise. Batman and Spider-Man movies had a similar effect. Look for the trend to continue with the raft of superhero movies being released over the next year. In 2011 alone, there will be new films about Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, and the X-Men. In 2012, Spidey, Batman, The Avengers, and Wolverine will appear on the big screen. A new Superman movie is also on the horizon.

Not only are these characters omnipresent, they also have a way of capturing the attention of young boys. In her 1995 article “Fighting Boys and Fantasy Play: the construction of masculinity in the early years,” which appeared in the journal Gender and Education, sociologist Ellen Jordan said of superhero stories: “We have, as far as I know, little in the way of explanation of how or why these narratives gain such a grip on little boys, but evidence that they do, and have done for generations, is inescapable.”

For parents, superheroes epitomize the challenges inherent in teaching media literacy and gender balance to children. On the one hand, the values these characters espouse are good. On the other hand, they promote some very unhealthy ideas about masculinity (and femininity—watch an episode of Super Hero Squad to see what I mean). What to do?

Heed the advice in the Pigtail Pals column. We cannot shelter our children forever. At some point we need to face the fact that they will develop their own interests. At that point our role shifts from protector to guide. Yes, it is up to us to decide what enters our home, but we must also be proactive in our communication with our children about what they see outside the home.

As the Pigtail Pals post says, it is critical to start talking to our kids about this stuff and to keep talking to them about it.

For my part, I banned superhero cartoons because of their sickening violence, but I kept the action figures. I had discussions with my son about the violence (which he also abhors) and about the unrealistic body proportions in the few action figures he has. My son has moved on from superheroes, as most kids will, but the lessons he learned apply to the entertainment he enjoys now—Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

The end result is a decent balance wherein my son can enjoy a classic good vs. evil storyline, share in conversations and healthy imaginative play with his friends based on the fictional characters he likes, and understand which messages in the stories are positive and which ones are not.

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