This is the second in a three-part series about Young Justice. My first post talked about the way females are presented in the series. This post looks at the males.
On the whole, the males fare better than the females, as is the case in most superhero cartoons. The males have some depth and complexity. Superboy is taciturn and angry but develops some sensitivity as the show progresses. Robin is chatty and witty. Aqualad is thoughtful and wise beyond his years. But there are some subtle stereotypes in this show that reinforce the brand of masculinity seen across much of kids’ pop culture—real men are muscular, rebellious, and prone to violence when angry. There is also the implication in some episodes that males are inherently more heroic than females.
Let’s start with the male bodies. All are fit and defined, which is to be expected in hero characters. But body proportions can get completely out of whack, in both heroes and villains, but especially in the latter, as the images below demonstrate. Notice the large upper body and disproportionately small waist in most of these guys:
Young Justice is not the only kids’ cartoon to include over-muscled male bodies. The distortion of male bodies is pervasive in kids’ pop culture, a trend whose impact I discussed in an article for Adios Barbie:
A study conducted by the authors of The Adonis Complex indicated that when given a choice between body types, more than half of boys aged 11 to 17 chose a figure that possessed about 35 pounds more muscle than they possessed themselves—an ideal that for most males can only be attained by using steroids.
Where does male body dissatisfaction originate? Researchers point to “the lean but muscular male ideal increasingly portrayed in advertising and other media,” which could be “as harmful for men as thin ideals are for women.” Studies also note that many of the earliest messages boys receive about the ideal male body come from television, movies, and toys….
According to The Adonis Complex, the danger of exposing young boys to such extremes is that children are not old enough to stop and question whether the level of muscularity in their favourite action heroes is realistic. This constant, distorted messaging about the ideal male body, present in boys’ lives from preschool age through their adult years, can have a considerable negative impact. Body image is closely tied to self-esteem in boys, especially among those who are short in stature or late developing. In fact, appearance is more important for most teenage boys than academic or athletic achievement, or even peer acceptance. Some studies have also shown that boys with a negative body image are more prone to depression.
And what do the male heroes on this show do with all their physical strength? Well, they use it of course (as do the female heroes and villains). The violence on this show matches that of most other kids’ “action” cartoons. But some male characters take it further, reacting with violence outside of battle. There are scenes of both Superboy and Robin pounding walls and the ground when angry. In one episode, even the usually calm Aqualad slammed his fists together and grunted loudly when angry.
Rebelliousness, a trait typically assigned to males and not females, emerges occasionally among the male characters too. Robin and the other males seem content to disobey their Justice League commanders on a fairly regular basis, while Red Arrow goes completely “rogue” and decides to fight crime on his own instead of being “babysat” by the League. The females showed no such impulses in the episodes I watched.
Although more prone to following the rules, the female heroes did make significant contributions in the 12 episodes I saw. They were part of the action and occasionally saved the team. Black Canary, a senior female hero, was assigned to teach the young heroes combat skills. All of that is good, but there were also occasional scenes that hinted at a strain of weakness in the females and a greater degree of strength and heroism in the males:
- Miss Martian needed a confidence boost and the added strength of Superboy to win a psychic battle. She fainted in his arms when the battle was done.
- When Atlantis was attacked, Prince Orin stated that he needed to stay out of the fighting to “protect” the queen and heir. She said that she did not need protection, but he insisted. Another female fighter was injured, leaving only Aqualad and his friend Garth to lead the fight.
- Miss Martian lost consciousness and was supported by Aqualad when trapped in a cage made of fire.
- Miss Martian was ordered by Aqualad to reconfigure her bio-ship, not for her use, but for Robin and Superboy to pursue the villain.
- While Artemis and Miss Martian argued over Superboy, a villain slipped unnoticed into the school they were supposed to be guarding. (This scene suggests a mild rivalry over a guy, perhaps less of a sign of weakness than of being easily distracted.)
Seeing females presented this way sends the message to viewers that there are times when a female hero just doesn’t cut it. Combined with the frequent comments about the female characters’ “hotness,” outlined in my previous post, it all adds up to an inequitable portrayal of female superheroes.
Final thoughts on Young Justice in my next post, being published Wed. Nov. 9.