Are Superheroes Bad Role Models?

Quick answer – Depends on how you feel about men dressed in tights and capes.

Long answer – A study has been published by Professor Sharon Lamb of the University of Massachusetts claiming that the most recent batch of superhero movies is selling boys a "narrow version of masculinity" and that the old school code of the superhero – which is about the virtue of using your power for the good of humanity – has given way to a more generic action movie set of behaviours – violence, sex, fetishisation of weapons and gadgets. Oh, and the flaunting of bling, which just sounds slightly Daily Mail Reader.

Upon reading this, most comic fans are going to have flashbacks to one of the industry’s biggest controversies, the publication of The Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Frederic Wertham in 1954. In it he claimed that Superman represented a fascist ideal, Batman and Robin were promoting homosexuality, and Wonder Woman was all about the bondage (in all fairness, Wondy’s creator reckoned that was true…), as well as going after the EC horror comics that were big at the time. The book kicked off one of the moral panics that seemed to be happening every five minutes in fifties America, and lead to the formation of the Comics Code Authority, which regulated the content of comics up until its compartively recent decline in influence.

Anyway, the main targets for Professor Lamb’s study are Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Now, I’m not a huge follower of Marvel, but I know that, if Lamb has a problem with Tony Stark in the two Iron Man movies to date, she’s gonna go nuts when they start tackling his alcoholism. I’d argue, however, that the description of the generic action hero iteration of the superhero seen in Iron Man is actually how Tony starts out – by the end of it, he’s been forced to confront the consequences of his actions and he’s on his way to becoming a better person. He’s still arrogant and cocky, but for the most part his heart’s in the right place.

And we can’t knock the character too much for this, because this is precisely the historical USP of Marvel Comics. The personality flaws and quirks of Marvel’s heroes are a reaction against the (historical) straight-laced, upright heroism of DC – Spider-Man was like you, Superman was like your dad. I don’t think this is the case nowadays, but people shouldn’t be surprised to see a Marvel hero who’s flawed – most of them are. And when it comes to Tony Stark, he’s done way worse things in the comic books.

Batman on the other hand… Okay, he’s violent. He’s an ass-kicker. But he’s not doing it for fun. It’s the messed up, eight-year-old’s response to seeing his parents murdered in front of him, enacted by a thirty-something man with all the resources money can buy. I think an easy reading is to say he’s acting from a base motive of revenge, but to be honest, it’s more a case of him not wanting to see anyone else suffer like he did.  And while Bruce Wayne flaunts the women and cars, it’s pretty clear from even a shallow reading of the story that he’s only doing it as a cover, and that he’d rather be out chasing criminals. It’s also pretty evident that Bruce’s company does a lot of good, so he’s hardly flaunting the bling. Bats isn’t the sort of character who wants money for the sake of money. It’s all part of the mission to make the world a better place.

Compare ths to, say, the non-superhero real world, where businessmen are seen as legitimate role models, and where there’s more bling on display than in your average comic (well, other than Green Lantern, where the bling is pretty much the whole point. But I digress, and I’ve already used the word ‘bling’ enough, especially as I have an English degree). We’re also slap-bang in the middle of the most awe-inspiringly banal celebrity culture in human history, so I think decrying Bruce and Tony as positive role models is an example of not seeing the wood for the trees.

The idea of superheroes being a narrow version of masculinity may have some merit, however; the stories are still orientated around whether or not the hero can win a battle with either a psychopath or a giant robot. But then, that’s the genre – you aren’t going to see many pacifist heroes, and even the ones who claim never to use weapons just use technobabble to blow up the baddies rather than straight-forward guns and bombs (yes, I’m talking about Doctor Who, which I love, but frankly he’s a hypocrite!). You want to widen the vision of masculinity, then you’ve got to stop making it all about sport or war or some other variation on person-to-person conflict (if you trace it back far enough, a lot of sport is ritualised combat, so…) and broaden the field to other kinds of role models; I can’t believe there hasn’t been a major film about Martin Luther King, for instance, and I’d love to see more stuff like Mythbusters promoting science and engineering. And I sat through The Passion of the Christ wishing there was a recent retelling of the rest of the Gospels as well as just hte crucifixion narratives.

And all this is before we start to consider whether or not there’s a crisis in masculinity, and whether or not superheroes are fundamentally sexist, and….

Sigh. Where’s Dr. Wertham when you need him?

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One thought on “Are Superheroes Bad Role Models?

  1. Pingback: The Gorbals Vampire (or, more wigging out about comic books) « Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

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