August 26, 2010

Are superheroes bad rolemodels?

Filed under: articles,things I read on the internet — Tags: , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 12:10 pm

Super ZeroesPsychologist Sharon Lamb’s address to the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association was heavily syndicated across the internet last week. The essential details are here: Today’s superheroes send wrong image to boys, say researchers.

“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday… 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, like Ironman, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”
“In today’s media, superheroes and slackers are the only two options boys have… Boys are told, if you can’t be a superhero, you can always be a slacker. Slackers are funny, but slackers are not what boys should strive to be; slackers don’t like school and they shirk responsibility. We wonder if the messages boys get about saving face through glorified slacking could be affecting their performance in school.”

The story has turned up on parenting websites, geek websites and all over the mainstream media. The Guardian kids page ran a competition inviting children to invent a new superhero or draw the Guardian’s own suggested creation JournoGirl. All this publicity is great for Lamb who had a book out last year Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes. The subject is probably more interesting in book form because right now, reading the various articles, the speech and the reports of it don’t really tell me anything I didn’t know.

The news that superheroes can be negative role-models is a revelation on the same level as The Woodland Excretory Preferences of Bears and Benedict XVI: Roman Catholic. My eyebrows are raised a little idea that these negative behaviours of modern movie action heroes is in contrast to the more ‘positive’ images presented by older comics superheroes. Exploitation of women and non-stop violence is not a new development in superheroes, nor is it only boys who are affected by the popular image of heroism. (And I think the Guardian could have tried a little harder when offering us JournoGirl as an example of modern superhero.)

For those who don’t know me well, I should add that I like superheroes. I read comics and graphic novels, I like a good action movie. But my favourite superhero stories have always been those with a more thoughtful and ambiguous consideration of good and evil. Anyone who hasn’t read Alan Moore’s Watchmen should track down a copy, then follow it up with Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come. My personal favourite superhero is the Batman because he doesn’t make any claims that what he is doing is right – but to him it’s just better than not doing anything. (Unfortunately Batman is not the most feminist-friendly of superheroes – but he’s better than many.)

Most superheroes are honestly not great role models. Even superman himself is hardly that. For a start he’s not human so living up to his achievements is impossible. He has the strength to stop fights which is good – but he doesn’t model alternatives to violence, he’s just better than everyone else at it.

But who *is* a good role model? Whenever someone or something is described as a bad role model I always wonder who the good ones are supposed to be. Celebrities? Pop singers? Sportspeople? Politicians?. Fictional characters at least have the advantage (or disadvantage?) of being free from the foibles of ordinary humans – but their own foibles are appropriately supersized. You don’t want to be around superman when he’s been shooting up the red kryptonite!

If you ask a group of adults who counts as a good role model you’ll be offered a list of Noble Peace Prize winners, a scattering teachers and mentors and a lot of “ums” and “errs”. Children themselves might come up with a longer list – perhaps we should ask them?

[Rhiannon's books for junior readers Super Zeroes and Super Zeroes on Planet X are available from all good booksellers.]


  1. Part of the problem is, I think, that nobody is a good role model in /every/ aspect. Someone like Fridtjof Nansen (groundbreaking scientist, polar explorer, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in repatriating refugees) might look like a good choice; but then you look a bit closer at his personal life and things look a little less rosy.

    All role models are flawed. I think the problem with the superheros – and many other possibilities – mentioned is that they tend to have the /same/ flaws. Which is part of a much broader problem.

    Comment by Ceiswyn — August 26, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  2. With my parenting hat on, I’m not sure I actually approve of the idea that fiction must contain role models in the first place. My daughter is a voracious consumer of fiction and one of the things she most values in it is a chance to escape from the rules and limitations of everyday life. She doesn’t want to read about good role models, because she has to spend all day being good. It’s boring.

    Maybe it’s time to stop blaming rock music, video games and bad role models in fiction for kids with behavioural problems? No credible study has ever validated any of these conjectures anyway.

    (And good role models in real life, as Ceiswyn points out, can be hard to come by.)

    Comment by Dom Camus — August 26, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  3. Further to what Ceiswyn says, I think the problem isn’t just that superheroes have *common* flaws, it’s that their flaws are what they’re idolised for – violence, “manliness”, and usually a pretty uncompromising morality that’s an unholy alliance of deeply conformist ends with hyper-individualistic vigilante means. Most of them are candidate military dictators, lacking only the organisational skills to make it happen.

    It’s also probably worth considering that mainstream media’s idea of a “superhero” is 20 years behind the best of the comics industry, and that’s even after the major comics publishers were held back for decades by the Comics Code. Hollywood’s idea of a morally ambiguous superhero is Wolverine (and the grotesque crimes of the movie X-Men in general go pretty much unremarked). Alan Moore’s idea of a moral question is V – your basic James Bond or Aragorn is about as bloodthirsty in the face of an enemy regime, without the authorial self-knowledge.

    A genuine good role model in Hollywood would almost be subversive by definition, and certainly in the action genre the best you can hope for is someone who is brutal without being selfish or cruel. There is simply no such thing in civilisation as a realistic, admirable person who is constantly getting into fights.

    Comment by Steve — August 26, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

  4. I agree with Dr. Lamb’s research about the potential needless aggression presented to children by today’s superheroes. Coupled with my memories of desperately trying to fit in at Elementary School, Dr. Lamb’s research served as an inspiration of a kid’s storybook app I wrote, available on iTunes, entitled BRAVE ROONEY.

    Simply put – my storybook attempts to give young children a superhero “reality check” via a nine year old kid, Rooney, who happens to be the only regular kid in an elementary school of superheroes. (Talk about a tough crowd to fit into!) Through the story, however, Rooney ends up showing the superhero kids what it takes to be really brave by overcoming a common childhood challenge.

    I hope the newest spate of superhero movies will tone down the violence and needless aggressive response generally taken.

    Comment by Gerry Renert — April 28, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

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