This is not a question that a geek mom feels particularly thrilled to ask herself. Because if the answer is yes, then protecting your children by cutting out or limiting superhero exposure is like cutting off an arm. Or a leg. Or your heart. Or something.
But the question is worth asking, if the recent claims of some psychologists are true.
Many child psychologists, with Professor Sharon Lamb from the University of Massachusetts in Boston leading the charge, are accusing the new generation of superheroes, exemplified by The Avengers, and particularly Robert Downey Junior’s playboy millionnaire Iron Man, of being bad role models for young boys.
Lamb claims that characters such as Iron Man are selling adolescent boys ‘a narrow version of masculinity’ and seriously stunting the growth and psychological health of American youth.
I think David Batty put it best in his article featured in The Guardian, “They thwart dastardly supervillains and have saved the world countless times over but macho superheroes now face a determined new foe in the guise of a mild-mannered child psychologist.”
Now if anyone messes with my favorite superheroes, I’m as ready to drop kick them as the next geek, but if what these kiddie shrinks are saying is true, well… I guess it’s worth a look. Check it out:
The Argument Against Superheroes
The argument runs that the quality of superheroes has shifted dramatically in this era. Unlike conventional superheroes such as Superman, who stood for justice, fairness and decency, many professionals maintain that the modern macho superheroes like those found in The Avengers, portray a negative masculinity characterized by “mindless aggression and rampant sexism”.
Lamb, who surveyed 674 boys aged 4 to 18, claimed these “new” superheroes are damaging the social skills of children and teenagers – and even affecting their performance at school.
Says Professor Lamb:
“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. These men, like Iron Man, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”
Lamb told the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in San Diego, California that adolescent boys were being sold a “narrow version of masculinity” just when they were most vulnerable and trying to forge an identity for themselves, though she did clarify that young boys COULD look up to old-style heroes such as Superman, “because outside of their costumes they were real people with real problems and many vulnerabilities”.
While there are many who dispute this claim, the consensus among child psychologists and the American Psychological Association is that modern movie superheroes are bad role models for boys, and only serve to promote violence and revenge as a way of life.
The Argument For Superheroes
Not all child psychologists share this view of the modern superhero.
As early as 1941 – a mere three years after the first Superman issue hit newsstands – psychologists were publishing articles detailing how a superhero story could assist in a therapist’s ability to treat patients ages 10-12. The superheroes as good role models concept has carried through to the modern day.
Dr. Lawrence Rubin details in his 2006 book Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy, details firsthand accounts of the positive effects comic book heroes had while treating kids at Bellevue Hospital. Likewise, Josué Cardona, a counselor in North Carolina, after interning at a hospital in New Jersey working with children ages 8-11, decided to launch Geek Therapy, a website about how geek culture is “saving the world.” Cardonna integrates comic book characters – including modern day depictions of The Avengers – into his therapy sessions, which helps his patients express emotions they hadn’t before.
Axel Alonso, Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics responds to the “Modern Superheroes Are Bad” issue in an article on Belief.net and it is worth quoting at length:
“Kids need heroes. While parents should be role models for life, superheroes remind a child of the moral compass necessary to navigate a universe fraught with thrills and danger. Superhero comics and films tell stories about human perseverance, about super-powered individuals who rise to impossible challenges. Our readers aren’t rooting for the powers or the costume – they’re rooting for the person inside the tights. With Spider-Man, they’re rooting for the kid from Queens who, when he’s not saving the world, has to scrape to make rent; with Captain America, they’re rooting for the 98-pound weakling who, through the miracle of science, was granted muscles that finally match the size of his heart.
With over 70-plus years of stories in the bank and counting, Marvel Comics is modern mythology, and we’re well aware of the responsibility that comes with it. We take such great pains to portray our characters as the heroes they should be. Our protagonists are models for life: people who rise above their personal baggage and insecurities to face great challenges and do great things.”
My Personal Take On The Issue
So do I think superheroes are good or bad role models? Well, I guess it all depends. No one on this planet is perfect, and so I think it’s okay to have role models with flaws and faults. I mean, the Bible is FULL of role models that had their share of sins and personal problems, and for the past 2000 years the good book has raised up many healthy world changers and psychologically sound individuals.
Soooo.. I guess it all depends on how you, as a parent, help kids to approach and process the whole Iron-Man-as-role-model deal. There are tons of great qualities you can point out to children. “See how he realized his company was corrupt? And he owned up to it and set things right!” “Isn’t that cool how when he was trapped in a cave, he didn’t give up, and kept working to get free and then went on to save people?” So on and so on and so on.
As to the “narrow view of masculinity” that The Avengers supposedly portrays, I think the problem with America today is less that men are being portrayed narrowly, and more than manhood is trying to be eradicated by a bunch of politically correct feminist ideology. But I digress!
I have no problem raising my kids on the comic book classics, though it never hurts to be mindful that kids may be fixating on the WRONG qualities to idolize. (Cool! Tony Stark sleeps with tons of women! MY HERO!)
But with open dialogue, and some parental guidance, I see no reason why American boys should be deprived of the American heroes that have become the heartbeat of our nation for going on a century now. Of all the things to fixate on, I think the “good guys” of comic books is the least of the problems corrupting our youth.
So what do you think? Are superheroes bad role models for young kids? Submit your answer in the poll below and share your thought in the comments!