Monday, August 23, 2010

Superhero Role Models, Part I

Today's media superheroes -- including Batman in The Dark Knight and the Hulk in Planet Hulk -- as well as the ''slacker'' characters often portrayed in TV shows and movies offer boys poor role models, says a University of Massachusetts professor who polled hundreds of boys up to age 18 to find out their favorites.

The poll results suggest boys hear two ways to be masculine, says researcher Sharon Lamb, EdD, distinguished professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, who presented the findings Sunday at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in San Diego.

"One was the superhero image, created as someone who shows their masculinity through power over other people, through exploiting women, showing their wealth, and through sarcasm and superiority," she says.

Superheroes: Bad Role Models for Boys?

Superheroes, in the modern sense, have been around for over 70 years (Superman made his debut in Action Comics in June 1938). Every once in awhile, some expert or authority decides to criticize comic book and movie heroes as bad "role models" for the youth of our country/the world. On the other hand, if they were always good role models, they'd probably be pretty boring and nobody would read their comics or want to make movies about them (the Amazing, Spectacular Dali Lama!).

I thought I'd perform my own analysis because I grew up on comic books and have a love for their classic incarnations. It would be too difficult and time consuming (and my time is precious) to go through all the different permutations the various heroes have endured over the decades, so I'll try to stick as close to their original personas as I can. Remember, nothing's perfect, including heroes and this review.

Superman. I figured I'd start with the superhero. As far as role models go, you'd think he'd be the best. He's basically a boy scout in a cape, paying equal attention to saving the President's plane from crashing and saving a cat stuck up in a tree (citing the 1978 Superman film). He was originally an American role model (..."truth, justice, and the American way"), at least in the 1950s, but political correctness has resulted in expanding his role to be more "universal".

The dark side of this role model is that he isn't that universal. He was created in 1938 to appeal to the likely readership of the day, which were 12 year old white boys. Forget it if you were a girl or a person of color. Even his Jewish origins (Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster were both Jewish and modeled Superman on the concept of the Golem, a large, anthropomorphic being who overwhelmed problems with shear might and had the word "truth", in Hebrew, on his forehead) were obliterated to make him attractive to the majority of American kids in the depression era.

Superman does teach that you can have great power and manage it responsibly, never using it for your own gratification (like most of us would do in real life) by peaking through Lana Lang's bra when she's 15 year old (and what high school guy hasn't thought of the advantages of X-ray vision?) or conquering the world just for giggles.

He loves his mother, married his girlfriend, holds down a steady job and regardless of whether he's Superman or Clark, is always someone you can depend upon. On the role model scale, Superman gets an A+.

Iron Man. Originally, in the early 1960s, Tony Stark was a rich, handsome, millionaire playboy who just happened to make weapons for the military. One day, while strolling through Vietnam, he's injured mortally, captured by the bad guys, and in order to escape, has to invent Iron Man, to free himself and save his life...literally. The film version starring Robert Downey Jr, is pretty close to the original as far as origin stories go, except they make Tony much less clean cut, and more of a spoiled brat. The process of becoming Iron Man tempers him and redeems him from his "lost" image, though he doesn't exactly get a personality transplant.

Tony does learn that, dying with the most toys doesn't mean you win and what life really means is saving those people who you hurt, even if you didn't mean to. He's beat (or is in the continual process of beating) alcoholism and repeatedly puts his life on the line, risking a fatal heart attack every time he puts on the Iron Man armor, in order to help others. Joining the Avengers means he's learned to be a team player. Yeah, he's a thrill seeker and it's an emotional power surge just to be Iron Man, but he's a better person than he was before. No, not perfect by a long shot, but with just enough flaws to keep him interesting.

Iron Man comes in on the role model scale as a C+.

Spider-Man. Originally a shy and very smart teenager who could never make it with the cool kids and was always picked on. He got to live out every kid nerd dream by becoming physically powerful enough to pound the bullies, which is more or less what Peter Parker did back in the early 1960s. No, he didn't beat Flash Thompson to a pulp, but he did tell everyone to go take a flying leap into the toilet and, instead of immediately using his powers to become a hero, became a TV star. He probably would have gone on in that direction, having loyalty only to his aunt and uncle, except that his arrogance cost his uncle his life. That's what turned Peter around, but his life is hardly enviable.

Spider-Man is sort of the comic book world's version of a dog's chew toy. He always has one problem or another to overcome, but his shining virtue is, no matter how much he wants to give up on everyone and everything, he hangs in there, probably more for guilt's sake than anything else, but out of great suffering comes great perseverance, to twist a classic phrase.

As a role model, he gets his revenge on being bullied by beating up the bad guys and sending them to jail. OK, ok, he really does love his aunt, has girlfriends, but they either die or divorce him, gets mad at the world half the time, but manages to recover to do the right thing in the end. In some ways, he's the most "human" guy in this review so far. Stan Lee created a number of superheroes back in the day to break the mold of the "perfect person" hero, and it worked. Spider-Man was the poster child of this new hero...the guy the rest of us could relate to. Role model? Maybe not a perfect one, but Peter is a role model we can understand.

Spider-Man gets a B+ on the role model scale.

Last but not least (for this entry) Green Lantern. Hal Jordan was originally one of the most perfect of the perfect heroes. In fact, to get the power ring, you had to be. The qualifications were to be completely honest and completely fearless. That lets him out of being a politician right from the start. If Superman was the boy scout of heroes, Green Lantern was the police officer, but in the best possible sense. As he develops into the 1970s, we discover that Hal's "cop on the beat" take on life also makes him perfectly inflexible and his sense of "right and wrong" is absolute. Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) buddies up with him for awhile to teach him that life has infinite shades of gray.

Actually, you can't blame Hal too much. His bosses, the Guardians of the Galaxy (Universe...whatever) are just as inflexible and Hal has to teach them a few lessons, too.

Reinvented, Hal was a cocky, self-assured test pilot with a chip on his shoulder, put there by his old man who was even more "perfect". In the reinvented version, Hal gets the power ring but also a DUI and has to work off both, one in jail and the other taking humility lessons from master Green Lantern Sinestro, ultimately having to overcome his obsession over himself in order to take on the corrupt "perfect" Sinestro and take his place (eventually) as the galaxy's greatest ring bearer (OK, this side of Frodo).

As far as "super cop" goes, he makes a great role model, but like Superman, his clean cut white guy image made him pretty dated and unrelatable beyond a certain demographic.

These days, he isn't infinitely honest or fearless, but to use the ring, he does have to become the type of hero the ring demands. He's had his dark becoming Parallax and destroying everything to try and recreate the perfect world (that seems to be a reoccurring theme in his life), but goes through a series of salvational experiences and eventually is the Green Lantern again.

Green Lantern gets a B- on the role model scale, and given the fact that he's killed a lot of people (like the universe), that's generous.

I could go on and on, but this is an analysis that could be taken through a series of blog posts. My ratings are pretty arbitrary, but are superheroes really meant to be role models or are they strictly entertainment? Do kids really try to become like the people they read about in comic books or maybe the comic book heroes are becoming more like us?

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