Superhero Versus Superzero

Imagine being back in elementary school, wearing a well-loved shirt with a classic 1940-esque Batman symbol. Now imagine being sent home to change, or just sent home altogether. This sounds strange, but it’s a reality many kids may soon face. Today’s children are caught in the middle of a battle of good and evil – with super-heroes facing being placed in the “bad guy” role. Super-heroes are an integral part of the development of children. There remains, however, some debate amongst “grown-ups” as to whether super-heroes are necessary role models for kids or hindrances.

One of the main issues found with this argument is that critics of heroes confuse Hollywood’s portrayal of super-heroes with the actual characteristics of their stories. Negative positions on the debate often revolve around the dislike of stylized violence and glorification of negative personality traits. Psychologist Sharon Lamb, who doesn’t think that super-heroes send the right message to kids, can be quoted as saying:

“There is a big difference in the movie super-hero of today and the comic book super-hero of yesterday… Today’s super-hero 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 super-hero costume, these men, like Ironman[sic], exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”

She’s not wrong in her statement. The media does portray super-heroes as men and women exempt from the basic laws of morality, helping others often only when it helps them. However, movie and television producers aren’t the best source of evidence to back up claims. For example, it would be hard to convince a person that dragons both exist and can be calmed by a pony. Using My Little Pony as a primary example isn’t going to make them believe it.

If critics want to attack super-heroes as being detrimental to children’s health because of the violence and attitudes shown, then most other genres of movies and shows should also be targeted. Violence isn’t used only in action movies. Cutting super-heroes out of children’s lives to reduce the likelihood of harmful behavior sounds as effective as cutting funding of Public Broadcasting Services – which receives 1/100th of one percent of the federal budget -  as a way to cut costs. One way that parents can stop the potential for dangerous reciprocation of fight scenes would be to simply talk to their kids. Melanie Hartgill, an educational psychologist, states that, “…letting your child watch super-hero programmes on TV is not necessarily all negative providing you are aware of what they are watching and you discuss it with them.”  People today want things done quickly and with as little effort as possible. This isn’t a viable method of parenting, and robbing children of the joys of super-heroes is a poor way as well.

Another aspect addressed in Lamb’s quote is the list of traits that are less than ideal. It’s understandable that parents don’t want their children growing up to believe that it’s alright to treat others with disrespect, waste hard work on material items, or wave guns around to get anywhere in life. However, this is another part that is easily controlled by simply communicating to the child that that type of behavior isn’t acceptable in the real world. A simple solution to many problems presented by nay-sayers of celebrated tight-wearers is to sit down with children and have a discussion with them about what’s real life and what’s make-believe, what is appropriate and what is not. The country has become increasingly non-confrontational with the introduction of technology, and it’s leaking into parenting.

While both of the main points of the opposition are ever-present in movies, it would be useful to again point out that this is simply an artistic portrayal of an original story. Movies are made to entertain and to sell. Producers are finding an expanding super-hero market in the young adult to adult age range and with that comes the evolution of characters. Super-heroes today need to catch the attention of an oversexed, media-saturated crowd. Target audiences for movies like Batman, The Avengers, and Thor are no longer little kids and their parents. The audience has aged, and failing to age the movies and plot lines along with them would cause an enormous loss of revenue. Even movies made for children are being subjected to grown-up ideas, styles, and dialogues. Movie makers are going to base how they style the film on how audiences react. With older audiences being attracted to super-heroes, movies are going to be made to satisfy their desires.

Movies also face the issue of time. Series of comics or books have endless amounts of time to develop their stories and create plots with more than just dramatic action scenes and immediate conflict resolution. Movies are severely restricted in terms of time slots. Audiences don’t have the attention span to sit in a theater or even on their couch to watch a five hour movie. Even if a movie goes much over two hours, people complain about dragging. Producers are forced to compress years of information into a convenient time. When they have to leave such a vast amount of information out of the story, they’re forced to introduce short conflicts, more action scenes, and less character development to insure that the movie is still entertaining enough to draw paying audiences.

There isn’t enough time in Iron Man to fully divulge all of the emotional changes that Tony Stark undergoes, ultimately resulting in the stop of weapons manufacturing. The movie makes it appear that he has a sudden change of heart, and that this desire is fueled only by his desire to distribute justice on his terms. Revealing that he’s Iron Man also seems like a selfish decision to gain glory, when in the full version of his story, he only decided to reveal his identity after a long stretch of anonymity – during which he brushed with death multiple times and even sacrificed himself so that a younger, alternate version of himself could live on and continue to fight for justice. According to Marvel’s website, Tony “…decided to reveal his secret identity to the world, and was offered work as a contractor for the US Department of Defense. Though turning down that opportunity, he accepted the post as the President’s Secretary of Defense to monitor the use of his technology by the United States military.” When all the information is presented, Iron Man doesn’t seem so egotistical. Therefore, maybe he isn’t such a bad influence on young minds.

Super-heroes are a gateway to a child’s imagination. They open doors for creativity – chances to create, to learn, to grow. The visual effects seen on super-hero cartoons or movies, as well as in comics, inspire kids to draw and make their own heroes. The desire to hear more stories creates a drive to read and learn. The freedom of an alternate world helps communicate that being different, being out of the ordinary, is perfectly okay. Limiting or restricting access to exposure to behaviors or dress associated with super-heroes is ultimately detrimental to a child, moreso than the character itself would be.

The pages of comic books are freeing. Not bound by earth’s laws of physics and gravity, not held to the social conventions of today, anything and everything is possible. Any and everything are accepted as normal. In a society so focused on aesthetics, this can be an integral message for kids that may not be communicated otherwise. Often seen as a negative role model for young boys in particular, Iron Man ironically is a fairly decent example of this.

Tony Stark was a boy gifted with intelligence. Rather than focusing on a stereotype that smart people belong in lab coats, Tony used his gifts to continue a legacy that his father began. Rather than staying comfortably in the shadow of his father, Tony set out to create and build a business that would make him successful and separate him from everyone else. When he eventually became one of the masked crusaders defending the world, he was still criticized. Instead of striving to make himself an accepted part of his society, he simply kept doing what needed to be done. While Sharon Lamb would use Stark as an example of what’s wrong with super-heroism, Iron Man should be seen as an example of a person who doesn’t adhere to linear thinking of societal roles.

One focus in today’s child-rearing world is that children should not be censored, that they should be free to express themselves in whatever method they deem appropriate. Arguments made against idolizing super-heroes use this as a basis for criticism, saying that following super-heroes blinds children and teaches them to blindly follow whomever the media places on a pedestal. This is a valid point, if the focus is again on Hollywood’s interpretation of what a hero is. If children are encouraged to read and find stories for themselves, they gain a sense of right and wrong. Using their own self-appointed ideas of heroism, they can then decide which characters are worth representing. Besides providing a testimonial for reading, comics present opportunities for children create their own worldview, where creativity and individuality are superpowers in and of themselves.

When presented in a light other than persecution, it’s fairly easy to see why placing restrictions on super-hero behavior and dress could harm a child. It’s interesting that discouraging play and make-believe is defended by stating that kids need to find their own personalities instead of copying another’s. One mother, Heather Turgeon, discovered this one day when her son went to school wearing a Batman shirt and was sent home in a shirt adorned instead with a ladybug. Turgeon says that, “The rationale for banning super-heroes at school is less about violence and more about the teachers wanting kids to find their own strengths rather than taking on pre-fabricated ones.” If asked, many people would say that when they were younger, a major plaything was simply the imagination. Turgeon would most likely agree, saying that she can “…realize the potential of super-hero play. First of all, it requires a heavy dose of imagination.” Anyone who has played with a child would immediately recognize how true this is. Having a role model to emulate simply serves as a launching point for imagination.

Not only do heroic role models launch imagination, it gives them a sense of power that they wouldn’t otherwise possess. Children are, for the most part, powerless. Heather Smith, another mother, came up with five reasons that children need super-heroes in their lives. The third reason being that:

“Kids need to feel powerful – nothing says powerful like arms of steel or mind powers or bolts of lightning. Kids love to watch super-heroes because they like to feel that kind of power. To a person with no choices, that kind of power seems like the ultimate gift. Kids need to feel empowered.”

Not everyone would agree with this, of course. Child psychiatrist, Bruno Bettelheim, warns that stories about super-heroes, or even just heroic figures in history, tend to discourage children. They even can cause children to feel inferior, because the child feels that the feats performed by these standout figures aren’t reachable goals. This logic is flawed. Again, the factor in this argument that can pivot the situation is parental involvement. If children are told that the heroes they emulate did what they did because they kept trying and pushed through adversity, and not simply because they’re better humans than others, there shouldn’t be a reason that kids don’t understand that marks made by heroes of any kind are to help encourage action. Like any tool, the key to a successful outcome is the proper application.

Highlighting positive traits and actions of heroes, such as teaching kids the full reasoning behind the actions of Tony Stark, is one way to ensure that they grasp the important concepts. Robin Giri, an enthusiast of sorts, has a hopeful outlook for today’s heroes. “Heroes increasingly display astute minds to match their muscles – or even as substitutes for physical strength; also, fighters for justice frequently work in teams rather than as lone operatives.”  One study done by the department of psychology at Tel Aviv University found that when preschoolers were delayed gratification when instructed about Superman’s powers of patience and given capes, they were able to wait longer than children without capes. These were also compared to children given Dash capes, and taught his impulsive nature. The Superman-caped preschoolers were again, able to delay gratification longer than their speedy companions.


Having a variety of heroes with a variety of different powers – tangible or intellectual – gives the example that not only a small selection of abilities is desirable or helpful. It shows that any gift has the potential to make a difference. New York Times bestselling author T.A. Barron identifies seven key qualities with heroism: courage, perseverance, faith, adaptability, moral direction, hope, and humor. Even while believing this, even Barron says that “All of us have an amazing power – the power to make choices.”

Showcasing heroes encourages the thinking that individuals can have an impact. When they grow older, they’ll see doctors save villages and see a mother rescue her child from a car wreck. As children however, naivete prevents them from seeing the far-reaching effect of doctors, lawyers, scientists, and so on. Super-heroes provide them with the hope and example that they need. Granted, it’s an exaggeration of real life, but a boy who refuses to eat anything but waffles for all three meals of the day isn’t going to be reached any other way. The goals that justice-seekers share – protecting, inspiring, and sacrificing for others – provide a road map to helping others. Whether it’s working with a group of their friends to clean up their playground or just waving ‘hello’ to an elderly person, they’ll be able to begin to recognize the changes that they can inspire all on their own.

Today’s youth need super-heroes. T.A. Barron again has just the right outlook on it.

“Every hero faces a great challenge…They must reach deep into their hearts to survive – to triumph…Heroes may never be famous, but they clearly make a difference to our lives…By celebrating the everyday heroes in our midst, we are celebrating our own potential to make a difference to the world.”

There’s no better way to put it. Looking up to super-heroes isn’t necessarily about the abilities they possess. Rather, it’s how what they model is used and focused on building children up. Heroism opens doors for creativity, and helps guide children towards positive behaviors. The root of many issues with super-hero influences comes from misconceptions, misinformation, or the refusal to learn what’s really going on. Today’s children deserve the hope and joy that super-heroes can provide. In a world so often hurt and abused, with so many robbed of a childhood, children need beacons to follow to a brighter world – whether or not those beacons are spandex-clad and semi-imaginary.

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Erin Hall is a My Little Pony enthusiast and she is also Batgirl.

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1 Comment

  1. Ben Marton says:

    Amen, Erin.

    My seven year old son recently brought home a school newsletter promoting ‘Book Week’ and informing parents that children were encouraged to attend on a particular day for assembly dressed as their favourite fictional character. Attached was the rider “We would ask that children do not dress up as superheroes.” There was no further explanation. I wrote a polite, carefully worded e-mail to the school requesting clarification, and never received a response. Keep the faith; we need you.

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