Over the weekend, the APA convention debuted the latest in a long line of studies about the psychological impact of superheroes on boys — a lineage one can trace back to Frederic Wertham’s infamous “Seduction of the Innocent” in 1954. These new studies are more rigorous than Wertham’s alarmist screed of course, but after 50 years of this sort of thing its hard to get worked up over it. Of course now the boogeyman is superhero movies, since they are more widespread than their print counterparts.
“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday,” said psychologist Sharon Lamb, PhD, distinguished professor of mental health at University of Massachusetts-Boston. “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.”
Of course there is a big difference between today and yesterday. Since the 1980’s, comic books (and video games) have increasingly been geared toward older and older audiences (the ones with the money) — teen, then college-age, and now even post-college age men as “adultolescence” becomes more prevalent. And of course today’s movie superhero is going to be more complex, if not more violent, than his comic book counterparts (especially the Twinkie-hawking ’70s versions that researchers remember) — that’s what blockbuster-moviegoers demand. I don’t remember the achingly innocent/authentic Speed Racer movie breaking any records.
The report continues:
“In today’s media, superheroes and slackers are the only two options boys have,” said Lamb. “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…”
They could be right about there only being two choices, superhero or slacker. Have you seen the Green Hornet trailer? In this new formulation (desecration?) of the old radio drama, Seth Rogen plays a slacker who straightens himself out after his father dies. But does he get a job? No, he becomes a superhero! I guess he grew up on these messages that Lamb has been studying.
At the convention this study was paired with another, from Researcher Carlos Santos, PhD, of Arizona State University that suggested that boys seem better adjusted in their relationships when they resist internalizing macho images.
Look, if I have learned anything about relationships from superheroes, I have learned to keep women at arms length in order to keep them safe. Also, lying about what I do at night.