Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

How to Use Superhero Films to Talk about Masculinity

Parenting, Gender Roles, Media, Gender & SexualityAndrew Smiler

[spoiler alert: no spoilers for 2013 movies, although you may never watch quite the same way again]

Superheroes are a cultural staple. This summer, the big screen will be graced by Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger, and The Wolverine (in 3D!). You’ll see these characters again around Halloween, along with annual top selling costumes such as Batman, Spider-Man, and the generic “superhero.” Most supers are male, and the movies, costumes, toys and accessories are particularly popular among boys.

The films rely on a straightforward good vs. evil story, so they provide one set of answers to the question of what it means to be a good man. Promos for this summer’s Man of Steel explicitly ask this question. While adults may have a more nuanced understanding of masculinity (or the movie’s context), pre-teens and teens who are still figuring it out might need some help.

Like it or not, there’s no way to keep your kids from seeing these movies. By the time they’re 8 years old, they’ll like superhero films—or not—and they’ll have favorites. As adults, we can help them understand that superheroes represent just one version of masculinity, and that it may not be the best form. If your child is a fan, you’ll have lots of opportunities to have this conversation. That’s good; as children get older, their cognitive abilities improve and they have more experience to draw on, so you’ll need to revisit some of the topics anyway. Besides, you can’t pack all these questions into a single conversation.

To be clear, I’m just talking about the movies. In the comics and graphic novels they come from, these characters have much more depth than we see on the big screen. I’ll assume you have a basic knowledge of the characters and the films, and I’ll stick to the main themes. There are plenty of exceptions, and when your son raises those examples, use them to explore the differences.

Are superheroes braver than regular folks?

No doubt about it, superheroes are courageous. They put themselves in harm’s way, risking harm and potentially death, in order to save the world. And they do it again and again and again.

Yes, it’s heroic. But police officers, firefighters, and members of the military risk their lives every day. We consistently hear about teachers who took those risks and made those sacrifices at Sandy Hook elementary (and other places). So how exceptional is courage in the face of mortal danger? Does it really requires a superhero?

What about the courage to stand up to bullying, sexism, racism, etc.? The supers never quite do that, especially in their “secret” identities. Ask if there are different types of courage or what it takes to be courageous when everyone knows exactly who you are.

What’s more important, intelligence or physical strength?

No matter how you cut it, brawn is always more important than brains in these films, even for all-around geniuses like Tony Stark, Prof. Xavier, and some versions of Bruce Wayne. They’re action films, not mysteries, after all. But in real life, brawn is only relevant for some parts of life, like work, hobbies, exercise, and home/auto repair. And a guy might or might not do any of these. Regardless, brawn doesn’t maintain friendship or romance, help a guy climb the corporate ladder or run his own business, or raise a child. Ask how the context determines whether it’s about smarts or strength.

What’s the difference between an acquaintance and a friend?

We all have some relationships that are relatively shallow and others that are deeper, and this is true for superheroes as well. The shallower relationships include their professional colleagues, such as Batman’s relationships with Police Commissioner Gordon and Clark Kent’s relationship with his editor, Perry White. It also includes superhero teams, such as The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and even the X-Men; they’re mostly co-workers, not friends. Although there is some concern about each other’s general welfare, and there is often one dyad who are a couple (or possibly just long-term friends), there’s very little emotional intimacy or sharing of personal secrets.

Then there are deeper relationships, those that include meaningful emotional connection, sharing of secrets, and genuine care for (all aspects) of the other person. Many superheroes have one close friend/confidant, someone who truly understands and respects them. Some of these are very one sided, such as Bruce Wayne’s relationship with butler/caretaker Alfred and Tony Stark’s relationship with Colonel Rhodes; what those normal guys know about their superfriends is a function of time spent together, not shared confidences.

Then again, those friendships have their problems; Peter Parker loses best friend Harry when Harry follows his father’s evil footsteps and fights Spider-Man; Dr. Xavier and Magneto are long-standing enemies despite their past friendship and apparent respect for each other. And that’s part of the problem; when a deep connection goes bad for a superhero, that doesn’t mean a lost friendship where you might wonder how it fell apart and may be able to repair things down the road, it means an enemy who wants to destroy you.

Ask your son how he understands these different relationships. Then ask how he decides who fits in which categories and how those folks can shift from acquaintance to close friend, or vice-versa.

What gender roles are present in sexual hookups?

For some characters, shallow relationships with women are part of the deal. Bruce Wayne always seems to have a different woman on his arm and Tony Stark has sex with any woman who catches his interest. Much like our cultural double standard that praises male promiscuity while damning women as sluts, these “easy” women often end up in danger, dead, or are part of the threat, while the promiscuous guys save the day. Ask about this description of women and its connection to the double standard.

What gender roles are present in ongoing romantic relationships?

There are a few superhero couples, like Cyclops and Jean Grey or Reed Richards and Susan Storm. Many supers have romantic relationships with normal folks, like Peter Parker and Mary Jane or Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (movies 2 and 3). Although these relationships are presumably a source of comfort, solace, and support, we see very little of that beyond the girlfriend/wife offering medical attention and possibly sex. We’re much more likely to see her in danger. If she’s super, she’ll probably be able to hold her own, but if she’s normal, she’ll be a target who needs protecting or a hostage who needs rescuing. Ask about the implicit messages that women need protecting/saving, as well as the broader question about the give-and-take that relationships require.

When supercouples fight evil, the relationship seems to work well. As far as I can tell, the only domestic relationship we’ve seen was in The Incredibles; they seem to have some disagreements about how to manage the household and raise the kids. Come to think of it, we see very little of anyone’s domestic life; maybe supers are bad at balancing “work” and “home” in general. Ask your son how he thinks about this balance, and prod him to consider how his sweetie’s career (or job) factors in. If he’s already dating, you can ask how he balances sweetie, friends, school, family, and work.

What’s the role of family?

Just as ongoing romantic partners and friends tend to be endangered/killed, become enemies, or simply fade away, so too does family. In fact, many superhero narratives start with the character being orphaned. Superman’s story starts when the baby Kal-El is sent to another planet and Batman’s story starts when young Bruce witnesses the murder of his parents. Ask about this bleak perspective on family, and what kind of family your son hopes to have.

Is being alone ok?

A 2011 Pew study found that 9% of Americans said they had no one with whom they could discuss important matters, but I think that may be even more common among movie superheroes: Wolverine, Daredevil, Dr. Xavier, and Ghostrider come readily to mind. Some iterations of Superman and Spider-Man don’t include their romantic relationships and leave them as loners. Humans are inherently social beings and most of us have, want, and enjoy our friends. Ask if being a loner makes supers more than or less than human.

As we learned from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.” A series of conversations about what’s happening on screen will improve your child’s understanding of what it means to be a good man.