Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Representing the 99%!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Are the Superheroes Of Today Growing Up With The Readers of Yesterday? By Kaitlin Houley

Equality Vs Beauty Standards?
In today’s society, the influences towards women’s beauty standards such as their portrayal in the media and in toys such as Barbie are often explored, however, the impacts of the media representations of males, their toys and masculinity is often overlooked. Superheroes for instance, were characters which readers (mainly boys) could look up to and learn from, when the heroes were not in their costumes, they were regular people with relatable problems and vulnerabilities (American Psychological Association, 2010). However, as time has progressed, the superheroes which were in comic books have evolved and changed (BBC news 2010), as have the standards of beauty associated with masculinity (Jirousek, 1996, p.1), which leads to a question of whether the superheroes of today can be negative role models for children and have a negative impact on their view of themselves.

The Mask You Live In

Upon the examination of masculinity in today’s culture, it can be seen that there is a strong link regarding muscles and masculinity (Gray & Kaklamanidou, 2011, p.103) as well as being loud, active, and hefty with leadership qualities (Gray & Kaklamanidou, 2011, p.98) . In general, boys are told that to be a man they must not cry, that they mustn’t fuss over pain, that they must be a good sport and to always win (Stearns, 1979, p.11). The definition of masculinity and the image of superheroes today both have a great emphasis on muscularity and physical form (Gray & Kaklamanidou, 2011, p.98). As well as being muscular, superheroes such as Captain America, Thor and Superman also follow the previously mentioned criteria of masculinity as defined by the modern society such as not crying, and being active at fighting villains. It can thus be presumed that the modern appearances of superheroes in films and toys which are prime examples of excess muscularity, can be looked at as examples of “masculinity” and to further emphasise the standards associated with masculinity among males.

Pic © Marvel Comics
As superhero toys and characters have continuously grown to exceed the muscle mass of even the largest human body builders (Pope & Olivardia, 1999, p.65) issues have also evolved. With the evolution of superheroes, the amount of muscularity which males believe that they require in order to be considered “masculine” has also increased. In the past, there were even ads for body building programs in comic books which further enforced the belief that muscles were required for masculinity and gave the readers hope that they could become muscular through statements such as “even a "97-pound weakling" could hope to look like Superman” (Jirousek, 1996, p.5). Pope and Olivardia (1999) found that “studies of children’s toys suggest that cultural expectations may contribute to body image disorders in both sexes” (p.65). Body dissatisfaction is a frequent issue among men (Pope & Olivardia, 1999, p.65) and as a result of being exposed to unattainable ideals of muscular masculinity, males may find themselves with this issue (Young, Gabriel, Hollar, 2013, p.174). When an individual is dissatisfied with their body, their chances of developing psychological disorders such as muscle dysmorphia and/or depression are also increased (Young et al., 2013, p.174). To further explore the correlation between men’s negative view on their body as a reflection of superhero’s muscularity, Young, Gabriel and Hollar (2013) conducted an experiment by showing men images of muscly superheroes and non-muscular heroes and asked them to then evaluate how the men viewed themselves in comparison (p.173). What they found was that the muscular images showed made the men feel badly about themselves because upon comparison, the superheroes made the men’s own bodies appear small (Young et al., 2013,p.173).

 Ben Affleck morph into muscular monster for Batman
Pic © Bill Comstock
However, Young, Gabriel and Hollar also found that this was only the case when the individuals did not have a psychological connection with the superheroes (p.175). A parasocial relationship (PSR), is “a type of intimate, friendlike relationship that occurs between a mediated persona and a viewer” (Rubin & McHugh, 1987, p.280). When a PSR had been formed, it was actually found that there could be positive effects on men’s outlook towards their own body/self-esteem and that the superhero connection “may fulfill an important psychological function, making them feel better about their bodies.” (Young et al., 2013, p.175) Lacher, Nichols, Nichols & May (2011) state that “finding a hero to whom the child can relate is one of the most crucial parts of story construction” (p.66), it can be assumed that the same concept can be considered for the formation of a parasocial relationship between the character and the reader. 

The Original Man of Steel
Pic © DC Comics
Comic book characters were always created to be easily relatable from as far back as 1894 when the Yellow Kid was created as an immigrant struggling to fit in (Gibbs, 2015). Comic book superheroes also followed this trend of having realistic flaws or issues which young readers could relate to, for example Hawkeye was once 80% deaf (Marvel, 2015) and Matt Murdock had been blind since he was a child (Miller & Mazzucchelli, 2015,p.130). However, in the present day, it appears that the issues which superheroes have are more relatable to the adult audiences rather than the children. Of course, there are still some easily relatable issues such as the X-men being social outcasts and minorities (Martin, 2007, p.242), the Fantastic four struggling to work together with severe personal differences (Martin, 2007, p.243) and the reflection of “common human experiences of insecurity and selfishness, as well as cooperation and responsibility” as seen in the Fantastic Four and Spiderman alike (Martin, 2007, p.244). However, adult themes such as alcoholism and the act of exploiting women are becoming increasingly popular with the superheroes of today making them less relatable to children as well as being negative role models (BBC news, 2010). As an example of this, Hancock and Iron Man can be examined. Hancock is portrayed as rude and as an alcoholic with a “bad boy” attitude (Gray & Kaklamanidou, 2011, p.100) whereas Tony Stark can be seen as struggling with alcoholism and exploiting women (American Psychological Association, 2010).

Pic © Marvel Comics
In conclusion, although superheroes were once viewed as positive role models, they have increasingly developed negative attitudes and have thus become increasingly negative role models (American Psychological Association, 2010). Apart from the role model aspect of superheroes, it can also be observed that the muscular physical representations of superheroes can contribute to the ideals of masculinity and the development of poor self-image as well as psychological issues among boys (Young et al., 2013, p.174). It was also found that the negative impacts of the muscular representation of superheroes could actually be reversed and give males a positive outlook on their body if a parasocial relationship with the superhero had been formed (Young et al., 2013, p.176). However, parasocial relationships are most easily formed when children can relate to the superheroes which they are viewing (Lacher et al., 2011, p.66). Although earlier representations of superheroes were easier for children to relate to, it appears that the more modern representations of superheroes are increasingly targeted towards issues only relatable to the adult audiences (American Psychiatric Association, 2010). With all factors into consideration, the target audience of superheroes can be questioned and it can be questionable whether the superheroes of today are still targeted at the children or if the superheroes of today are growing up with the readers of yesterday.


American Psychological Association. (2010, August 15). Today's Superheroes Send Wrong Image to Boys, Say Researchers. Retrieved December 9, 2015, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2010/08/macho-stereotype-unhealthy.aspx 

Gray, R., & Kaklamanidou, B. (2011). The 21st century superhero essays on gender, genre and globalization in film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. 

Gibbs, C. (2015, August 19). The Golden Age of Comic Books. Lecture, Lennoxville. Hawkeye (Clint Barton). (2015). Retrieved December 9, 2015, from http://marvel.com/universe/Hawkeye_(Clint_Barton) 

Jirousek, C. (1996). Superstars, Superheroes and The Male Body Image: The Visual Implications Of Football Uniforms. The Journal of American Culture, 1-11. 

Lacher, D., Nichols, T., Nichols, M., & May, J. (2011). Section 2: Constructing and telling stories. InConnecting with kids through stories using narratives to facilitate attachment in adopted children.(2nd ed.). London: Jessica Kingsley. 

Martin, J. (2007). Children's Attitudes Toward Superheroes As A Potential Indicator Of Their Moral Understanding. Journal of Moral Education, 36(2), 239-250. Retrieved December 9, 2015. 

Miller, F., & Mazzucchelli, D. (2012). David Mazzucchelli's Daredevil: Born again (Artist's ed.). New York: IDW Publishing. 

Pope, H. G., & Olivardia, R. (1999). Evolving Ideals of Male Body Image as Seen Through Action Toys. International Journal Of Eating Disorders, 26(1), 65-72. 

Rubin, R. B., & McHugh, M. P. (1987). Development of Parasocial Interaction Relationships. Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 31(3), 279-292. 

Stearns, P. (1979). Be a man!: Males in modern society. New York, New York: Holmes & Meier. 

Superheroes 'poor role models for boys' - BBC News. (2010, August 16). Retrieved December 6, 2015, from http://www.bbc.com/news/health-10957590 

Young, A. F., Gabriel, S., & Hollar, J. L. (2013). Batman to the rescue! The protective effects of parasocial relationships with muscular superheroes on men's body image. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(1), 173-177. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.08.003

About The Student

Kaitlin Houley is presently studying at Champlain College Lennoxville located in Quebec, Canada. Are the superheroes of today growing up with the readers of yesterday? was completed as part of a special project for Graphic Novels in the Department of English.

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