Superheroes: Bad Role Models for Boys?
Researchers Say Superheroes Are Too Violent, but Close Ties to Mothers, Friends Can Help Boys Shun Negative Stereotypes
Aug. 16, 2010 (San Diego) -- 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.
The other is the slacker, ''the pot-smoking smelly guy who hates school," she says.
Today's superheroes, she says, are a step down from those in earlier days. Today's superheroes, she says, ''use social justice as an excuse for aggression."
But there's a way resist these ''macho'' images, another researcher reported at the same meeting.
Superheroes: The Study
Lamb's team polled 674 boys, aged 4 to 18, asking what they were reading, watching on television and at the movies, and what they were reading in comic books.
She watched the movies and shows and looked at the comic books deemed popular, evaluating popular superheroes, such as Batman, Ironman, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, a group of astronauts who gain super powers after radiation exposure.
After finding them aggressive and otherwise undesirable, she noticed that the other extreme in movies and other materials popular with boys was the ''slacker," says Lamb, who co-wrote Packaging Boyhood: Saving our Sons From Super Heroes, Slackers and Other Media Stereotypes.
She also found a theme of boys hanging out to drink together appearing in media deemed by rating systems to be appropriate for viewing by pre-teens. The message here, she says, is ''that the way boys bond with each other is binge drinking or partying."
The theme sometimes appears in animated fare, too, she found. In Open Season, for instance, animals get drunk on sugar and trash a store, she says.
Resisting Superheroes and Slackers: What Works?
In another study, also presented Sunday, developmental psychologist Carlos Santos, PhD, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University, Tempe, reported that boys who resist these images seem better adjusted.
In his research, he followed 426 middle school boys from six public schools in New York. The boys came from diverse backgrounds, he tells WebMD, allowing him to look at whether ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or immigrant status factored into whether boys adopted the macho superhero image.
He asked the boys, surveyed annually in the spring of sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, to describe the quality of their relationships with their mother, father, closest sibling, and their friends.