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Superheroes: Bad Role Models for Boys?

Researchers Say Superheroes Are Too Violent, but Close Ties to Mothers, Friends Can Help Boys Shun Negative Stereotypes

Resisting Superheroes and Slackers: What Works? continued...

He evaluated whether the boys could resist following the ''macho" stereotype to be tough, detached from friends, and emotionally unavailable.

"Boys were acting resistant to stereotypes early in the study," he says. "Over time, there was a decline."

Santos found little difference between the groups, which included African-Americans, whites, Latinos, Asians, and others.

Boys who resisted stereotypes and were less aggressive and more emotionally available remained close to mothers, siblings, and peers, he found.

Closeness to dads didn't help them resist, however. "I didn't find the same pattern with dads," he tells WebMD. Boys who said they had high levels of paternal support tended to be less emotionally available to friends.

Why? "It could be that dads see being close to their son as an opportunity to reinforce traditional gender roles," Santos speculates. "Or it could be that boys perceive their dad's closeness as a call to fulfill traditional gender roles."

Santos isn't discouraging fathers from staying involved with their sons, of course. A father might share with a son, for instance, how being expressive does not make them less of a man, he says.

Keeping Superheroes and Slackers at Bay

What can parents do to be sure their sons see other images besides the two extremes?

Realize not every movie labeled PG-13 is OK for children, Lamb suggests.

Pointing out the stereotypes can help, she says. "You can teach kids what stereotypes are and how to resist them and remind them what real people and real kids like to do."

Point out good role models within the family and community, she says. Then kids can differentiate media images from real images.

Managing Superheroes: Second Opinion

Watching superheroes who don't portray a good role model does affect boys as well as girls, says Karen Dill, PhD, director of the media psychology doctoral program at the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Fielding is the author of How Fantasy Becomes Reality and has researched the evolution of female superheroes in the media and how some of them are now sending less than ideal messages to girls.

"I agree with the authors [of the new studies] that the way a social group is portrayed in media affects both public perception of the group itself and affects the members of the group and their self-images," Dill tells WebMD.

Resisting the media choices of superheroes, Dill tells WebMD, is difficult."We can't underestimate that media, which take up the great majority of kids' and teens' free time, are our storytellers," she says. "The stories they tell make up much of our shared cultural ideals and therefore shape how boys and girls feel about themselves and their peers."

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