Today's superheroes send wrong image to boys, say researchers

Aug 15, 2010

Watching superheroes beat up villains may not be the best image for boys to see if society wants to promote kinder, less stereotypical male behaviors, according to psychologists who spoke Sunday at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

"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."

The comic book heroes of the past did fight criminals, she said, "but these were heroes boys could look up to and learn from because outside of their costumes, they were real people with real problems and many vulnerabilities," she said.

To understand how the media and marketers package to boys, Lamb surveyed 674 boys age 4 to 18, walked through malls and talked to sales clerks and came to understand what boys were reading and watching on television and at the movies. She and her co-authors found that marketers take advantage of boys' need to forge their identity in adolescence and sell them a narrow version of masculinity. They can either be a "player" or a "slacker" -- the guy who never even tries - to save face.

"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. We wonder if the messages boys get about saving face through glorified slacking could be affecting their performance in school."

Teaching boys early on to distance themselves from these images and encouraging them to find the lies in the messages can help, said Lamb. "When you crowd out other types of media messages, you promote stereotypes and limit their options."

Boys seem better adjusted when they resist internalizing "macho" images, according to a researcher who also presented at APA's convention.

Researcher Carlos Santos, PhD, of Arizona State University, examined 426 middle school boys' ability to resist being emotionally stoic, autonomous and physically tough — stereotyped images of masculinity — in their relationships. He also looked at how this would affect their psychological adjustment.

Santos looked at whether boys could resist being tough, emotionally unavailable, and detached from their friends as they moved from sixth to eighth grade; whether ethnicity made a difference; whether their relationships with their families and peer group fostered this resistance; and whether resisting these images affected their psychological health.

Participants were from different racial/ethnic backgrounds: 20 percent were African-American, 9 percent were Puerto Rican, 17 percent were Dominican-American, 21 percent were Chinese-American, 27 percent were European-American and 6 percent were of another race or ethnicity.

Boys from diverse ethnic and racial groups were equally able to resist these masculine stereotypes, going against the common belief that certain ethnic minority boys are more emotionally stunted and hypermasculine, said Santos. Few differences were detected and most tended to dissipate over the course of middle school.

He found that boys were more likely to act tough and detached from their friends as they got older. But boys who remained close to their mothers, siblings and peers did not act as tough and were more emotionally available to their friends compared to those who were not as close. However, closeness to fathers encouraged boys to be more autonomous and detached from friendships.

"If the goal is to encourage boys to experience healthy family relationships as well as healthy friendships, clinicians and interventionists working with families may benefit from having fathers share with their sons on the importance of experiencing multiple and fulfilling relationships in their lives," Santos said. He also found that boys who were depressed had a harder time not acting macho in their friendships.

Interestingly, levels of emotional stoicism tended to remain stable throughout the middle school years and boys who did not adopt these macho behaviors had better psychological health in middle school, he found.

The results show that being able to resist internalizing these macho images —especially aggression and autonomy — declines as boys transition into adolescence and this decline puts their mental health at risk, said Santos. "Helping boys resist these behaviors early on seems to be a critical step toward improving their health and the quality of their social relationships."

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Deadbolt
not rated yet Aug 15, 2010
As usual, we look at it back to front. Today's superheroes aren't sending the wrong message to boys. Today's superheros exist, because those things already exist in boys, or males.

Stereotypical masculine behaviors are stereotypical because they are evolved into males through competition. Action movies and superhero films are just an outlet of that. Almost all entertainment is based on some kind of conflict, and on one person, usually a male, striving to be the best, the strongest, and getting the girl.

Which came first? The culture or the humans? The humans obviously. We create our culture. The only important thing is recognizing this innate trend and understanding those are gender atypical, but at the same time we can't deny that: boys will be boys (and girls will be girls).
Xaero
1 / 5 (3) Aug 15, 2010
Today's superheros exist, because those things already exist in boys, or males.

I'd say, both views are right from their own perspectives. There exists increasing polarization and dichotomy: the increasing number of people makes us less sensitive to price of human life, which leads to inherent cruelty of computer games, TV, movies etc.. But the same multimedia industry makes pronounced exactly the opposite aspects of fastidious life of modern people in rich countries (you know, all these Beverly Hills, Friends and other sitcoms with many words about trivialities, but with no real action).
Shootist
not rated yet Aug 15, 2010
Today's superheros exist, because those things already exist in boys, or males.

I'd say, both views are right from their own perspectives. There exists increasing polarization and dichotomy: the increasing number of people makes us less sensitive to price of human life, which leads to inherent cruelty of computer games, TV, movies etc.. But the same multimedia industry makes pronounced exactly the opposite aspects of fastidious life of modern people in rich countries (you know, all these Beverly Hills, Friends and other sitcoms with many words about trivialities, but with no real action).


To paraphrase Seinfeld, "a show about nothing".
GregT
5 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2010
Has anyone seen the Disney teen actors? Talk about bad infuence. Their characters are superheroes as well but all they portray are bratty rich kids that lip off constantly for the entire show. I simply don't allow my children to watch any longer as their behavior is changed by these Disney creations.
xponen
not rated yet Aug 16, 2010
Which came first? The culture or the humans? The humans obviously. We create our culture. The only important thing is recognizing this innate trend and understanding those are gender atypical, but at the same time we can't deny that: boys will be boys (and girls will be girls).

Sometimes.. film DOES NOT correctly represent human complex, they simplify things, making things to appear too cheesy/phoney or fake, but kids doesn't know this, and they fall for it. I don't think this phenomenon is inert/benign/harmless, I think it can have bad consequences to the society (if it continue unhindered). -We can never make film be too accurate, unless we ask for psychologist, sociologist and scientist to contribute to the film.

However, there's a good sign that modern sci-fi are becoming more scientifically accurate, thanks to the involvement of scientist who aim to popularize science. There's a committee where film producer can consult scientist for advice.
gwrede
5 / 5 (2) Aug 16, 2010
It's never been about everybody not knowing what harm hero stereotypes in motion pictures cause. It's about market economy rules deciding what we get to watch.

Any foreigner can tell you that the American diet is gravitating towards sugar and fat, lightly laced with minute amounts of what the package label purports the entire contents to be. Similarly, movies are gravitating towards hero stereotypes engaging in non-stop CGI over-the-top action and destruction with female and villain stereotypes.

And what can you expect? If the same movie has to entice everybody, from the semi-literate trash to the better-to-dos, there are only so many ways to do it.

The result? Obese people (from food) and mental problems and poor adjusting in children (from movies).

I wish more governments would recognize that there is a better middle-ground between absolutely no control and Soviet or North Korean style total censorship. (Counting tits and f-words for ratings really doesn't qualify here.)
ArcainOne
not rated yet Aug 16, 2010
A major key to this is education on the part of both the child and the adult. If we let our children raise themselves on Television and Comic books then sure they get these wrong ideas on what is masculine as well as feminine. However an involved adult can help shed perspective on these behaviors. In "well" written movies and comic books the characters act negatively in response to something (often many things) that has happened to them in their past. They will also show the effects these negative acts have on their lives and others and see the character move away from this behavior. Pay attention and you will see these lessons are in existence in both the new Batman and Ironman movies.
Truth
not rated yet Aug 16, 2010
I agree with deadbolt. I have seen too many young men ruined by feminine traits to believe that the best thing for males is to get even more "gentle". Evolution created masculine aggression, pride and arrogance in order for the human race to survive. And it worked. We are all a result of this masculine trait. Why do we think we know better than nature? Keep making men more feminine and sooner or later nature will reverse the putrefaction and abolish it with her own devices,namely disease, genetic changes and the like.