Superheroes as Role Models: Today's Heroes Send the Wrong Message to Boys

Filed under: In The News, Media, Social & Emotional Growth: Tweens, Social & Emotional Growth: Teens

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2. Credit: Francois Duhamel, Paramount

Without the cape, Superman was just mild-mannered, clumsy Clark Kent, who could never quite get the girl. By day, Spider-Man was the shy and dorky Peter Parker. And even the rich and charming Bruce Wayne -- Batman's alter ego -- had his limitations when he wasn't wearing that special suit.

But today's superheroes have no such vulnerabilities, making them poor role models for boys, psychologists now say.

Yesterday's superheroes talked about serving the public good, where today's -- as typified by Iron Man -- participate in nonstop violence, says Sharon Lamb, a University of Massachusetts distinguished professor.

Yesterday's heroes, she says, were brainy and wry in their daytime lives -- real people with problems and vulnerabilities. Today's are aggressive and sarcastic. Yesterday's were worthy role models, while today's exploit women and flash bling.

And it's not just the men in costume who kids are looking up to.

"Superheroes come in all forms," ranging from business scions such as Donald Trump to rap stars, Lamb tells ParentDish.

Lamb and her colleagues spoke to nearly 700 boys between the ages of 4 and 18 and walked through malls, speaking to sales clerks to gain an understanding of what boys were reading and watching on TV and at the movies.

She found that boys are being fed a narrow version of masculinity in which there are only two acceptable roles: They can be a "player" or a slacker who never tries anything so he can't fail. Lamb presented her findings at this year's annual convention of the American Psychological Association, held in San Diego, Calif., last week.

The entertainment media presents an image to boys in which male characters are either shown as winners or losers.

"A lot of boys' programming isn't about having boy friends hang out together. it's usually about being in the one up or one down position," Lamb tells ParentDish.

The alternative to being the guy on top in kids' programming, is to be the "lovable loser" we often see in Jack Black and Will Ferrell movies, Lamb says.

"If you can't be number one, you can just be the slacker who doesn't care," she tells ParentDish.

Slackers are funny, but they tend to dislike school and shirk responsibility, a message found not only in movies and on television but also in many books, such as the "My Weird School" and "Captain Underpants" series. And the sarcastic slacker humor isn't just for older kids, but reaches down to books for preschoolers, as well, Lamb says.

The solution isn't necessarily to shield boys from these types of media, but rather to educate them, Lamb says.

"You present alternatives of real men and real boys who don't fit these images, and then you teach boys to be suspicious of the way masculinity is presented," she tells ParentDish. "If you don't let them watch any of it, it becomes that much more interesting for them. Limited watching and co-viewing is your best bet, so you know what's out there."

Having said that, some movies, such as those rated PG-13 are simply inappropriate for young boys -- despite tie-ins designed to appeal to them,such as coloring books and toys, Lamb says. A child under 13 should not be allowed to watch movies with that rating.

"I really would protect young boys from those," she tells ParentDish.

Related: Never Mind Iron Man: 5 Very Different Superhero Adventures for Kids

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.