Though comic book fans would argue superheros promote a healthy interest in "truth, justice, and the American way" among boys, researchers say they may actually reinforce macho stereotypes and teach young men to be aggressive and detached.
This weekend at the annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, researchers presented new evidence on how boys are influenced by the Hollywood's image of masculinity. While in the past, comic books put more emphasis on the values superheros stood for and their vulnerabilities when they took off their costumes, today summer blockbusters aren't devoting as much time to Peter Parker or Tony Stark sorting through their interpersonal issues. Or maybe these stories are just getting drowned out by all the explosions.
Psychologist Sharon Lamb explains:
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.
To be fair, every modern superhero movie does have a few lines about doing right by humanity. Ostensibly, Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man teaches the kids that "with great power comes great responsibility," and Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man advocates, uh... shutting down your company's weapons manufacturing division so you can police the world by personally blowing stuff up with your awesome metal suit?
Lamb found that marketers are presenting two images of masculinity to boys: the "player" and the "slacker." (Presumably when Seth Rogen's Green Hornet film is released next year we'll have a third type — the superhero/slacker.) Boys can reject the macho archetype and model themselves after the slacker, using humor to save face, but that isn't a much better option since they're also more likely to be irresponsible and perform worse at school.
Researchers say that when boys are encouraged not to internalize these masculine stereotypes, they remain more well adjusted as they grow older. Psychologist Dr. Carlos Santos studied middle school-aged boys, and found those who stayed close to their mothers, siblings, and friends didn't act as tough and were more emotionally available than those who weren't as close. As they reach their teens it's even harder for guys to resist taking on an aggressive and stoic persona (not unlike Batman), which isn't good for their mental health.
Santos says reaching boys when their young is the key to helping them ward off the idea that they need to be more macho. We've become more aware that girls need to be taught to reject various negative stereotypes presented by the media, but it's also important for adults to help boys see the lies in images of masculinity portrayed by Hollywood to help them grow into better men.