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Our Superheroes, Ourselves

(Oxford University Press; US: Jul 2013)

Pop Culture and the Potential for Progress

Nominally, Our Superheroes, Ourselves presents psychological analyses of audiences’ relationship to the caped crusaders that we return to again and again. In truth, it offers far more than that. It shows us how this fantastical genre affects us in indisputably real ways, and in so doing, illuminates the leverage points that we as consumers and creators have to better ourselves by bettering our media. 


Our Superheroes, Ourselves is a study in paradoxes, both in form and in content. Editor Robin S. Rosenberg brings together insights from an array of recognized psychologists, lending the book credibility and giving it roots in data. Unfortunately, this approach also proves to be the volume’s Kryptonite. The book’s speculations are grounded in practitioners’ clinical experience as well as formal experiments and statistical records, but its academic lens is stylistically uninspiring. The tone of certain essays too frequently suggests the patronizing straightforwardness that peppers the pages of National Geographic: Kids, while other passages come off as impenetrably stuffy.


The compilation structure, too, backfires: while the variety of perspectives and angles on the subject matter circumvents any feeling of unrelenting repetition, the essays themselves possess far less cohesion than Rosenberg’s introduction would suggest. In it, she hopes the essays will “intrigue” readers. It is unfortunate that the volume’s length and construction allows most of them to do little more than that. 


In spite of its stylistic flaws, Our Superheroes, Ourselves raises significant points about why we keep returning to superhero media. Through it, we watch a piecemeal chronology of the global audience’s current fascination with superheroes unfold, and, in doing so, witness the evolution of superhero media that allows it to maintain such popularity. In this way, the compilation is a success: it highlights milestones in the development of superheroes as characters as well as in the plot of superhero films, which in turn illuminate components of the magical formula that makes superheroes so interesting to us.


According to Rosenberg et al., superhero media consistently earns our fascination through a series of intricate balancing acts. We find irresistible appeal in fictional worlds where lines of morality are—or at least appear to be—far more clearly drawn than in our own, yet realistic portrayals of emotional processes and complex personalities garner our sympathy. Simplistic narrative techniques temper more complex premises that hit close to home (racial prejudice in X-Men, overpopulation in Green Lantern #81, and terrorism in Iron Man). We appreciate semi-allegorical superhero stories that give us the chance to think about very real problems, and value equally the predictable story arcs or oversimplified moral dilemmas that act as emotional buffers. We stand in perhaps envious awe of the strengths superheroes have, knowing that they reach heights we could never dream of matching.


Rosenberg and colleague Ellen Winner argue that we view superheroes in a manner similar to the way most “average” adults view gifted people. That said, we never fail to recognize ourselves in superheroes, whether through perceived personality traits (as seen in the studies Travis Langley’s chapter discusses, comparing the perceived dispositions of superheroes, supervillains, and audience members) or through parallels in our work lives (which Gary N. Burns and Megan B. Morris explore in Chapter 8).


Superhero media is not limited to serving the function of a funhouse mirror for its consumers. To illustrate this, Our Superheroes, Ourselves treks on, into the zones where the fictional world and the real world actually interact. Multiple essays cite data that suggests exposure to super characters leads to increased altruism, a claim that Lawrence C. Rubin expands on in the context of superhero-centered therapy.


Rubin’s chapter begins with an anecdote about a patient whose mother used Superman as a role model through which to support him as an adopted child, which in itself a refreshing counterpoint from some of the less vivid essays. Moving beyond the specific, Rubin delves into the possibilities he believes superhero media presents for insight, self-awareness, and, ultimately, self-improvement.


That said, our relationship with superheroes is not always a positive one. Elizabeth Behm-Morowitz and Hillary Pennell skillfully discuss issues of gender and self-concept, providing data on the measurable impact that misogynistic portrayals of female characters have on the way men treat women. In a second prong of their thorough analysis, they point out the potentially-disastrous effects of superheroes’ exaggerated physical features on self-efficacy—not just body image—for both women and men.


The volume culminates in a whopping 25 page essay by Mikhail Lyubansky, the depth and panache of which should make it sufficient motivation to work through the less inspiring patches of the book. Lyubansky takes on images of justice in superhero media, highlighting the problems with the most common attitudes about crime and putting forth more constructive theories, such as rehabilitative and restorative justice.


Lyubansky’s chapter is not conclusive: in fact, uncertainty about morality and the ripple patterns of crime are key pillars in his discussion. But it is precisely this that makes his arguments powerful. The media we consume provides us with models of acceptable behavior and shapes our attitudes toward our fellow human beings. If such ubiquitous images make no room for compassionate approaches to justice, how can there be space for them in our collective conscience?


Our Superheroes, Ourselves guides us to see the immense opportunities for improvement, both societal and individual, that the popularity of superhero media presents. Creators and consumers alike could have unknowable impact by cultivating comics and movies that subvert destructive stereotypes of gender, body image, and justice, increase portrayals of altruism, and offer more inclusive narratives. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.

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