The Young and the Superpowered in Isolation: Revisiting Anne Dyson’s ‘Writing Superheroes’

Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy
Anne Haas Dyson
Teachers College Press
March 1997 (paperback)

“They were manipulating ideology symbols of power and weakness, love and hostility, good and evil, and, at the very same time, they were manipulating their social relations with classroom companions.” – Dyson (1997, p. 162)

Why “Writing Superheroes” and why now?

As I recently re-read Anne Haas Dyson‘s (1997) Writing Superheroes—an ethnographic study of second and third graders’ use of popular culture in their literary practices—in preparation for future scholarship, I was reminded of its importance for my current scholarly interests. As someone who examines the intersection of sociomoral concepts (e.g., laws, norms, justice, fairness) and superhero narratives, it was a breath of fresh air to come across a book that not only takes seriously the potential of superheroes but children’s socio-cognitive capacities as well.

But unlike when I was a graduate student broadly interested in superheroes and morality, potential interrelations have increasingly come more into focus in recent years. As a result, this second reading of Writing Superheroes is from a more systematic perspective—one that I think has something to say about how we live our lives with and amongst others.

Although purely speculative and broadly construed, the following essay is written in light of three interrelated assumptions. One is that through social distancing, some if not many children may experience a moderate increase in the amount of media they will consume. The second is that some of this media will likely include superhero cartoons which may or may not include one of the shows included in Dyson’s (1997) ethnographic study, X-Men: The Animated Series (1992-1997). The third assumption is that some of this television watching will involve one or more of their parents or caregivers.

My argument is that viewing Dyson’s (1997) ethnographic study from a developmental perspective has implications for parents and children’s co-viewing (broadly construed) of superhero media. Before proceeding, it should be noted I am aware that for at least two reasons—(1) the influence of recent events on caregivers/parents’ varying economic situations and their effects on their ability to co-view media with their children (let alone superhero media) and (2) caregivers/parents’ varying views on the age-appropriateness of superhero cartoons given their level of violence—the ideas mentioned below may be rejected by some. Lastly, for reasons explained next, the essay has a relatively sharper focus on the minimum ages of seven and eight.

How do children make sense of their social worlds?

In large measure, the sociomoral competencies focus on the minimum ages of seven and eight for three reasons. First, seven and eight-year-olds were the focus of Dyson’s (1997) study, as she started her ethnographic study with a second-grade class and continued following them in the third grade. Second, the kinds of sociomoral competencies children around these ages tend to display suggest that—if done in a manner consistent with their developmental level—engaging them in conversations about the sociomoral features of the superhero cartoons they consume may potentially contain some consistencies with how they construe sociomoral events in their own lives. Third, of the 32 animated superhero shows created between 1992 and 2017 reviewed by Common Sense Media—a list I compiled while working on another project in 2018—28 (87.4%) were recommended for either ages seven and older (14 shows; 43.7%) or eight and older (14 shows; 43.7%). X-Men was given an age recommendation of 7+.

One of the sociomoral competencies children appear to possess, according to Social Domain Theory (SDT), is the ability to distinguish between sociomoral events based on what they perceive to be the concepts and conceptual domains most salient in those events (Arsenio & Lover, 1995; Killen & Nucci, 1995; Turiel, 1983). These conceptual domains consist of distinct concepts that we—beginning in childhood—construct as we actively participate in our social worlds. Although SDT identified three broad conceptual domains as central to children’s navigation of their social worlds, I’m only going to focus on two here: the moral domain (e.g., comprising of concepts related to harm, justice, etc.) and the personal/psychological domain (e.g., autonomy, wants, privacy).

Conceptual domains are on the one hand distinct in the sense that they are associated with qualitatively different social events (Turiel, 1983), and on the other hand related in that conceptual changes within one domain can have implications for conceptual understandings in other domains (Nucci, 1996). For instance, the personal domain is believed to play an important role in the understanding and resolution of conflicts that include moral features (Killen & Nucci, 1995; Nucci, 1996, 2014).

In addition to children’s increasing ability to apply distinguishing criteria for moral and non-moral events with age (Davidson, Turiel, & Black, 1983), findings also suggest that older children’s understandings of these domains tend to be more elaborate than those of younger children. In the moral domain, for instance, evidence points to increasing awareness of both (1) the role of psychological features (e.g., intentions, emotions) in understanding social events involving harm and victimization (Arsenio, Gold, & Adams, 2006; Helwig, Zelazo, & Wilson, 2001; Wainryb, Brehl, & Matwin, 2005) and (2) fairness considerations with respect to equality (Helwig & Jasiobedzka, 2001; Nucci, 2009). In the personal domain, evidence suggests a greater appreciation, with age, for children’s ability to resolve social conflicts with peers (e.g., as opposed to believing that the teacher should resolve such conflicts) (Ardila-Rey & Killen, 2001).

Consistent with the view that social interactions contain distinct features that individuals—including children—attend to when trying to understand those situations (Turiel, Killen, & Helwig, 1987; Wainryb, 2006), another sociomoral competency children increasingly appear to possess with age is the ability to use multiple features of situations to inform their construals of those situations. One area where this is apparent is concerning the psychological features of others. For instance, research suggests that for some events, older children (compared to younger children) demonstrate a greater awareness that (1) people’s beliefs can inform their moral judgments (Wainryb & Brehl, 2006) and (2) non-moral disagreements between people can be influenced by subjective (as opposed to objective) information (Wainryb, Shaw, Langley, Cottam, & Lewis, 2004). Moreover, they can account for situational features when predicting a person’s behavior (Helwig, Zelazo, & Wilson, 2001).

From an ethnographic analysis to a developmental one?

“Superhero stories, video games, Greek myths, and biographies of varied historical heroes—all feature different kinds of conflicts and different kinds of resolutions as well. Collectively, they offered the children symbolic material with which to explore the complexities—and the ambiguities—of goodness and power, and, also, of their own relationships with each other.” – Dyson (1997, p. 139)

I’m highlighting a few aspects of Dyson’s (1997) study that I believe may provide some useful implications pertaining to caregivers/parents and children co-viewing superhero cartoons. For each aspect from Dyson’s study I highlight, I briefly suggest an alternative interpretation through a developmental lens as well as an implication of this interpretation for caregivers/parents and children. Insofar as superhero cartoon examples are referenced, the focus is exclusively on X-Men since the cartoon was one the children in Dyson’s study incorporated into their literacy activities. Moreover, X-Men portrays certain characters, story-arcs, and themes in a way that I believe is consistent with a multifaceted view of both individuals and the social worlds they inhabit, modify and create (Turiel, Killen, & Helwig, 1987; Turiel & Wainryb, 2000; Wainryb, 2006).

Before proceeding, it should be noted that in important ways, Dyson’s (1997) view of children and their social worlds are generally consistent with the developmental perspective represented in the literature referenced above. Examples of this consistency include the belief that children’s social words consist of diverse social relationships and conflicts, and that children are active participants in their social worlds.

The first aspect of Dyson’s (1997) study pertains to the relationship between social identities and human relations. One implication from Dyson’s study is that children used superheroes (e.g., via the written and enacted stories they constructed) as a way to regulate their social interactions within their classroom community and often, this process related to gender, race, and/or class differences (e.g., which students were assigned certain characters, which characters were assigned certain roles, and which students protested such assignments). From a developmental perspective, a focus on these kinds of differences at the conceptual domain level suggests that within these community literary activities, children were interacting with each other in ways that implicate moral (e.g., the fairness of assigning characters and roles) and personal/psychological (e.g., the personal right of the child to construct stories as he or she sees fit) domains.

This broader domain-level approach to children’s engagement with their social worlds may be useful for caregivers/parents and children co-viewing superhero cartoons in at least two respects. One, shows like X-Men whose story-arcs commonly revolve around themes of discrimination in various ways (e.g., between humans and mutants and between mutants who can “pass” for human and mutants who cannot) may provide multiple opportunities for caregivers/parents to get a sense of the extent to which children are attending to the concept of fairness as depicted throughout the show, and the ways that fairness may relate to other concepts (e.g. how humans fearing for their safety should interact with mutants, whether mutants should have just as much autonomy as humans, etc.). This, in turn, may encourage further discussions about how concepts from these domains sometimes manifest themselves in children’s own lives, and how they make sense of them in those contexts.

The second aspect of Dyson’s (1997) study highlighted here, related to the first, is the nature by which the children approached some of the superhero stories their classmates created. On multiple occasions, children got into disputes over role assignments, character representations (e.g., how much talking/action a character was assigned), and the story content (e.g., the relative dominance of fighting scenes over other scenes). During these disputes and subsequent class discussions, children critiqued their classmates’ decisions, offered explanations for their criticisms, and negotiated alternatives.

It is suggested that an important context in which children develop the kinds of sociomoral capacities mentioned above is peer social interactions (Killen & Nucci, 1995; Smetana & Jambon, 2018). Moreover, some of the research discussed above suggests that the peer disagreements Dyson (1997) observed may provide opportunities to explore children’s understandings of the psychological features of their classmates (e.g., differing with respects to intentions, emotions, beliefs, and information)—features that are also prevalent in X-Men.

Consistent with the above-mentioned research related to children’s appreciation of the psychological characteristics of persons when construing sociomoral events, X-Men features myriad characters whose actions are informed by differing intentions and beliefs. Although this is most easily seen in the opposing views on the mutant-human relationship espoused by friends and foes Professor Xavier and Magneto, distinct perspectives are also represented by the Morlocks (mutants who cannot pass as human and thus live in the sewers) and the Friends of Humanity (a human terrorist group who hates mutants). Insofar as episodes present these differing perspectives, caregivers/parents could use these episodes as a way to see how their children are attending to characters’ differing perspectives and connecting these perspectives to their actions. Furthermore, caregivers/parents could use these discussions to further explore similarities and differences in the way children are making these perspective-action links in superhero cartoons and their sociomoral interactions with others.

The final aspect of Dyson’s (1997) study I’m briefly touching on is children’s concerns with the violent content of their peers’ superhero stories. Although in the study the concerns appear to be more focused on the prevalence of fighting scenes at the expense of other scenes, some of the students’ exploration of criteria that constitutes a good story, and their questioning of the importance of fighting scenes to superhero stories, provide a useful starting point for examining the role of violence in superhero narratives from a developmental perspective. Given the (1) importance of the moral domain in children’s understanding of their social worlds, (2) centrality of moral themes in superhero cartoons, and (3) evidence that children distinguish moral concepts from non-moral concepts in both real (Killen & Smetana, 1999; Turiel, 2008) and hypothetical (Nucci, 1981; Turiel, 2008) social interactions, superhero cartoons like X-Men can potentially be used to engage children’s thinking about issues related to harm.

Cartoons like X-Men, however, with its emphasis on discrimination, may aid in more elaborated discussions of moral themes related to harm given the frequency by which they portray violent acts being committed (or considered) by mutants who were either victims of violent acts (committed by humans) or legitimately believe it is only a matter of time before they will be victims. Consistent with the notion suggested by the literature above that a child’s sociomoral judgments are related to both the specific features moral acts elicit and their understanding of the people involved, caregivers/parents can ask children about the different acts of violence in X-Men to see to what extent their understandings of these acts—as well as harmful acts they have personally experienced (as a victim or perpetrator)—differ depending on the person committing the act and the surrounding circumstances.

Where do we go from here?

Dyson’s (1997) examination of the way children use superhero cartoons in their literacy practices to actively engage in their social worlds has implications for the potential use of superhero cartoons like X-Men to stimulate children’s sociomoral thinking. If we assume that children are capable of attending to various features of social interactions in ways that conceptually alter the meaning of events (Smetana & Jambon, 2018; Turiel, Killen, & Helwig, 1987; Wainryb, 2006), then cartoons like X-Men—with its myriad characters and multifaceted portrayals of harm (violence) and fairness (discrimination) issues—may be uniquely suited for such an endeavor. If so, superhero cartoon watching just got more interesting and educational. If not, then at least you have an excuse to watch one of the greatest superhero cartoons of all time.


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