The dark side of superhero play
While many will argue the benefits of kids dressing up, others believe modern superheroes are unhealthy role models for children because of their aggressive and sarcastic traits, because they rarely speak about the virtue of doing “good” for humanity.
University of Massachusetts’ Dr Sharon Lamb, who co-authored Packaging Boyhood2, writing on the sexualisation of girls and the expectations of boys, says modern superheroes are portrayed as mostly men who are ruled purely by selfish goals.
She says today’s superheroes, such as Ironman and Black Widow, are too much like action heroes – they take part in non-stop violence, they’re aggressive and they rarely “do good”. They are characters who have been reinvented in movies and by marketers.
The newer superheroes downplay their backstories and social justice themes, she says, to fit in multiple explosions, car crashes or over the top violence.
Comic book heroes of the past were people “boys could look up to and learn from because outside of their costumes, they were people with real problems and many vulnerabilities”.
Her research found in today’s media, superheroes and slackers were the only two options boys had. “Boys are told if you can’t be a superhero, you can always be a slacker.”
But Ms Harris says superhero play will always have its place in the lives of young children, with the strength, speed and bravery of superheroes attracting and inspiring kids.
“In addition, superhero play gives young children opportunities to build self-confidence and reduces tension associated with stress.”
She says when young children have their capes fastened and masks in place, they can focus on their dreams and strengths, express their own feelings and enjoy the opportunities they have “to express their commitment to being super friends and resilient superstars”.
Superhero play can help spark our kid’s imaginations, it can inspire physical games and activities and it can help children feel less scared of the unknown.
While the debate will continue to be heard, in a world where the pressure is on children to perform and reach age milestones on time, a bit of superhero play could offer a way for children to experience a sense of personal power.