Of superheroes and super media

Sam Smith-  Four days after the Parkland killings I went to see Black Panther. I normally avoid such films because of their level of gratuitous violence, but given the rap on Black Panther, I gave it a try.

As I watched I began to wonder if I  end up among those blamed for some future mass killing. And was this really what the civil rights movement had come to?

On the first point, I found a suggestion that science isn’t all that hot on superheroes as a model for our society. A Science Daily article noted last year:

 There’s a lot of good that kids can take away from watching their favorite superheroes — defending and protecting the weak, using their talents to help others and fighting for a cause that’s bigger than themselves, to name a few.

BYU family life professor Sarah M. Coyne decided to study what it was, exactly, that preschool-aged boys and girls took away from exposure to superhero culture, and it wasn’t the many positive traits that shone through.

“So many preschoolers are into superheroes and so many parents think that the superhero culture will help their kids defend others and be nicer to their peers,” Coyne said, “but our study shows the exact opposite. Kids pick up on the aggressive themes and not the defending ones.”

Coyne found that children who frequently engage with superhero culture are more likely to be physically and relationally aggressive one year later. She even found the children were not more likely to be defenders of kids being picked on by bullies and were not more likely to be prosocial.

Last spring, Coyne authored a study on the effects of Disney Princess culture on young children, finding the perpetuation of stereotypes that could have damaging effects. …

” I’d say to have moderation,” Coyne said. “Have your kids involved in all sorts of activities, and just have superheroes be one of many, many things that they like to do and engage with.”

Which means it’s unlikely that I will kill anyone in the near future, but at the same time, for someone who grew up with Martin Luther King as a role model rather than Black Panther it feels like there’s something missing in our collective lives.

The worst example, of course, is our despicable president but at some point we have to start admitting that Donald Trump is the result of earlier disasters, not merely the cause of our present ones.

As we look for the reasons for our collective collapse, it is hard to avoid the likelihood that the media has played a strikingly major role in it.  As the media has become increasingly monopolistic it has increasingly defined the world about which it is meant to be objectively reporting. As I wrote some four decades ago:

As late as the 1950s more than half of all reporters lacked a college degree. Since that time there has been increasing emphasis on professionalism in journalism; witness the growth of journalism schools, the proliferation of turgid articles on the subject, and the preoccupation with “objectivity” and other “ethical issues.” There has also been an interesting parallel growth in monopolization of the press.

Among the common characteristics of professions is that they are closed shops and have strong monopolistic tendencies. The more training required to enter a field, the more you can weed out socially, politically, and philosophically unsuitable candidates; and armed with a set of rules politely known as canons or codes of ethics but also operating as an agreement for the restraint of trade, one can eliminate much of the competition.

This is not just a political problem, it is a cultural one. MSNBC and Fox help reduce the approved commentators on life to politicians and members of the media. Educators, thinkers, moral voices from the church and elsewhere no longer matter because they lack the revered qualities of power and ratings.

Thus we have moved in a little over a year from a presidential administration to presidential dysfunction and from policies and programs to provocation and prevarication, the latter attracting far more viewers.

Ask yourself: if ML King were alive today, what sort of coverage would he get?

Morality, decency and wisdom  – absent a mass killing –  are no longer generally considered news and certainly not worthy of superhero status.

It is not surprising therefore  that so many of those men guilty of sexual abuse come from either the corporate or entertainment world. These are the capitals of hegemonic freedom. The only really needed virtue is power.

Faced with something similar in the 1960s, we started an underground press and a counterculture. We do not have to be controlled by either channel 39 or 49.  By super media or superheroes. We can still create another way of being.



One thought on “Of superheroes and super media

  1. Good morning Mr. Smith.

    While I don’t always agree with what you write, I never fail to try to appreciate your point of view and attempt to learn from it, especially when our views diverge.

    Having said that – when I read this morning’s post, I decided to reach out to you to make a point about the movie “Black Panther” that I think even impeccably credentialed progressive white Americans fail to grasp in terms of the astonishingly significant cultural and social impact of this film as it relates to black Americans.

    While I have no doubt that the entire superhero genre is deeply suspect as to what it contributes to the goal of instilling a sense of fairness and empathy in most children, your piece (although at one point it does posit an almost completely unarguable question,“What would MLK think?”) takes little account of the social implications that reinforcing a positive cultural sensibility has upon children of color, particularly in a society that devalues them at every conceivable turn and actually murders them with impunity.

    The images that our children confront every day in their young lives are seldom enough offset by anything that resembles any sense of personal agency. This movie was filled with so many positive values in that regard that I fear there is neither sufficient space nor time to delineate and expand upon their crucial importance to communities of color – not only for children, but for adults as well. When was the last time that you encountered a shared sense of unbridled joy among strangers leaving a theater? I, who have been a moviegoer since the age of seven and am now eligible for Medicare, can honestly answer “never”, not at this scale and not with this amount of sheer emotional exuberance. I don’t think that Dr. King would deny the tonic effects of joy.

    I offer that “Black Panther” is not your average superhero flick – that is its entire point. I believe there is a direct causal link between actively enabling children to feel good about themselves, connected to a larger community, possessed of a rich and honorable history and creating kinder, better people. I think that it worth working a little harder to specify why this particular movie must be considered separately as it sets social and cultural standards worthy of emulation. Perhaps other superhero movies should try to do as much.

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