Are Superheroes Good for Little Boys?

If you haven’t been living in a cave for the last few decades, you will know that superheroes are extremely popular in the United States. Not to mention profitable. When you look at the top grossing movies of all time, three of these are superhero films (The Avengers, Iron Man 3, and The Dark Knight Rises).

Millions of kids worldwide love superheroes. They see the movies, they play with the action figures, and they dress up in a cape and pretend to fly. However, are superheroes really good for young children?
We recently published a study entitled, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a gender stereotype!...” in the journal Sex Roles that begins to answer this question (for access to the abstract, click here).
The study involved 134 preschoolers from two different states. We had their parents fill out questionnaires when they were around 4½ years old and then again a year later. We asked about how often they viewed superhero media, how gender stereotyped their play was, how frequently they played with toy weapons, and how often their parents talked to them about the media.
OK, here are the main findings. Little boys who watched superhero programs were more likely to be gender stereotyped in their play a year later, even after controlling for how gender stereotyped they were already. By gender stereotyped, I mean how often they do traditional “boy” type things, like play fighting or wrestling. Additionally, both boys AND girls who watched a lot of superhero programs were more likely to play with toy weapons (like guns and swords) a year later.
Even more interesting, it didn’t really matter if parents talked to their children or not. Preschoolers simply aren’t ready for many of the dark themes they may come across in superhero programs.
Why does this matter? Is it really all that bad to be gender stereotyped? Well, recent studies have begun to debate this very topic. In the United States, we have a very strict view of masculinity. We continually tell little boys to “be tough,” “suck it up,” and “be a man.” According to a recent documentary, the words “be a man” are some of the most destructive words you can say to a little boy, and adherence to strong male gender stereotypes can contribute to violence and dominance in all types of relationships.

So where do superheroes come in? Superheroes are amazing in so many ways—they defend those much weaker than themselves. Some of them have strict moral codes and are honest, loyal, and true. However, they represent some of THE most gender stereotyped programs that little children will likely ever see. Superheroes are strong, powerful, assertive, muscular, and often rather violent. Indeed, we recently published another study showing that exposure to the superhero culture was associated with higher levels of aggression one year later (but did not have an influence on defending behavior) (for access to abstract click here). These programs send a very clear message about what it means to “be a man,” one that leaves little room for emotion, empathy, and nurturing of others and instead celebrates violence and strength. So in effect, our love affair with superheroes may be contributing to the hyper-masculinization of American culture.

I have a feeling America might hate this study. Because America loves superheroes and we don’t want to hear that they might have even a hint of a dark side. However, our research suggests that parents should be careful about the superhero media they let their preschoolers view. Superhero films are not made for preschoolers. They are made for older audiences, but many young children view these programs anyway. Interestingly, superhero programs that ARE actually made for preschoolers (like PBS’s SuperWhy) show positive outcomes for children (Penuel, et al., 2009; Linebarger, et al, 2009). However, not a single child in our study mentioned age-appropriate programs when talking about their favorite superheroes.
We don’t know the long term effects of viewing superhero programs. These are only two studies that involved a relatively small sample of kids and only followed them for one year. We need more research on this topic. However, the results provide food for thought.
So, should you ban superheroes in your home? I encourage parents to show their children age-appropriate media, and during preschool, this does not include the vast majority of superhero programs. Saying that, superheroes will still filter in—superheroes are such a big part of child culture that it would be impossible to completely get away from them. They are at nearly every child birthday party, make up the vast majority of child Halloween costumes, and take up nearly half of the toys aisles wherever you look. But here is a greater message that kids need to understand—a real superhero doesn’t wear a costume or hide behind a mask. A real superhero is someone who looks out for other people, no matter who they are. They accept others regardless of their background. They are someone who is loving, kind, caring, affectionate, and shows true heart—even to those who are mean to them. They have integrity and make their actions consistent with their understanding of right and wrong. They nurture those around them and are not afraid to cry. They hate violence and try to sow some good in the world. Those are the characteristics of a true superhero and qualities that any kid could aspire to.
Thanks for reading—from your friendly, neighborhood researcher.
Sarah M. Coyne, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, USA.