Dear reader, it’s all too easy for us to dismiss stories as unimportant, simple entertainment or escapist fiction. We look down our collective noses at fiction, relegating it to something only “fit for children.” (I wish I could opine at length about everything wrong with that phrase, but alas that particular confab is another tale, for another time.)
Superhero stories are a perfect exemplar. (Literally and figuratively.) Tales of people with extraordinary abilities running around in tights and capes, stopping the bad guys and saving the world – it’s all just fantasy material for children is it not? In sense it is, but it has far more cultural significance than we realize.
The popular concept of the superhero dates back to the early 20th century, though the prototypes of these characters go back much further. The mythologies of many ancient civilizations feature pantheons of gods and goddesses with superhuman abilities, as well as demigods like Hercules and heroes such as Gilgamesh and Perseus. (Indeed the popular superhero Wonder Woman is just that – a demigod, at least in some versions of her story.)
In the modern era, the popularity of comic books, animated television and of course live action films have given birth to iconic heroes such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Green Arrow and the aforementioned Amazonian princess herself, Wonder Woman.
The more perceptive of you may have noticed that this list is predominantly male and white. There are many other popular superheroes than are listed here of course. Marvel’s popular X-Men series features a constantly changing team roster that totals in the hundreds for example. However the representation of non-white and female characters has been… spotty at best.
Superhero fiction is a staple of childhood, offering not only fantastic and exciting adventures, but also inspiration, not to be a superhero, but to be larger than your circumstances. At its best, superhero fiction is a powerful metaphor for overcoming obstacles, being a force for good in the world and otherwise rising above expectations. All of these are powerful ideas to feed into young minds.
Superhero stories work mainly because the reader/viewer attempts to see themselves in the heroes, vicariously living through the character’s adventures. With this in mind, one must wonder how a children of non-white ethnic backgrounds must feel seeing no one like them, no heroes who embody their beliefs, their outlooks, even their skin colour. Girls in particular must wonder why every female hero has to have an impossibly huge chest, next to no muscle or conditioning, and a costume that essentially IS a wardrobe malfunction.
Things are certainly improving, but it must be said, at a glacial pace considering how long the genre has existed. Here are a few examples of improvements in ethnic and gender representation in the superhero genre:
- Kamala Khan is the first Muslim American to headline her own comic book series, created by Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona. A teenager from New Jersey who developed shapeshifting abilities, Khan has taken on the codename of Ms. Marvel. The title has become extremely popular and garnered several awards so far.
- The role of Captain America changed in the comics from Steve Rogers to Sam Wilson, formerly known as Falcon, the first African-American superhero in mainstream comic books.
- The new comic book version of Thor is Jane Foster, a friend of the original Thor. Her story is one of incredible adversity and one that I highly recommend.
- Wonder Woman has gotten her own movie. One of the most iconic superheroes of all time has finally be given the live action treatment for the first time since the Wonder Woman television series ended in 1979. She appeared briefly in 2016’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but by all accounts her standalone film has been the highlight, bringing this feminist icon to an entirely new generation.
- Black Panther, introduced in 1966 as the first black superhero (he is from Wakanda, Africa) in mainstream American comics, has also finally debuted in a live action movie, in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. Black Panther will be headlining his own film in 2018.
As you can see, we’re starting to see better representation in superhero fiction. These changes will hopefully inspire more, until the genre is as broad and diverse as the audiences that follow their adventures.
I said at the beginning that it’s all too easy to dismiss stories as being just entertainment. But it’s important to remember that we are all just a collection of stories, and they serve to inspire and educate the young, those whose stories have not yet been written.
Superheroes are not just people who can fly or lift a building. They are archetypes that represent us at our best, inspiring with their words, actions and yes… with their stories. Children must be able to see themselves represented in fiction, superhero or otherwise, and be inspired to rise above their circumstances and create a new future.
Superheroes may not exist, but heroes most assuredly do. Our children may never be able to fly or run faster than a bullet, but they can change the world through their thoughts, ideas and actions.
That may be the greatest superpower of all.