I’ve mentioned before that I consider superheroes kink-adjacent to wrestling. There’s a lot of overlap, including full-time attention from the fine folks at Rants, Roids, & Rasslin’ and Eye of the Cyclone. There are also sideline overlappers from the wrestling side of things, including the Superhero Heels series from BG East and the Hard Heroes line of videos from Can-Am. Of course, much of masked wrestling in general draws on the rules of superherodom, turning straight-up pros into icons in the battle of good versus evil, imbuing them with an aura of invincibility when in costume, and portraying their collapse into mortal vulnerability upon unmasking.
Some psychologists reportedly have recently done “research” into the impact of superheroes on children. I’m highly skeptical about the gendered and morality-laden ruler with which they seem to have measured their data. Regardless, though, their findings are that the classic superheroes of the first half of the 20th century had a positive influence on children because they were morally upright, unflinchingly sincere, restrained in their use of force and violence, and explicitly promoting the virtue of humanitarianism. On the other hand, the researchers suggest that more recent superheroes are overly aggressive, sarcastic, self-absorbed, and eagerly embracing of violence and domination as testimony to their masculinity.
I’m just going to set aside the child-rearing aspects of this topic for the moment, which is actually the point of the research study. Those of you rearing children can take from this what you will. But from an adult perspective (and many of the offending superheroes cited are really comics for adults) I’m fascinated with the notion that society should be invested in promoting superhero role-models that “promote kinder, less stereotypical male behaviors.” Some of us, present company certainly included, think that there’s something entirely entertaining and attractive about many of these very same “male behaviors.”
It seems to me that the division identified in this research is the divide between the classic face and the classic heel. Moral masculinity appears to be tied to the rule-abiding, humble, self-restrained humanitarian hero who the masses are sure to cheer as savior, protector, and defender of the weak. Immoral masculinity is characterized as the opportunistic, cocky, hedonistic bully who takes hold of victory with both hands, taking whatever short-cut is necessary, reveling in the exercise of power and domination as ends in-and-of themselves.
I’m not the most versed comic-head in the kink-corner of the internet, but it seems to me that the more recent superheroes reflect a postmodern bent that argues that, just like real life, the world of superheroes is comprised of complex and conflicted characters who sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons. Postmodern superheroes travel back and forth between turning heel and turning back to face, sometimes doing the humbling and sometimes getting humbled, and inevitably, as always, pitting strength against strength, muscle against muscle, will against will, until one man is proven the dominator and the other forced into submission. It seems to me to be precisely a story about masculinity, and a more complicated, realistic version of masculinity is not one that is unflinchingly moral, non-violent, selfless and humanitarian, but one that is conflicted, as is every exercise of power over another being.
I, for one, would much rather my role models and proxy protagonists be flawed, inconsistent, considerate of their own self-interests, and possessing well-deserved pride in their mastery of themselves, their bodies, and their foes (and their foes’ bodies). I couldn’t live up to a 1950’s rendition of Superman, but I could see some potential for self-improvement by identifying with a postmodern warrior who gets it right sometimes, gets it wrong sometimes, and struggles to sort out the right formula of self-confidence, self-interest, and self-restraint to craft for myself a life that I can feel good about. Again, I have no idea what goes into good child-rearing, but as for me, a vacillating superhero who blurs the line of hero and villain, who occasionally smacks down an opponent and occasionally gets smacked down in the constant struggle to determine whose idea of virtue will win the day seems a lot more… meaningful.
And, frankly, it’s a lot hotter. Which is what tends to turn my crank, and I just bet it will continue to turn the crank of generations of gay (and probably straight) boys to come.