Superhero role models unmask self-esteem

by Caitlin Johnson

Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

I hear Tony Stark is great at parties. He has it all: money, girls and of course, a superhero identity complete with a flying power suit. I’m sure many fanboys would give just about anything to be him. Luckily for them, a recent study by the University at Buffalo concluded that simply looking up to a superhuman figure can create a greater sense of body image and self-esteem in young people.

Higher levels of physical and emotional self-esteem were found in student subjects who established a strong parasocial or one-sided bond with a fictional superhero character. Study author Ariana Young told CNN, “The thing I find most interesting … is the idea that these media figures have real psychological effects on the self.”

While it may not help fans become playboy billionaires, it can still be beneficial to have a superhero role model.

It’s difficult for young adults to know where to look for inspiring figures in today’s society. Political mudslinging and the woes of A-list celebrities mar the front pages of news publications. No longer do we see as many positive influences in the media as there once were. We need someone positive to look to amid all the chaos. Why not turn to superheroes?

For years, comic book fans have understood and embraced the morality and life lessons behind the capes. Masked crusaders are not fighting crime simply for fun. Deep connotations about our society as a whole can be found among the pages of graphic novels. Even the blockbuster adaptations of these comics have underlying psychological and sociological meanings.

“The Dark Knight” is a personal favorite of mine and not just because I love Christian Bale’s Batman voice. The struggle between Batman and the Joker goes far beyond a simple conflict between good and evil. When explaining the madman’s motives, Alfred described it best when he said “some men aren’t looking for anything logical … Some men just want to watch the world burn.” This concept has always resonated with me. Sometimes there is no meaning for the things that happen. Even so, we can still follow the lead of the heroes we admire and try to change things for the better.

Developing a sense of moral justice can extend beyond the silver screen—such media is no longer considered mind-numb- ing entertainment. Inspiration stemming from observed acts of heroism can have an impact on our own society. Take, for example, Mr. Xtreme, based right here in San Diego. By day, he is a security guard. As night falls, he becomes his alter ego: a real-life crime fighter who is passionate about protecting the innocent from violence and suffering.

He is a part of The Real Life Super Hero Project, a movement geared toward changing our communities for the better. Comprised of volunteers, this group participates in selfless acts ranging from feeding the hungry to taking on gangs. These sometimes-costumed crusaders are largely inspired by their superhero role models and are actively making positive changes in their hometowns. The group’s website encourages followers to “become more active, more involved, more committed, and perhaps, a little super in the process.”

In an interview with GQ magazine, Mr. Xtreme was quoted as having “a strong belief in the power of the individual,” meaning even average people can have power in any situation. Of course, it goes without saying that we need to remember our limits. We can’t fly and we don’t have X-ray vision. This doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference in our lives and the lives of others in our neighborhood.

For many years, the love of comics and superheroes has been hindered by the negative ste- reotype that such interests are unhealthy and even detrimental to society. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. We can finally shed our daytime clothes, embrace our spandex-clad alter ego and be a positive influence in the world. It just takes a bit of willpower and faith in our ability to follow in the footsteps of our heroes, fictional or not. Now, if Iron Man could lend us one of his power suits, we’d all be good to go.