Batman is a great superhero. He is strong, smart, and dares to take on the bad guys. What is not to love? When it comes to Batman toys, other superhero toys, and even G.I. Joes, apparently there is a lot not to love. There have been many studies done on how Barbie affects the self-esteem of girls, but Batman can affect the self-esteem of boys in a similar manner.
In the case of Barbie, her unattainable proportions can cause girls to dislike what they see when looking in a mirror. A real-life Barbie would have a 16-inch waist, which means she would not have room for her entire liver, but only half. The small size of her legs and ankles would make it impossible for a real-life Barbie to hold herself upright, meaning the woman would have to crawl instead of walk. Society teaches its girls that this is beauty, and therefore beauty may be unattainable, but it still must be strived for.
What are superheroes teaching boys? If there were a real-life G.I. Joe, his biceps would be an unattainable 27 inches. Take a look at the boy’s toy section in a department store, where you will see action figures such as Batman who ripple with muscles, and costumes with six-packs built into them. It appears that boys are being bombarded with messages that they need to be strong and tough, and that in order to achieve masculinity, they need to have the unattainable bodies that their favorite superhero has. This message is being drilled into boys in a similar manner that Barbie drills messages into girls, and it will affect boys’ self-esteem.
Can superheroes really save the day here? As it turns out, they just might. A new study shows that men benefit from parasocial relationships with superheroes and that they actually feel better about their bodies when exposed to images of that superhero. On the flip side, if the man does not have a parasocial relationship with a certain superhero, he feels worse about his body when exposed to an image of that particular superhero.
This shows that there are positives and negatives that can come from superheroes. Feeling good about his body can lead to improved self-esteem, but feeling bad about himself will absolutely not. The problem and solution both may come from building a parasocial relationship with superheroes. A parasocial, or one-sided relationship, should focus on the superhero’s positive aspects, and not just be about his strength. It is important to figure out why boys like certain superheroes and to engage them in conversation about that superhero.
Instead of appearances, focus on Batman being great because he is so just, that Ironman is extraordinary because he is intelligent, and that Captain America has remarkable loyalty. All of these traits are good things that a parent can focus on instead of the superheroes just being strong. Focusing on other traits will help to combat some of the message that one’s body is what is most important. Another important aspect is discussing how television does not always represent reality. Kym Stewart, PhD candidate in the Simon Fraser University Faculty of Education in Vancouver stresses the importance of showing that television does not always accurately represent reality. Parents need to be an active participate in their child’s television watching in order to help them understand that things seen on television are not necessarily accurate.
The same goes for playtime. It is important to note that toys do not always equal reality. The most important aspect is to talk with children, and to teach them that Barbie and Batman do not have a body that everyone wants, or even one that is real. Yes, it is fun to dress up as a superhero with muscles, but it should be even more important to play out an act of bravery, or for a child to use his intelligence to defeat a villain.
Studies have shown how much of an impact Barbie has on a young girl’s self-esteem. Without question, more studies need to be done to see how superheroes affect boys. What is clear now is that parents need to intervene and help guide their boys in a way that will allow them to foster a positive body image. Society is aware that Barbie can affect the self-esteem of girls, but it is time to raise awareness that Batman can affect boys in a similar manner.
Opinion by Ashley Campbell