Spiderman, Spiderman, Wherefore Art Thou Spiderman?

As you might remember from my last posting, I dug into a topic about the current status and struggle of masculinity in the American male psyche.  So when I came across an interesting article about a recent presentation at the most recent meeting of the American Psychological Association, I felt compelled to write a bit of a follow-up piece.

Having grown up worshipping Spider-Man, I have always thought of the superhero as an iconic and immutable aspect of boyhood.  However, as Dr. Sharon Lamb, a prominent psychologist at UMass-Boston pointed out at this year’s APA meeting, even that has changed over the years as well.  Today’s popular superheroes are no longer the conflicted, fallible, and very human individuals of yore, but now tend to be violent, hyper-masculine playboys for whom protecting innocents and bringing villains to justice is merely an afterthought.  Spider-Man fought “bad guys,” but his method was always one of subduing and capturing to be handed over to the law.  One of the reasons I appreciated him so much was that I could identify with him.  He was a regular guy who struggled with the anger and frustration he felt towards those who preyed on others, but who always strove above all to be a good person and do the right thing.  He learned lessons and espoused maxims like “With great power comes great responsibility”.  In contrast, today’s prominent superheroes tend to be gun-wielding, sports-car-driving, womanizers who act as judge, jury, and executioner.  Their pearls of wisdom tend to be along the lines of “They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once.”

This is of course quite a different image than that of the affable goof that I highlighted in my last article.  Interestingly, Dr. Lamb’s research, which centered on a survey of hundreds of boys between the ages of 4 and 18, has found just such a polarity between the images available to boys in this day and age. She and her team found that the overwhelming message broadcast to boys is the choice between a “player” or a “slacker”.  Therefore, if you can’t be a superhero (player) you might as well be a slacker because at least slackers are funny and lovable.

Fathers of course have the duty to play a crucial role in the moderation of these extremes.  Another presenter at this year’s APA meeting was Dr. Carlos Santos from Arizona State University who discovered through his research that a close relationship with their fathers tended to cause boys to detach themselves from interpersonal relationships.  This stoicism coupled with the aggression and other “macho” images proffered by the media can have a lifelong negative impact on a boy’s mental health, particularly if it is not addressed before middle-school.  Dr. Santos summarized his findings best by explaining that “If the goal is to encourage boys to experience healthy family relationships as well as healthy friendships, clinicians and interventionists working with families may benefit from having fathers share with their sons on the importance of experiencing multiple and fulfilling relationships in their lives.”

As with last month’s posting, I write this not to harp on the perceived failings of fathers or my gender as a whole, but rather to challenge my fellow Men to be aware and take responsibility for the image that we project to society and especially to our sons and daughters.  Whether or not you have children, for those of us on the other side of 25 years old, it’s about time that we give serious thought to the values and perceptions that will shape the next generation.  Heck, at the very least, if we teach them to be well-adjusted they might just cut us some slack when we’re hobbling around yelling at them to get off our lawn.  Plus, considering the “collateral damage” left behind by the flashy, modern Iron Man, if we ever do need a superhero, I’ll take the classic Spidey in blue and red spandex any day.


Medical News Today. “Researchers Say Today’s Superheroes Send Wrong Image To Boys”. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/197793.php. 16 August 2010.

Presentation: “Superheroes and Slackers: Limited Media Representations of Masculinity for Boys,” Sharon Lamb, EdD, University of Massachusetts-Boston; Lyn Mikel Brown, EdD, and Mark Tappan, EdD. Colby College. APA Symposium, Sunday, Aug. 15, San Diego Convention Center, Upper Level, Room 26B.

Presentation: “Resistance to Ideals of Masculinity in Middle School Boys,” Carlos Santos, PhD. Arizona State University. APA Symposium, Sunday, Aug. 15, San Diego Convention Center, Upper Level, Room 26B

Luke Manley, MPH

View posts by Luke Manley, MPH
Luke grew up in and around Boston, Massachusetts before moving north to attend the University of Maine at Orono for his undergraduate degree. After living briefly in Portland, Oregon he is now working as a Research Phlebotomist and Grants Manager for the Psychiatry Department at the University of Southern California. His passion lies in travel and working internationally, especially in the Middle-East. He has spent time in Turkey, researching the Turkish Healthcare system and recently returned from Syria, Palestine, and Tunisia, assisting with the MedCHAMPS project, which is studying cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. In the Fall he will be moving to Washington, D.C. to pursue a PhD and begin his career in International Relations.
Scroll to top