Have Superheroes in Pop Culture Become Too Much of a Good Thing?

Superheroes: A Never Ending Battle

Superheroes are everywhere these days. This is true even in the adult world, but for children they are ubiquitous. You can’t swing a cat in a Baby GAP or Toys ‘R’ Us without hitting a Batman onesie, Ironman lunch box, or Superman Mr. Potato Head. All of this has led me, a devoted comic book fan since I was old enough to read, to ask a previously unthinkable question. Have superheroes become too big a part of the popular culture?

Maybe I’m overreacting. Kids have always liked superheroes, and I seem to recall a certain set of Superman pajamas that I wore until they nearly fell off my 5-year-old body. But I don’t think superheroes have ever before been quite so dominant. When I was a kid, superheroes were often overshadowed by the latest cartoon craze—He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers, etc. You could find Superman pajamas, sure, but you didn’t have islands of superhero regalia dominating the central aisles of posh children’s boutiques.

The thing is, when I was a kid superheroes were cool precisely because (most) adults and even a lot of kids didn’t get it. If a kid got a superhero lunch box it was because he thought it was cool. But today it’s often parents buying superhero merchandise because they, the parent, think it’s cool. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and I’m as guilty of it as the next parent. But I earned it. I’m a real fan.

And there’s the rub. If your typical mainstream parents that have never read a comic book in their life are buying their kids superhero clothes because everybody now finds that adorable, then is there anything geeky about it any more? Isn’t the thing that distinguishes geeky from mainstream the fact that it connotes some separation from popular culture? It’s not what everyone thinks is cool. It’s what a particular subculture thinks is cool.

One of the best things about the superhero is the notion that he or she stands apart from the crowd. A superhero is not like everybody else. There is a tension between society’s desire to control the hero, and the hero’s own sense of justice. Superheroes are outsiders, and they appeal especially to kids that don’t quite fit in. Superheroes give those kids permission to be different. They send the message that sometimes it’s okay to think and act apart from what other people expect. They save the day precisely because they’re different.

So, have superheroes in pop culture become too much of a good thing? I can’t say for sure. But I hope that superheroes don’t become so much a part of insider culture that they lose their resonance with the outsider. That would be a loss to every geeky child.

David Faith

About David Faith

I am father to one boy, science fiction writer, table top RPG gamer, and all around aficionado of all things super, space, sword, sorcery and science. I live with my wife and son north of the wall in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

David Faith

About David Faith

I am father to one boy, science fiction writer, table top RPG gamer, and all around aficionado of all things super, space, sword, sorcery and science. I live with my wife and son north of the wall in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

6 thoughts on “Have Superheroes in Pop Culture Become Too Much of a Good Thing?

  1. You know, I get the same feeling about princesses. First and foremost, a princess should be about power, and what you can do with it. There are several Queens in history that represent that, be it the Queen of Sheeba or Queen Elizabeth and there are also several fictional power figures as Tolkien’s Galadriel….secondly it should be about status in your home and how do you want to be treated by your parents… I think the whole Disney Princesses thing is misguided and sexist to boot!

  2. I grew up on comic books and loved X-men and Spider-man as a pre-teen/teenager. But my son is way more into Legos, Skylanders, Pokemon, etc. than he is Superheroes. I don’t go into brick & mortars very often, so I probably don’t notice the glut of superhero stuff, but I sorta wish my son liked them a little more. :)

    Of course, I’ve not really let him watch any of the new movies, because I think he’s still too young, but he’s not showed much interest either.

  3. “If your typical mainstream parents that have never read a comic book in their life are buying their kids superhero clothes because everybody now finds that adorable, then is there anything geeky about it any more?”

    Why do we have to have geeky paraphernalia in our kids’ lives? I’m not against it, but I don’t understand the *need* to have it. Some discussion on this point would have been good for this article.

    “But I earned it. I’m a real fan.”

    Why is this relevant? We’re talking about your kid, not you. If a kid hasn’t “earned it,” how is that any better or worse than than the kids of non-geek parents?

    • These two bits specifically bugged me also and left me a little disappointed since I usually feel really welcome in the Geek Dad world (even though I’m cis-gendered female and I don’t have kids – I’m an aunt and I have friends with kids). A big part of why this bothered me is the whole “fake geek” thing that has been discussed a lot, all over the place, recently. Deciding that you can judge anyone else’s geek cred irritates me. True confession, I have never read any Batman or Superman or Green Arrow or Wonder Woman comics. I have watched some of the animated movies. I do try to become more knowledgeable about them because my husband loves comics and I appreciate the stories. I’ve made comic-themed t-shirts for him and I throw in the references sometimes. Does that make it any less valid for me to think superhero stuff for kids is awesome? Would you know any of that about me without asking?

      I have never been judged as anything less than geeky but this post made me feel judged and that, I think, is the antithesis of the connotations I want geek to carry.

      I think the issue here is with the fact that comics are run by businesses. And those businesses want to make money. They happen to realize that superhero items sell. So they make them. I know webcomics with merch. If they had the reach of DC or Disney, that merch would probably be all over in stores too.

      I like the point that you shouldn’t necessarily push your interests on your kid but that got lost in the post. I agree that giving your kid space to choose what they love is awesome, diversity is awesome. I didn’t always get to choose what clothes I wanted or what gear I got when I was younger. Part of the responsibility of being a parent is having some say over the things your kid is introduced to. If you want to introduce them to superheroes, awesome. If that gets you more interested in comics, awesome. If not, that’s okay too.

      Younger kids just like superpowers. They think it’s a cool idea. The outsider part of superheroes is a deeper meaning that they can be shown as they grow into those types of concepts, or as they need them. Sometimes kids just need someone to look up to.

  4. There is a big difference between being able to find your favorite super hero characters so your 5 yr old can foster their dreams of “growing up to be a super hero” and having your favorite super hero pimped out or sold out so much so that it has lost all meaning. The line for me is where it borders on becoming generic.

    I think it has been licensed to the point of being generic and ambiguous it is everywhere in every shape and form and so much so that the stuff is junk and I won’t waste my money on it even though my kids would love it.

    Not to say when I was a kid that my favorite character wasn’t accessible, but I always thought it was done tastefully and quality mattered. Maybe it is all in the eye of the beholder, but I get your point.

    Will I get my kid every last thing that has super heros on it? absolutely not. Will he get some things because I think they are cool he loves them? yes. do I think my kid needs a superhero toothbrush, socks, underwear, pants, t-shirt, shoes, sheets, comforters, toys, hair gel, bath wash, toothpaste, fruit snack, game app, memory game, shovel and bucket set, sunscreen, towel, swim trunks, hot wheel, action figure, bowl, plate, spoon, chocolate milk or frozen treats?

    not really. but some of that is okay in my book. So yeah, I am that guy that has a matching superman shirt with my son you see at the mall.

    but I sometimes I miss the old ways too.

  5. Pop culture, but not ‘Hero’ specific.

    I can relate to your feelings on the ‘coolness’ of things we loved as kids. The T-shirts, posters, lunchboxes, etc. Any time I saw someone else with one I was thrilled that someone else thought my special thing was cool too.

    These days my special things are everywhere. Transformers, Star Wars, dragons, etc… and like when I was a kid I’m simply tickled that not only are my special interest still around, they are thriving.

    So no, I don’t think it’s too much of a good thing. I was very lonely in my special interests as a kid, and I’m happy that my boys won’t need to feel that way.

    Sable

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