Stupid Study: Superheroes Poor Role Models for Boys

A study from Professor Sharon Lamb of the University of Massachusetts stated that superheroes make bad role models for modern boys and are either "aggressive" or "slackers". The study consisted of questioning 674 boys between the ages of 4 and 18 on what they read and watched on TV and in movies.

I read the following quote and wonder what year it is in Professor Lamb's head.

"There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday."

"Today's superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he's aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity.

"When not in superhero costume, these men exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns."

Apparently, and I think I've read this somewhere, comics aren't for kids anymore.

Seriously, I don't know what characters or media she's referring to.  I know that this doesn't necessarily reflect the characters that I read in Marvel and DC books these days.  But I also know that kids don't read them, so I want to know what superheroes are being cited in this study. 

Just looking at the biggest superhero movies from the last decade, I don't see much of what she's talking about, at least not in terms of the non R-rated films.  Spider-Man doesn't seem to fit any of these ideas.  I suppose Iron Man might, but I don't think that was much of a kids movie thematically.  Are the Disney animated superhero shows a lot more terrible than I was lead to believe?

DC writer Eric Trautman on Twitter, poked some holes in the findings of the study, using DC characters. "God forbid concepts like fair play (Superman), justice (Batman), empowerment (Wonder Woman), determination (Green Lantern) be emulated by boys."

I suppose it's possible the professor found a unique enclave of boys from 1994, reading only Cable, Punisher, and Grifter-centric Wildcats issues, but it sounds more like they were looking for something before they started, and the data magically fit that conclusion.  But the timewarp theory also works for me.

If only things could be perfect again like they were in the '50's with their clean comics and good values. And segregation.


  1. That was the same thing I thought.  Was this article written in 1993?

  2. Stupid, stupid scholar. She must have thought she’d just write this shit to try and get some grant funding.

    It’s always the people who don’t know jack shit about comics or video games or -any- geek entertainment that talk the loudest, huh?

  3. Another question I guess we can ask is, what is her definition of Superhero? is it a hero from a comic book or a character from a comic book? is it someone who just acts heroic, doing the right thing? i guess knowing what heroes are in the study would help this question.

    when i hear superhero, i think a hero who is above and beyond a normal hero in both abilities, deeds, stature, even aesthetics. What do you guys think?

    also, every time i see that picture of reeves, or any picture of him as Superman, i think that it is almost futile to protray the man of steel in other way but this, and if you do you might as well go in another direction.

  4. …and suddenly it’s the 50’s again. Is the good doctor fredric Wertham going to weigh in on this from beyond the grave?

  5. 1) This study is like 15-20 years too late. The "threat" of super-macho stereotypes is way less nowadays, since that archetype is nowhere near as popular as it used to be.

    2) Comics are nowhere near as popular with young impressionable boys as they used to be.

    3) The premise that fictional characters actually influence people’s behavior is ridiculous. Where are the examples of boys cutting each other with knives while pretending to be Wolverine or whatever? There are no examples. It doesn’t happen.

    4) Take-charge male archetypes do not constitute the only negative "role model" (if you buy into the phony argument that fictional characters influence behavior). You may as well point the finger as Scott Pilgrim as a "negative role model" since he’s indecisive, lazy, lackadaisical, etc. You may as well say that Emma Frost is also a bad character to have in comics because she’s elitist.

    I thought we were past this kind of stuff. I guess the allure of hand-wringing over little boys liking action is still too troubling for some precious "thinkers" who are very, very, very sensitive to anything fun. It’s so interesting that these people actually spend this much time attacking fictional violence, and yet lately they’re so strangely quiet when it comes to protesting actual wars going on in the world. You might actually think they were cowards and were only picking on comics because comics are an easy, "safe" target.

  6. This Dr Wertham guy is off his rocker

  7. Well, who among us isn’t sick of the way superheroes flaunt their bling now? Every week you see it. Hulk, Wolverine, the Question… constant bling flaunting.

    "Bling flaunting"???

  8. You know being defensive at every such instance is a sign of something wrong. No, superheroes aren’t great role models for young boys, because most of them are about punching the problem.

  9. role models should be real people like your parents, teachers etc….someone in the kids life that he/she can interact with, not fictional characters. 

    Did this professor really take a broad sampling of characters or just read Deadpool? i agree that this "study" seems like total BS…something they prob did to fulfill their mandatory "published paper in a scholarly journal or else you loose your job" criteria at the institution they work for. They could have made an argument for body image or something like that, but that has already been written about before. A scientific study that cites no examples or statistics…is just a biased rant. 

    How are today’s superheroes any worse "role models" than the racist Bugs Bunny or Violent John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Arnold of the past? 

  10. We need to read the actual study before we can honestly comment on its contents. However, it does at first glance appear to be Outcome Based Academia in action, i.e. "Here’s my thesis, now go find me some data to fit it." 

    And listening to the embedded audio make me want to refer to Prof. Lamb by that awful word Chloe Moritz used in Kick-Ass to such great effect. 

  11. Are capes considered "bling?"

  12. Well, she’s obviously not reading JMS’s Superman.

  13. There was nowhere near enough information in that article.  Apparently they questioned those 674 boys about what they read and watched and then analyzed the "heroes" of those movies, comics, what have you…  But they don’t tell us what characters these boys are actually interested in.  If they are all reading Deadpool, well, yeah, he’s not a role model.  If they are watching the Batman and Spiderman movies, the professor is off her rocker.  If she’s considering other action heroes as superheroes, who knows?   If we knew what characters she was actually talking about, we might be able to actually evaluate what she’s claiming.

    It’s a pity, because learning what boys 4-18  are reading and watching these days and what characters are most popular would be a lot more interesting than anything revealed in the original article.  ( I only have daughters — as far as I can tell, they are a completely different demographic…)

  14. In the article I read, she seemed to be talking mostly about Iron Man being the example of a bad influence.  There was also this gem:

    "She said that original superheroes like Superman who was a reporter by day and the Green Lantern, who was a railroad engineer, were invented to fight for social justice and were a reaction to the rise of fascism. But the new breed of superheroes only thought about themselves."

    I’m not sure where she’s getting the "only though about themselves" thing from but that doesn’t seem to fit most of the popular superheroes I read.  I guess she wants more comics with Superman punching racist depictions of Japanese soliders in the face.

  15. Bravo Josh, Mutha Fucking Bravo.


    Seriously, I saw this on Tumblr and wrote a lengthy response about how absurd this was.  You nailed those points better than I. Seriously though, it’s like she forgot to write the article, Netflixed Iron Man, read some wiki pages, and just put this together. Terrible article.

  16. railroad engineer?

  17. Green Lantern’s a been workin on the railroad…all the live long day. The lady should win a research award for her thoroughness.  

  18. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne had lots of bling and exploited women in the recent movies. But I still don’t agree with the premise.

  19. I believe this needs to be filed under "you kids and your rock and roll" and forgotten about.  In my media theory and study classes in college we always discussed the effects of media on youth.  The one thing that I learned is that there aren’t any concrete theories on influence.  I’m content to leave these sorts of muckrakers and malcontents to their own.

  20. @josh She means Alan Scott I guess but he was an engineer in the sense that he designed stuff and he happened to be on a train when he got his powers and made his lantern based on the ones in the railroad

  21. Yeah, I read this elsewhere and couldn’t agree more. That said, I’m wondering just how "pure" Superman will be in his next movie outing.

  22. It sounds like the only comic that she allowed them to read was MAYHEM!

  23. So much to add here:

    1. This is not a peer-reviewed study. It is based on the 2009 Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes published by St. Martin’s Press. It may have some academic credibility, but in order to be leveraged within the psychiatric/clinical therapeutic communities, it must be peer-reviewed. Here is Dr. Lamb’s website and blog: Not much detail to be found there.

    2. The table of contents, introduction, and excerpts of the first chapter are available at Amazon. The most relevant chapters might be two and three, about what boys watch and read. []

    3. I’d really love to know more about what Dr. Lamb’s subject population reported to her in her survey. I wonder if her study underscores a disconnect between what is available to be read and what the subjects in her research population reported they are reading and viewing. Her subject population is quite a bit younger than the average comic book reading audience of the twenty-first century.

    4. But I would also question whether Dr. Lamb has even captured the correct target content. She is focused on superheroes, but of the top ten trade paperback collections of comic books sold in 2008 SIX were manga titles (Naruto, to be specific). If she means to deconstruct what comic books young kids are actually reading (as opposed to the limited resources available in her subject population), she might be better off analyzing a representative sample of manga titles. []

    5. Finally, I’m not sure how much of this study is really about comic books at all. The introduction mentions specific concern with “cartoons, movies, and lyrics” while stating absolutely nothing about what sorts of reading material were investigated. And in the seven page long bibliography, far more of the resources cited were concerned with sports, music, hip hop fashion (<GASP>, they’re wearing baggy jeans! OMG!), movies, television, power drinks (of all things). I’d be more concerned about the borderline (if not outright) hysterical conservatism the overall scope of the book suggests. The secondary sources about comic books included:

    >> Fingeroth, D. 2004. Superman on the Couth: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society. New York: Continuum.

    >> Fingeroth, D. 2007. Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. New York: Continuum.

    >> Hajdu, D. 2008. The Ten-ent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

    6. Most importantly, however, in the ENTIRE bibliography, of 200 some-odd references, only five, count ‘em, FIVE comic books were cited: (1) New Avengers #47, (2) Captain America #44, (3) Invincible Iron Man #8, (4) Batman #678, (5) Superman #679.

  24. @cahubble09:  Thanks for the clarification.  My first thought was that she was basing the whole study on the hollywood movies from the last 10 years rather than anything in print. 

    1.  It’s clear that not many comics were included in this study.  They certainly didn’t survey a wide range of characters.  

    2.  Even if they didn’t, I’d like to point out that in the Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2 we see the degrading effect of the protagonists’ double lives.  Peter Parker can’t keep a job and Bruce Wayne constantly falls asleep at work.  

    3. It’s obvious that the recent developments in Marvel’s Civil War were not even examined.   There were so many ethical arguments in that series about what was "right", it is definitely a story I will use to raise my son. 

    4.  One thing that has always driven me nuts about parents who are afraid of violent children and subsequently, prohibit them from watching shows such as Transformers as GI Joe (which is what I watched as a child) is that they keep them from having the idea that punching people is ok, (I suppose I can see that point), but they keep them from also learning about the best qualities of those characters like honor (Wolverine), Ingenuity (Iron Man, Batman), Compassion (Superman), Open Mindedness (Green Arrow), and mostly, the importance of holding on and not giving into adversity.  That is a universal truth. When I got a bit older and saw that children watched Pokemon which was basically a marketing scheme (More so than GIJOE, Transformers, and Xmen), it made me furious.  

    Tolerance of others and working out differences rather than resorting to violence is good, but individuals who are constantly compromising are "constantly compromised".

  25. For those interested, it looks like the full book, Packaging Boyhood: Saving our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers and Other Media Stereotypes is available on Google Books ( to read.  I agree with cahubble that, from the 20 or so pages I’ve read so far, little of the book is specific about superheroes, but generalized to include television, music, movies, literature, advertisements, etc.  I get the sense that the article Josh brought to our attention was about recent statements Professor Lamb made to capitalize on the recent trend of superhero movies as a way to connect what’s current and popular to her books.  Also – again, I haven’t read more than 20 pages yet – I’m getting a strong sense of Outcome Based Academia, as RobAbsten put it, citing examples that specifically prove her point, not drawing conclusions from the evidence thats out there.  I’m going to attempt to finish the book, without getting too worked up, and see how I feel about her theories then.

  26. @Doski: That would have been awesome … unfortunately, Google Books only excerpts through page 38. 🙁 I felt the same way about her motives. Of course, everyone wants to sell a book these days … when I wrote to her asking if the results of her study were available, she said that I could buy her book. I’ve purchased the cheapest used copy I could find on Amazon … because I really do want to see what details she discloses about her methodology and population demographics. I have difficulty seeing how a sample of 674 boys ranging ages from 4-18 can provide any kind of meaningful data for analysis. That works out to approximately 45 subjects for each age group, if the sample was evenly spread. If the sample also allowed for racial and ethnic diversity, then it can hardly be read as representative of anything in my opinion. Outcome Based Academia? Definitely …

    @marshak75: Yes, from what I’ve read of it, it seems fairly wide-ranging, which is troubling in two ways. First, that suggests a fundamental lack of precision in measuring cause and effect. As ato220 mentioned above, the socializing effects of pop culture and mass media are hardly quantifiable. But I also felt that she is working from a premise which frames bourgeois high culture as good and anything middle- to working-class mass or pop culture as bad. And yet she obscures her implied value system by stating at the end of the conclusion that she wants "parents to help their sons critique these images in the media and by doing so develop a number of alternative paths to empowerment …" OK … so … learning critical thinking skills and how to make wise choices is great, but what happens if those young men make choices that aren’t consistent with her value system? And I agree wholeheartedly regarding her apparent selection of books for analysis (of course, this is why I think method is so important, because, theoretically, she can only analyze those books reported by her subject population as actually having been read). One of the reasons I loved "Civil War" was precisely the ethical dimension that you mentioned.

    It bothers me that self-appointed moral arbiters are once again trying to shape culture by attempting to mediate what people can and cannot read (watch, wear, eat, etc. etc.) … I mean, seriously, MONSTER DRINKS? Yes! There we have it! Monster power drinks will be the downfall of civilization!

    Frankly, this brings to mind Steve Jobs’ recently proclaimed intent to serve as the internet’s moral policeman vis a vis Apple’s restrictions on what content can be approved for delivery through the iTunes (and their enactment of that policy in the case of at least two recent graphic novels of which I am aware). I think we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of nonsense in the not-too-distant future.

  27. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, whenever someone talks about comics like they are a medium for children (and don’t get me wrong, there is some great work out there for the younger fans), all I hear is "that crazy rock and roll is nothing but jungle rhythms!" and "Television will never replace the radio in my living room."  It’s such an outdated argument that it isn’t anything but funny and strange.  And a little sad for the people who are missing out on some of the best work being produced in both the written and artistic mediums (media?).

  28. Dr. Lamb spoke on the Guardian UK science blog: it at about 27:20 min in.

     Listening to her doesn’t make it less stupid. She obviously had a problem with Tony Stark and superhero coloring books!


  29. She is probably one of those two people I saw walk out of the theater during the Iron Man movie Leslie Bibb hook-up.  They just posted this story on Yahoo!.

  30. You can bitch at them here:

  31. @Dex: Wow … just listened … I hate being negative, but what a nitwit …

  32. Have any of these studies ever come out positive? I mean any? "Agressive" or "slacker" seems like opposite ends of the spectrum. Agressive could be taken as boldly assertive and forward where as slacker,lazy and unmotivated. Not the most conclusive results.

  33. Her conclusions were pre-determined. And slackers or saracastic superheroes who flaunt bling? Really? Only two options? The sad thing is this study is getting more mainstream press. That’s wrong. Guess this lady misses the good old days when woman were barefoot and pregnant and people didn’t socialize with people of different skin colors. This whole thing is so ignorant and bizarre.

  34. The main issue I have with much of the coverage I’ve seen is that it uncritically copy/pastes Lamb’s "findings" as if this was a legitimate, peer-reviewed study. I haven’t seen any rigorous analysis. And this doesn’t seem to be going viral. Only 108 hits on Google News … the story already seems to be losing steam:

    Incidentally, some of the coverage does seem actually to be favorable …

    >> The Telegraph: — criticizes the report …

    >> WebMD: — an example of a report with no real critical analysis … just copy/paste …

    >> AOL’s "Asylum": — Funny satirical response: "Meh, you say ‘bling,’ we say ‘arc reactor.’ …

    >> BBC: — Another copy/paste job of Lamb’s summary, but at least they capture the distinction between comic books and movies … 

    >> — rather sarcastic treatment …

    >> ParentDish: — Fortunately, this report accurately presents Lamb’s focus on the broader mass media (TV, film, music, fashion, sports, etc.)

    >> indieWIRE: — This is a pretty decent take that offer a rebuttal … five current superheroes worth looking up to …

    >> Gawker: — Another satiric response …

  35. we need more press like this!!  yes!  it’s always cool to be bad right?   or is that another 80’s stereotype being played out here. . . .