People are perhaps the most social creatures on earth. We rarely do anything alone, and even when we do, it is often only because others have given us the ability to do so. With the possible exception of hermits, leading a life of self-sustaining solitude, everybody counts on somebody else. The most independent members of society depend on others. The self-employed person living on their own relies on her customers. The unattached traveler relies on the pilots of the planes he travels in. We may often believe we are independent, but all of us rely on others in some way or another. This reliance begins at the instance life begins; a child cannot survive without its mother, and continues until death. Anything with effects this far-reaching has ulterior effects to go along with it. Because we rely on people, we also look up to them. People, especially children, look to others for numerous reasons. Models may have a job or position the child hopes to have, the model can be a person who has been a help to them in some way, or the model can exhibit certain values the child shares. Because of the third possibility, children often latch on to superheroes as models.
There are many upsides and downsides to this. Superheroes can give children something to aspire to. However, superheroes do not portray a realistic lifestyle, which may confuse children. Superheroes are a worthy model for children to look up to due to their admirable values, but because of their unrealistic lifestyles, they can mislead children.
Superheroes commonly have numerous characteristics that make them worthy of admiration. While it is more likely than not that the part of the superhero that appeals to children first are their powers, it is seldom what causes children to look up to them. This is evidenced by the lack of favor children have for super villains. If it were simply the special powers that caused admiration, super villains would be just as beloved. But they are not. What gets children’s admiration, what causes them to look at superheroes as role models are their special characteristics. Superheroes commonly exemplify traits such as honor, bravery and courage, respect, humility, self-sacrifice. But ordinary people exhibit these exemplary traits as well, begging the question as to why children are drawn to superheroes, rather than people in their own lives.
Children choose superheroes as role models not only because of their values, but also because they are super. Make no mistake; children are attracted to the special abilities of superheroes, but superheroes have an ability in common that people do not often recognize. Superheroes are capable of exhibiting positive traits to a degree that most people simply cannot. A Superhero’s traits are readily visible, whereas regular people’s traits are not. Admiring people because they are super is logical, but perhaps not productive.
When children choose superheroes as their role models, they can focus too much on their frivolous aspects and not enough on tangible values. While superheroes have important values, they can often be overshadowed by their powers. In time, this can lead to children impersonating a superhero’s powers rather than his positive traits. With ordinary people, this is not the case. More often than not, a person’s values are not overshadowed by their skills or special abilities. This allows children to focus on those values and emulate them, rather than being preoccupied with super powers.
As seen above, super powers can have side-effects. In addition to overshadowing their values, special powers keep superheroes from leading normal life. It is ironic that even in a fictional world where special powers reside in people that those same people suffer from the very realistic side-effects of those powers. Because of their special powers, superheroes cannot lead normal lives. They cannot lead normal lives because nobody lets them. They cannot lead normal lives because people do not give them privacy. They cannot lead normal lives because we want to know more about them. They cannot lead normal lives because they are not normal. And in the end this is why we may admire them, but cannot emulate them.
Superheroes are more than we can ever be. They are stronger, they are faster, they are better. They see better, they hear better, they are better. They can do things we can never do, they are better. But that is their problem. Their status is unattainable. We can never hope to have the abilities they do. Superheroes are worthy of respect. They are worthy of admiration. Indeed, they are even worthy of being emulated. But just because superheroes are worthy of having us try to become like them does not mean we should try. Rather, we should look for role models who embody the same values and qualities as superheroes do, but to a more achievable degree. Children need role models. Without them they would never know how to become the people they want. But they need real role models who help them to aspire to something achievable, and yet still exemplary. With that, the burden is now irrefutably upon the shoulders of the people who have children looking up to them. With that, the burden is on us. Only when we accept this responsibility will children have the role models they need. Only then will children have the role models they deserve. As our future, we owe them nothing less.