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New Research Summary: How do popular superhero films depict adherence to masculine norms?

Photo by Vicki Yde from Pexels

We sat down with Dr. Jennifer Harriger (Pepperdine University) to talk about her new article published in our flagship journal, The Psychology of Men and Masculinities. Harriger and colleagues explored how male superheroes and villains in popular superhero movies demonstrated adherence to traditional and "toxic" masculinities. Their content analysis demonstrates the impactful role of superhero films as "gender socializing agents," and may be useful in understanding how current pop-culture movies work to reinforce traditional masculine ideology. We encourage you all to check it out!

Harriger, J. A., Wick, M. R., Mendez, K., & Barnett, B. (2022). With great power comes great responsibility: A content analysis of masculinity themes in superhero movies. Psychology of Men & Masculinities. Advance online publication.

What were the key questions you were addressing in this article?

We were interested in examining the extent to which male superheroes and villains in popular superhero films exhibited adherence to masculine norms (including both traditional and toxic masculinities). As a review, in the United States there are several distinguishing characteristics of traditional masculinity including self-reliance, risk-taking, and competitiveness. Toxic masculinity has been identified as a more harmful form of traditional masculinity which includes a need to dominate and compete aggressively with others, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes, and an attempt to maintain dominance over women and other minority groups. We also sought to determine whether differences existed between the superheroes and villains’ depictions of masculinities.

What were the main conclusions of your article?

The most common masculinity themes reported for the superheroes were physically strong, violence, and athletic, while the most common masculinity themes reported for the villain characters were violence and physically strong. Superheroes were significantly more likely to be depicted as strong, athletic, asserting and preserving masculinity, discussing appearance, and risk-taking compared to villains. No significant differences in violence, objectifying women, or playboy behavior between the superhero and villain characters were found.

What are some key implications of your findings for research or practice?

While it wasn’t surprising that superheroes were depicted as more athletic and stronger than villains, we wonder if the focus on appearance for superhero characters may send the message to viewers that the appearance of the body rather than the functionality of the body is what is most important. Indeed, research demonstrates that media exposure to the muscular-ideal or society’s expectations of male attractiveness is associated with increased disordered eating and body image concerns in adolescent and young adult men.

Additionally, it is possible that boys and men may learn that risk taking behavior and assertion and preservation of masculinity (e.g., sarcasm and banter) is a component of masculine behavior through viewing superheroes in these films. It is also possible that the toxic masculinity traits, such as violence, objectification of women, and playboy behavior, may be viewed as more acceptable or justified by an audience when portrayed by a superhero. This could have far-reaching negative consequences for viewers, as boys and men view superheroes as their role models and superhero films serve as gender socializing agents.

We challenge producers, writers, and directors to consider the implications of our findings and to consider creating superhero films that promote more positive messaging. We also recommend that caregivers monitor the types of films their children view and engage in active mediation, as this has been shown to be an effective strategy to mitigate the effects of exposure to gender stereotypes in the media.

Where do you see this line of research heading in the future (i.e., what's next)?

It would be interesting to examine the types of messaging present in superhero films that contain female superheroes or villains and whether they significantly differ from male characters. We also recommend that future research include an experimental component in order to determine whether exposure to such films is related to internalization of gendered messaging.

How did you become interested in this line of inquiry?

The majority of the research I have conducted thus far in my career has focused on girls and women. Over the past several years, I’ve become more interested in the experiences of boys and men, particularly those that shape and influence their understanding of gender. It seems as though there is more flexibility today for women and girls who do not feel pressure to align with traditional female gender roles, but there is less acceptance for boys and men who deviate from traditional gender roles. My hope is to continue this line of research in an effort to better understand and support boys and men.

Jennifer Harriger, Ph.D.

Professor of Psychology

Social Science Division

Seaver College, Pepperdine University

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