Girls in Capes

Women, men & minorities in geek culture and pop culture

Hopelessly Super-Male

As a kid, I used to play with action figures in the bathtub. This was probably a ploy by my mom to get me clean, and I guess it worked. I’m not sure how many other kids did this, or to what degree it really matters whether or not it was in the bath.

Well, let me rephrase: I used to play with He-Man and Skeletor action figures. By play, I mean clacking two plastic forces together — the good guy and the bad guy. Because good conquers evil, the good guy pounded the bad into submission, sending him by my hand to splash and sink.

An action figure of He-Man from the relaunch of the Masters of the Universe series.  Image from Captain Toy - click image for source and accompanying review.

An action figure of He-Man from the relaunch of the Masters of the Universe series. Image from Captain Toy – click image for source and accompanying review.

It’s not that I didn’t want Skeletor to win, or that he didn’t have the potential to do so. I was conditioned to believe that because he was the bad guy, he had no right to win. He was evil and therefore morally incorrect. He-Man fits the mold of the stereotypical Super-Male, muscle-bound and showing it. And while Skeletor was well-equipped with muscles, he was scrawny in comparison. It was a losing battle as far as he was concerned. Skeletor was destined to be beaten.

You might also notice the villains in most superhero shows are unusually smart and creative. What is this teaching children? I believe the message is that a smart and imaginative man will always be considered the “bad guy.” It is these subtle inferences that find their way into our child’s brain with each piece of media he or she comes across. It is only now that I realize how easily media influences a child and also shows me how difficult it may be to intervene once the idea has caught on.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not making a case for evil. As children, we are blank slates to be written upon. The brain is in the process of determining what is important and what can be discarded. While this of course is not all bad, our childhood innocence is taken for granted by authority figures as we take it all in.

He-Man production cel featuring villain Skeletor.  From Animation Valley.  Click image for source, which has cels available for purchase.

He-Man production cel featuring villain Skeletor. From Animation Valley. Click image for source, which has cels available for purchase.

The Super-Male is burned into our minds at a very young age through television, elementary schooling, and athletics. There is very little we can do as children to prevent ourselves from becoming what society desires.

That’s why we as adults must go directly to the source and extinguish it. The first solution is reducing disproportionate bulk on figures of male superheroes. Every superhero I can think of is so disproportionate and impractical — muscles that would explode the organs within and heads the size of peanuts — it’s no wonder we have men shooting for impossible body types, showcasing how our society values strength, not intelligence, in a man. Instead of only focusing on the strength of a super hero, he should also be valued for his mind. Maintaining the status quo perpetuates the association of intelligence with evil.

Second, I believe all things must be in balance. Children’s toys are not the main argument: I was influenced most of my life by these same types of action figures, and I think I turned out all right. The difference that was made was the integration of creativity and literature in addition to the occasional crime-fighting hero. I can’t say with certainty that most men have action figures and athletics to look to for emotional and developmental help. We must provide following generations with choices involving not only strength and hyper-masculinity, but also art, intellect and shameless sensitivity. It is imperative that we stress the importance of individuality at an early age in order to stop the mass production of the hopelessly Super-Male.

Alan is a staff writer for Girls in Capes.  He holds degrees in psychology and creative writing from the University of Toledo.

EDIT: This post was Freshly Pressed on January 27, 2013.

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About alanbeyersdorf

Alan is an aspiring poet from Toledo, Ohio. He completed his first chapbook, Degrees Of Distance, in 2012. Alan graduated with degrees in psychology and English from the University of Toledo in 2011. He finds himself sitting completely still, and laughing at his own jokes.

178 comments on “Hopelessly Super-Male

  1. James Kennedy
    January 29, 2013

    There was a TED talk about masculinity in movies recently. Check it out on http://on.ted.com/cNAO.

    Even female ‘hero’ protagonists are very masculine. The TED talk also shows, interestingly, that male ‘hero’ protagonists are now dumb, clumsy animals (think Kung Fu Panda). There are many examples.

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 19, 2013

      I’ve never thought of Kung Fu Panda in that way. Thanks for the comment!

  2. eksemanet
    January 29, 2013

    LOL really awesome post man. Thanks so much for sharing :) Really enjoy reading a good blog. Keep it up :D

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 19, 2013

      I’m trying to keep it up! Thanks for reading the post!

  3. Lukejax
    January 29, 2013

    Absolutely hit the nail on the head with this. Nice!

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 19, 2013

      I’m glad it resonated with you!

  4. brookenado
    January 29, 2013

    Really interesting points you make, I enjoyed reading what you have to say on the subject. I completely agree that there is this stereotypical image of the muscle-bound male figure at the hero – or the masculine female hero as the first comment brings up.

    That said, what do you make of the recent remakes of protagonists such as Iron Man, Spider Man, Sherlock Holmes (though I suppose that dives more into the literature aspect you mentioned as integration), etc? Do you feel that the image is shifting at all?

    Thanks for a great post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed, well deserved!

    • alanbeyersdorf
      January 30, 2013

      I do believe the image is shifting, and I don’t think I’m alone with my thoughts on the topic. I think writers and directors are in tune with a developing audience. They should be willing to cater to a viewer who is looking for a bit more in their heroes. I don’t know if this will be true across the board, but I think we’re heading in a superhero genre that’s aware of itself.

  5. amyrutter
    January 29, 2013

    I loved that He-Man also introduced She-Ra. She was my favourite toy to play with in the car until I lost the sword under the car seat :(

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 19, 2013

      If only we could find all our lost things…

  6. P-Girl
    January 29, 2013

    Great blog!!! Love the concept of the super-male. Also, congrats on being Freshly Pressed! So cool!!! ;)

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 19, 2013

      Thank you for the encouragement and you can look forward to more content regarding gender roles.

  7. definitelyjenny
    January 29, 2013

    Whilst I definitely agree with your argument and agree with some of the points raised (I still think society focuses on achieving that “perfect body” for both genders), I do think it’s changing. Slowly maybe, but definitely changing, after all the top superhero films are Iron Man and Batman. Yes, they may be beefed up, but I think they beat other superheros such as Thor or Captain America is because they are more well known for their intelligence and wit.

    Great post, definitely food for thought.

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 19, 2013

      I agree that it is changing slowly, but awareness is a great place to start. Thanks for commenting!

  8. ohtallulah
    January 29, 2013

    The curse of the opposing binaries:
    black vs white
    good vs evil
    male vs female
    straight vs gay

    and the list goes on and on. It really is too bad that we can’t look beyond most of these and see that we’re merely conditioned to see these as opposing.

    Great post!

    Tallulah
    http://choosesimplicitydotorg.wordpress.com/

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 19, 2013

      Thanks for commenting! I hope we can find more balance in the future.

  9. Fiona Fire
    January 29, 2013

    I think, a lot of the times, these big, strong super heroes are a reflection of America. We have the biggest and strongest military and, dammit, we want to beat all the evil genius bad guys who plan massive attacks (and hide in caves).

    • alanbeyersdorf
      January 30, 2013

      Interesting idea! You should consider pursuing it further!

  10. aprilshowersxo
    January 29, 2013

    I’m glad I found your post! Now followed!!!

  11. marshandeesm
    January 29, 2013

    Cartoons. You uncovered my weakness….
    :)

  12. justkrs
    January 29, 2013

    My dog’s name is Teela…for she is the captain of this castle’s guard

  13. Multifarious meanderings
    January 30, 2013

    I enjoyed this post, thank you for the great read. It reminded me of my old bugbear about Disney films: ever noticed how many of the male villains have British accents? :-)

    • Feliza
      January 30, 2013

      A lot of the male villains have SOME sort of accent. And it almost never makes sense. For example, Scar in the Lion King is Mufasa’s brother, but he has a British accent while Mufasa doesn’t! WEIRD.

  14. Flippyman
    January 30, 2013

    I don’t think the problem is the super manly toys, just the lack of context. If you teach your child that these men are not real, (just like you have to teach your daughter that super thin models in cosmo aren’t real) then it should be ok. Fiction is very fun and rewarding as long as it is understood that’s fiction. It’s a parent’s job to teach his or her child to tell fiction apart from reality.

    Heroes are usually portrayed as the strongest, and thus it’s only logical that villains have to be smart in order to pose a serious threat. That’s why we have Superman and Lex Luthor, Batman and the Joker, etc. Fortunately, the new generations are getting heroes that are the opposite. One of my favorite super heroes is El Chapulin Colorado (the one the Simpsons bumblebee character was based on). He’s weak, cowardly, and stupid, but as the creators of the series said, “it’s easy to be the hero when you’re super strong and invulnerable; the greatest hero is the one who’s weak and yet he faces danger and does what he has to do, even if he’s trembling with fear.”

    Oh, and when I was a child, I rooted for Skeletor.

    • alanbeyersdorf
      January 30, 2013

      I’d agree that a lot of responsibility falls on the parents in this case. I don’t think there’s really any one clear-cut solution, but I think it’s good to think critically and do a bit of brainstorming if things are going to change on a larger scale. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

      I find the quote regarding El Chapulin Colorado to be thought provoking. I wasn’t aware of this character, but I’ll do a bit of research. Thanks!

      • Flippyman
        February 1, 2013

        Social problems are never solved with a one clear-cut solution.They are complex and they need to be addressed with complex solutions, usually involving several phases. That’s why we have debates such as gun control, where most people claim to have the one solution. I agree that changes on a larger scale require many ideas and they are long-term. Sometimes it takes a generation. I think if you are realistic, then it stops being wishful thinking.

    • DLColvin (llothcat)
      February 1, 2013

      Woo! I did too!

  15. servilia1
    January 30, 2013

    Have you ever heard of PAX? They have a class satisfying woman, understanding men. In part of the session they break down the male psychology and how some words resonate with men because all little boys want to be a hero. Very interesting.
    http://socalmistress.wordpress.com/

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 13, 2013

      I have heard of PAX, but I didn’t realize they offered that course. I’ll check it out. It sounds interesting! Thanks for letting me know about it!

  16. Pingback: Hopelessly Super-Male | ITechonology

  17. AsheX
    January 31, 2013

    But today’s superheroes and the villains both have brains and are smart, intelligent and creative…
    You can take the example of Spiderman, Hulk, etc…all of them had accidents and then got powers. But they were geniuses

  18. Eyagee
    January 31, 2013

    I think you might get a kick of of the alternate Avengers poster if the Avengers were drawn link women are. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/nov/30/comic-superhero-sexism

    • Feliza
      January 31, 2013

      This is kind of fantastic. Poor Black Widow, not getting any toys made of her and having to pose in impractical look-at-my-ass poses.

      But seriously, Captain America’s body looks so screwed up, which very sadly reminds me of Catwoman…

    • VAN
      February 2, 2013

      THAT ^^ is great (Eyagee’s comment about the Avengers poster).

      The whole world is shifting. We’re actually in an exciting time. This generation GETS it. This generation may have adopted a pair of black-rimmed, heavy eyewear to look cool, but the same glasses have also helped us to put things into perspective. We’re seeing things clearer than ever before.

      Great post. The whole idea that women need to stand up for themselves, be independent and powerful often overshadows the fact that men are going through similar struggles.

      The thing is, men WERE too strong, women WERE too weak, and now women are learning how to straighten up, while mean are learning how to embrace vulnerability and their softer side. The result? A more balanced, harmonious generation.

      http://www.bringtheboss.com

  19. OyiaBrown
    January 31, 2013

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  20. Mike Kloran
    February 2, 2013

    This was interesting but your statement “I believe the message is that a smart and imaginative man will always be considered the “bad guy.” – doesn’t really seem to reflect reality.

    Characters like Batman and Sherlock Holmes are constantly using their wits. In fact even though Batman is drawn as super muscular guy he is very often contrasted against superman because of his creativity and use of his brains. (See the Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller.) Superman is often shown as the dimwit with god like powers. There are loads of characters like this. Professor X comes to mind as the perfect example of having clever use of his brains over body. After all he is in a wheelchair.

    Looking at popular villains such as Doomsday who was all power and no brains it seems l’d say that the idea that the creative imaginative man always being considered the bad guy just doesn’t match reality.

    Still a neat idea though.

    • Feliza
      February 2, 2013

      If you ask a five-year-old what’s great about Batman (or He-Man, incidentally,) the five-year-old will probably say “he’s a good guy” and/or “he’s strong.” While the comic book and film versions of Batman are portrayed as intelligent, the toys don’t have that association, and if a little boy is just playing with a ridiculously massive toy, he won’t think about how smart Batman is, just how strong. I thought this article was less about a character and more about perceptions children have of toys.

      • Mike Kloran
        February 4, 2013

        If that was your intention it didn’t come across that way. Not knocking you, I’m just saying your idea is worth exploring in more detail and in a more fully fleshed out way. Make the comparison between the toys and the characters, or do more with it. :D

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 13, 2013

      There are plenty of exceptions, but I was speaking more generally and from my own experience. I’ve always been intrigued by Professor X, but I don’t know much about Doomsday… Thanks for the comment!

      • Mike Kloran
        February 13, 2013

        Good stuff. You definitely piqued my interest so I hope you write more.

  21. Cathy Tenzo
    February 2, 2013

    Interesting, especially your thoughts on the correlation that the bad guys are often “wicked smart.”

  22. Freshi Ice Sticks
    February 2, 2013

    congratulations on featured in Freshly pressed.

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  24. stephenis
    February 2, 2013

    Thank you, so much.

    I just love hearing those thoughts. It’s noticeably more pleasant reading someone who can actually write, and write well.

    I would love for you to expand a bit on some of those themes. It’s a shame that blog posts have found such a short form, as a balance between readership & message.

    I would love to hear more of your views on:
    1) The Power of the Media
    2) The possibility of unknowingly being influenced by Media
    3) The personality of a hero, and the value of role-models
    4) The tendency for society to pick very poor role-models
    5) The idea of a society engaged in a healthy guidance of the younger generation

    I’m must read the rest of your site immediately!

    :-)

    I think you may enjoy my post on privacy literacy http://stephenis.com/?p=33

    stephenis

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 13, 2013

      It really is a shame blog posts are traditionally so short. I tried to be concise and I know there is plenty of material to expand upon. I think your numbers 2 and 5 run parallel with one another and could potentially be a more focused post, but I’m not sure if they’d be appropriate for this blog. I don’t have my own blog, but thanks for the kind words! I’ll check out your post!

  25. Diane C
    February 2, 2013

    Actually, infants are not a blank slate when it comes to morality. There is lots of research evidence to show that infant actually do have a moral compass as young as 8 weeks. But interesting post!

    • alanbeyersdorf
      February 13, 2013

      I had no idea morality developed from such an early age and I’d be interested in having access to this research. Unfortunately, my free access to academic journals ended when I graduated. Let me know if anything turns up. Thanks for commenting!

  26. The Life Mosaic
    February 2, 2013

    I don’t disagree with the point of your post and I don’t want to paint myself as some sort of genius child, but my recollection is that when I played with He-Man toys as a kid, even then I understood it was over-the-top, nearly satirical. Never took it seriously. Glad you linked to Michael Crawford’s reviews. His writing is always top-notch.

  27. Momographica
    February 3, 2013

    This is such a good post! I am a woman but I played a lot with the He-Man toys when I was a child (I even got the castle!). I clearly remember how much I hated the evil guy always to be the one beaten down because it didn’t seem much real too me. Not sure if it was because I was a fan of fictional (and I say,fictional) evil guys (probably), because most of the good guys looked silly (certainty) or simply because living in the real world you understand that good always win is not the way the World goes :)

  28. jamesguycooper
    February 3, 2013

    Reblogged this on jamesguycooper and commented:
    Breaking Free of The Man Box

  29. Pingback: Top 10 RAWResome Blog Posts {Jan. 27 – Feb. 2} | julie's chick lit

  30. RickySchaedeWrites
    February 6, 2013

    As a guy more on the feminine side I can definitely appreciate this article. I feel like in my own childhood I didn’t gravitate at all towards the super-male despite its definite presence. Spongebob Squarepants was my favourite cartoon character, I preferred the grace of Legolas to the manly jazz of Aaragorn, and in all honesty I typically related more so to female characters in shows, and still do in many ways. I’m just glad I was able to come to terms healthily with my own masc/fem balance and not be thrown into a loop by the super-male ideal.

  31. eunoic
    February 6, 2013

    I do think some representations in mainstream media are getting better. For example the Ironman movies idolize Tony Stark, a genius who becomes Iron Man through his own creation. No radioactivity or lab accidents needed. Hopefully this signals the way for a shift in what is considered a ‘super-male’ and for that matter a ‘super female’ (we need smart heroines as well).

    Great post!

  32. girltherapy
    February 7, 2013

    By the power of grayskull;)

  33. Rachel Sanks
    February 9, 2013

    We were just talking about 80s cartoons the other day — and how pseudo masculine Lady Jay seemed particularly compared to the lesser seen scarlet and her hyper girlishness — and whether that was an appropriate image for young girls and boys.

  34. ragoher
    February 12, 2013

    Highly interesting comments….you would like my page on transformational-awareness.com. Check it out when you have a chance.

  35. notyouraveragefeminista
    February 21, 2013

    Practical, intelligent strength in a man is more appealing to me than popping veins and bulging arms. However, where I live, I see more of the ultra-thin and weak looking or morbidly obese fellas..
    Skinny jeans and shaggy hair… or roll after roll of excess body fat behind a t-shirt large enough to act as a sail for the Mayflower..
    My brothers and I grew up watching and playing with He-Man, Shera and Battlecat toys too. But we all are about as straight up average as it gets..
    I think common sense is the main ingredient missing from the recipe for the newest generation of “adults.”
    Thanks for the stroll down memory lane! “I HAVE THE POWER!!!”
    -E

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