The toxic cult of the superhero

Why this mad insistence that everyone has special powers?

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

‘We don’t need another hero,’ sang Tina Turner back in the sexy-greedy 1980s. How times have changed. These days we have Superheroes Are Everywhere, a children’s book written by the Vice-President of the USA, Kamala Harris. Puffs tell us that ‘the book teaches that superheroes can be found everywhere in real life, from family members, to friends, to teachers at school and college’ and that it is an ‘encouraging, uplifting book [which] inspires kids to recognise the super-heroes all around them and promise to be, like them, brave, kind, helpful, and more’. Those little darlings between two and five who have ADHD – as so many bourgeois children mysteriously appear to – can swerve the book and instead attend a ‘Superhero Training Course’ run by the Little Hero Company in a church in Dulwich for ‘an imaginative, energetic and action-packed 45-minute class, where your Little Heroes can indulge in whoever they want to be, from Spider-Man to Elsa from Frozen’.

If your children are older and still acting up, you might want to send them to a shrink who specialises in ‘Superheroes and Pop Culture in Therapy for Children and Adolescents’. ‘Imagine if kids had superpowers to help them overcome their mental health issues. What would their superpowers be? Like many children, our best-known superheroes are often impacted by abuse, divorce, loss, isolation, anger and their accompanying mental health challenges. And like many superheroes, kids who struggle with psychological issues can often harness incredible inner strength.’

Finally shipped them off to college, but they’re still finding life hard, and seeking comfort in the myths of their youth? No worries; just let them transfer to Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, USA, where they can be wet-nursed through the awful business of coming to maturity in the most affluent and free country the world has ever known by seeing it through the eyes of superheroes: ‘Many topics that dominate the conversations in modern society – race, feminism, immigration, gender and sexuality, politics, religion, and more – can be daunting to students who may not know how to engage in discussions about these topics. “These conversations, to young people, are threatening,” says Professor Annika Hagley. “To take these seemingly scary conversations and put them in a character they love or know, it’s a very effective way to give them access to have a conversation.”’

It’s hard for me to express the contempt I feel for the pretentious fools who peddle this stuff and the privileged saps who swallow it. All around the world children are dreaming of education above all else, which will enable them to get a decently paid job to pull themselves out of poverty. Meanwhile, a sizeable minority of first-world students apparently need to be coaxed and babied by mythical beings in order to take the next step towards adulthood.

It’s probably not surprising. We live in an era in which – due to everything from social media to computer games – everyone is encouraged to see themselves as a hero in their own game of life. It’s interesting that it’s often people on the left – like the Veep – who are into this way of thinking, when it’s historically more of a right-wing thing, going right back to Ayn Rand. With so many experiences lived online, it’s hardly surprising that life has started to seem like a game – with points to collect (the obsession with fitness data), money to be made (crypto coins) and (fictional) battles to be won.

One of the most baffling aspects of the craze is the growing tendency to frame handicaps as ‘superpowers’ – a quick Google brings up bipolarity and autism, blindness and deafness. Obviously, if it makes disabled people feel better about themselves, reframing a handicap as a superpower can’t really hurt – but just like the belief that a woman can have a penis, it’s rooted in magical thinking and thus probably best not encouraged.

While you can understand someone who’s been dealt a bad hand by life wanting to boost their self-esteem, when healthy people aspire to the status of superheroes, they reveal themselves as being basically inadequate at being human. It’s no coincidence that Fathers For Justice – who might more accurately be called Poltroons For Patriarchy or Misogynists Against Mothers – came to notice by dressing up as superheroes and making a nuisance of themselves scaling public buildings. They were also active in the harassment of the late Caroline Flack, who they tormented prior to her death by suicide; scratch a superhero, find a cry-bully.

What’s the good in going on about superheroes when we’re bringing children up to be ninnies? In these challenging times, the last thing we need is people pretending to be something they’re not rather than stare their problems straight in the face and make a start on sorting them out. Rather than making up stories about ourselves, let’s face our failings and fix them, as the slave-turned-scholar Epictetus put it: ‘If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer: “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would have not mentioned these alone.”’ We need sensible stoics – not self-deceiving, self-diagnosed superheroes.

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