July 6, 2016

My Final Frame - Millennials and the Dialectic of the Superhero

This will be my last entry to this blog.  I’m not going anywhere, and nothing is wrong, but this medium has reached a rather evident end of effectiveness in an age dominated by streaming video and podcasts.  I’ve not posted for years now due in part to forces beyond my control, and I don’t anticipate being able to recreate a schedule that works to regularly update this space. But having said that, I’m unsatisfied that my previous de facto “final-entry” was so current events oriented and now serves as a dated reference to what feels like another era.  A lot has happened in the intervening years personally, professionally, and socio-culturally and I think I finally found something to say that will leave a better final mark than the old and tired debate over video-game violence.  It is my hope that what I present here will be a fitting finale to One Frame of Mind.

Before we begin, though, I need to hang one final disclaimer over the proceedings.  I am a self-identified Caucasian, heterosexual, cis-gendered, man.  I’ve referenced each of these in passing in previous posts, but for the matter I wish to discuss, I believe it’s important that I acknowledge that everything I say is unavoidably influenced by those perspectives.  I do not consider myself confined to these characteristics (as I’m sure would be true of most, if not all, of you), but I cannot deny that my experience of the circumstances discussed below may be a byproduct of them.  Having said all of that, I sincerely hope that what I offer here will resonate with you and maybe even help you understand your circumstances with greater clarity.  More after the jump.

Let us consider an old question from my youth and, likely, many of your childhoods as well: 
“If you could have any super power, what would it be?” 

If we unpack the question itself, at its core, the question prompts the recipient for a simplistic answer (often fewer than 5 words, unto my experience) meant to reveal something about their authentic inner self.  Over the years, I’ve heard and read all manner of deconstructions of this question that seek to provide a sort of function to the responses that explains in some kind of associative manner what a given answer says about the respondent.  For example, I’ve heard it said that “flying” (which, by anecdotal evidence in my life is the most common response) is a stand in for “freedom” in a respondent.  I don’t know how true any of that is, but I am fascinated by the central thesis of these theories: our favorite superpower could represent something true about our own inner-most desires or even our self-entire.  Now that’s the kind of thing I’d love to know more about.  

This question is, I believe, at the forefront of virtually every aspect of life in the 21st century to date.  Hang on there, I don’t mean that in a literal sense, but rather, in a more subtle manner.  As those of you who’ve read my now literally old articles know, I’m a big fan of superheroes, and I’ve been a proponent of the superhero movie craze that has swept the world over the last decade.  I’ve said in the past that “the myth matters” and I stand by that assertion.  But as the years have gone by, and as I’ve watched my peers come into their own on social media and in the professional sphere, I’ve started to see another side to this phenomenon. It’s fashionable to bash my generation, the Millennials, for being self-absorbed, overly focused on our smart phones, disconnected from reality, sheltered, and all manner of other insults to our character.  We are infamous for our perceived disdain for privilege, our reverence for opinion as self-expression, and our near-constant use of social media as a megaphone for our every thought and belief.  So I thought I’d explore how we may have reached this space, and yes, as stated, I believe it’s related to that childhood question.

So let’s look a little closer at the Superhero for a moment.  Dictionary.com defines superhero as “a hero, especially in children's comic books and television cartoons, possessing extraordinary, often magical powers.” Not bad, but that’s almost too specific.  Many of our classic superheroes don’t even fit this definition.  Batman, a personal favorite of mine, is portrayed as a “mortal man” capable of super-heroic feats, and possesses no “extraordinary” powers canonically.  Yes, I did say in a previous article that he is still “god-like” in his portrayal, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.  Sure, this particular definition isn’t bad at all, but I think we can get at the core of “superhero” if we take a broader approach.  What’s the one fundamental trait common to all superheroes?  Well, in simplistic terms: they “can.”  Put another way, superheroes are defined by their capacity to impact their world in some specific way with their actions.  Superheroes are beings of near-total agency.  Agency, in the world of philosophers and sociologists alike, is the extent to which a given actor can act in their environment.  Now, to most modern folk, it would seem rather self-evident that agency isn’t especially rare.  In fact, I’d wager that ALL of you reading this post would claim to have plenty of agency in your various spheres of life.  All of us can point to circumstances where we were “in control” or were able to affect an outcome, good or bad, through our own sense of will.  I certainly feel this way most of the time, and I imagine that you do, too.  But total agency?  Could any of us claim that?  Almost certainly not…. and especially not in light of the world as we perceive it today.

Over the last several years, the discussion surrounding the social circumstances of the United States (and the world, but I maintain that much of this view is decidedly America-centric) has been dominated by the word privilege.  It’s a word that makes some cringe and others bristle with irritation or even outrage.  It’s also a word I believe is not very well understood.  The well-meaning but often misused phrase “check your privilege” has become a trope of comments on websites like Tumblr or Reddit, and has been the final thesis of countless blog-posts throughout the web.  Often leveled at those who would take an oversimplified stance towards an issue of social justice informed by their own higher social standing, this specific phrase has become less common, but it has left a mark on the popular conscience in much the same way “Politically Correct” did in the 90’s.  But what is “privilege” and how does one actually “check” it?  Well, from where I stand, “privilege” is “agency.”  If we look at the waves of social change and the rhetoric of any of the major groups associated with it (e.g. #BlackLivesMatter, Current-Wave Feminism, or Gender and Sexual Minority rights, to name some of the most recognizable ones), it’s not difficult to see how privilege and agency are equated.  These minority groups’ primary concern could be described as a lack of tangible agency within our larger social structure, as represented by forces like the “glass ceiling” or, less subtly, outright racism or homophobia.  The oppression attributed to white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, male majority could be seen as an imbalanced application of agency over these various others in the capacity to perpetuate those biases and barriers.  So to “check” your privilege, it seems you would have to nullify some of your own agency so as to allow for greater agency in someone else.  Or, at the very least, it would entail an acknowledgement by a privileged individual that they possess greater agency than another and that they need to be mindful of its use and misuse. 

So let’s return to superheroes.  If superheroes are in fact beings of full agency, then at first glance, it might seem that these beings represent an oppressive force.  And in fact, historically, they were (and sometimes are) thought of in this way.  Superman, the original superhero, is frequently criticized for being unrelatably powerful – too strong to be acknowledged as someone “like us.”   The actions of a “God” are simply not to be questioned by mere people. Batman was frequently embraced as the more relatable figure due to his “mortal” stature and simply being “good enough” to do the same deeds as his more god-like counterparts.  But even Batman can be deconstructed in much the same way.  His story holds that he’s an incredibly wealthy man and uses that wealth to “fight crime,” but it could just as easily be said that he’s merely a man who is wealthy enough for us to give his obvious insanity a pass.  He does dress up as a bat and beat people up at night because he misses his mommy, after all.  In many ways, he’s emblematic of the problem: too much agency in the hands of a being who doesn’t use it in a better way – ultimately, he reinforces the status quo rather than fight to change it.   Could he not use that wealth to fund enough public works to keep people off the streets of Gotham basically forever?  We know more than ever before about the effect of incarceration on the psychology of prisoners – does Batman sending so many young men and women to jail over and over not perpetuate this cycle and keep Gotham in danger?  If so, can we truly say that he’s doing the right thing for a more complicated and nuanced world? In the final analysis, are our superheroes merely oppressors? 

I don’t think so.  And to understand why, we need to look closer at why we read superhero comics or go see superhero movies in the first place.  Numbers don’t lie, and by the numbers, they are the most popular form of media on EARTH right now.  In an age seemingly defined by the nuance of identity politics, what does the superhero offer a generation seeking to change the world?  I believe it goes back to agency; but not their agency – our agency.  It’s a common criticism of the movie industry that there are “just too many superhero movies these days!”  And sure enough, there are charts reaching out for years to lay out our veritable buffet of superhero films.  This, in the end, was part of the genius of the comic book industry.  We have almost as many superheroes as there are people to enjoy them.  The draw of the superhero is not what they do for their world, but rather it is that they allow us to feel like we can do the same for ours.  Are you the type to throw yourself on a grenade like Captain America?  How about the great inventor safeguarding the world from those who would abuse your creation like Iron Man? Do you aspire to master your inner self and channel it for good, even if it’s dangerous? Pick up a few issues of the Incredible Hulk.  Do you wish to make your will so strong that you’ll do what’s right under the greatest of duress?  Perhaps the cape and cowl of the Batman speak to you, after all. The superhero isn’t a force of tyranny or oppression; it is a conduit for us to channel our desired agency and for us to believe that we can all make the world a little bit better.

It’s telling, I think that the other medium championed by my generation is the Video Game.  Games have been enthusiastically embraced by virtually all of popular culture, but the younger generations who have grown up with them as a constant presence definitely show a special affinity to them.  And it makes sense given the narrative of desired agency.  After all, what makes games unique among mass-media is choice.  I’ve addressed this at length before, but the capacity for us to live out the consequences of our choices in a game makes them uniquely positioned for us to understand ourselves.  It’s no longer us deciding whether or not we agree with Superman; it’s us deciding to be Superman and actively taking on that burden.  The self-expression we have access to in a game is unprecedented.  Whatever and whoever we are or wish to be, we can achieve it.  Our identity, and whatever that entails, is our means, nay, the only means, of achieving the total agency we desire.   But games don’t (yet) reflect our reality in all its complexity.  Among the key differences is that the world of a video game is designed in such a way that the input and outcome is always predetermined and only has as much variance as the programmers could think to allow.  Put more simply: if the game says, “push X to save the world”, when you push X, you’ll save the world.  There are no subtleties or politics to the cause and effect model in a game.  Games teach us that we can succeed if we keep trying, true, but it doesn’t account for the agency of others – because in a game, there are no other agents.

And here, I believe, is where things became more complicated.  Our identities, for all intents and purposes, have become our superpowers.  Through the embrace of our sense of self, we have all found the power to become greater agents in our lives and the world is demonstrably better for that effort.  Marriage equality is the law of the land; we elected our first black president and we might soon elect our first woman president.  But with that progress, there comes a backlash – resistance to the desire for a new, more progressive world has also bolstered itself.  But, unlike in the world of the Avengers, the resistance to change hasn’t come from villains and monsters – it came from people.  I won’t bother defending the indefensible actions of the bigots of the world who have come out of the woodwork to belittle and harass others, but I stress that it’s important to remember that they are just people.  And like all of us, they, too, desire agency.  

Our world, now, is less like the story of Superman versus Lex Luthor, and more like the story of Civil War.  It may very well be that in our haste to embrace our inner superhero, we forgot that not all of us are heroes in the same way for the same reason and with the same methods and goals.  Would the selfless Captain America truly understand and get along with the self-centered Iron Man?  Even if he could, would Iron Man reciprocate? Well, if we look at the canon of the Marvel universe, the answer might be “no.”  But neither is the villain in the end.  The villain is the complexity of the world itself.  Given the choice, we would all choose to fight on our own terms and on our own fronts; but despite that super-agency we desire so greatly, that choice is rarely ours to make.  And in defiance of the brutal unfairness of that circumstance, we continue to redefine and sharpen our superpowers; our identities.  We turn to intersectionality to help us cope with the idea that some of these identities might meld and exchange with one another, but in doing so we create only another front on which no one has total agency.  And in doing so, it’s possible that we become superheroes – agents – in a fight that can’t be won.  We simply don’t have the super villains we’d prepared ourselves to fight.

So let’s return now to the question that started it all.  We’ve spent the better part of our lives asking ourselves what kind of superpowers we’d have.  Whether we’d fly, use telekinesis, or simply punch our way through problems, it’s the question into which we’ve poured most of our energy.   But now that the age of information has made us all into superheroes, it’s become problematic that we didn’t ask the question that ought to follow it, the one that all our fictional superheroes ask of themselves:

If you could have any superpower, what would you do with it?

I’m Trevor, and that’s my Frame of Mind.


  1. Fly, be invisible, walk on water, be without bitterness, love fully, deeply and without fear

  2. Privilege and agency are not equated .. privilege is the ability to choose -- one is not compelled to act. Some have the choice to use the greater agency or not == mostly white, heterosexual, cis-gendered and male == and are OK with not acting. Others like minorities have don't have privilege but have a lot of agency because they feel it MUST be done/said to make a difference in the social structure. I would contend that BATMAN doesn't feel the need to feed the poor because he has privilege and therefore, can choose not to.

    1. I'm not sure I understand the distinction you've drawn here. I don't disagree with anything you've said, but I don't quite understand how you've defined "agency." As I understand it, agency isn't simply free will, but rather the ability to use that free will to impact one's environment. That might not be how you define it, but it's how it was intended in this entry. Does "privilege", to you, imply only the capacity not to choose? I'm genuinely curious as to what your definitions are since it sounds like we agree on the principle but not on the specifics. I'd like to hear more.