Imagine You’re a Superhero

Can imagining that you’re a superhero make you smarter?  According to British scientists, the answer is, “Yes.”  Yet there are even broader implications for this new study, which was reported over the weekend.

Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in England conducted an experiment, in which students were asked to take a series of tests designed to improve their mental abilities. Some of the participants were asked to take the tests while wearing Superman t-shirts, while the control group wore regular t-shirts.  Amazingly, when the results came in, those subjects who put the “S” on their chest scored an average of 72%, while the control group scored an average of 64%.  Similarly, the Kryptonian group felt that they were stronger, better-liked by others, and more self-assured, than did those who wore an everyday garment.

Readers may recall another study I shared with you earlier this year from the University of Illinois, about the impact that playing a heroic character in video games can have on real-world behavior.  Gamers who regularly choose to play the superhero in a game were more likely to carry over some of the positive behavior of that character in their daily lives.  Those who typically play a villain on the other hand, had a greater tendency to mistreat others in their offline world.

In these studies, what scientists are really examining is how self-visualization can make a profound impact on someone’s personality. People who regularly imagine themselves to be intelligent, healthy, and successful, are actually training a part of their brain to kick in automatically.  It’s an old adage to say that, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it,” yet more and more scientific evidence points to the fact that this statement is absolutely true.

The same British researchers in the study referred to above found that depressed women tend to wear the same clothes over and over again, ignoring 90% of their available wardrobe in the process.  By engaging in this kind of behavior, which chances are we’ve all seen or engaged in, at one time or another, the depressed reinforce a (false) perception that they don’t have any control over their own lives.  On the other end of the scale, I’m sure that many of the men reading this blog have a “lucky” tie hanging in the closet, which they wear on special occasions or critical moments.  It gives you a sense of being in control, even though you know it’s just a woven piece of silk, because something about it makes you feel like good things will happen when you wear it.

If you’ve been down in the dumps or are going through a difficult patch, as everyone does, maybe it’s time to start imagining yourself a hero, rather than a zero.  No, self-visualization isn’t going to give you superhuman strength or the ability to fly, but then again that’s not really the point. In order for you to ace your next exam or try to understand the Bauhaus movement, you don’t need to go throw on a special t-shirt, let alone the full spandex-and-cape combo out of the comic books.

What studies like these reinforce however, is the idea that how we present ourselves matters, and can make a big difference in achieving what we set out to accomplish.  The more we encourage ourselves and others to play the hero rather than the villain – or indeed, the victim – the more likely it is that we will see real-life examples of self-sacrifice, defense of the weak, and the pursuit of knowledge popping up everywhere in our culture.  Just imagine, what a truly super society we could have, then.

Superman With Book - Copy

 

Spandex Heroism in a Relativist Age

Those of my readers who follow me on Twitter know that every month, I put on a Superman suit and take an amusing photograph to use for my AVI – i.e., Twitterspeak for a profile picture.  The fun part of this exercise for me over the past year has not been taking the actual picture, since to be frank I hate having my picture taken and am decidedly not photogenic, but rather getting to play along with the superhero persona.  In a man of my years, joking about a secret identity or kryptonite in my coffee may at first glance seem an example of the perpetual adolescence foisted upon those of us who are, loosely speaking, the children of the “Me Generation”. Yet there is a different purpose at work here, which has more to do with trying to get people to think about what Western culture taught us for centuries about right from wrong, childhood versus adulthood, and about being dominated by passions instead of being governed by reason.

The adult child phenomenon is not new, of course.  It has been with us since the first cavewoman decided not to let her adult son go off and live in another cave once he had reached maturity.   This type of delayed adulthood used to be ridiculed more regularly in the arts, such as in literature and cinema, backed up by a pan-societal scorning of such behavior.  Today however, it seems we have been creating more examples of Lord Septimus and Johnny Cammareri, rather than discouraging men from following such a dead-end path.

What has been in effect the systematic emasculation of the Western male is an outgrowth of the type of parental coddling which began to take root in society in the 1980’s and ’90’s, and which continues to hold sway over our society at present.  It insists, paradoxically, that all children are special, while simultaneously looking at children as the disposable products of sexual intercourse.  It is a mindset which led, among other practices, to insisting that all children being given a prize for simply performing in a competitive event, even if they were absolutely terrible at whatever they were supposed to have been doing.  It was only natural that out of such circumstances a type of genetic male would emerge who would not want to go out into the cold, cruel world, when it was so much nicer to stay home and read comic books, smoke weed, and play video games in your parents’ basement.

In my case however, being a superhero in social media is rather an effort to try to make people think in modern terms about ancient topics crucial to the survival of our civilization as a whole, such as virtue, human dignity, and standing up for those incapable of doing so for themselves.  Woefully too often young adults, thanks to the poor state of education in most of the Western world at present, did not learn many of the ancient myths which lie at the foundations of our civilization, as our forbearers did. They have not gleaned the lessons to be learned from tales of badly behaved gods and brave, impetuous humans, which allowed children transitioning to responsible adulthood to come to discern what was right and wrong, what was worthy of praise and what was worthy of punishment.  Whereas reasonably educated men of a century ago would have immediately understood someone being referred to as a Prometheus figure, today “Prometheus” only conjures up images of the latest installment of the “Alien” movie franchise.

In a contemporary context however, even if our shared cultural narrative of the past few thousand years has sunk below the radar, one thing that most of us experienced, even as educators abandoned the classics in favor of the touchy-feely, “everyone is special” nonsense of the past thirty years, was Saturday morning cartoons.  We saw characters like Johnny Quest or Action Man or the members of the Justice League fighting against naked evil, in ways which echoed the ancient myths, even if we did not realize at the time that we were revisiting these old stories.  These were not men who moved between shades of gray, but rather who recognized that there are indeed moral absolutes, good things and bad things, and behaved accordingly.

Today even these heroes have been tainted by the psychology of self-centered shoe-gazing, which is not only a disappointing state of affairs, but also antithetical to human experience.  They are often little more than confused children riding around inside giant bodies.  As the present incarnations of long-established superheroes have come to look more and more like the steroid-swollen monsters that now saunter around our professional athletic fields, without a care as to their own moral character or how their behavior will be perceived by the public – particularly the children who look up to them – we have seen our culture’s sense of moral absolutes commensurately shrinking.

In the myths, like in the old comic books and cartoons, there is always a transition from seemingly ordinary fellow to man of action, which is meant to parallel the transition from boyhood to manhood.  That transition determines whether the protagonist becomes who he is meant to be, or whether he remains a background player in someone else’s story.  In the process, two important changes have to take place to avoid the traps of relativism, indecision, and perpetual emotional infancy, for of course irrational children are ruled by fleeting whims and temporary emotions; rational adults learn how to control these impulses, and harness them to bring about good ends, or at the very least thwart evil purposes.

First, if you are willing to suffer through the transition, you will find that you are capable of far more than you thought possible. No matter what your resources, and no matter how easily you may be able to accomplish certain tasks or exhibit certain talents, it is in moments of crisis when you come to learn how very fragile the little plastic bubble you have created for yourself to live in happens to be.  Indeed, returning to the underlying theme of this post, making this change is rather like removing one of those impossibly difficult plastic clamshells that are molded around action figures hanging on a display rack in a toy store. When that bubble bursts, and that packaging is cut away, you have to learn to cope with the world outside if you are going to be an adult, and not a child.

Second, if you do indeed survive that bursting of your bubble, you have a choice to make. You will have to decide whether you are willing to take a long, hard look at yourself, freed from all of that self-reflective cocoon you were enveloped in.  You will have to come to see, not what you thought that you were, nor what others told you that you are, but rather who you actually are.  That can be a very difficult process, particularly for those who have no grounding whatsoever in anything other than the legalized hedonism which our society has worshiped for some years now.

Yet the reward of taking on this challenge, stepping out of the comfortable, and doing a frank assessment of yourself, is that you will unquestionably be the better for it.  You will be increasingly dissatisfied with and indeed incapable of going back to the way things were before. Once being safe and coddled is not only no longer possible, but no longer wanted, the actual man will and must appear.  He cannot be sealed back into that comfortable package, once that package has been cut open and he has had a chance to examine himself closely in the light of day.

Myths and stories about ordinary men doing amazing things, whether they originate on the island of Ithaca or in the town of Smallville, are meant to encourage and warn.  They ask us to try to be more than we believe  – or have been told – we are capable of, and to choose to do good rather than follow evil.  They serve as guideposts for those of us who do not wish to be babied our entire lives, neither by society nor the state.   They strip away the enthronement of childish, incontinent aspects of human nature, so in the ascendancy at present, which ask us to sit by and do and say nothing, for fear of disturbing someone else’s phobia or fetish.

My hope is that the joking, spandex heroism I display in social media is something which causes you to sit up, take notice, and laugh.  Yet I am also trying to get you to think, not only about who and what you are, but about whether the lessons and messages you have been fed by our contemporary society are actually true.  Are you going to stand up and be counted, or are you going to go along to get along? For in the end I suspect you will discover, as I have, that the chimerical values of the present age are simply a means of keeping an entire population in perpetual docile, childish ignorance.  And whatever it may appear on the outside, you cannot be a man, super or otherwise, unless you learn to reject that kind of relativism.

Outtake

Setting up a test shot at the (messy) Fortress of Solitude

Even Superman Has His Limits

Today even as those of us in the U.S. celebrate Halloween, my revels have already ended, since I threw a Halloween costume party on Saturday evening. The process of preparing for Halloween was a bit more involved for me this year than usual, since I gained about 18 pounds of muscle to do it. However in the end said process allowed me to reflect a bit on how those of us in our 20’s and 30’s look at ourselves, and what the effect of some rather disturbing changes in marketing tales of heroes and adventure may be having on the young.

I suspect that, like many of my readers, Halloween is something one makes serious plans for in some years, and then other years one takes an easy-costume route or just ignores the holiday altogether. Last year I went as King Philip II of Spain, and had to cobble my costume together from various sources to try to get as accurate as possible. I even grew a beard for the occasion, which only took a few days to come in – good to know if I ever decide to become a hermit.

For this year I had gone back and forth about whether to be Batman or Superman, since I had not dressed up as a superhero for at least a decade or more, but ultimately settled on the latter because I would not have to wear some sort of rubber cowl-mask combination, a headcovering which could have proven increasingly irritating as the evening progressed. Having said that, it was so cold this weekend, with an unsual mixture of sleet and snow in Washington on Saturday, that it probably would have been a pleasant thing to be able to pull on one’s cowl when stepping outside for some air. Fortunately, making cremat helped with that issue.

These days, if you want to purchase a superhero outfit for Halloween, Mardi Gras, or just a costume party, you have the option of buying either a standard costume, in various grades of stitching and thicknesses of fabric, or a costume lined with some type of padding or even inflatable air pockets, so that the wearer can appear to be more muscular. This is the case not only on costumes for adults, but for children, as well – something which I found rather disturbing.

About a decade ago, I recall reading in GQ about a major study on the increasing incidence of body dysmorphic disorder in men. At the time, men were primping and preening like they had not done since the 1930’s, though the physical ideal had shifted from being something tall and svelte, like an Art Deco skyscraper, to looking something more like a heavily upholstered armchair. The Harvard study, whose abstract can be read here and includes some helpful graphics, looked specifically at how action figures of characters such as Batman, G.I. Joe, and Luke Skywalker had changed from the early 1970’s to the late 1990’s.

The results showed that action figure heroes had been dramatically altered over a period of about 20 years by toy designers. In the 1970’s, the figures represented an idealized physique that was still a realistically achievable one for boys who stayed fit by exercising and eating well as they grew up. By the 1990’s however, the same characters were made to look so grossly swollen and exaggerated that, in many cases, it would be either physically impossible for someone with such proportions to be able to move at all, or the degree of musculature represented was only achievable by professional bodybuilders, often through the use of chemicals such as steroids and human growth hormone.

This same shift being pushed by marketers continues today in what we see being shown in films, television, and other merchandise involving hero characters for boys. Take a look at Christopher Reeve as Superman back in the late 70’s. Reeve looks fit and healthy, with nothing exaggerated; he is tall and trim, rather than bulky. Meanwhile the latest actor to play Superman, the usually slim Henry Cavill from “The Tudors”, has bulked up so much to film this new role, that one feels sorry for what it must feel like to have to have to maintain what, for him, is completely unnatural.

Not being a professional actor paid to work out with a trainer for hours a day, there was no way I was going to be able to pack on a huge amount of weight over several weeks, just in order to be Superman for Halloween. I made an effort to work out and eat properly, rather than resort to some sort of padded or inflatable costume, which to me seemed like cheating, as well as buying into the attitude that in order to be a superhero, one must be strangely proportioned. The end result was not a tremendous change, but I gained back some of the muscle I had lost over the years, due to multiple accidents/illnesses and bad eating. Though admittedly, the first thing I did the day after the Halloween party was to eat a big plate of cold cuts and cheese, something I love and had denied myself for weeks as I concentrated on healthy but somewhat boring foods like grilled chicken breasts and whey protein.

Yet it is hard not to think about how this evening, there will be boys going around trick-or-treating dressed as Superman, Batman, Captain America, and so on, who are wearing padding or blow-up suits in order to look as though they are juiced up on steroids – for no normal 9-year-old boy has prominent abdominal muscles and biceps the size of grapefruit. One wonders what they think about the way they look as they enter their teen years, when so many of us form a permanent impression in our heads of how we think we appear to the outside world. One also wonders whether their parents are doing them a significant disservice by dressing them up in these types of unrealistic, pumped-up costumes to look like miniature Olympic weightlifters, if their child was designed by God to be of slim or average build.

The point of Halloween of course, naysayers to the holiday aside, is to have fun and play dress up, something that never completely goes away for most of us as we get older. Nor is this tradition some sort of American historical anomaly.  Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, loved attending the kind of elaborate masques and costume balls which were common among the European upper classes throughout the year, with guests dressing up as heroes and villains, figures from history and legends, and so on.

However, that sense of fun has to be tempered with a realization that it is one thing to play dress up once in awhile. It is quite another to foist upon one’s children the idea that dress up is, or ought to be, an everyday reality.  While we often focus on the effect that the popular media, toy marketers, and so on have on our daughters, let us also spare a thought for our sons, and teach them that stories about superheroes, Jedi knights, and Greek warriors are about teaching values to young minds so that they can live rightly, not commercial manipulations to make them feel dissatisfied with who they are.