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Superheroes, Antiheroes, and the Heroism Void in Children’s TV

by Edward M. Berckman

Dr. Berckman is assistant professor of humanities at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. This article appeared in the Christian Century July 4-11, 1079, p. 704. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


“Just When We Need a Hero Most, Here Comes CAPTAIN AMERICA.” So goes an advertisement for a recent two-hour “adventure spectacular” on CBS television. The ad displays recognition of what may be an increasing public demand or need for models of moral heroism. This demand is worthy of notice; the supply of television heroes, however, hardly fills it.

While the effects of television violence and of children’s commercials have, justifiably, dominated the attention of both consumer groups and communications researchers, the issue of heroism in children’s programs has been largely and unduly neglected. Studies of heroes and hero-worship in American life are not lacking; but childhood is the time when the influence of positive role models can be most decisive, and TV is the medium through which American children receive most exposure to stories of heroes.

The pertinent question is: What does “kidvid” offer in the way of imitable heroes who face the kinds of ordinary obstacles with which real life confronts us? Very little, to judge from my observations of late afternoon and Saturday morning television since the spring of 1977. There are superheroes aplenty, of both sexes now (female equivalents to Tarzan -- such as Jana of the Jungle -- and to Spiderman -- Web Woman -- have now appeared); several robots after the fashion of the pair in Star Wars; villains galore; and an assortment of what might be called antiheroes, as the mode of parody and mockery invades children’s programs. When ordinary human characters perform heroic deeds, they tend to be technoheroes: Scientists or astronauts who use supergadgetry -- laser guns, minicomputers or the like -- to repel equally technological threats.

One of the few studies of the effects of viewing on prosocial behavior concludes that ‘children most often identify with children,” though there is also “wishful identification with superior figures” (Cecilia V. Feilitzan and Olga Linne, “Identifying with Television Characters,” Journal of Communications, Vol. 25, p. go). Child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim warns that stories of both the superhuman heroes of myth and the real heroes of history tend to discourage a child, even cause him or her to feel inferior, because the child knows that their extraordinary deeds cannot be matched.

In The Uses of Enchantment (Knopf, 1977) Bettelheim recommends fairy tales as providing the kind of subtle, low-key moral education children need. The basic message of fairy tales is that “a struggle . . . against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence -- but . . . if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious” (p. 8). I have seen few children’s television programs which carry such a message.

Bettelheim seems to have in mind such tales as “Hansel and Gretel” -- one that he discusses at length -- in which, although there are supernatural elements, it is the children’s alertness, resourcefulness and self-control that enable them to win out over the malice of stepmother and witch. Other examples of moral heroism may be drawn from medieval romance, in which young knights like Gawain and Percival are presented as imperfect but persevering questers who develop virtues of truth-keeping, courtesy and humility to match their physical prowess and bravery.

American literature of initiatory ordeals offers some appealing adolescents in more realistic situations. In Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” the boy Sarty Snopes makes a difficult and costly decision to oppose the unjust acts of his father. In Potok’s The Chosen it is the rigid orthodoxy and ascetic demands of an apparently harsh Hasidic father which create the test faced successfully by Danny (bolstered by the friendship of Reuven). One of American fiction’s most attractive characters is the 13-year-old Esme in J. D. Salinger’s “For Esme -- With Love and Squalor”; her unaffected charm and solicitude rescue the soldier-narrator from a World War II emotional and spiritual hell.

C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has now been presented as a special on commercial television -- but through the initiatives of a church group, not a network. Like “Hansel and Gretel,” this story has a set of siblings, three of whom respond to danger with courage, imagination and fidelity -- ordinary kids who rise to the challenges of an extraordinary situation. But there are few regular TV series -- either live-action or animated -- which present such models of imitable heroism.

What can be seen are several somewhat contradictory trends -- some positive and some negative -- as commercial kidvid responds to the “market” for heroes and to pressures for more pro-social programming. On the positive side: heroes increasingly display astute minds to match their muscles -- or even as substitutes for physical strength; also, fighters for justice frequently work in teams rather than as lone operatives. Not so welcome is the fact that antiheroism, often in the form of parody or self-parody, exists alongside heroism: moreover, most presentations of moral heroism are handicapped by an overtly didactic, hard-sell approach.

I

As long ago as 1953 in his study of Heroes, Highbrows and the Popular Mind (Bobbs-Merrill), Leo Gurko discerned “signs of a movement away from [brawn and] egotism,” at least in the movies, to a new type of hero who was aware that the problems of life perhaps could not all be solved by a breezy manner, a gun, or a punch in the nose” (pp. 192-193). When sociologist Orrin Klapp, in 1962, categorized the five most popular American social types, he included among “winners” giants of intellect as well as exemplars of brawny physique (Heroes, Villains, Fools: The Changing American Character [Prentice-Hall], chapter 1).

On children’s television today, physical skill and strength are still requisites for most heroes, and bad guys must still be subdued by force. But there are gratifying signs that intellect is valued and, occasionally, artistic pursuits -- a definite broadening of the concept of what makes a hero. Most commonly seen is the ability -- even among superheroes -- to use scientific instruments and technology. Before dashing off in his Batmobile or Batcopter for action, Batman often consults the Batcomputer or Brainwave Batanalyzer. As Bruce Wayne, he is both a scientist and a patron of the arts,

When she is not Isis, Andrea Thomas is a science teacher, and program plots often involve school projects. On Ark II, a show set in the 25th century, the protagonists are all scientists who aim to liberate earth’s people from the superstition, fear and tyranny to which they have regressed. Johnny Quest, an addition to the Godzilla Power Hour, is touted as “the boy wonder of mystery, science and intrigue,” but the real hero seems to be his father, Dr. Benton Quest, a mature scientist.

Scooby Doo and Clue Club, programs with teen-age detectives, honor analytic and deductive reasoning along with careful observation of clues. Little brawn is available or required from the Clue Clubbers, since the genial but unimaginative sheriff is always on hand to apprehend the criminals. Here too, there is considerable use of fancy technology by both criminals and detectives.

Another, more obvious trend is the swing away from lone protagonists, or even heroes with single sidekicks, to teams of heroes working together. In some cases several characters appear in separate episodes under a 90-minute umbrella, but often four or more undertake a mission together. For the Superfriends, for Jason and the Star Command, or for the crew of Ark II, cooperation is usually essential, and one hero must often be rescued by another.

One may also observe program-makers’ efforts to achieve ethnic and sexual balance. Wonder Woman is one of the Superfriends; Ark II features a white Anglo-Saxon male (in charge), an Oriental, female, a Chicano male and a talking chimpanzee. In Tarzan and the Super Seven’s Freedom Force, white males like Hercules and Merlin are joined by Isis, by a Super-Samurai and by Toshi, a Japanese boy.

What is one to make of a space jockey with a wide, self-satisfied grin, long blond hair and a name like Captain Good? Called “an example to all do-gooders,” he vows to observe three rules; “no cheating, good sportsmanship and brushing after every meal.” Such a character would seem to mock and undercut genuine dedication to fair play and good health habits. Further confusion and ambivalence must be introduced into the minds of viewers when “Captain Good” is revealed to be a disguise for Phantom Fink, the real villain of Yogi’s Space Race. Does it matter that eventually “Captain Good’ is revealed to be a disguise for the villainous Phantom Fink?

II

This program, like Galaxy Goof-ups and The Secret Lives of Waldo Kitty, represents the culmination of a trend toward parody and self-parody deriving, perhaps, from the campiness of the live-action Batman in the late 1960s. But Orrin Klapp had earlier observed that “mockery of heroes is not only a literary mode -- an amusement for satirists and tired intellectuals -- but has entered popular thought and is an important feature of American society” (p. 167).

One of today’s television types is the antihero, the character whose attributes and performance are opposite to those of admired ideals. For example, Deedee and Pepper are the two Clue Club teenagers who can be counted on to run from danger, to stumble noisily when silence is called for, to be thoroughly mystified by problems. Another comically bumbling detective is Inspector Clouseau of The Pink Panther Show. And the Pink Panther himself might well qualify as an antihero. He intends to he a trickster, is often successful, but occasionally becomes the victim of his own plots.

Mockery of heroes also takes place through parody, even self-parody. Yogi’s Space Race is a kind of take-off on Star Wars and other popular-culture phenomena. Bizarre adventures befall such competitors as a shark named Jabber-Jaws and a Laverne and Shirley-like pair of humans, Rita and Wendy. A mystery segment called “The Buford Files” features a bloodhound (Buford) with a southern accent and an electronic head which can function as a computer!

Waldo Kitty’s dreams of heroism la Thurber result in assorted parodies. Robin Hood or Star Trek or The Lone Ranger may provide the situations, Typical dialogue: the Lone Kitty’s sidekick, Pronto, says to him, “That was great, defender of the innocent.” “Shucks,” says the Lone Kitty modestly, “we heroes stop at nothing to further the cause of justice.” Such phenomena as these may represent not simply a disparaging of heroism but also a further spread of the kind of self-consciousness to which Lionel Abel called attention in his book Metatheatre (Hill & Wang, 1963). From Hamlet on, says Abel. the metaplay has been “the necessary form for dramatizing characters who, having full self-consciousness, cannot but participate in their own dramatization” And “in the metaplay, the hero, however unfortunate, can never be decisively defeated, perhaps he can never even be heroic” (pp. 78, 79).

In children’s television, self-consciousness about heroism can be reflected in the show as a whole, as well as in individual characters. This seems to be the case with Clue Club, in which the clumsy, braggart bloodhounds, Woofer and Wimper, and sometimes Deedee and Pepper, provide the comic and antiheroic counterpoint to the successful efforts of Larry and Dottie, They show us that the creators of the show are aware of the widespread skepticism regarding the heroic, At the same time, the expected formulas of mystery and adventure can be executed for the sake of those (younger?) viewers receptive to unadulterated heroism.

Pure ridicule of heroes can be seen as well -- for example, whenever the Pink Panther dons a Superman cape. But when the inspector on that show stops in mid-pursuit to say, “Hey, cartoonist, I order you to put this criminal behind bars,” that seems to me closer to the self-consciousness of metatheater.

III

Explicit didacticism, the tendency to spell out a story’s moral lesson, seems at first thought to represent a countertrend to the prevalence of antiheroism. Yet perhaps it too reflects an inability to take heroism seriously, to make it believable. This phenomenon has been most obvious on Tarzan and the Shazam-Isis Hour.

In the typical Tarzan episode a young man or woman, weak or insensitive or greedy, is taught a lesson at the same time he or she is being saved from some terrible fate. Annie Talbot, a pilot, independent spirit and writer investigating the descendants of medieval crusaders, is kidnapped when she ignores Tarzan’s advice to leave the scene. After he rescues her, she acknowledges that she needed help -- and she destroys her notes, realizing that her book on this ancient people, a sure best seller, would bring in the outside world and destroy them. Tarzan congratulates her: “Annie Talbot, you have truly grown in wisdom.” Other such episode-ending lines: “Tarzan, I know now how many things are more important than wealth.” “Courage comes in different shapes.”

The thinking as well as the behavior of misguided youths is set straight by both Isis and Captain Marvel. Punishment or exposure leads to remorse, followed by a statement like “Don’t be afraid of being called a name if you know what you’re doing is right.”

Bettelheim’s comments on fables would apply to the overt didacticism of shows such, as these.

Often sanctimonious, sometimes amusing, the fable always explicitly states a moral truth; there is no hidden meaning, nothing is left to the imagination.

The fairy tale, in contrast, leaves all decision up to us, including whether we wish to make any at all. It is up to us whether we wish to make any application to our life from a fairy tale, or simply enjoy the fantastic events it tells about [p. 8].

The moralistic emphasis in the TV shows I have mentioned appears to be a response to criticism from groups like Action for Children’s Television concerning the amoral or antisocial implications of adventure programs. Thus, the explicit moral lessons may be directed more at adult viewers -- particularly parents -- than at children. Here, the network executives can say: see what wholesome values these programs teach. But if Bettelheim Is right, such preachments only turn the child off or at best are ignored. What a child needs, rather, is “a moral education which subtly, and by implication only, conveys to him the advantages of moral behavior . . .” (p 10). Closer to the approach Bettelbeim recommends -- certainly more subtle -- is Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Its stories, presented In animation, dramatize everyday situations in an urban (ghetto) environment. Cosby periodically appears in person to interpret the action, but his wit lightens the point to be made. The show’s tone is expressed in his introduction: “Here’s Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun, and, if you’re not careful, you may learn something.”

The character whose behavior most often makes him an admirable model is Fat Albert. Hardly the all-American boy in appearance, he is, nevertheless, a responsible, caring and courageous person. When he takes a moral stand, he does it as one of the gang, who eventually respect him for it.

A song summarizing what may be learned ends the show. Accompanied -- almost drowned out -- by the kids’ rock band, the words point out the practical value of the recommended behavior, rather than exhorting. Examples: “Smoking will wipe you out. That’s why it’s something I can do without.” Or (on bullies): “You’re never happy if you’re always mean. You’ll be the loneliest fellow you’ve ever seen.”

IV

There are indications that network executives and creators of children’s programs are at least grappling with the demand that they communicate prosocial values. On the one hand, they resist accepting any such function: “Leave the teaching to the teachers in the class-room,” NBC’s children’s programming vice-president George Heinemann told colleagues (“NBC exec debunks view of kids’ tv as teacher,” Advertising Age, June 9, 1975, p. 3). On the other hand, they have developed new ways of partially meeting these demands, such as after-school specials and brief, informational program inserts, But believable heroism in everyday situations remains a scarce commodity.

The proliferation of superheroes now invading prime-time programming (Wonder Woman, Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, perhaps soon Captain America) is more to be feared than welcomed. In The American Monomyth (Doubleday Anchor, 1977) Robert Jewett and John S. Lawrence have already warned us that the prevalence throughout our popular media of larger-than-life heroes fosters passivity, submission to authority and a yearning for easy solutions.

When didacticism is added, children may find the values associated with the superheroes to be no more credible than the powers, particularly when the values urged on children are only given lip service in the real adult world. Sometimes the commercial context of a program openly subverts the intended moral. Once Tarzan’s statement, “I would teach your greedy king a lesson,” was followed by an advertisement showing another greedy king devouring peanut butter chocolates. Such juxtapositions make perceptive young viewers ripe for parody and mockery -- and children’s TV now offers plenty of that for the “sophisticated child.”

With Captain Good and Captain America types simultaneously included as part of kidvid fare, network executives surely realize that the latter character, too -- five times as strong and five times as smart as other men -- will not be seen as a believable, imitable model. On his red, white and blue motorcycle Captain America is simply one more “example to all do-gooders” for our amusement.

Healthier alternatives to existing programs do not necessarily lie in the direction of fairy tales, but program-makers should make use of the insights Bettelheim draws from such stories. As the psychologist notes, “The child identifies with the good hero not because of his goodness but because the hero’s condition makes a deep positive appeal to him.” Let the heroes, then, not be more moral or didactic but more interesting and lifelike, engaged in struggles whose outcome could be in real doubt.

Program-makers with the ability and concern of a Bill Cosby can find their own directions. Others might first do some homework in the Brothers Grimm or medieval romance or American fiction -- especially Mark Twain. In Huckleberry Finn they would find an appealing hero who was not even aware that he was a good guy.


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