Superheroes are supposed to empower kids, but some experts say their unrealistic physiques may be undermining that mission.
“Whether it’s Victoria’s Secret, or Batman, or porn, there’s an underlying ideology that makes all of this a coherent narrative about what constitutes masculinity and what constitutes femininity,” Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, tells Fatherly.
Dines and other experts fear that the sort of body types seen in films such as the Avengers franchise may be contributing to a child’s distorted sense of what is and is not attractive or healthy. And where a cartoon should imply some fictional exaggeration of physical features, the human face atop Thor’s disproportionately broad shoulders and ripped bod or the Black Widow’s curvy figure and tiny waist may lead kids to believe those body types are attainable and desirable.
A study published last month in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences examined the body mass indexes and corporeal dimensions of 3,752 Marvel comic characters, and revealed that men’s should-to-waist ratios were twice that of a human man. Same goes for women, whose ratios were more extreme than actresses in pornography, who frequently go through plastic surgery to achieve such figures.
“The measurements were far more outlandish than I expected,” study author Rebecca Burch tells Fatherly. “This is not an attainable body shape. This is not even a functional body shape.”
Scientists point out that film and video are more readily absorbed by children because they bypass the frontal lobe, the part of the brain in charge of executive functioning, i.e. memory, judgment and decision-making. Printed media, on the other hand, is processed through the frontal lobe, forcing the brain to contend with the information — helping children rationalize what’s real and what’s fantasy.
Says Dines, “The more consistent and coherent the message is to kids, the more likely they are to internalize that.”
This can have an insidious effect when kids grow up. Past studies have shown that men who are unable to conform to masculine “norms” are also more likely to suffer mental health issues. Similarly, women who are accustomed to objectification of females are more likely to self-sexualize.
Parents can’t always monitor what their kids are watching, so experts advise having lots of conversations about healthy body image, and using resources such as Culture Reframed (for which Dines is CEO), which aims to educate parents and kids on hyper-sexualization in the media, and even provides scripts to help parents prepare for awkward conversations.
Certainly, the Avengers aren’t totally irredeemable, as they do “provide important moral lessons and very little sexual content,” says Burch, but they don’t exist in a vacuum either.
“Perhaps as children reach adolescence, these depictions may influence their bodily expectations or self-image, but this problem is certainly not isolated to comic books.”