Superheroes have dominated movie theaters for what seems like the past decade. This summer alone saw the theatrical release of The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and of course The Dark Knight Rises. Next year will see the theatrical release of the new Superman movie Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Fantastic Four and what appears to be three separate X-Men movies.
While movie executives are counting on the films' superpowers to invigorate the box office, one study suggests that the characters' superpowers have mental health benefits for their fans as well. The study, published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, has found that the presence of superheroes like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man helps their fans feel strong and physically fit.
It is often discussed how models and women's magazines are warping women's self-image. Discussed less often, but now entering the forefront of public discussion, is men's body dissatisfaction. It has been established that images of ripped actors and athletes affects the self-image of men. But, while Vogue announced earlier this year that it would not employ models with eating disorders, there does not seem to be a similar respite for men. In fact, it would seem that the constant deluge of superhero movies - and the sculpted, hyper-muscular bodies of the actors in them - would harm men's self-image.
"Studies show that exposure to muscular media figures [contributes] to men's body dissatisfaction," Ariana F. Young, a post-doctoral student at the University of Buffalo, says. "Men tend to feel bad because, by comparison, their own bodies seem scrawny." But she hypothesized that fandom would make a difference. Described as "parasocial relationships", or one-sided psychological relationships, by the study,
Young says that these might provide a buffer against negative feelings men might otherwise have as a result of exposure to the superhero. "People tend to take on the traits of their favorite media figures," Young says. "That is, a person may come to see himself as being more like a favored media figure following exposure."
Researchers conducted two different versions of the study, one with Batman and one with Spider-Man, to make sure that outcomes were not specific to a particular superhero. Participants indicated how much they liked and were familiar with Spider-Man and Batman. Responses were scored and averaged out. Respondents who scored the highest and lowest were each invited back, indicating a parasocial relationship or lack of a parasocial relationship, respectively.
Then 98 male participants came into the lab and viewed a profile of Batman or Spider-Man in what they were told was a memory task. They were given a general biography and a full-body picture of the superhero. Half of the respondents were given a muscular photo; the other half were shown a picture that was manipulated to not be muscular. Participants were asked to assess their satisfaction with their own body parts and then had their physical strength assessed.
The study found that men who viewed the pictures of Batman and Spider-Man and who were ambivalent about the superheroes felt worse about their own bodies. In contrast, men who were fans felt better about their bodies after viewing pictures of their heroes. They also were physically stronger.
Says Young, "The popularity of superheroes may come in part from men who identify with them, and thus experience the psychological benefits of exposure."