The American Dream, brought to you by Marvel

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Kick-Ass the comic book was a douchefest celebration of violence, racism, homophobia and sexism.

In the uncensored graphic novel, Dave, the main character, is a loser slob who only attends school to jerk off to his biology teacher and to stalk his prettier classmates. He spends his nights watching porn and the money earned by his single, night-shift working dad on comic books. And somehow we’re supposed to accept his sudden declaration of wanting to fight crime as a sign of his higher principles.

But even more than this inconsistency, I was bothered by Dave’s conviction that the world had to be saved through violence. Dave does not demonstrate any understanding of societal ills, but he was nonetheless convinced that the best way to help people is by going on some type of destructive rampage. This is Dave’s understanding of citizen involvement.

And Kick Ass is not the exception. Virtually every show I watched as a kid – from Power Rangers to Sailor Moon – was written with similar themes. This narrative of “superhero beats up bad guys” has been hammered into our minds and sewn into our very social fabric. These are the stories that we are told and taught from a young age, and no doubt we’ve taken it to heart — I remember how my friends and I used to shoot up imaginary bad guys during recess.

This playacting is an innocent act in itself, but it indicates a larger societal pattern where violence is not just condoned, but celebrated. It dichotomizes the world into good and bad, instead of recognizing that good people are always doing bad things, and vice versa. Saving the world is easy when the enemy is always someone else.

The superhero narrative further suggests that only those with super powers will be able to mobilize the forces of social good. This is why my dad tells me that I can never make a difference. It doesn’t matter if I compost and refuse to ride planes, because every movie we’ve ever seen is conditioning us to think that real change can only be achieved by the super-elite, by Powerful People Out There. The world can go to shit – but you should sit back and chillax because someone more influential than you is probably doing something about it. The superhero narrative is ultimately undemocratic and dis-enabling.

To dismiss these cultural products as “just dumb stories” is to ignore the socializing impact of mass communication on politics and interpersonal relations. We use stories to express ourselves and to understand one another. They also provide insight into how we might relate to a new and changing world. So what does it mean when these stories and narratives are always violent and destructive?

Can we imagine any alternative? Can we have stories that reflect upon the active cultivation of peace, cooperation, and self-examination? That last bit doesn’t sound very fun, but we can’t collaborate with other people and cultures unless we try understanding both them and ourselves. I want narratives that complement and empower our real, lived experiences. Ordinary people can help by doing ordinary, citizenal things, like by not being a douchebag (Dave). That way, we can address issues like racism that happen on a pervasive, everyday level. The world is still in definite need of saving, but we are only adding to the problem when we resort to violence and when we label Other People as bad guys (see: War on Terror).

Such a story, if we can dream it, won’t come from the big screen because Hollywood doesn’t believe in social progress except for when it’s profitable. But that’s ok, because that’s where we step up to the plate. We can define our own lives and tell our own stories, because we don’t need no superheros.

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Alex Tse writes when no one's looking. She believes in the true meaning of hipster and she'd like it if you became her vegan cupcake friend. Find her on the internetz @alexnotangry and

5 thoughts on “The American Dream, brought to you by Marvel”

  1. There are some great alt comics out there.
    several (not sure if most yet) of Neil Gaiman’s.

    Lots of good alt sci fi/fantasy, too, like Ursula Leguin’s alt poli-sci-fi, Firefly/Serenity, some of Roald Dahl’s adult stories.

    And now, back to my homework.

  2. Amen. I look at these “heroes” and remember a quote (source forgotten):

    “I won’t lead you out of the wilderness, because if I can lead you out, someone else can lead you right back in.”

    Great essay. I have never felt empowered by these figures either. For me it’s partly the weird 1950s slangy swagger (regardless of the decade/locale/planet). It’s really tiresome, aesthetically, but beyond aesthetics, in my experience it’s not how people who actually win social struggles behave.

    The only other thing I’d add is the obvious point that the deeply simplistic binary good vs evil habit of these comics tends to displace or substitute for actual politics. There are exceptions but they tend to be few. I find these pseudo-alternative outcast and misfit stories ultimately conservative.

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