The Help Desk: We Don't Need Another Hero

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to:

Dear Cienna,

My husband is trying to get our four-year-old son into comics — Spider-Man and Superman and all that stuff. I don't want to be a snob, but I think that superheroes are emblematic of toxic masculinity, and the idea of an individual taking the law into their own hands is pretty fascist when you really think about it. Plus, so many superheroes are billionaires, which is just morally disgusting.

My husband loves superhero movies, and so I don't want to deprive him of sharing this love with his son. But how can I counterbalance the ineffable mainstream cultural grossness that this colorful slab of pop culture is weighing down on my son's brain?

Allison, Fremont

Dear Allison,

Reading a few Batman comics won't magically turn your son into a misogynist any more than it will a billionaire (if books had that kind of power, Lord of the Flies would be my Bible and half the people I grew up with would've have made it past second grade, SQUEEEE!). Plenty of good nerds were raised reading Bat- and Spider-man comics and can differentiate between fantasy and reality. None of the comic book nerds I know are vigilantes. None of them can even run a block without puking. And most have great and stable partnerships with smart, capable women. (Or at least they have me as a friend, which counts as maybe partial credit?)

So! It seems here that the antidote to toxic masculinity is (in part) having strong women in your life that you love and respect. It's also having smart people around to talk through the themes found in comic books and explain why some of them might be outdated figments of a (more) misogynistic culture.

So do both of those things, and also maybe buy your son Bitch Planet1 or Ms. Marvel or Planet of the Nerds2for Christmas, and start your own comics tradition with your son.

Kisses, Cienna

  1. Its contents might be a bit mature for a four-year-old, however. Unless you want your son to learn about female masturbation before he goes to preschool.

  2. Written by this site's very own Paul Constant, who did not endorse this reference but hey, he wrote a clever comic grappling with 80s stereotypes of toxic masculinity and nerd culture, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. (see, also, previous endnote.)