When I was in elementary school, society was in the era of “don’t do drugs.” Each generation seems to have its own popular message that all school children must hear, and this was ours. Drugs symbolized all that were evil, and, like all important cultural messages, we entrusted this to our fictional role models to reinforce. I remember the day well. We were in my 5th grade classroom, and the teacher passed out the anti-drug-use comic books. They featured the New Teen Titans. Many of the kids in this classroom hadn’t heard of these characters, as they weren’t what one would really consider mainstream superheroes at the time. Having already developed my passion for the mythology, though, I thought that this was the perfect group to tell us the story that we needed to hear. I wasn’t in any sort of risk group to abuse substances, but eagerly dug into the pages to see how these heroes dealt with the problem.
Comic books provide us with a snapshot of where we are as a culture at any given point. They give us insight into ourselves, both our self-perception as well as our perception of others. They show us that to which we can aspire, an image of a larger truth, something outside of ourselves that is good, something in which we can believe. This is why superhero mythology is so powerful, why it has been so powerful long before the current trend in popular films, and will remain so when this trend has passed.
We need to believe in good. We want to believe in someone good who will defend us from the evil that we cannot overcome ourselves. We need a symbol of a light in our darkness. This is especially true of certain groups and populations that are a bit more deprived of strong, hopeful role models than others.
Because I believe that this is bigger than just pop culture, and gives us a window into that hope…that it contains a theological insight that will only serve to spark positive discussions lasting far beyond mere entertainment value if it is truly engaged…that I become so frustrated when some treat this as a trivial thing, as a problem, as something subject to censorship.
Because I believe this, my shock and frustration are beyond words at the ignorant and narrow-minded reaction of an elementary school who considered a girl’s Wonder Woman lunchbox a dress code violation. I would think that the public education institution…an institution in which I increasingly lose faith (a reaction only strengthened by news such as this)…would choose to engage this, to discuss it, to help students begin to formulate their own reactions and thoughts to the mythology at whatever level they are capable. Obviously, if a student is recognizing Wonder Woman as a strong female role model, which is an excellent choice, then she is already engaging the subject and identifying with positive aspects of the character. I would think that this sort of critical thinking would be encouraged early in education. Obviously I’m mistaken.
And, while I’m particularly frustrated with this situation because I hold superhero mythology so closely, I would have this reaction to the censorship of any fictional character.
Wonder Woman is known historically for her bracelets which defend from attack, and her Lasso of Truth…neither of which are offensive weapons. Captain America’s symbol is a shield, something that stands between evil and it’s victims. Superman, arguably the most well-recognized superhero, is an upright symbol of strength, having no aggressive imagery about him. Batman abhors firearms and refuses to use them. Blanket policies and so-called “zero-tolerance” mentalities, being void of critical thinking themselves, only serve as a barrier to developing critical thinking in an educational setting. In this case, defining (arbitrarily, it seems) all superheroes as violent characters simply ignores too much evidence to the contrary in the literature, to say nothing of examples specific to educational settings.
Certainly, superheroes engage in violent actions. They take extreme actions to handle situations that cannot be handled otherwise. The actions of superheroes would place them on the wrong side of many viewpoints in our modern culture, as a well-respected comics author points out.
Would the gun advocates mock Batman's position? Would liberals decry the existence of the JLA or Avengers? I think they would.
— Gail Simone (@GailSimone) September 2, 2015
The value in this is the healthy ideas and discussions that come from engaging in the material, from thinking it through. None of this can occur when we prohibit our children from engaging their role models.
It seems that the public education system would have larger priorities.
Image of the actual lunchbox, from Imgur.