Unless you’ve been living in a Hollywood-proof cave for the last decade, you’ve probably noticed that every other Hollywood movie that comes out these days is about superheroes. Some of these movies are good: Deadpool was hilarious, the X-Men teach us to accept each other’s differences, and even killjoys like me have to admit that those Avengers movies are pretty damn entertaining.
But the whole thing has gone a tad too far, hasn’t it? I’ve blogged before about why I don’t like superheroes. Basically I’m uneasy about the glorification of power, hyper-individualism, and elitism.
The superheroization of nerd/geek culture is annoying, but it causes little actual harm. Curmudgeonly nerds like me still have plenty of other SFF media to consume, and to be completely honest, we nerdy curmudgeons need to dislike something popular in order to maintain our street cred.
But the cultural forces that give rise to the current cultural moment of superhero obsession may be causing real damage elsewhere, particularly in American politics (see here, here, and here for different takes on the superhero-politics analogy).
The Cult of Personality and Superheroization
Because it’s relevant and one of my all-time favorite songs, let’s begin with the video for Living Colour’s 1988 hit, “Cult of Personality."
Although I happily voted for Barack Obama, his 2008 campaign made me nervous in one way. Many of his supporters adored him with a fervor that bordered on a cult of personality. They seemed to be attracted to his personality, his speaking persona, his biography, etc. rather than his actual policies or ideas. In political discussions with my leftist friends I heard a lot of “I just like him.” (For my part, I was mainly attracted to his quality of not being a Republican, but the historic factor of becoming our first African-American President was also important.) Watching him speak one night in 2008, I remarked that I was glad he was using his powers for good. I voted for him again in 2012, but by then the shine of superheroization had been worn off by the grime of actual governing.
The 2016 Presidential Race as Superhero Science Fiction
The 2016 Presidential race feels like a science fictional superhero movie in which a reality TV star and a self-avowed socialist are both serious contenders for the US Presidency (see my post on how skeptical therapy might help you through this primary season). As thoroughly different as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are in style, policy, and sanity, they have one thing in common: some of their followers revere them with near messianic fervor.
Some – I said some! – Sanders and Trump supporters are equally convinced that their candidate has super powers: the ability to single-handedly conjure a political revolution (telekinesis?) or a mystical deal-making power (mind-control?). Some supporters tell us their candidate will use his powers to lead America to victory over the evil forces of economic inequality or political correctness or whatever. Their candidate, we are assured, is the only one who can fix whatever is wrong with America, and you are foolish, immoral, or both to believe otherwise.
The internet is full of forums where you can discuss the policies of Sanders and Trump, but I’m not talking about their ideas here (translation: please don’t spam the comments section with Sanders/Trump campaign rhetoric). I’m also not in any way saying that there aren’t grown-up, soberly political, and superhero-free reasons to vote for Sanders (I’m honestly less sure about Trump, but that’s another topic). I’m really talking about the effect some of their supporters are having on our political discourse. I’m not even limiting this effect to these two individuals. For example, alleged time-traveller and Presidential candidate, Andrew Basiago, also has superhero qualities.
Sanders and Trump are definitely not the same politically; their specific superhero qualities are different, too. Like Superman, Sanders is a member of an ethnic group that has been treated unfairly, but like Spiderman, he’s a New Yorker with a fondness for small, powerful things (radioactive spiders, $27 campaign donations, etc.). Like Batman, Trump’s real power is being super rich, and both love hiding in secret lairs (the Bat Cave, Mar-a-Lago, etc.), although Trump’s loud mouth and poor treatment of women make him more like Tony Stark.
What’s Wrong with Superheroization?
Maybe it’s human nature that we have impulses to follow personas rather than critically evaluating ideas and policies (on that note, Frank Herbert's Dune is a fascinating science fictional study of the social and political effects of cults, both literal and of personality). Furthermore, I don’t deny that part of leadership is the ability to connect with people to explain and promote your ideas and actions.
My worry is that while we’re fixated on political superheroes, we forget that politics is in large part a messy, monotonous, profoundly unsexy business that involves compromise and cooperation to make ideas work in practice. We may be excited by the lofty ideals and entertainment value of The X-Men and The Avengers, but politics looks a lot more like the drudgery and sober-mindedness of C-SPAN and PBS. While we childishly wait to be saved by our political superheroes, we’re neglecting the grown-up cultivation of our own political powers.