Reimagining ‘super’ heroes: Turning our boys into better men

Reimagining ‘super’ heroes: Turning our boys into better men
I recently heard of a superhero themed training session at a boys’ toddling football club. This is apparently a thing now. The idea is that for one mid-morning only, all those kick happy little strikers would be allowed, encouraged, required to don a superhero costume and play football like a new Avenger. It’s the perfect storm, the perfect meeting point of masculinity and machismo, asking boys to become super boys and supercharge their gender-led sporting childcare.

How far the lowly superhero has come. To think, in less than a generation, colourfully-clad cape-wearing creations of the comic world have infiltrated the mainstream on such a fundamental level. I blame the success of the Marvel Studios movie franchises, the innumerable string of blockbusting sequels and reboots that have transplanted the superhero from the nerd’s bedroom into the silver screen, toyshop shelf and supermarket shopping aisle.

The modern superhero is confirmation of that most dangerous of things: the masculinity myth. It’s a wham bam reminder that strength is supposed to be strong, that invulnerability is manly, that masculinity is power. Explosive, rippling power that can save the universe and take your breath away in the same moment. The modern superhero sells invulnerability and we (the general public) have bought it wholesale. A generation of boys who are being socialised to accept that tough masculinity is an aspiration. Browse through the kids’ aisle at any major supermarket and you’ll see a parade of musclebound superhero costumes for boys, and princess dresses for girls, usually specific to movie franchises that you can buy on DVD a few aisles later.

The dangers of masculinity to society at large are obvious; its promotion of violence, its grip on social hierarchies and rigid inflexibility. Its emotional bluntness and reliance on archaic codes of manliness that are increasingly at odds with a modern, nuanced world. In this sense, the superhero is masculinity magnified to cartoon proportions, primary-coloured and in your face, perfectly poised to hook little boys into a macho way of thinking. Even reading books, that well-loved intellectual and emotionally sensitive pasttime, has been infected by the gender binary bug, with World Book Day costumes at school often falling into a superhero/ princess dichotomy.

The big problem here is that by encouraging boys to be BOYS!™, their sensitivities and vulnerabilities are being overlooked. And, (bringing us to the point of this essay) SUPERHEROES WERE NEVER MEANT TO BE INVULNERABLE IN THE FIRST PLACE. Let me elaborate.


Is the eternal nerd. He’s the high school geek who caught superpowers through his obsession with science. His motivation is guilt and shame, having been responsible for his beloved uncle’s death by being too cocky to stop the crooks that ended up killing him. He’s an orphan. He can’t hold a romantic relationship down and wears a mask to hide his identity, rather than create a feared one. And his webs aren’t part of his superpower; he built them. They come from his ingenuity.

Imagine if we asked little boy spider-fans how it feels to be alone, why Spider-Man helps other people when he hasn’t got enough money to pay rent, what it feels like to live with cringing guilt. Rather than wear a six-packed red costume and pretend to punch baddies?


This is a civil rights narrative. The X-Men are a group of mutant freedom fighters, ostracised by society because they are different, weird, freakish, and labelled dangerous. We should ask little boys playing X-Men dress up what it feels like to be different, how we can empower ourselves when we feel disabled, how to recognise the qualities in ‘disabled’ people, why society is so scared of ‘different’ people. Cyclops is blind and destroys things whenever he opens his eyes. Nightcrawler has three fingers and two toes. Beast is blue. And furry. Rogue cannot physically touch anybody without killing them. Professor Xavier is wheelchair bound. Wolverine is 5’3. Et cetera. Yet they are all heroic.

In a world presided by a ‘norm’ that is white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian, middle-aged and middle-class, counter narratives are more important than ever. So many of us are misfits to social ideas of ‘normality’, freaks who are too much of one thing or too little of another to fit ingrained expectations. X-Men explores these tensions with insight and complexity, where (some) mutants fight for a greater good in a world that doesn’t understand them. For our children, the pressures to be normal can be debilitating, manifesting in adult traumas and anxieties borne of unaccepted difference.


Is old! His fast-healing factor means that he ages at an incredibly slow rate. He’s older than your great grandparents. What better opportunity to discuss attitudes to older people, to generations that came before who seem so distant?


The recent BBC investigative documentary No More Boys and Girls revealed worrying trends of very young boys being unable to express and articulate a healthy range of emotions, apart from anger. Statistics prove that young men suffer from mental health issues linked to anger and unresolved frustration that too often leads to broken relationships and suicide. The Hulk, a super-powered, inarticulate, green skinned, unstoppable monster triggered by rage, is the perfect personification of masculine anger. Why does Bruce Banner get angry? How do you cope with rage? How can Bruce Banner channel the Hulk for good? What are the downsides of having a rage-filled persona lurking in your body? Can you control anger? All questions that young men need to tackle for the benefit of themselves and our hopelessly masculine world.


The least super of men, Kal-El, son of Jor-El is an orphaned immigrant misfit who depended solely on the kindness of strangers for his humble start in life. His alter-ego, ‘Superman’ is hopelessly incompatible with the world he lives in, existing as a protector of the weak but unable to find love himself. His ‘disguise’ persona, Clark Kent, is equally ostracised, clumsy and awkward and unable to explain his inner emotions or life story to a woman he desires and loves from afar. This is basically every teenage boy on the road to adulthood, awkward and inarticulate, but bristling with a half-known power that promises great things, but can’t be discussed in public.

All men are under pressure to be super – to earn more, run faster, be better looking, get good grades, write the best book, be the funniest, have the fastest car. How good would it be to peel away the expectations for boys to turn into super men, and discuss, really discuss, the vulnerabilities that lie therein?


Yet another orphan. Another lost little boy overcompensating for his lack of stable family, fighting fire with fire, turning deepest darkest fears into harsh vengeance for bad guys. All that gear, all those toys, all that building up of a shatterproof persona, just because he doesn’t want to feel what he must feel – alone, scared and vulnerable. Inability to form healthy relationships. Mental health hanging in the balance of city he hates to protect. Batman needs a hug.


Tony Starks has ‘it all’ – the looks, the money, the women, the brains, the one liners, the ingenious exo-skeleton power suit that enables him to fly through the air and blast baddies into oblivion. But he’s dying and he knows it. His body relies on technology for survival. He’s severely handicapped, terminally ill, and living with death shadowing his life. His super suit is a pacemaker. If anything, his real superpower is his optimism and motivation to make something meaningful of his life beyond all the usual signifiers of success. An Iron Man discussion group could be a great place to start discussing empathy, fear, success and disability.


Is blind. Which would be debilitating if not for the fact that his other senses are so acute that he is actually able to do more than the ‘normal’ person. What a great lesson in diving into vulnerability, being blind but trusting your other senses. We’d do well to teach our boys that not being good at (or able to do) one thing doesn’t rule out other kinds of success in other areas.


Only became super after volunteering for a highly experimental, highly dangerous super-soldier serum administered by the US government during the Second World War. Before that, he was Steve Rogers, an aspiring soldier who was too physically weak and asthmatic to make the grade. It’s sad enough that he was the cleverest recruit in the ranks but was so blinded by hypermasculinity that he saw this as his only route into success, but as Captain America, his sole identity is a hero role imposed by masculine power structures (in this case, the military).

We need to ask our boys which socialised roles they feel compelled to play, what the social pressures are and why they feel the feed to conform. Men are too often trapped by socially constructed roles created by callous power hierarchies at the expense of their own emotional wellbeing. Steve Rogers should never have become an artificially enhanced walking weapon – that’s the tragedy of the masculine approach. And worse still, becoming Captain America, the pinnacle of macho success, leaves him depressed and alienated from the modern world he finds himself in (after being cryogenically frozen and woken up after WW2 has ended). What are you fighting for? What are you trying to prove? To who? What’s wrong with being weak? Is power worth it? What is power?

This excellent article lists all the ways in which the Captain America myth is a case study in depression, opening the doors to a profound debate over the damage hard masculinity can do to the male psyche, up to and including reckless behaviour, insomnia, repressed emotion, shame-guilt and suicidal tendencies. At a time when suicide is the biggest cause of death among British men aged 20 – 49 (three times as many as women), we need to seriously reconsider the risks posed by masculinity roles and that ever present imperative – “Man up”.


I’m a huge comics fan. I have thousands of the things hidden up in the loft and a string of graphic novels on steady rotation. I formed my adolescent conscience in this balloon captioned swirl, forming deep psychological affinities with 2 dimensional figures on glossy, panelled pages. And when I eventually emerged into adulthood (sort of) the only thing I was clear on was that these characters were hardly ever ‘super’. In fact, they were often as flawed as we are, if not moreso. That was the point. That’s what missing from the lazy assumption that boys will benefit from dressing up as superheroes who are supposedly invulnerable. It’s the vulnerability that is important.

I’ve been fortunate enough this summer to have read The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry, a truly excellent essay on the risk posed to us all by blunt masculinity. In it, Perry discusses the need to acknowledge and embrace and actively encourage vulnerability, particularly among men who have been socially and historically conditioned to put up shields against this ‘weakness’. Brene Brown, a social researcher namechecked by Perry, has written extensively on the topic. Her book Daring Greatly patiently explains why the ability to be vulnerable is key to emotional stability and healthy relationships. It formed the basis of a well-being programme I helped develop for GCSE students last year.

Through this lens, some of the most ostensibly invulnerable heroes of the super-persuasion become far more interesting than we thought. And with a bit of that – thought – we might be able to turn hero worship into something healthier than fuel for masculine myths. As a father of two very young boys (29 months and 6 days, respectively) I can already see the gender tsunami approaching, along with the dangers of being swept away by waves of masculinty. It’s a worrying thing, not just for their own navigations through a binaried landascape, but for their perception and treatment of others.

I think that every superhero costume should come with a list of discussion questions. Boys, more than ever before, need to talk. They need to be allowed to express complex emotions, verbalise their insecurities and step into the vulnerability that being a man so brutally slams a door on. In my ideal world, the toddlers football superhero session would start with circle time about winning and losing and trying and failing and teamwork and pressure and fear, using the costumes as a way into real coaching, real well being. Until then, this article will have to suffice. Please share. Something to think about.

Jeffrey Boakye


Hiphoped: Insights and lightbulbs from the ‘Original Remix’ seminar

Original Remix: Some insights and lightbulbs


In no particular order, and with scattergun reference to a range of speakers who presented on the day:


Decolonisation of the mind

It was a shake of the shoulders to hear that only a few short decades ago, initial teacher training courses would actively seek to ‘decolonise’ mindsets before sending wide-eyed new educationalists into the classroom. We discussed the now lost intention of ITT of old to delineate the socio-cultural contexts framing education with a view to perhaps dismantling them, for the benefit of students. Now, with such rapid routes into teaching and very little thinking time before hitting the chalk face, the moment of reflection in which teachers can challenge the paradigms steering their professional existence has been diminished, almost to nil.



  • Are we even aware of the colonial bent affecting our contemporary thinking?


Collective memory, collective accountability

At one point someone raised the point that in this digital age we have a very visible, very updatable forum for shared memory and accountability via social media channels such as YouTube (particularly the comments) and twitter. The relevance? That new forms of expression are held to account with a scrutiny and immediacy that we, as a species, have not experienced to date. This got me thinking. So much of what we study has been cauterised and shaped and managed and moulded into a solidified history that purports to be objectively ‘true’, that it goes unchallenged. The digital age has revolutionised this, inasfar as cultural artefacts are scrutinised, and criticised with an existing record in a democratised sphere.



  • Do we challenge pre-modern art in this way?
  • Who is (or was) the critical community for canonical works? (If YouTube is the critical community for modern popular works, for example)


Being porous vs being shrink wrapped

The curriculum samples from a narrow field of thought, values and ideals and suffers from confirmation bias over time. This means that students become ‘shrink wrapped’, hermetically sealed from new ways of thinking about old things, or new things entirely. Even the existence of a curriculum that implicitly suggests that the best of all there is is what has been selected and studied is deeply problematic. Educators have a responsibility to encourage porous students who are receptive to new ideas and challenging thought, otherwise we risk confirming the confirmed rather than encouraging genuine insight.



  • How can we make a very shrink wrapped curriculum an opportunity for permeability, when the pressures are to close the conversation rather than open it up?


Neoliberal forces in education

Education is being commodified with increasing frequency. Just consider the unending stream of bumf hitting heads of departments’ pigeon holes, selling educational solutions at a price. During my own prevention I offered the idea that we ‘dance to a neoliberal groove’, by which I mean that the purpose of formal education is still to satisfy capitalist urges. Get kids the skills and knowledge they need to prosper, or prop a system that benefits others. This perspective has bled into the delivery of education itself, with private companies such as Ark and Harris being given the remit to establish schools out of proven business models. Where pedagogic integrity sits in all this is open for debate.


The power of context

Linked to above. Being aware of the paradigm in which you operate is key to having any sense of ownership over your actions. Neoliberalism is one example, but other huge contextual forces include Colonialism, Capitalism, Liberalism and Masculinity. Some good, some problematic, some not so good, some deeply dangerous. It’s very simple: our contexts can influence our decisions in the way a riverbed dictates the water’s flow of travel. (A metaphor that Guy Claxton offered in a recent conversation I had). Once we are aware of conext, we are in a position to critique it. Summarised neatly in the bullet points below, as crafted by one of the speakers on the day:


  • Map the terrain
  • Break it down
  • Find areas for innovation
  • Either say something new, or say something old in a new way
  • Compare and critique


The educational landscape must be interrogated in this manner to avoid blind reinforcement of ideas we didn’t create in the first place. In my talk, I referenced Hirsch as a huge influence on our educational ideas, with the whole ‘knowledge as power’ approach steering our educational drive.


Sampling vs ‘new languages’

When notoriously political artist Ai Wei Wei used mangled iron rods to make comment on the state’s attitude to natural disaster and tragic loss of life, he spoke to audiences in a new unfamiliar language, offering cryptic, elusive codes that created dissonance and asked for new thinking. Saying something in the same way it has been said before offers recognisability and ease of understanding, but this can be at the expense of useful frictions.



  • As educators, which ‘languages’ have we been given?
  • How can we create useful dissonance and friction for students to interrogate received knowledge (steered by aforementioned contexts)?


The destructive power of the single story

It’s nothing new that the curriculum tells a singular, predominantly monochrome, heavily gendered story, but seeing the texts that constitute the KS3 and 4 curriculum in black and white was a cold reminder of Dead White Man model of literary education that we continue to run. More illuminating was the discussion surrounding the Enlightenment. An argument proposed was that this period of ‘enlightened’ thinking was actually born from a need to inoculate certain cultural ideals into a generation of privileged elite who were poised to go globe-trotting – an endeavour that risks irreparable cultural damage. The result? Cultural ideals define what is considered important, confirmed and reconfirmed every time we dust off the canon and turn pages on ‘the classics’.


For educators, especially ones entering a scholarly heritage, it is imperative to stop confusing intellectual identity with cultural elite. Here, I was introduced to the work of Lisa Jardine, who has interrogated the Renaissance and asked questions of how this period reflected hierarchies in status and control.



  • Whose story are we telling?
  • Are there any tokenistic nods to diversity? What do they suggest about the single story?


Progression reconsidered

There’s an intimidatingly long German word I have never come across before that will forever affect my attitude towards progressivism in education. Reformpadagogik.

As educators, we need to be hyper-sensitive to perceived societal and cultural needs, specifically the gaps between these needs and existing arrangements. In short, if the curriculum is not fit for actual purposes, there is a problem that needs to be addressed.



  • Is it even possible to craft a meaningful and apt curriculum without first listing societal and cultural needs? (And regularly reconsidering any conclusions reached)



I loved this definition, complete with an all-important hyphen. Western educational systems are guilty of returning to the same cycles of thought that promote the same hieracrchal structures. This re-cycling can confirm problematic hierarchies. The irony is that many of the most revered thinkers in popular English intellectualism actively break the cycle and operate in slippage and code switching, eg: Shakespeare, Stephen Fry, Monty Python.



Knowing your samples is key

For depth and integrity. Knowledge of the original contexts for a particular idea, thought or artefact is as important as appreciation of that idea, though or artefact. Not only because you might miss some of the depth linked to the original source material, but because you will not be aware of what has been lost. Seeing examples of poor artistic appropriation / theft in which nuance and meaning ins lost highlighted the danger of wholesale theft. Meanwhile, the risk of pastiche that comes from sampling without deliberation and intent (eg: Justin Bieber making Dancehall vs Rihanna making Dancehall) can lead to meaningless work that asks no questions and serves no purpose. For educators, the lesson is clear: we must know where our assumptions and ideologies come from, because chances are they are rooted in sources of old.


When done properly, sampling can bring an idea back into relevance or celebrate the original, confirming its worth in a contemporary context. Remixing is celebratory and disrespectful in equal measure, but deliberate remix and sample work is rooted in integrity.



  • How can we have integrity of we don’t interrogate the roots of our ideals, values and assumptions?



To conclude, I’m going to sample a line from Spider-Man folklore (that no doubt has been inspired from somewhere else along the line)


‘With great sampling comes great responsibility’


There were no easy answers or clean solutions to the ethos of sampling, and as you can see from my ramblings above, we really did dance across modern history. Debates raged on whether or not and why Kanye West might have sampled ‘Strange Fruit’ to riff on his personal tribulations and relationship issues, and consensus was not reached. But that’s the point. Sampling and intertextual play is an invitation to friction, where context bubbles to the surface in the debate over artistic intent and ideological integrity.

Taking The Safe

Four men:
A combined age of 270-odd.
Where’s my medication?
I’m taking my dog.

Don’t fall asleep at the-
You just did. We’ll meet at the pub.
It’s gonna be big.

No messing-
Nowadays they’ve got CBTV.
Alright. Just listen to me.

In with a drill. The wires’ll trip.
Your hip up to this?
Ha ha.
Watch your lip.

No masks. No guns.
We’re taking the safe.
(I’ll scarf up, in case)
They won’t see your face.

It’ll be just like-
What did you say? Who’s that? A guard?
Let’s give him away.

Lovely. He’s gone.
Now get through the hole.
(Chuckle) Remember when-
Not now. Go.

Dunnit. Well played.
Now keep off the box.
Um. Channel 1. Have a look.

No comment
No comment
No questions. Don’t ask.
“Three men, with a combined age of-”
Guilty, as charged.


I Always Deal In Absolutes

I always deal in absolutes.
I never do.
The attribute I tend towards is lassitude:
Tired of my vagaries in attitude,
From plateau up to latitude,
Flipping like a mattress
And it’s cloudy at this altitude –
Hence the hazy attitude –
Call it crazy lazy shady vague or acrobatic,
Who’s immune to polar absolutes?
Pole to pole and back a few
Moments later.
I always deal in absolutes.



Waiting for notifications,
Like watching yourself ageing,
Is making a slow cage out of your own anticipation,
Avalanche awaiting,
Helicopter patient,
Hovering above while seasons change like radio stations.

Meanwhile, notifications from the world arrive in wailing klaxon sirens blinding lights revolving round like signs for fire,
Panic-soaked aural reminders of the burning skies behind you while your cage,
Immune to blazes,
Keeps you shielded from the flames

Oh yes

The famine and the tragedy,
The murder and the maiming and the fate of babies,
Children born a little way away in wars that tore through all the static but you haven’t heard the station cos you’re waiting
Waiting, watching, scaling ladders of anticipation,
Every incremental drip has washed away the seas of pain we should be drowning in.

You’re frowning aren’t you?

Well it’s far too late for that; your followers are crowning you as more important than the facts of death, we’re all infected by the virus to be viral:
Hope to screen and screen to hope to screen we’re in a spiral while the world we’re in continues to spin and tornado by you but –

– You are the eye and the eye is so rarely idle…

As it Watches for a notification – 
In the time I wrote this you’ve been steadily aging.
If I ever tweet this I’ll be patiently waiting,
For that little bell to have its dot on the pavement.

I’m igNoring all the notifications – 
In the time I wrote this I just hope they could save them.
One day I just hope that I’ll look up in amazement,
If I ever stop to solve this hopeless equation.


Four Stars

Frownable comparisons to people not like me,
Free market hyperbole – honest unlikely,
Quotation summaries, centred and shifted,
Roll-call celebrities, B to D listed.

Adjective careless and adversely sparing,
Sales boost concerning acquaintances caring,
Name recognition brand person at skimming,
Inverted commas ellipses phrase bridging.

Two-worder final endorsement star counted,
Minus the words constellation starts shouting,
Pile upon praise upon climb upon mounting,
Part with your glittering coins at the fountain.

Wishing well expectemptations get tested,
Testing the money spectators pre-bested,
Recommendation on poster back paging,
Poetry anti potential start raging.


Contractual Obligations

I’ll cut straight to the big reveal: every relationship, of any description, at any time, is based on a contract. The contract can be explicit or implied, spoken or unspoken, verbal or not, but by any definition, it exists. It has to. 

The contract is vitally important. It represents an agreement between two parties that forms the foundation of the relationship. Take this very blog post as a particularly immediate example. I have no idea who you are (unless, of course I know you, in which case, hi), but there is still a very clear set of unspoken contractual obligations at play. I have agreed to write something engaging and at least, relevant, that will not deviate from the agreed format of an internet blog post slash essay. I won’t lapse into Gregorian chanting or start typing in 1101110000011010011 binary code for example. And if you don’t like what you’re reading, you are well within your unspoken contractual rights to scroll to the end, close the tab, or get back to googling whatever it was you were googling before you got here.

Every relationship is built around some set of agreed rules in this way. Professionally, this can be seen in sharp relief with GCSE classes; those groups you’ve taught since year 9 and take all the way through to results day. At some point in year 10 an equilibrium is reached. The kids kind of get you and you equally get them. You know how far to push, the accepted limit of banter, the prerequisite effort levels, etc etc. And likewise, the kids know when to talk, when to listen, your various and far ranging moods and when to tune in to your increasingly frequent end-of-movie courtroom speeches. A contract has been established. 01010100001

Now, things tend to get interesting when a contract is breached. When the rules, spoken or otherwise, are broken, there will always be some level of response, or, worse, reaction.Take the GCSE class who gets the anxious new teacher in year 10. He or she might do the unthinkable and, say, get upset when the class doesn’t turn in a decent piece of homework for seven weeks. Said teacher might then lose the plot for a few minutes and tell the class a few home truths along the lines of, say, you’re going to fail your exams and fail in life because you have no work ethic and you treat these lessons like a joke. From teacher A, such aggressive verbal assertions might have been permissible under the rules of the unspoken contract established since Key Stage 3. But from teacher B, with no established contract, it becomes an act of pure aggression. The unspoken rules of the unestablished contract have been broken.

This is where contracts can be dangerous, which, incidentally, has nothing to do with the fact that they can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. The real danger stems from the fact that contracts are defined by expectation.

When a contract is being established, both parties come to the table with a huge menu of expectations and wants. When I sit down to eat at a restaurant, I’m expecting the food I pay for to live up to certain expectations. The money I pay thus acts as a holder of these expectations. In a less literal example, when I enter into an unspoken social contract with a would-be friend, there are clear expectations as to what we might say to each other, how we might behave in various situations, how far we can take our banter, and so on. This has to be the reason that legal contracts are so detailed; they have to spell out every nuance of every clause to ensure that expectations are explicit. The implied becomes explicit and therefore the risk of conflict is minimised. There’s no room for disappointment, because the obligations and expectations are clear.

When we teach your kids, us teachers are continually surfing contractual waves. When I recently told a kid that in all honesty, the class functions better without him, I was pushing the boundaries of the unspoken contract that I would not and should not attack his social wellbeing. Not my proudest moment, but I was angry and in a reactive state. So when he reacted and stormed off, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself; I had breached an important contract. Similarly, when a student who had repeatedly failed to put any effort into his work frustrated me to the point of bemoaning “idiot kids”, his reaction (“you can’t talk to me like that sir”) might not have been accurate, but it was justifiable.

For teachers, establishing classroom contracts in detail is not as important as being aware of the expectations we bring to the table. Not knowing what your expectations are leaves you dangerously naive and vulnerable to your own reactions (which tend to be impulse-based and unreasonable). Far better is to evaluate (and continually reevaluate) your ideals and put effort into developing meaningful relationships. Because ultimately, these relationships are at stake when agreements, explicit or otherwise, are breached. Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations