Monday, October 12, 2009

Guest Post: Scott Andrews on Teen Superheroes

THERE ARE FEW GENRES more conducive to obsession than those of the teen-meets-love-and-danger variety. Here, Scott Andrews takes a look at the recent phenomenon of Teen Superheroes movies.

Andrews is an enrolled member of the Cherokee nation of Oklahoma and teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge. His reviews, essays, poems, and stories have appeared in a variety of journals including Arizona Quarterly, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Studies in American Literatures and others.

Smells like Teen Superheroes

“New Moon” will be in theaters soon, and with it will come another wave of vampire-mania. Perhaps I should not write “another,” since the present wave has not subsided. In fact, it has swelled further, with EVEN MORE novel series and TV series about beautiful bloodsuckers.

It was a couple of years ago, while watching previews for “Twilight,” that I began to wonder about possible connections between this tidal wave of hemophiles and other trends in popular culture that appealed to young Americans. There seemed to be something swirling in the collective American ectoplasm that had coalesced into some critical mass.

First there was “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” published in the United States in 1998. The first X-Men film was released in 2000, though the comic book had been around for decades. “Twilight” was published in 2005, though Stephanie Meyers says the story came to her in 2003. “Heroes” arrived on NBC in 2006. “True Blood” on HBO in 2008, though it doesn’t clearly target a young audience. “The Vampire Diaries” on the CW this year.

The life of an American teen is often times filled with anxiety, emotional turmoil, and alienation. This is true whether one is wealthy or poor, male or female. This is true regardless of race. There is something about being a teenager that makes one feel apart from the crowd, unusual. While my generation (I am in my 40s) identified with our sense of being lovable but damaged goods -- for instance, the short-lived TV series designed to appeal to my generation’s sense of nostalgia, “Freaks and Geeks” – the current batch of teenagers and college-goers seem to find it more pleasurable to imagine themselves to be different because they are special.

Misunderstood rather than misbegotten. Gifted and powerful rather than awkward and fearful and acne-plagued.

They have taken the leap from the John Hughesian question “Why can’t I date a cheerleader?” to “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”

But I am not thinking of just wizards, mutants, and vampires. “American Idol” started rocking America’s world in 2002. “America’s Next Top Model” walked the runway in 2003. And before them, even before Harry Potter, came the grandfather of all Reality TV: “The Real World” on MTV in 1992. Young people, previously unknown, were instantly important and famous, though not necessarily talented. The emotional, social, and sexual problems of young people were no longer the subject of “After School Specials” – they were primetime, they were ratings hits. The American fascination with these young people was understood as a measure of their importance. Notoriety was understood as noteworthy.

For many decades, people were familiar with the “American Dream.” For the immigrant, this was the belief that one could come to the United States, work hard, and save money. Eventually one could obtain a comfortable lifestyle – and an even better lifestyle for one’s children. For a long time, the American Dream for the immigrant was similar to the American Dream for the citizen. You know, the dream of the happy family and the house with the white picket fence. Eventually the American Dream changed. You could say it got “super-sized.” It became the belief that if one worked hard, saved money, and took advantage of opportunities for investing or starting one’s own business, eventually one could obtain a more-than-comfortable lifestyle – one might even become rich. You know, that happy family and a house with the white picket fence, a deck in the backyard, a shiny Viking refrigerator, a sedan and an SUV in the garage, two Sea-Doos, and a time-share on the lake.

I think perhaps the American Dream has morphed again. I think it includes getting rich, but I think it has skipped the “work hard and save money” elements. In their place has been added “get famous” and “right now.” The work ethic of my parents that was based on delayed gratification became the credit-card fueled consumer culture of my generation that wanted instant gratification. And the generation that has been raised by my generation has gone a step further into instant great-ification.

The advent of instant celebrity status is thanks largely to the Internet and its inbred cousin, reality television. Think Tila Tequila. Think that strange kid singing “Chocolate Rain.” Perhaps we should thank Paris Hilton, the Queen of Instant and Talentless Celebrity Status, whose career was launched in 2003 with a sex video that was viral on the Internet and, later that year, with “The Simple Life.” She is the T-1000 to Puck’s T-1.

I see a wave of narratives about young people who discover they are not just dorky and weird – they are different with a difference. They have special powers! And they have them right now! Not after years of training but now! Even Harry shows up at Hogwarts with abilities other students do not possess. Instant wealth has been symbolically replaced: They can fly! They can stop time! They are indestructible! Their powers, like wealth, allow them to go places and do things that other people (normal or middle class) cannot. Or in a more mundane setting, there is no need for years of apprenticeship – get up on stage, you 20-year-old, and sing so Simon can make you famous tomorrow!

It is easy to think of these changes as the product of young people being spoiled by the relative wealth of their parents’ generation. I wonder, though, if it might speak also to a fear. Perhaps the world that lies ahead of these young people is so scary, so confusing, filled with so many choices as to be paralyzing, that imagining superpowers and immortality is reassuring.

I can totally relate.


  1. Well said. It's interesting to note that much of that superhero teen fiction material is written/created by GenXers, and is as much about ourselves as it is our children. Since we have discovered (and perhaps always suspected) that we ourselves cannot achieve the stability (perhaps in some cases even wealth) of our Silent Generation parents and that scares the hell out of us for our post-Y Gen kids, whose greater successes or great-ification we still find ourselves wanting and yearning. As much as it's about our kids' and Boomer's kids fear, it's about Gen X's rekindled fears too.

    But I think too, it's also about GenXers' recently matured & acquired understanding that kids, teens do not have to be misunderstood at all, but they are special, distinct and we're tired of doing things with adolescence the way it was done to us. So we creatives changed it up for the next gen. Very provocative thoughtful post, indeed.