Exposure to hyper-sexualized superheroes in movies like Avengers: Endgame can have lasting effects on children’s sexuality, making them potentially pickier yet more insecure intimate partners when they grow up. Research shows that comic book characters’ bodies often have hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine features reflected in the broader culture, that are even further exaggerated with the help of cartoon illustrations. These characters effectively distort what boys and girls think men and women should look like and what they’re attracted to as they mature. So while Thor and Black Widow are saving the universe, they are also causing some long-term sexual distress.
“The problem with superhero images is that they completely mesh with all the other images that are coming at kids,” Gail Dines, a professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, says. “Whether it’s Victoria’s Secret, or Batman, or porn, there’s an underlying ideology that makes all of this a coherent narrative about what constitutes masculinity and what constitutes femininity. It’s the coherence that’s critical.”
The coherent message offered by entertainments that fall along the continuum between Avengers and Avengers XXX: Sexually appealing women have incredibly small waists, large breasts, and full butts and sexually appealing men have broad shoulders and incredibly defined muscles. The problem this presents? Almost no human person looks like this. Boys and girls grow up to find both themselves and others lacking.
Since superheroes are seemingly less harmful that pornography, it’s much easier for them to fly under the radar with concern parents. However, Dines is not the first expert to express concern about the effects comic book characters have on children. In his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham warned rather hyperbolically that comic books turn kids into sexualized, violent delinquents and even testified to the U.S. Senate about a comic book-crime link.
More recently, scientists have been investigating the “supernormal sexual stimuli” children see in the Marvel Universe. In a study inspired by Captain Dorito, a meme showing how Captain America’s body resembles more of a corn chip than a reality, researchers analyzed the BMIs and body dimensions of 3,752 Marvel comic characters. Results revealed that men’s shoulder-to-waist ratios, a biological marker of masculinity, were twice that of normal human men. Likewise, women’s waist-to-hip ratios, a biological marker of femininity, were more extreme than most porn actresses.
“The measurements were far more outlandish than I expected,” study author Rebecca Burch says. “This is not an attainable body shape. This is not even a functional body shape.”
Comic book characters are so influential and consequential because their images seem to have the superpower to bypass the frontal lobe of the brain, which controls important cognitive skills, like the ability to judge stimuli coming in as accurate. People are not able to access their executive functioning when interpreting images the same way they are when processing print media, which does not bypass the frontal lobe. So young people do not engage with them on a purely rational level so their strange proportions are more likely to be internalized than meaningfully scrutinized.
“The more consistent and coherent the message is to kids, the more likely they are to internalize that,” Dines says.
When boys grow up and can’t attract women with an hourglass shape, they’re more likely to blame themselves for not being triangular enough, and by extension, not masculine enough, compensate with violence and aggression, research shows. When girls can’t get the attention of triangular men, they’re more likely to look inward as well and blame their bodies. There’s evidence that this typically causes them to sex-sexualize and self-objectify more in order to assert their femininity.
Dines puts it even more bluntly, saying that girls learn the “fuck me look” while boys learn the “fuck you look.”
As much as parents can try to protect their kids from superheroes impractical, over-sexualized bodies, they cannot shield children from this broader trend in culture. The best thing parents can do talk to their children about the images they see and why they’re not realistic, very early and very often. Dines, who also serves as the CEO Culture Reframed, an organization promoting media literacy, offers a number of resources, including age-by-age guides, modules, videos, and even scripts for especially difficult conversations about overly sexualized media, which are free and easy to access online.
Burch and Dines agree that overly sexualized characters are a problem not because sex is bad, but because misleading children about sex is bad. And neither researcher lays the blame solely at Marvel’s feet. As Burch points out, the Avengers at least teach positive behaviors. Not so much for the porn actors who borrow their outfits if not their superpowers.
“The Avengers provide important moral lessons and very little sexual content,” Burch says. “Perhaps as children reach adolescence these depictions may influence their bodily expectations or self image, but this problem is certainly not isolated to comic books.”