Why a new generation of Americans is tapping into the mythology of superheroes.
Erick Huerta is an immigrant rights advocate and blogger. He’s a DREAMer: an undocumented youth, raised in America, lobbying for educational and citizenship rights in this country. To explain his experiences, Huerta references Superman, who was “from another planet… and grew up in the United States, just like me.” He continued, “His origins mirror those of anyone forced to relocate from their home country to another because of outside factors.”
As it happens, Superman was created by two Jewish high school students, both immigrants from Eastern Europe, in the 1930s; he has become a key vehicle by which another generation of immigrants seeks to understand their place in American society. If ever there was an illegal alien, it is Kal-El from the planet Krypton whose parents sent him away from his native world in search of a better life, who slipped across the border (via spaceship) in the middle of the night, got adopted by an Anglo family, has had to hide his true identity, but has been deeply dedicated to promoting and defending American values.
Amidst a controversy over Superman’s decision in an alternative universe DC story to renounce his American citizenship, Huerta and other undocumented youth argued that there was no evidence that Superman was anything other than undocumented. No signs he had the right papers, no evidence that he had ever applied for citizenship.
Huerta was not alone in connecting the DREAMers’ struggles with superhero sagas. Hari Kondabolu, a South Asian comedian, recorded a video asking why no one ever tried to deport Superman for “stealing jobs.”
Hari Kondabolu: “Superman Is Undocumented”
Photographer Dulce Pinzon depicted a range of superheroes performing the jobs often done by undocumented workers: Spider-man washes windows, Mr. Fantastic waits tables, or The Thing joins a construction crew. Pinzon explains, “The principal objective of this series is to pay homage to these brave and determined men and women that somehow manage, without the help of any supernatural power, to withstand extreme conditions of labor in order to help their families and communities survive and prosper.”
Such references to superheroes within the DREAMer movement can be understood as the civic imagination at work. By civic imagination, we mean the capacity to imagine a better world, to develop a road map for how we get there, to be empathetic for people whose experiences are different than our own, and to be able to see oneself as being able to make a difference in the world. These are the kinds of conceptual shifts that make political activism possible.
What inspires the civic imagination shifts from generation to generation: for the civil rights movement in the 1950s, it might have been formed around the rhetoric of the black church with its talk of “crossing the River Jordan” and entering the “promised land,” while for the American founding fathers, it formed around motifs from classical history and mythology (ancient Athens as the birthplace of democracy). But the emerging generation of young activists maintains a strong, close relationship to American popular culture, and that shared vocabulary (superheroes, zombies, wizards, etc.) helps broker relations across different political groups.
This video focuses on the way the DREAMers have tapped into Superman’s saga to help explain their own experiences of being undocumented immigrants, fighting for educational and citizenship rights. Superhero stories offer a shared vocabulary for talking about personal and cultural identity, differing conceptions of justice and the social good, the nature of power and responsibility. Many different groups, but especially those engaging with youth, have tapped into the superhero mythology as a means of empowering their members to think differently about their place in society. Here, we will consider some other examples of how superhero references help to inspire the civic imagination.
Imagine Better is a group of fan activists who have sought to tap the power of fantasy to re-imagine and change the world. Imagine Better is an off-shoot of the Harry Potter Alliance, which has used references to J.K. Rowling’s fantasy franchise in a range of human rights campaigns. They recently won media attention when they successfully pushed Warner Brothers to commit to shifting their chocolate contracts associated with the Harry Potter franchise to Fair Trade certified producers.
Inspired by the DREAMers, they launched “Superman is an Immigrant,” a campaign to educate people about immigration reform, that attached itself to the 2013 release of Man of Steel, the most recent revamp of the Superman character. On wearetheamericanway.tumblr.com, young people uploaded pictures of themselves holding descriptions of their family heritage, signing with “I am the American way” and the Superman’s signature S, branded with the colors of the American flag. Beyond the personal immigration stories, the Tumblr website links to “5 facts about immigration” (e.g., “By today’s rules, your great-grandmother may have been denied at Ellis Island”) as well as a call to “Tell Obama: Stop Deportations!”
Through Imagine Better, advocacy for immigration reform reached many who did not have firsthand experience with the issues, who may never have knowingly interacted with someone who was undocumented, offering their young participants a fresh way to think about the immigrant experience.
Others sought ways to more fully occupy the status of an American hero, often in a contested environment where their identities were already politicized, whether they wanted them to be or not. Like many other fellow members of the American Sikh community, Vishaljit Singh experienced post 9/11 xenophobia and racism. As a bearded and dastar (or turban) wearing Sikh, he became an easily recognizable, and completely mis-identified, face for those who were terrified, ignorant and seeking scapegoats. On his blog, sikhtoons.com, Singh mashed up a turban-wearing Sikh character with Captain America, to drive home his message that: “A Sikh is just as American as an iconic superhero.” Soon, Singh began to dress up and perform the character on the subways and in public parks around New York City to provoke conversations about what it means to be an American.
Last summer, Nour Saleh, a British Muslim teen, sparked international interest amongst comics fans when she responded to a Draw Yourself challenge on Tumblr, depicting herself in the garb of various superheroes, male and female. As she explained, “I am a Muslim girl (who wears a hijab) and I prefer to wear long/loose things that go below the butt,” so that’s how she drew herself, reimagining both classic Marvel and DC superheroes as they might appear if they had a similar cultural identity and fashion sense. The images’ publication on a range of fan-oriented blogs sparked further discussions about whether a Muslim can be embraced as a superhero.
Marvel was asking many similar questions around that same time with the result that the mainstream comics publisher launched in February 2014 a monthly book where Kamala Khan—an American Muslim of Pakistani descent—becomes Ms. Marvel. When the American branch of the Freedom Defence Initiative, an anti-Muslim organization, placed posters on buses around San Francisco in 2015, Ms. Marvel inspired young activists to take action to “stop the hate.” Anonymous activists printed up images of Kamala Khan and plastered them on top of the offending advertisements, “calling all bigotry busters” to speak out against such hate speech wherever they encountered it, a message endorsed by the comic’s writer, G. Willow Wilson, herself an American Muslim.
But, wait, there’s more!
- Young feminists are also redesigning comic book covers to call attention to the sexist and sexy postures adopted by female superheroes, replacing them with a similar depiction of the male Avenger, Hawkeye. As one female participant explained, “If your female character can be replaced by Hawkeye in the same pose without looking silly or stupid, then it’s acceptable and probably non-sexist.”
- On November 17, 2011, a coalition of labor organizers seeking to challenge austerity measures and to demand more jobs, projected a Bat Signal on the side of Brooklyn’s Verizon Building. As one of the organizers explained, “we were no longer waiting for some superhero, be it a masked vigilante or the first black president, to swoop in and save the day. Rather, we were the response to our own call for aid.”
- Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu ended his speech accepting an Oscar for Birdman with a call to his fellow Mexicans to fight for “the government we deserve.” Literally overnight, Birdman, the superhero, who is ridiculed throughout Inarritu’s film, emerged as an iconic representation of opposition to the current Mexican government, featured in countless memes and other mashups.
Appropriating the superhero is simply one example of how contemporary popular culture is inspiring the civic imagination. Everywhere you look, young people are using elements poached from popular culture to express their struggles for social justice and to question what kind of political structures they want to occupy. Many of the young activists we interviewed said they found the language of American politics to be exclusive (in that you need to know a lot about how the government works to follow the arguments) and repulsive (in that everything keeps getting bogged down in the same partisan games). Their use of the superhero figure, though, is neither: everyone knows the core story, everyone has an emotional investment in the characters, and reframing our perceptions of these characters helps us to share visions of how we can become the political change we want to see.
Written by Henry Jenkins, with research from a forthcoming essay by Prof. Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik.
For the past five years, the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics Research Team at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism has been documenting the political lives of American youth. We are part of a larger Youth and Participatory Politics initiative launched by the MacArthur Foundation. Altogether, we’ve interviewed well over 200 activists, representing a broad range of causes — from immigration rights to environmentalism, from racialized violence to child labor. We will be sharing the core findings of our research in By Any Media Necessary, a book to be released by New York University Press in early 2016.
Directed by Charles Curran and Filipe Medeiros
Produced for Velvet Eyes by Evan Confield
Illustrations by Felipe Medeiros
Executive Producer: Thalia Mavros