The psychology of costumed crusaders in comic-books has been the subject of discussion by fans, artists, writers and mental health professionals for decades; and the psychological influence that the violence and sometimes twisted sexual predilections of the heroes within those comic-book pages was the focus of the 1950s Senate hearings stemming from Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, a book that changed the face of comics and the public’s attitude towards the art form.
Batman has always seemed to be at the forefront of discussions regarding the psychological instability of superheroes; and during the Wertham focus on the evils of comic-books the hero was even cast as a gay man preying on young boys (i.e. Robin, the Boy Wonder) as a sexual predator.
With the upcoming release of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne’s mental health is once again coming into the public light, as is the potentially negative influence that violent comic-books, video games, TV and movies have on society and children in particular.
It’s easy to do fantasy-fanboy-armchair-psychoanalysis of superheroes and ask questions like, “If comic-books are a negative influence on children, would Bruce Wayne have become a super-villain from reading comics as a child?” But I wondered what insight actual mental health professionals might have on super-psychological problems.
Dr. Elizabeth Ramirez is a clinical psychologist and behavioral health professional from right here in the East Valley. Dr. Ramirez has a private practice in Mesa where she treats children, adolescents and adults and she has served in the mental health field for the last 12 years. She was kind enough to take a few minutes out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about what might be going on inside those masked heads and how super-characters can influence society.
With new movies and a fully realized stature in pop-culture, comic book characters like Batman, Spider-Man and the Avengers are more popular than ever. What do you think it is about costumed heroes and villains that people find appealing?
Dr. Ramirez: Those with special powers have always been appealing, from tales of the gods to Superman. We like to hear stories of more than human feats. I think what’s more appealing of current heroes and villains it that when their identity is concealed – it could be anyone. Any one of us could be a superhero and no one would know. There is potential for all of us to be special in some way.
In the film Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne jokingly says, “Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” Realistically, what do you think those issues would be and do you think people, especially children, who read these comics and watch the movies will be negatively influenced by the behaviors they see?
Dr. Ramirez: In that particular scene Bruce was trying to deflect attention from himself to make fun of Batman. There is some truth that choosing the bat as his symbol has some dark implications. Although usually benign, bats are regarded as scary, malevolent animals. Not much is understood of this creature and not knowing is much more frightening.
I don’t think children understand the complexities of Batman operating outside of the law. Children see him as the hero that saves the day. Kids are focused on the flashy costume and cool gadgets (not to mention the cars!) They don’t understand the motives behind his actions. Bruce is avenging his parents’ murder with every excursion, but that is probably too much for children to comprehend. Children are generally not negatively influenced by what they watch. They are much more influenced by the way adults around them behave and how they might react to the media.
Given what you know about the Batman/Bruce Wayne character, what would you say is his psychological diagnosis?
Dr. Ramirez: [Laughs] He is definitely suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), he experiences flashbacks, anger and self-destructive behaviors. He also demonstrates some antisocial personality characteristics. We would have to further rule out the diagnosis. Bruce has a skewed view of what is right and wrong. This view often leads him to break the law. He doesn’t really make connections with people either, which would qualify him for the antisocial personality disorder.
Do you think people who are against sex and violence in comics, video games, TV and movies have valid concerns over their influence on society? Do you think Fredric Wertham’s 1954 stance against comics had any validity?
Dr. Ramirez: Research has demonstrated that violence [in media] doesn’t affect most children. If a child is already demonstrating violent behaviors the material will allow them to act out more. However, for children that show normal levels of aggression this type of stimuli doesn’t affect them.
Most children are exposed to some violence and sex, which is normal. I believe it’s important not to overexpose children to violence – and it shouldn’t be the only thing they are exposed to. However, they shouldn’t be protected from it because it’s only mirroring real life. Being a parent means being a gate keeper for all information, whether violent or not.
Overall, do you think that cartoon heroes and villains in pop culture have a positive or negative influence on children? What about on society in general?
Dr. Ramirez: I think some children really connect with the concepts and style of comic books. I would rather my child read this genre of literature than nothing at all. All literature affects people, it depends what perspective you take from it and what you learn from it. Since the beginnings of storytelling there have been heroes and villains; cartoons and comics are the medium artists are using to portray their stories. We must be careful the story is meaningful as much as the characters.
Read part one of our two-part Superheroes and psychology series, “The Dark Knight – Batman…or just Batty?” It’s an incredible interview with Dr. Travis Langley, the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.