Some Thoughts On Superheros And Princesses

What parent doesn’t wish for superpowers occasionally? I don’t know how many times I’ve imagined a world in which I have four arms—one arm to hold the toddler who reaches her little hands up while saying “Pick me up! Pick me up, Mama!” two arms to cook dinner with, and one to clean up the messes that the other three arms are busy making. Daydreams of alternate universes sometimes seem helpful; after all, they sprinkle reality with a bit of magic dust. But what’s more important (in my humble opinion) is to be able to make the most of this finite reality, limitations and all. If I were to wait for the moment when “Super-Me” appeared to save the day, I’d be waiting for a long time: I would not prepare lesson plans for my students; I would wait for a fairy godmother to swoop in and turn me into the new-and-improved version of me who would finish the lesson plan in five minutes. This is why I choose to limit my young daughter’s exposure to books that concoct fantastical worlds, filled with fairies and unicorns and princesses. And if I had a son, I’d think twice before stocking his bookshelf with Spider-Man comic books.

I have no doubt that the tale of Sleeping Beauty, for instance, can be alluring to a young girl. After all, the transformation the sleeping woman undergoes when a prince kisses her awake is magical indeed. But what is its message? In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir points out that these celebrated tales have passive heroines who are found or chosen or awakened by their much more active male counterparts. The message, then, is “Do nothing but sleep and wait for a charming prince, and you too, little girl, will find bliss!” Interestingly, boys are given a similar (though more heroic) message by the superhero plots in which they are conditioned to indulge: “If a superpower is bestowed upon you, little boy, then you’ll be able to change the world!” After all, it is not Clark Kent who saves the world; it is not Clark Kent whom Lois Lane swoons over; it is his alter ego, possessing superhuman powers, who wins everyone’s admiration. In both cases, engagement in the world is presented as something that’s contingent on a certain magical, mystical turn of events. The stories render people passive until some event occurs (an event that’s beyond everyone’s control). Then—and only then—are people in these narratives allowed to take pleasure in the world.

As appealing and seductive as these figures may be to children, they are ultimately disempowering for both girls and boys, for they create a heightened sense of excitement in relation to some other, unreachable world. It isn’t that I want for my child to be steeped in boringness; I don’t want her to be the queen of the humdrum. What I want is for her to see reality itself as full of possibility—possibilities she can reach for and make something with right here and right now. The Montessori philosophy is an approach I find admirable partly because of this emphasis on the child’s being driven by his or her own intrinsic drive, which is allowed and encouraged to dictate the child’s interactions with the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom. In The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori writes, “The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences” (84). If we give children books in which fascination is attached to fantastical powers, then do we not undermine the child’s curiosity to discover his or her own unique powers and interests in relation to the real environment? Dr. Montessori also writes, “So, from the age of three till six, being able to now to tackle his environment deliberately and consciously, he begins a period of real constructiveness” (152). What we can take from this is that children are right now constructing a self-concept through interacting with our real and present world. We, as adults, have the responsibility to provide our children with real knowledge of our environment as a crucial tool in this construction process. So, we give them books about soil and seeds and vegetables so that they can see the magic that our earth presents to us. And we give them access to the real soil and seeds and vegetables, and in this way, they become aware of how real objects undergo magical metamorphoses right before our eyes! One needn’t go far to find stories of transformation that are awe–inspiring and real. And what such stories offer children is an opportunity to engage with the world as it is, to take interest in it, to be curious about it, and to act thoughtfully within it.

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