“Nice shirt,” I said to a little boy hanging out of the window of his family’s car at the drive-in.
He couldn’t have been older than 5, but his little eyes lit up as he registered that an adult was taking interest in his clothing. “That’s Spider-Man,” he said.
His father walked around the side of his SUV to see who exactly was chatting with his small child. When he arrived, he broke into a big smile at the image of his son following his statement with a quick demonstration of Spider-Man’s webslingers (complete with thwip, thwip sound effects).
They almost immediately broke into a call and response that must have been routine for the two. “Which guy is your favorite?” the dad asked.
“Venom,” the boy said.
“Which guy is the strongest?”
“Red Hulk,” he said.
“Which guy uses arrows?”
“Hawk,” the kiddo said in his adorable just-past-toddler-voice.
The questions continued, each time the father asking which guy did what, the son replying with a Marvel hero, and the father beaming with pride. I tried not to notice, I promise. I tried to enjoy the sweet moment and not see that this little boy hadn’t named a single female hero. I tried to just enjoy the drive-in. But I couldn’t. I decided to test my theory and asked the boy what he thought of Captain Marvel.
He looked at his father for a prompt. His father shrugged.
“Black Widow?” I asked, desperate to at least provide him with a prompt from the films.
Again he looked at his father. “The girl,” his dad said.
She barely registered for the boy as he returned to showing me how to shoot his imaginary webslingers.
It’s a small moment, and not a unique one by any stretch, but it revealed an issue we as a society must address. Exposing young boys to heroes of various genders is critical to their development as humans, and for those who are cisgender, as future men. Simply put, boys must have female and nonbinary heroes, too.
There’s oodles of research on the importance of role models for children, with an emphasis on the importance of women role models for girls. But gender is a social construct, and a narrow view of same gender role models for children puts male children at a severe deficit.
When little boys grow up without female heroes, and in this case I’m talking specifically about female superheroes, they grow up seeing that men can be strong, decisive, and victorious. Women, on the other hand, are relegated to the role of supporter, sidekick, lover, or mother. And nonbinary heroes, well, we just plain don’t exist.
All children need to grow up with diverse heroes—on all levels. They need heroes of color, disabled heroes, queer heroes, immigrant heroes, Muslim heroes, and yes, they need heroes of multiple genders. Why? Because when the only people a child sees saving the day are men, they begin to believe that only men have agency.
The Madonna-whore complex has been long studied as a phenomenon that occurs when women are perceived as either a virgin mother or a prostitute, and nothing in between. While I have no issue with mythology or sex work, this limitation prevents little girls from seeing their futures as fluid, meant to be created. It also tells little boys that girls and women are here to serve them, whether as their mother or as their prostitute.
In the end, the question of whether or not boys need women and nonbinary heroes is a question about whether or not women and nonbinary people are actually people.
Our world is drowning in toxic masculinity and the white supremacist patriarchy. If we want ourselves, our children, and especially our boys—our boys who are more likely to be violent, who are more likely to die by suicide, who are more likely to abuse substances—we are going to have to heal ourselves from toxic behaviors and norms. Parents who tell their sons that some toys, some feelings, some heroes are only for girls simply continue to perpetuate a harmful stereotype that is, frankly, destroying us.
Ironically, and to me this is really the rub, there are many, many female heroes who are badass and make excellent role models. She-Hulk is a successful lawyer and one scary beast when she wants to be. Captain Marvel is literally Earth’s Mightiest Hero (singular) and a kickass pilot. Niko Minoru has survived super villain parents and homelessness and has established her magical prowess. Storm, with her sometimes mohawk and constant weather manipulation, is easily the coolest character ever. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and that’s just with Marvel characters. When we consider the world of other mainstream and independent comic books, the list could continue ad infinitum. There is no dearth of female superheroes—we just refuse to let boys look up to them.