What’s in a Story? How Sociomoral Narratives Can Inform Our Approach to Superhero Media
As someone who has been fascinated with superheroes since elementary school, I am amazed at the explosion of superhero media (cartoons, live-action shows, and films) since the mid-90s. As a scholar, I find myself considering how this boom may be partially related to the core features of superhero narratives-features that have little or nothing to do with superpowers and larger-than-life missions. In particular, I am intrigued by the intersection of children’s development of sociomoral concepts (how youth understand actions that have moral consequences) and the superhero content they consume. Can these stories influence how children develop their sense of morality, particularly when co-viewing sparks family discussions? I will dig deeper into this question. But first, I want to begin with some research into how children process sociomoral concepts through the stories they tell.
Note: Although my scholarly interests lie in superhero narratives, these features are often present in other forms of children’s media. I am also aware that for various reasons, parents and guardians may have different views on the appropriateness of superhero media given the amount of violence.
What are some core features of narratives?
Since 2000, scholars investigating sociomoral development in children and adolescents have turned to narratives — asking children to recall or discuss morally consequential social interactions — to better understand how youth make sense of these experiences. Their findings can be broken down into three key features. These are youth’s ability to use storytelling to: (1) distinguish between different interpersonal acts, (2) attend to varied perspectives, and (3) appreciate the complex nature of certain moral acts.
- Comparison of different interpersonal acts. In a study examining children’s stories about times where they have harmed a friend and have helped a friend, researchers found that the participants tended to reference emotions when they had done harm more often than when they had been helpful. In an earlier study involving mother and child relationships, emotional consequences tended to be applied differently. In these instances, the child’s feelings, such as pride, were considered more frequently in the help narratives. In the harm narratives, the discussion focused more on how the others involved might have felt, such as sadness.
- Comparison of perspectives within interpersonal acts. In addition to distinguishing between harm and help narratives, research in this area has also compared viewpoints in narratives where someone was harmed or treated unfairly. In these cases, children described situations where they harmed someone (perpetrator) and situations where they were harmed (victim). Researchers found that in stories where the child was the perpetrator, they were more likely to: (1) consider both their own perspective and that of the other person and (2) justify the harm by arguing it was necessary. When narrating experiences related to social exclusion, youth referenced a victim’s hurt feelings and anger when they were the victim more often than when they were the perpetrator.
- Comparison of age differences. Although important, evidence pointing to the roles of the nature of the act (harm vs. help) and the person’s vantage point within the situation (perpetrator vs. victim) make up only part of the story. Indeed, evidence suggests that in many ways age also matters. With respect to harm narratives, trust violation as a feature of the social experiences was more common in the narratives of adolescents than those of children. Moreover, in the same study it was found that compared to preschoolers, older children and adolescents were more likely to reference their own attempts to make sense of or construe the harm incidents. In the social exclusion study, older children and adolescents tended to describe themselves as active perpetrators as opposed to passive perpetrators. In both of these studies, older participants more often provided mixed evaluations of the harmful/exclusionary acts (e.g., thinking it was wrong in some ways but not others).
In essence, these studies show that youth can understand and articulate their experiences as perpetrator and victim, and as those who help and those who harm; especially as they get older. However, they sometimes have difficulty considering: (1) emotions associated with and (2) multiple perspectives within those experiences. Such findings present an opportunity for superhero content creators to rethink how they use characterizations and plot points to broach moral concepts for their audience, particularly children and adolescents. Parents may also use these superhero narratives as a potential aid with their youth’s development of these sociomoral concepts.
How might these findings inform content creation and co-viewing?
Given that: social life inevitably includes instances of harming and being harmed by others and (2) superhero media prevalently features harm-related (i.e., violent) events, below are three practical suggestions related to family viewing of superhero media based on the above findings (concerns with the violent content of superhero media notwithstanding). These recommendations apply to both content creators and parents/guardians.
- Differing motivations of superheroes and supervillains. Since superhero narratives contain conflicts between superheroes and supervillains, one recommendation for content creators is to make the motivations behind characters’ actions salient (e.g., through flashback episodes and origin stories). This would allow parents/guardians to discuss the characters’ differing motivations with their youth, focusing on the potential link between characters’ emotional experiences and their subsequent decisions to harm and/or help others.
- Shifts in perspective to explore diverse consequences of harmful actions. Another recommendation for creators is to explore parallel worlds, or the idea that in a different world, the same character lived a very different life. These kinds of events can provide opportunities to engage youth in “what if” discussions focused on the potential relationship between a person’s vantage point or perspective within an event involving harm, and their understanding of that event.
- Morally complex or morally gray characters and actions. Lastly, through the use of narratives that include morally complex acts or characters, content creators can provide opportunities for families to consider issues or events that contain both moral (e.g., harm and fairness) and nonmoral (e.g., psychological) elements. How youth attempt to make sense of these events may offer some insight into the extent to which they believe certain social experiences were morally complex, and thus not as “black and white” as the parent/guardian may have initially assumed.
Justin Martin, Ph.D.
Professor at Whitworth University
Originally published at https://www.scholarsandstorytellers.com on November 16, 2020.