Why You Need to Identify with a Superhero

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Wearing the mask of a superhero can give you the distance you need between your ordinary self and the self you aspire to be.

As mom of two little boys, I found myself on a first-name basis with a lot of superheroes (also, construction equipment, knowledge that comes in handy whenever I need to complain about a front-end loader blocking the road during road construction season in Minnesota). On any given day, I might walk into the family room to find Superman and Spiderman jumping off the couch with plastic swords while dueling with imaginary bad guys. Or perhaps I would be greeted by Batman (never Robin) and the Incredible Hulk who would instruct me to take cover behind a chair while they guarded me against marauding bad guys.

The boys had costumes with padded muscles in the arms and shoulders. They had masks, plastic swords, capes, and shields. They had a Fisher-Price Batcave with bat motorcycles and batmobiles galore. They were too young to watch many of the superhero movies that have a dark and violent side, but they loved superheroes. As kids, they were lorded over by adults all day long. As superheroes, they were in control. They had power. The act of exploring their superhero alter egos was a very healthy thing when it came to embodying the very best qualities of these characters, from bravery to persistence.

Prince, by his own account, was a childhood fan of Batman. I can imagine him running around the Northside neighborhood as the Caped Crusader. And the deep affinity for Batman continued throughout his life. But it seems that Batman was character that resonated with him until the end of his life. In his final shows at Paisley Park in January 2016 as part of the Piano and a Microphone tour, Prince took the audience on an autobiographical tour, including the theme from Batman. This is how Rolling Stone’s review published Jan. 22, 2016 described the moment:

“His voice was doused in heavy echo as he expressed the dreams and doubts of a child who sneaks down without permission to play his father’s piano. “I can’t play piano like my dad. How does dad do that?” he wondered, while attempting improvisations that, at one point, suggested Thelonious Monk teaching himself the theme to Batman.”

As an adult, Prince jumped at the opportunity to create the soundtrack to the blockbuster Batman film in 1989 by director Tim Burton. He set aside work on the Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic album and revamped some of the songs intended for that album to songs for the soundtrack. He seemed to revel in the opportunity to apply his skills to a movie based on a childhood hero.

It turns out that identifying with a superhero has benefits beyond hit records. Superheroes can be a way to create a healthy distance between who you are and the characteristics you want to embody. Identifying with a superhero can help you do hard things, and stay calm and cool in challenging situations. I never identified with a superhero, but I loved characters in literature, such a Jo March in Little Women. I loved Jo because she was a writer and reading while eating apples in a garret sounded right up my alley. I wasn’t a tomboy like Jo — I was much more of a girlie girl like her sister Amy. But Jo was spirited, and she loved horses and wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be more spirited and be dedicated to writing, and I loved horses, too. I wonder if the fact that Jo wound up marrying a German professor who was much older might have subliminally influenced me to become a language major in college and also marry an older man. I also loved that she had two boys and reveled in being a boy mom. I thought I’d like to have boys, and when I became a mom to two boys, I thought of Jo March and her enjoyment of her boys. Ha! Be careful who you identify with! Jo’s inspiration made me see what I could be, and the qualities I wanted to embody, and in some very small ways, I did become Jo March.

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