Masking Our Powers

We are all flawed, but lurking within our humanity is heroism

My 5-year-old has three black and one blue Batman outfits, which he wears everywhere—including our periodic visits to Gotham, where a security guard at LaGuardia recently whispered into his walkie-talkie, “Batman is in the building,’’ without a trace of irony.

I long ago concluded that peeling off my son’s Batman T-shirt before school is a losing battle, but I am left pondering where the obsession came from and what it means about manhood when otherwise gruff-looking garbage men hanging off the back of a truck see my boy and shout “Batman!’’ at the top of their lungs.

The more I thought about this male obsession, the more Batman came to symbolize a much bigger problem than outsmarting Mr. Freeze. As guys we have a ton of real-world challenges, from work to war to intimacy and fathering. Batman doesn’t help with any of that. He’s a dodge from reality.

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As men (and women), we hold up the myth of the superhero as the ideal man. He doesn’t talk—he just whips out his batarang to deal with his problems. One of the enduring issues we face, with warning signs everywhere from athletes to investment bankers, is to put flesh and bones on the male form.

I do not have superpowers and neither does my 5-year-old. I like to think I am a decent guy, but I have made serious mistakes in my life. I read books, talk to other guys, and spend a lot of time trying to sort out what is right. Most of the men I know are like me. They live complex, nuanced lives that can’t be reduced to the ultimate good and evil of the Batman vocabulary.

The societal alternative for guys—at least when it comes to Madison Avenue and popular culture—is to be a moron. Think Bud Light commercials or “Two and a Half Men.’’ Maybe we get a bit more depth, but no less silence and duplicity with Don Draper. Of all the great male athletes doing the right thing in this world, what gets 99 percent of the ink? The guys whose lives have turned upside down by making horrible mistakes. It’s comfortable, because it fits the concept that polar extremes are part and parcel of the male condition—something both women and men have somehow talked themselves into believing.

But I am neither idiotic nor mythic. I am human. So are the guys I have sought out to get beneath
the myth to find the reality of manliness in America.

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I have been in regular contact with Michael Kamber, the New York Times photojournalist on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve spent time with 14 guys locked up for life inside Sing Sing. I’ve hung out on playgrounds with stay-at-home dads and interviewed teenage boys with no fathers about to become dads themselves. I’ve edited the story of a member of the 82nd Airborne who survived the Gulf War but had to bear watching his toddler die in his arms from a rare birth defect.

None of these guys have superhuman powers. But they all told me the story of their lives, man-to-man, with unflinching honesty. And here’s the thing: In so doing, each one of them became heroes to me in their own unique way. My 5-year-old son isn’t old enough to graduate from Batman, but my 14-year-old son is. He knows about Michael Kamber and former Sing Sing inmate Julio Medina. And he knows that truth isn’t stranger than fiction. When it comes to manhood, truth is way more powerful than any comic book character.

I wonder if that garbage man shouting from his truck saw something in my son’s batman uniform that reminded him not of superpowers but his own human power, of the fact that all of us guys have a story to tell and we all can be heroes even if we will never be the caped crusader.

This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

—Photo (Knot)/via Flickr

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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

 

 

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Very well said, Tom!

  2. Taylor Flanders says:

    Heroic characters are naturally idolized. Human nature seems to want to put a face and a name on heroism, or as I see it, the ideal character. I will not begrudge anyone their Batman or Spiderman, personally Link from Legend of Zelda shaped me into what I am today. The heroic character gives us someone to model, to root for, to get behind. However, this does not mean we can’t be heroes in our own right. We don’t need nigh-insurmountable tasks or super villains to be heroes. The damsel-in-distress would easily be our wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend; our sidekicks our friends, siblings parents, children. The only things needed to be a hero is the courage to take on life, the power to aid yourself and others, and the wisdom to do it with (Triforce not necessary). Oftentimes heroism isn’t overly dramatic. I’ve been called a hero by my friends for stopping a sexual assault against a woman I’d never seen before and aiding cars stuck on ice when ours spun out. In both situations all I had was my presence and the will to do what was right. From kids to elders, heroes are natural. Just remember that you can be that guy too.

  3. I write about this often on my own blog. I enjoyed your take. As someone who has carryed a superhero complex my enture life, it took my wife and teenage daughter (she turns 15 next month) to “cure” me of this and show me the kind of man they along with my two younger daughters, need to be an example for them and the husband and father I want to be.

    In therapy I learned that no one would every appreciate my good qualities the way I wanted them to because my expectations were too high and their expectations were either nonexistant or too low.

    I live in a blended family. My wife is my second marriage, the 14 yr old and 6 yr old are hers, the 7 yr old is mine, we have made everyone ours over the past 3 years. Because my wife is my best friend, I listened to her when she said, “Stop trying to be perfect, you are not superman.” My teenage daughter has taught me even more. She doesn’t want me to be her friend, she wants me to be her dad. She knows I have been divorced. She likes it when I screw up and apologize. The less perfect I act with them, the more they seem to appreciate me.

    Thank you for your article.

    Lance aka TLanceB on twitter

  4. I have never understood what is remotely appealing about Batman (a lot of people seem really obsessed with this character, but he seems like a big moody drama queen to me), but I loved this article nonetheless.

    It really does seem a shame that the Bud Light-style man is the societal default, if one is to believe commercials.

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