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Making Sense of Superheroes: Awareness of superhero genre conventions around the world

Report by CarrieLynn D. Reinhard, Roskilde University (March 6, 2009) of the Quantitative Results

(This paper was presented at the Danish scifi convention Fantasticon to discuss the nature of superheroes.)

A series of quantitative and qualitative questions were asked of individuals around the world on: whether or not certain characteristics defined superheroes; creating their own superheroes; speaking about the first and most famous superheroes; labeling a variety of characters as superheroes; speaking about the reality of superheroes and their cultural heritage.

This first phase of the analysis will provide frequency information on the closed-ended items from the survey: the definitions of superheroes; the recognition of characters as superheroes; and, the uses and perceptions of media from the United States.

The Sample

The survey was advertised across different country specific Facebooks, from the United States to Japan, from South Africa to Sweden.  Over a thousand people partially completed the online survey hosted by SurveyXact.  Of this group, only the 112 who answered all the close-ended answers and provided a real country of origin were included in the analysis.  The resulting distribution of respondents from around the world is as follows:

  • Of the 112 participants, 26, or 23%, grew up in the United States.
  • Of the 77%, or 86 participants, who did not grow up primarily in the United States, the breakdown of their birth countries shows an array of American, European, Asian, Middle Eastern, Oceanic, and African cultures.
  • The average age of the participants was 28, with a range from 11 to 70.  The vast majority of the participants were male (74%), with only 23% female, as several participants refused to indicate their gender.

SampleSample CountriesThe participants were asked to indicate how often they consumed on average in the past year various types of media produced by the United States: movies; television; comic books; video games; and, cartoons.  The following table provides their answers for these five items, arranged in descending order of average consumption behavior.

US media sorucesNotice that movies, television and cartoons appear to be the primary media sources – and thus potential sources for exposure to superhero genre conventions – across the sample’s average consumption behaviors.  Video games appear to split between those who play them regularly and those who do not.  Finally, comic books appear to be the least consumed media amongst the participants.

Definitions of Superheroes

This first section relates the frequency of endorsing certain conventions as necessary for defining a character as a superhero.  Eleven items were used in the survey; these items were based on a discussion by Peter Coogan as to what defines a superhero (Superhero: The secret origin of a genre, 2006).

Below is a table showing the percentages of people who agree or disagree or are not certain that the specific characteristic is necessary for defining a character as a superhero.

Defining Superhero CharacteristicsWhat we can see from these answers are as follows:

The most important characteristics agreed upon from various cultures are: Extraordinary Abilities; Serve Motivation; Origin Story; and, Strong Moral Code.  These are the top four characteristics with the highest percentages of agreement for being necessary as part of the definition.  Notice there is nothing about the appearance of the character.  Instead, the actions of the character take precedence, as well as the inclusion of some type of origin story to explain how that character came to be.

Additionally, three of the characteristics could be said to elide with other genres; that is, they are not necessarily specific to the superhero genre.  Apparently the inclusion of the Extraordinary Abilities, in combination with the remaining three, pushes this character into the superhero genre.  The reason for the higher importance placed on the Origin Story is hypothesized below with regards to other results.

Following these top four characteristics, another four characteristics are similar enough in their endorsement by the sample as to be considered a secondary group of characteristics.  These characteristics are: Original Costume; Supervillains; Secret Identity; Codename.  These characteristics consist of the appearance of the character as well as conventions that are very specific to the superhero genre.  And yet, their generic specificity is not highlighted as what makes them central to defining a character as a superhero.  A possible reason for this is discussed next.

Towards the bottom of the list is the requirement for the character to be in some form of Fantastical Story.  The lack of endorsement for this item may be due to the prevalence of the realism trend in superhero films that have been disseminated around the world since 2000.  Unfortunately, I had not thought of asking specifically from where the sample knew their superheroes.  However, the sample was more likely to watch American movies, television and cartoons than read American comic books.  It appears the worldwide knowledge of superheroes has been more influenced by their moving portrayals rather than the comic book canon from which they arise.

The prevalence of the movies could also explain by the visual appearance of the superheroes was less important than his or her actions.  Of course there remain visually iconic superheroes whose appearance is little changed from comic book to film (i.e. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man); but, there are also those figures whose appearance as changed (i.e. X-Men, Fantastic Four, Punisher).  Also, movies, television and cartoons show moving pictures that allow for the portrayal of actions in a way that comic books cannot.  A consumption of comic books may heighten the primacy of the visual depiction, whereas a consumption of moving portrayals may heighten the primacy of the actions.

Not tremendously surprising, Headquarters was listed towards the bottom of the list.  Few superheroes actually have headquarters or bases of operations.  What is most striking is perhaps the heightened lack of agreement that a superhero must wear tights and capes.  This visual appearance has for so long been the points of reference made in parodies and satires of superheroes, from The Tick to The Incredibles.  The fact that this characteristic is at the bottom of the list again serves to showcase the primacy of motion pictures and the realism slant taken in them.

Labeling as Superheroes

Participants were given a range of characters and asked to indicate if they believed the character was or was not a superhero.  The range included established superheroes such as Superman and Spider-Man, as well as anti-heroes, classical heroes, and Japanese characters.  What resulted was a gauge as to how well superheroes are known through being disseminated around the world, as well as how non-traditional superheroes are seen as relating to the superhero genre.

This range of characters are divided into four charts for reporting: DC characters; Marvel characters; Classical characters; and Japanese characters.  One character that does not fit this categorization was Mr. Incredible, from the Pixar film.  He rated high on the list, with 75% percent of the participants agreeing he is a superhero, with 15% unfamiliar with the character.

First, the DC characters:

Familiarity DC heroes

Next, the Marvel characters:

Familiarity Marvel heroes

As is apparent, these DC and Marvel characters are rather widely known across the world, with Thor the least recognized – although there is most likely confusion between the superhero and the Nordic god from mythology.  Of the remaining characters, the ones with the highest unfamiliarity either have not had a motion picture (Captain America, Green Lantern, Aquaman, The Flash) or had a film that did not perform as strongly as hoped (Mr. Fantastic).

Next, the Anti-hero characters:

Familiarity Anti-heroes

Of the anti-heroes most likely seen as superheroes, all four have had recent films and film franchises based on them.  The least likely to be seen as a superhero, Swamp Thing, has been out of such mass media for over a decade, unlike the rest of the characters.  Although Spawn, Punisher, Ghost Rider and Crow have all had motion pictures based on their comic book characters, none performed as well as the others.  Interestingly, Silver Surfer was not that much lower than Mr. Fantastic in being called a superhero, and was perhaps slightly better known; this is perhaps due to Silver Surfer being in the name of the second Fantastic Four movie.

Next, classical characters:

Familiarity Classical characters

Of the legendary characters, Hercules was seen more as a superhero, although like Thor there may be confusion between the demigod and the Marvel character.  Beowulf was the least familiar of the characters.  Of the pulp heroes, The Phantom was seen more as a superhero, followed by Zorro.  While Tarzan was the most recognized, he was one of the least recognized as a superhero.  The Shadow was the least recognized, but of those who were familiar with him he was seen more as a superhero.

Finally, Japanese characters:

Familiarity Japanese characters

Of the Japanese characters, the Power Rangers were the best known and the most seen as superheroes.  According to the date, the older the character, the least well known the character was and the least seen as a superhero.  Of the two remaining animated characters, they were both relatively well known and seen as superheroes, with Sailor Moon edging out Goku.

Concluding Thoughts

Across all the characters, the American characters classically defined as superheroes were seen as such, and the most well-known.  The participants’ answers to defining superheroes could be based on their familiarity with these DC and Marvel characters, coming to them primarily via their movies, television shows and cartoons.  Then, using these definitions, the participants may judge other characters, from the United States and other countries, as to whether or not they match the characteristics seen in the DC and Marvel characters.

However, the fact that non-traditional superheroes were also seen by some as superheroes indicates the looseness of the categorization scheme as applied to characters from various genres and cultures.  This looseness could indicate the local culture’s and/or individuals appropriation of the genre conventions to their interpretation of other characters – from the reception to the creation of such characters.

The open-ended questions will be analyzed in a follow-up report to understand if such appropriation is being utilized by the participants in how they describe two generic characters as well as themselves as abiding by the superhero genre conventions.  Additionally, their discussions about seeing superheroes as prototypically from the United States will be examined to see if their arguments about the dissemination and cultural/individual appropriation of superheroes mirror this report’s analysis.

The Rise of Hentai in America, Part 3

[This is the final part of the women studies paper I wrote on hentai.  You can find Part 1, on the definition of hentai, here, and Part 2, on the comparison of hentai to live action pornography, here.  And, once again, the material covered in this part is strictly NSFW.]

While it may not be as prevalent or have the same tradition in our society that live action pornography does, there is no mistaking that hentai is here and is accessible, highly so if we consider the role of the Internet in its dispersion.  We have seen in this essay that its similarities to live action pornography mean it could have similar impacts on consumers, and these impacts may be further influenced by the simulacrum nature of hentai girls and the fantasies they offer.  Even if these texts are read as humorous, their situatedness in our society, in our public discourse that attempts to both normalize sex and keep it hidden, suggests that even harmless appearing cartoons can reinforce the ideology of male domination if it remains unchallenged.

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The Rise of Hentai in America, Part 2

[In part 1 of this 2006 women studies paper, I discussed what hentai is and how it has grown in consumption in the United States; so if you are first entering this report via this part, you should pop on over there first.  In this part of the report, I compare hentai to live action pornography.  Again, this is absolutely rated NSFW.]

Is it different than live action pornography?

Theories of what is pornography began to crystallize in the 1970s due to the work of American feminists and their analysis of how women are represented on film.  In particular is the work of Laura Mulvey in theorizing how positioning and objectifying women in film serve the scopophilic male gaze that receives pleasure by its voyeuristic and yet controlling gaze of women.  Pornography is largely held as an “art form” that objectifies the female figure, positioning women as submissive sexual objects presented for the sole purpose of providing pleasure to men, whether in the narrative with the women or in the audience consuming the narrative.  Women are fragmented by the camera or the comic panels so that the focus for the viewer is on specific body parts to elicit arousal.  Oftentimes women are being dominated by the male, in a heterosexual coupling, or by a masculinized woman in a homosexual coupling.  Regardless of whether a man is actually present in the frame or not, by depicting women as objects, as dehumanized and subjected to a dominant other’s desires, they rendered powerless, denied agency, and thus not a threat to the presumed male viewer, who is left to gave over the spectacle without anxiety of being discovered, castigated, and ultimately metaphorically castrated.

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The Rise of Hentai in America, Part 1

(This paper, and the accompanying presentation I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way, were done in 2006 for a women’s studies course at Ohio State University.  Some of the facts may be a bit outdated, some have been updated, but I still stand by the interpretation of the texts.  And, warning, this posting will include illustrated examples of pornographic cartoons, so it is definitely rated NSFW.  Part 1 here discusses the subject matter; Part 2 compares hentai to live action pornography; Part 3 considers the ramifications of hentai.)

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Representations of Women in Japanese and American Pop Culture

(From a 2004 paper on a cross-cultural examination of the superheroine)

            In their article on children and role models, Anderson and Cavallaro (2002) say that superheroes are “larger-than-life symbols of American values and ‘maleness’.” (p. 162).  From a socialization point of view, is there reason to be concerned about the ‘superhero’-centeredness of a segment of the American pop culture to which many children are exposed?   And if this is the case in America, where many believe women are on a more equal alignment with men, what is the situation in other societies, such as Japan, where inequality is perceived to be more common?  Both the United States and Japan have a segment of their pop culture devoted to fantastic stories about individuals with superhuman powers.  These stories tell of heroes with strengths that children may identify with in the hope becoming as successful as these characters (Anderson & Cavallaro, 2002).  It then becomes imperative to understand how these heroes are portrayed.  Are the women in media, which is directed towards tomorrow’s women, being portrayed as strong and independent rather than as victims and damsels-in-distress?

American Superheroines

Japanese Superheroines

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Ugetsu, Intertextuality, and the Western Spectator

I want to start off by taking what may be a radical position on how I am conceptualizing film or really any media text.  I’m going to take the position of stripping these texts of their accoutrements, designer labels like “entertainment” versus “new” or “high culture” versus “low culture,” and instead I am going to focus on an underlying genetic structure: the text as an information source, whereby the information could be put to any use the user requires of it.  With that being said (and understanding I may have to defend, amend, and possibly sublate my position), I am interested in how the user of the text (in this case, the spectator of the film) understands and uses the text.

I state all of this in order to interrogate how the Western spectator may understand the information presented in a text like Ugetsu, which relies on Japanese conventions and intertexuality in creating the narrative and the structure of the portrayal.

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The Otaku of OSU

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, in graduate school I learned about, and experimented with, slash. That journey started with exploring more of my interest in Japanese anime and manga. Perhaps in another post, some day, I’ll introduce you to hentai. Now that will be a fun discussion.


As part of my exploration of anime and manga, I took a class from Art Education about this particular art form. In that class we watched Otaku No Video, an animated spoof on the otaku. An otaku is what people used to think a fan is, until being a fan meant making loads of money for people. Being an otaku means being obsessive about something: such as certain anime and manga characters, shows, books, etc. I learned about the otaku as I learned more about the conceptualization of the fan, and the intermingling of these identities is tremendously fascinating.

Being oh so fascinated, I and a classmate worked on a presentation about the otaku at Ohio State University: those in the separate anime and manga clubs. Yes, there are two different clubs devoted to these products of Japanese pop culture — a rift between organizers led to the split, with the anime club, or Animate!@OSU, organizing anime conventions. And, yes, I even participated in those conventions.

What I have finally (since it has been years) done is uploaded the short documentary I made of these otaku at OSU. In this video, on this subject, I was truly a stranger in a familiar land.


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