I used to read a lot of comic books in grade school. The stories seem heavy-handed to adults, but they taught me plenty as a kid. Superman embodied justice and virtue; the X-Men were a metaphor for oppressed social groups; Spider-Man showed me that even superheroes could have a rough time in school; Batman struggled with moral ambiguity.
When our older daughter was only a few years old, she was completely mesmerized by watching me play a Spider-Man video game. She wanted to know all about Spider-Man -- what were his superpowers? Why did he have to fight villains? Who were his superhero friends?
I assumed her interest would wane, but Spidey kept coming back. Her birthday cake had Spidey on it, she wanted books about Spidey, and we even started telling Spidey bedtime stories. A couple of years have passed and now she can name a good percentage of the major and minor characters in the Marvel and DC universes. She likes all the "traditional" girl toys too -- dolls, Disney, etc. -- but superheroes occupy a fair amount of her attention. Our younger daughter has caught the bug, and her favorite is Wonder Woman.
Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt for aiding and abetting their interest in comics. After all, I wouldn't spend nearly as much energy keeping them up-to-date on Disney fairies or SpongeBob. But I've had a vague intuition (or just a hope) that superhero comics were different. So I was happy to see this article by Peggy Orenstein where she says:
Little girls these days have lots of real-life role models, lots of ways they can be in the world, but they still have precious few larger-than-life heroes, especially in the all-important realm of fantasy, where they spend so much of their free time. And that’s a shame. [...]Little girls don’t embrace superheroes as often or avidly as boys. That may in part be developmental. With the big blinking caveats that there are vast variations within — as opposed to between — the sexes and that nature is heavily influenced by nurture, research on sex and play indicates that little boys are more readily drawn to competitive, rough-and-tumble activities, while little girls (again, big blinking caveat, see above) strive for group harmony over individual dominance. [...]It’s a story writ large about coming to grips with power: accepting it, demanding it, wielding it wisely. Those themes are rarely explored in the fantasy culture of little girls, yet given how problematic power remains for adult women — in both fact and fiction — perhaps they should be.
I guess I'd like to think that some of the lessons I learned from comics could be just as important to my daughters as they were to me. And if nothing else, at least I agree with Orenstein's conclusion: "it’s got to be better than being a schoolgirl by day and a rock star by night."