Super Shame

NPR recently re-aired an episode This American Life from February 2001 about Superpowers. The entire episode is well worth a listen, but I’ll be focusing on Act One for this article. Act One of this episode features John Hodgeman’s “unscientific survey” about superpowers: “Would you rather have the power of Flight… or Invisibility?”

Which would you choose? It’s not an easy choice. There are clear advantages to either power, but then there are disadvantages too.

Most of the people quoted in the segment make their choice for based on some kind of practical convenience. From this point, Hodgeman begins a social commentary about why people choose their power – and what they would do with it.

“People who turn invisible will sneak into the movies or onto airplanes … people who fly stop taking the bus. Here’s one thing that pretty much no one ever says, ‘I would use my power to fight crime.’ No one seems to care about crime.”

Super-heroics don’t necessarily go hand-in hand with super powers. There are, of course, practical reasons for this as well. Superman is able to fight evil because he can do a great deal more than fly — he’s also super-strong and practically invulnerable. Invisible Woman can also create force-fields and is part of the Fantastic Four, only one part of a team that fights evil. Even the anti-heroic Shadow (who uses psychic tricks to make himself invisible) relies heavily on guns to do the fighting for him.

Flight or invisibility aren’t enough to make us safe from someone stronger or better armed than us. So we ask ourselves, “Why take the chance?”

Back to Hodgeman’s interviews:

“More than the ability to, say, burst into flame or shoot arrows with uncanny accuracy, flight and invisibility touch a nerve — actually they touch two different nerves. [They] speak to different primal desires and unconscious fears.”

One interviewee noted the following:

“One superpower is about something that’s obvious, the other is about something that’s hidden. I think it indicates your level of shame. A person who chooses to fly has nothing to hide, a person who chooses to turn invisible wants to hide themselves.”

Another interviewee made this observation:

“It all has to do with guile. If you want to be invisible, it means you’re a more guileful person. If you want to fly it means you’re guileless. And I think the reason that I’m so conflicted about flight vrs. invisibility is that I have guile, but I wish that I didn’t.”

Whether or not you’re willing to admit that you have guile (sly cunning and dishonesty), another interviewee made the accusation that people who would chose flight are lying. All of us want to be invisible so that we can do any number of sneaky or voyeuristic things, she insists. She believes that if you really want to fly, you’ve made yourself believe something false about your own heroic identity.

Hodgeman ends up his act by saying this, “At the heart of this decision, the question I really don’t want to face, is this: who do you want to be? The person you hope to be, or the person you fear you actually are?”

Superheroes already have a complex relationship with expectation and shame. It’s one of the sources for the problem of needing a secret identity. How can Peter Parker deal with the expectations of being Spider-Man all the time? He can’t, which is why it’s important that Peter Parker and Spider-Man be (at least nominally) different people. Most superheroes will also have a secret identity to protect their loved ones from harm at the hands of a supervillain who would use them as leverage against the hero.

But there’s an aspect of shame tied to every masked super-hero. What they’re doing must be done, at least partially, in secret. At the end of the day, every superhero with a mask is a vulnerable human being (whether or not they’re actually human) that fears for their own safety and social stability enough to adopt a new personality and hide it from their old one.

Like any classic hero, we’re all often stuck between two worlds. We’re public and private. We’re graceful and awkward. We’re brave and fearful. There are times where we’re proud – where we accomplish things that put us above our peers, soaring through the air. And there are times where we hide – when we’re embarrassed or afraid and we want to disappear into the shadows. The choice between two powers is more than arbitrary, and it’s difficult for an important reason: according to Hodgeman it’s not a once-and-for-all question of whether we fly or whether we fade. We all do both every day. 

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