Everyday superheroes - how pop culture can help overcome trauma

Whether your hero wears spandex or cat ears, inspirational pop culture figures can help deal with real life difficulties. 

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On Monday evening, scores of people, united in their excitement for a concert promoting female empowerment, suffered a devastating attack.

Undoubtedly, following the tragedy, many concertgoers will be traumatised, and many others will reconsider how they publicly demonstrate their passions. However, there is a reason why Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” tour was attacked. Any dystopian novel will tell you that such empowering individuals are dangerous to backwards ideologies and regressive regimes.

This weekend, London will host MCM Comic Con, a hugely diverse gathering of people who are excited about any number of things. Not every fan that attends Comic Con will love the same books or television shows - or even the comic books from which Comic Con derives its name - but each event sees people embracing their differences. And for anyone experiencing public or private trauma, those comic books may grant them a little relief from distress. 

Distress at an attack like the one this week might cause some of these fans to escape into their favourite stories, where such violence is commonplace, but less stirring. “Ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” This was Joker’s question to Bruce Wayne in the 1989 film Batman. The villain claims he “just likes the sound” of the line, but he is reminding Batman that he, too, has experienced trauma. Viewers are also prompted to consider the question: have you survived pain, and how has this shaped you?

This theme emerges in most superhero narratives – a hero defined by the continual reminder that they must fight to keep from becoming warped by their harrowing past. It is often interpreted by the audience (and sometimes nodded to in the plot) as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although not everyone who has lived through tragedy has PTSD, many characters in superhero chronicles are driven by and forced to dwell on their ordeals, and are evidently traumatised. A fateful theatre trip renders Bruce Wayne an orphan. Clark Kent’s childhood is one long slog of hiding his true identity.

These details no longer simply form a pub-quiz niche, but are being used by real psychologists in so-called “Superhero Therapy” – a concept that integrates a complex understanding of the internal motivations of pop culture heroes in order to psychoanalyse and facilitate the recovery of troubled ordinary people. 

One demographic likely to be severely traumatised is military veterans. Like comic book superheroes, they can find it difficult to cope with their intense experiences, while also trying to conform to high expectations. Dr. Janina Scarlet – a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the acclaimed website and book Superhero Therapy – told me that she has seen members of the military who feel “added pressure to become a hero or self-judgment about having survived the traumatic experience, [which] can make it even more difficult to cope”.

Unlike prose, which may describe combat in euphemisms, or on-screen violence, which may be so graphic as to trigger panic or anxiety, comic books can deliver images of war in manageable chunks. This serves to validate readers’ memories without denying the disturbing nature of conflict.

However, there is more to comic book therapy than simply being a reader. In 2011, a programme for members of the military was started by the US “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency” (Darpa), a branch of the “Department of Defense” charged with developing military technologies. Its name: “Online Graphic Novel/Sequential Art Authoring Tools for Therapeutic Storytelling”. Its mission: to assist veterans in relating to their painful experiences through an innovative and healthy outlet. According to Dr. Scarlet, the Darpa programme has the potential to help people with emotional wounds by making them “more likely to be able to better cope with [their] painful symptoms through [their] heroic connections”.

The idea of recognising and working through the feelings and issues following distressing incidents is also reflected by Something Terrible, an autobiographical comic by Dean Trippe about his childhood experience of sexual abuse and his subsequent dread that he would perpetuate the “cycle of abuse”. Something Terrible is a perfect example of how comic books can help with the daily psychological battles with which survivors of trauma may be familiar. By revealing his vulnerability to the world, Trippe was able to create something that mirrors a journey of self-development despite memories of a traumatic event.

Relating to the stories of other people who worked to become stronger – but not infallible – reminds survivors of trauma of what they think is worth fighting for. Dr. Scarlet said “just like us, many superheroes struggle with losses and mental health issues […] But what makes these heroes exceptional is that despite their struggles, they are able to connect with what’s most important to them – helping others”.  

Dan Goldman, co-president and creative director of Kinjin.co (“stories galvanised for social change”) had this in mind when he co-created Priya’s Shakti. Priya’s story is that of an Indian rape survivor, who was empowered to create solidarity with others who have experienced similarly horrific events. Goldman told me “that's what Priya is all about: her trauma connects her with other trauma survivors, with the aim of making a change with a great wave of changing consciousness”.

This, then, is the key message, if you are worried that you have danced with the devil in the pale moonlight. Cherish your heroes and inspirations, whether they are clad in spandex suits and espouse that “with great power comes great responsibility”, or wear cat ears and teach young women that they are always worth respect. It is crucial to remember that, really, it is by coming together and being courageous in the face of adversity and fear, that ordinary people become heroes.

Anjuli R. K. Shere writes about science. She was a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman.