The Theology of the Superman Shirt (Part 1 in a Series)


Part 1: Superheroes Not Allowed

I am having a *discussion* with my wife about the right to wear a Superman shirt. Our 3 year old's right, that is.

We are in the process of trying to get our son into a private preschool in Manhattan. It is more complicated and time-consuming than when I applied to go to college. There are interviews, a resume, the whole bit. 

(Sample question: "When creating arts and crafts, what are your child's favorite media?" Really? For a 3 year old?)

We are betting that the effort is ultimately worth it, to make sure that our son goes to a school where he is safe, where the teachers are focused on him, and he is intellectually challenged.

But entry into the elite intellectual clique of the Upper West Side has its drawbacks, one of which is a certain snobbery when it comes to culture, which is what sparked our current discussion.

The argument stems from a quote that my wife found in the handbook for one of the schools to which we are applying. The policy states that children are not to wear any costumes to school, including TV or cartoon characters, because these limit imaginative play. They are also asked not to bring guns, swords, or “superhero” toys, because they can take play into a negative direction.

No superhero toys or clothes? Are you kidding?

On one level, I can understand what the school is asking for. We always encourage our son to express himself creatively, and it bothers me to see children playing with toys that are based in certain pop culture stories, such as the latest Disney movie or Japanese cartoon, and not being able to break out of the prescribed stories. When a toy always has to represent Lightning McQueen, and can’t be a bulldozer or a spaceship to the moon, it does limit the creative imagination in a way. (This is the thinking of the people who don’t buy their kids any media-inspired toys at all, just plain wooden trains and Lincoln Logs.)

But on the other hand, to lump superhero toys in with guns and swords, suggesting that superhero toys themselves are nothing more than instruments of violence rubs me the wrong way. I am a lifelong comic reader and superhero fan myself, and I believe there are constructive lessons to be learned from superheroes--about responsibility, about doing the right thing, about standing up to injustice. Plus it is fun to imagine that the possibilities of our world, or even our own bodies, are not simply limited to what our senses tell us.

There may even be larger metaphysical lessons that our magical heroes teach us. Which would explain why storytellers have told us tales of super-powered heroes for thousands of years, from Moses to Achilles to the Scarlet Pimpernel.

"But don’t superheroes make boys play-fight?" my wife asks me. "I see no problem with not wanting to encourage that in a school environment."

I take a deep breath.