Is Superman a Bully?

In honor of the new Wonder Woman movie out this weekend, I thought I’d dust off an old idea I had about bullies and what it implies about our culture.  

First off, we need to define the word bully.  There is probably a more technical, accurate wording, but I view bullies as simply people who use some sort of violence against those who can’t or won’t defend themselves.  It’s a broad category, and I strongly believe the vast majority of people fall into either the category of a bully or the bullied.  The next question is why bullies attack those weaker than them.   There are a few reasons.  The most positive one is defense.  If you see someone attacking someone weaker than themselves, and you in turn attack them, I would argue you are bullying someone, but doing so for good reason.  A less positive reason, but still not terrible, is poor assumptions about the victim.  The bully thinks their victim is stronger than they actually are, and hence attack with strength that can’t be matched.  Then there are less savory reasons, but understandable ones.  The biggest is misplaced aggression.  A child is beaten by a parent or an older sibling, and then takes out their anger on someone still weaker than they.  Then finally we arrive at the most disgusting reason, and that is someone who just likes to hurt others for the sake of hurting them.  That last category is also the one most likely to have another common trait of bullies.  Those are the ones overly nice to those stronger than them.  It’s a certain hypocrisy we often find distasteful, though many of us are guilty of it as well.  

Our culture has a complicated view of bullies.  On the one hand, many of us remember being bullied by another child or a teacher, and hence remember the injustice of it.  We are trained to fight injustice wherever we can, even if it’s only by sternly disapproving it.  But on the other hand, we kind of like bullies.  The recent trend of mediocre comic book movies demonstrates this.  The hero is never in any real danger from the villain.  The villain is frequently someone who just like to attack because they  are far stronger than their victims, and enjoy the power.  The hero frequently is still stronger than the villain, and beats them silly to protect others.  In other words, these movies often demonstrate one bully fighting another.  And we, as an audience, both applaud and deride bullies at the same time.

Seen in this light, Superman is the biggest bully there is.  He is stronger than anyone else, and is never in any real danger.  He isn’t brave, in any meaningful sense.  And he is the most beloved hero in all of comic books.  We idolize him.  We love a bully, as long as he’s on our side.  This is probably part of the reason Trump won the election.  He demonstrates that we love someone who picks on those who can’t fight back, as long as he’s doing so on our behalf.  It doesn’t say a lot about us as a culture, but we like bullies a lot more than our rhetoric implies.  

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