29 April 2012

The Psychoanalysis of Superheroes and Their Fans

This image, by Norm Breyfogle, adorns Spencer Ackerman’s article in the new Pacific Standard on “Comic Con on the Couch: Analyzing Superheroes.”

It’s a profile of Robin [yes] Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who edited the essay collection The Psychology of Superheroes. She’s also written about psychological issues in the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, and has a blog at Psychology Today titled “The Superheroes” as well as her own.

Rosenberg’s website promises some more books this year, including What Is a Superhero? coedited with Peter Coogan, Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Care, and What's the Matter with Batman? She’s already written “What’s Wrong with Bruce Wayne?” for Dennis O’Neil’s Batman Unauthorized.

As part of her research, Rosenberg visits comics conventions interviewing cosplayers about their costume choices and what those heroes mean to them. Ackerman reports:
Usually therapy takes weeks or months to cultivate the trust in a doctor necessary for patients to open up. But when Rosenberg asks even the least invasive of questions — Why are you dressed like this hero? — the cosplayers can respond with a surprising amount of intimacy. One cosplayer in a black cloak and orange wig, acting out a part from an obscure Japanese anime show, explains that, just like his character, “I never really knew my father.”

Rosenberg, who loves cosplay and cosplayers, gets reactions like that more often than you might expect. At conventions, “people are so open, so nice and so friendly,” she says. When the orange-haired fellow shuffles on, she adds, “This guy was very psychologically insightful. He understood how he felt. Those people can get quite personal.”

Rosenberg is banking on that. Her unconventional career choice is based on two related hunches. First, superhero fans, used to viewing their idols as allegories for the good (or bad) life, are actually hungry for psychological insight. Second, those allegories provide a prism to introduce and popularize psychology.
I’m sure Rosenberg has considered the irony of hearing honest and open remarks from people in disguise—often masked. Does the costume or the persona provide an extra layer of visual or physical protection that empowers more emotional vulnerability? Or does the melodramatic style of superhero comics and similar cosplay-attracting genres encourage fans to bring emotions to the surface?


LC Douglass said...

Great post, thank you. The relationship between fans and their heroes is a complex one that deserves decent commentary. Too often the current people who actually produce the comics seem to regard fans in a derogatory light. But it is the fans' inner motivations that actually give life to these characters.

Derek said...

It makes sense for that cosplayer interviewed to relate to the character their dressed up as.

A commonality between fiction readers (novel readers of books on the NY Times best sellers list) and say, comic book readers is they relate to the characters that they are drawn to.

J. L. Bell said...

I think some cosplayers choose their outfits for the look, the challenge, or the novelty, but yes, I’ve seen many who feel a personal connection to that character. (And what does that say about the folks who cosplay as the Joker?)

Fantastika of all sorts—comics, anime, television, and even novels—seems to bring out more cosplaying than other modes of fiction. Or is it simply more visible? Are people walking our streets modeling themselves after characters in contemporary realistic fiction, and we just don't notice?