How Superheroes Can Inspire Real-World Change (Guest Column)

Activism has long been part of comics, writes Alan Jenkins, the departing president of the social justice organization The Opportunity Agenda.
'Spider-Man: Far From Home' (Inset: Alan Jenkins)   |   Photofest; Courtesy of Subject
Activism has long been part of comics, writes Alan Jenkins, the departing president of the social justice organization The Opportunity Agenda.

Near the start of this decade, The Opportunity Agenda created a social justice superhero — Helvetika Bold — to explain our work and advance our mission. Since then, she’s appeared in comic books, videos and social media, helping people who believe in human rights and opportunity for all to move hearts, minds and policy. She’s drawn crowds and made an impact from Sundance to New York Comic Con to the activist confab NetrootsNation. When she arrived on the scene, many thought she was the world’s first social justice superhero.  

But she wasn’t. Like Dick Grayson and even Wally West, social justice values and activism have been fighting alongside superheroes and their stories for decades, and it all started with Superman.

Yes, Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mere mortals. The Kryptonian hero, appearing in Action Comics #1, didn’t start his career battling Lex Luthor or the evil General Zod. He started out racing against the clock to exonerate Evelyn Curry, an innocent woman scheduled for execution by the state, rescuing another woman from an abusive spouse and nabbing a corrupt lobbyist trying to deceive the American public.

The Man of Steel’s young creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were the children of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s. They saw the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe and understood that the rising mindset of supremacy, exploitation and demagoguery was among the greatest threats to our own nation. In Superman’s debut, they portrayed his smashing of oppression and challenging government misconduct as the epitome of heroism.

And as I prepare to step away as president of The Opportunity Agenda to join the faculty of Harvard Law School, I thought it would be instructive to look back through that history of social justice values in our comic books and movies, to see how we got from then, to now.

To be sure, those values have been the radioactive spider for superheroes over the decades, as Captain America punched Nazis, Wonder Woman battled male oppression (and Nazism) and the mutant X-Men struggled with prejudice that the mirrored racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and closed mindedness within in our own society. Even Spider-Man’s motto, “with great power comes great responsibility,” is a key principle underlying human rights.

These themes are not new to the superhero genre, but they have become far more prominent in recent years. As creators — including directors like Ryan Coogler and Patty Jenkins, and writers like Eve Ewing and G. Willow Wilson — have become more diverse, storylines about racial profiling, sexual harassment, queer equality and the humanity of immigrants have become more common in comic book, film and TV superhero tales. 

Consider: Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix took on sexual violence. Complex blockbuster films like Captain Marvel and Black Panther increased representation while reminding viewers that (spoiler alert) even the best of us are capable of unwittingly perpetuating oppression that must be righted. On the indie front, La Borinqueña, the Puerto Rican superhero created by Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, defended Puerto Rico from environmental threats, even teaming with notable DC heroes last year in a graphic novel to raise money for disaster relief. And in Action Comics #987, Superman — himself an undocumented Kryptonian immigrant — stepped up to defend human immigrants from an armed white assailant angry over the loss of his factory job.

That spirit of inclusive, social justice storytelling is more important now than at any time since the first superheroes fought the rise of fascism in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Hate crimes based on Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and transphobia are on the rise in the wake of the Charlottesville white supremacist riot and President Donald Trump’s failure to condemn it. Demonizing immigrants and refugees, and the Black and Brown countries from which many of them hail, has become increasingly prevalent in media and politics. The #MeToo and Time's Up movements have brought home and challenged the pervasive nature of sexual harassment, discrimination and violence in our society. And the fundamental tenets of due process, democratic participation and equal justice under law are under extreme pressure from threats foreign and domestic.

As the dominant cinematic and cultural force of the moment, superheroes have a critical role to play in elevating our shared values of human rights, universal dignity and opportunity for all, even as they entertain millions and rake in billions around the world. Indeed, the power to move hearts, minds and policy flows from good storytelling and broad reach as well as social justice narrative. Research by The Opportunity Agenda, Caty Borum Chatoo and others shows that popular culture is capable of fostering empathy, inclusion and greater understanding — but it’s got to be entertaining to have that effect. 

And that’s why I’m so proud of Helvetika Bold.

Helvetika Bold was needed to fill a gap, since there were few diverse representations of superpowered characters in television and film. The biggest superhero movie in 2006 was Superman Returns, a film where the only person of color was the actor Kal Penn, who played a villain and had few lines. In creating our hero, we wanted to give voice to the diversity and the strength embodied in women and people of color and tell a more positive story to audiences.

Fortunately, these positive stories have been adopted by more and more creatives, so it’s comforting to know that Helvetika Bold is in such good company. Writers, artists and filmmakers are Increasingly choosing to elevate truth and social justice as their contribution to the American way. We need them more than ever.

Alan Jenkins is the president of The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab dedicated to building the national will to expand opportunity. He is one of the country’s leading thinkers on the relationship between media, public opinion and ensuring opportunity for all Americans. 

  • Alan Jenkins