Alexandria Digital Research Library

"Truth, Justice, and the Performative Way!" Superhero Performance and the Battle for Social Justice in Twenty-First Century America

Anderson, Kyle Kane Burritt
Degree Supervisor:
Suk-Young Kim
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
American Studies, Theater, and Performing Arts
Online resources and Dissertations, Academic
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara. Theater Studies
Ph.D.--University of California, Santa Barbara, 2013

"Who is Barack Obama? Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton, and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth." ---Barack Obama, Oct. 17, 2008.

Appearing simultaneously in major blockbuster films, Broadway musicals, and many other media formats, the ubiquitous superhero remains one of America's most enduring cultural icons. Shrewdly, Obama spoke the words above just before the 2008 election and hitched his political performance to the popular mythology of Superman. Multiple representations of "Super-Obama" soon followed across diverse media platforms as he transformed from mild-mannered candidate to a political superhero charged with saving America. Appropriating the iconography of Superman, Obama tapped into that famous mantra of "truth, justice and the American way," and joined the growing social practice of Americans portraying themselves as superheroes to challenge unjust assumptions about class, gender, sexual identity, and race. In shedding their seemingly disempowered everyday identities and donning the theatricalized forms of their pop cultural heroes, these performers restage themselves as the physical and political ideals of Americanism. Obama, in casting himself as Superman, laid claim to the ultimate jingoistic representation of white heterosexual maleness despite being a biracial liberal whom his opposition portrays as "soft" on terrorism. I argue that by embodying the superhero, Barack Obama and others distanced from that supposed ideal of Americanism, turn popular myths back on those in power. They debunk the "truth" of America's social divisions, demand greater advances in social justice, and explore a new American way that subverts the social inequalities of twenty-first century America.

Deceptively multifaceted, the superhero emerged as a uniquely American literary creation, though one largely written off as escapist fare for puerile minds. As this project demonstrates, the superhero actually represents a complex unraveling of embedded mythologies including those of American exceptionalism and the American Dream. Superheroes possess surprising ambiguity as equally strong icons of social progress and also brash defenders of the social status-quo. Most scholarship on the superhero focuses on mediatized appearances (Jenkins, Gordon) or a combination of comic book history and semiotics (Eco, Bukatman, Singer). I build upon their methods by applying theories of performance and theatricality as tools that visually modify and overwrite reality with illusion (Davis & Postlewait, Burns). Ultimately, I investigate how adopting the superhero form allows Americans to combat social inequities in the age of Obama.

Though some forces assert that Obama's presidency proves that boundaries of class, gender, sexual identity, and race are no longer insurmountable, I expose that these inequalities remain and are being restaged in the rhetoric of superheroes. By embodying the anarchist "hero" Citizen V from the comic book and film V for Vendetta, some members of the Occupy Movement threaten revolution while demanding the end of economic inequalities. Additionally, my ethnographic study at Comic-Con International, the world's largest convention celebrating the popular arts, critiques the gender-bending and race-bending practice of "crossplayers," costumed attendees who switch the genders and perceived races of popular superheroes in their performances and subvert associations of white maleness. Similarly, I argue that the superhero allows gay revelers at superhero-themed parties to deny their marginalized status by adopting and distorting the masculine ideal he represents. I then illustrate how even Barack Obama's rise to the presidency utilized superhero imagery and its associations with nationalism and physical power, providing a biracial candidate with access to the utopic whiteness of Superman.

My dissertation brings vital scholarly attention to the ways in which superhero performance may challenge popular culture's continual re-inscription of the values of white, heterosexual maleness. I expose that the superhero's prevalence in popular culture grants all Americans a shared language and cultural currency that can be used even by the disenfranchised to make their voices heard. Thus these progressive superhero performances work as benchmarks by which we may measure and question the state of social equality in America today.

Physical Description:
1 online resource (318 pages)
UCSB electronic theses and dissertations
Catalog System Number:
Inc.icon only.dark In Copyright
Copyright Holder:
Kane Anderson
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