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Human Privilege in the Comic Book Narrative

November 13, 2012

by Natasha Townsel

Privileges are the unearned benefits one receives due to their socially-constructed status, and they earn these privileges on the backs of their counterpart group and the disadvantages they have based on their own socially constructed status.

Privilege in the superhero narrative is not restricted to the privileges of belonging to a certain race, gender, or sexual orientation.  It can also be presented as the privilege of having super powers or the privilege of not having super powers.  The privileges that characters with super powers receive are strictly physical and affect only the super powered individual.  Non-super powered characters experience social privileges that have a tendency to affect both the super and non-super powered population.  While a character without super powers has to be physically cautious for self-preservation, a character with super powers has to be aware of how society as a whole views those that are considered meta-human, post-human, mutant, or alien.  The privileges that non-super powered characters receive to the disadvantage of super powered characters can mirror the privileges of white/male/straight/able/cis-gender people both in the fictional narrative and in the real world.

The idea of Privilege, as presented by Peggy McIntosh, is such that a particular demographic of American society experience privileges, however unconscious, strictly due to their race or gender, or rather because they are not socially classified as “other” and lack the experiences of the “other”.  White/Male privilege in itself isn’t systemic, but several of the privileges derive from systemic racist and sexist practices.  Therefore the privileges themselves are racist (or sexist, ablest, nationalist, hetero-sexist, etc.) in nature, however the beneficiary is not necessarily racist him or herself.  McIntosh does suggest that even becoming conscious of such privileges, the beneficiary would not wish to have these privileges taken away, in spite of the racist nature of them.   This concept could be just as easily viewed through the lens of any human/non-super powered hero in the DC Universe.

On Smallville in particular, the concept of Human privilege is examined through not only Clark Kent’s desire to maintain his human privilege by hiding his alien heritage, but also through the treatment of the meteor infected population of the eponymous town.  In the first seven seasons, Clark desires to hold onto his privilege by trying to maintain a normal existence until his calling becomes too great.  In the final three seasons, Clark willingly foregoes his privilege, to an extent, by building his persona as a public superhero.  He faces opposition from not only a vocal public and a faction of the government, but also by his peers.  By the final season, Clark ultimately chooses to shun his privilege altogether in both of his personas, by announcing his alien heritage as Superman, and failing to live up to his last remaining vestiges of male/cis-gender privilege as the mild-mannered Clark Kent.

Batman’s Human Privilege

(a.k.a.  Why Superman Should Be More Relatable to Minorities)


Here’s the thing: I do actually like both Superman and Batman.  I’m not one of those fans that plot ways in which one would be able to beat the other (because I’m often the fan that questions why these two heroes, let alone friends, are fighting in the first place).  But often this debate is initiated by the claim by many fans that Batman is more relatable than Superman, or that Superman’s powers and optimistic worldview make him “too perfect” or “boring”.  While I question how an average comic book fan could relate to a billionaire superhero any more than an alien one, or misconceptions about Superman’s power levels or “boringness” aside, my initial reaction is that these fans may be unfamiliar with the Post-Crisis[i] Superman.

Even if both Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne are portrayed as particularly privileged white males, Superman is nevertheless the “other” of the two.  Clark Kent may experience White Privilege simply by virtue of his physical portrayal and middle-American upbringing, he is nevertheless a Kryptonian passing[ii] as a white/ human, and we must not forget that he lives as human as a means of protection for a reason.  This reason is often canonically articulated as protection for his loved ones[iii], but there is also a more internalized reason for this protection that more recent incarnations such as Birthright, Smallville, and even to some extent World of New Krypton have presented, especially as far as how Superman’s “otherness” is viewed by the public.  Birthright and Smallville have portrayed a Post-9/11 wariness of this “strange visitor” with these unearthly powers and therefore suspicions as to his true motives on this planet.

Like them, you came from out of nowhere.  Kobe Asuru has many enemies.  How are we to be sure you are not another of them? [iv] 


Clark Kent’s trustworthiness as a white American journalist covering an international story is questioned in the first chapter of Superman: Birthright, however this is also a foreshadowing of the perception that the public will have when Superman emerges as a public superhero.  It is not a coincidence that later in the book, Lex Luthor only has to orchestrate a catastrophe as a “Failed Rescue or Deliberate Sabotage?” on the part of the recently introduced Superman.  Luthor later uses Superman’s alien heritage to convince the public of Superman’s untrustworthiness and potential threat to humanity.  Birthright was used specifically to portray the Post 9/11 xenophobic wariness and how the public, specifically the American people, would respond to an alien superhero in the 21st century[v].  Similarly, the Vigilante Registration Act storyline[vi] on Smallville highlights how dangerous it is for Clark, specifically, to not have a secret identity (re: pass as human) not only for the safety of his loved ones, but to protect himself physically as well as emotionally from those that question his intentions.  So in this renewed age of xenophobic wariness, we have a Superman that experiences what most members of minority groups experience regularly (whether through race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or disability) that neither Batman nor Bruce Wayne (a cis-straight-able bodied-white-male-human), if his identity were to be discovered, has to even consider.

The idea of White Privilege, as presented by Peggy McIntosh, is such that whites, particularly white Americans, experience privileges, however unconscious, strictly due to their race, or rather because they are not socially classified as “other” and lack the experiences of the “other”.  White privilege in itself isn’t systemic, but several of the privileges derive from systemic racial practices.  Therefore the privileges themselves are racist (or sexist, ablest, hetero-sexist, etc.) in nature whether or not the beneficiary is racist.  McIntosh does suggest that even becoming conscious of such privileges, the beneficiary would not wish to have these privileges taken away, in spite of the racist nature of them.   This concept could be just as easily viewed through the lens of any human/non-super powered hero in the DC Universe:

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  4. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  5. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  6. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
  7. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  8. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  9. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  10. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  11. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
  12. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  13. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
  14. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
  15. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

So while the privileges in McIntosh’s list may not be conscious for either Bruce Wayne or Batman, they are more in the forefront of Clark Kent’s consciousness as an alien on Earth.  The privileges in numbers 1-6 particularly were the driving force of Clark’s fear of being found out as an alien/non-human in the first seven seasons of Smallville.  The not-unfounded fear of discovery not only had an almost emotionally crippling effect, but at times that fear was actualized.  As early as the first season, Clark is discovered as super-powered and not only is his family threatened because of his otherness[vii], but he is physically threatened[viii].   In later seasons, Clark is captured by those familiar with his heritage[ix] and those working for the government[x] who again physically threaten him, and in some cases planned to kill him, simply because of his otherness and not because of any true threat to humanity.  In one instance when Clark voluntarily goes public with his alien heritage, one false statement against him brought the federal authorities to his doorstep[xi].  The Blur persona on Smallville gives Clark Kent the opportunity to operate as an undercover hero in much the same way that the Post-Crisis Batman does.  However this pre-Superman persona is used to demonstrate why someone like Superman cannot operate in the shadows, and must rather step into the light,[xii] put his face and his otherness on display to gain the trust of the public.  It was also used to show why the guise of an ordinary human being when bespectacled as Clark Kent is similarly necessary[xiii].

As Superman, whether he is the sole survivor of Krypton or acting as ambassador between the Kryptonian and human races, he essentially is always “speaking as a Kryptonian” and never simply as a person.  Superman is seen as a credit to his race, and it is assumed, until the human race gets to experience other Kryptonians, that all Kryptonians are like Superman, no matter how different human beings are as individuals.  Even when other Kryptonians prove to be not as trustworthy as Superman, his own trustworthiness is then called into question.

Even among Clark’s allies, his alienness is seen as something that he must overcome and that it is his human upbringing to which he can attribute his goodness.   His friends would often use phrases such as “You’re the most human person I know” as a commendation, or “There’s nothing human about you” as a condemnation.  The only human in the series to assert a pro-Kryptonian (i.e. in a non-racist, non-stereotypical) comment was Lois Lane in the Season 10 episode, Abandoned.  The importance of her telling the Artificial Intelligence representation of Jor-El that “You are not one tenth the Kryptonian [Clark] is” is that Lois, having experienced various aspects of Kryptonian culture and its people, is still able to distinguish that stereotyping holds true in human and alien cultures.  Although she has experienced negative aspects of Kryptonian life, she has also experienced positive aspects in Clark and his cousin Kara.  She does not assume that all of Clark’s kindness, intelligence, and loyalty are strictly attributed to his human rearing, and she does not follow the “color-blind” philosophy in having to ignore that he is in fact an alien in order to see him as “the same person” as he was before she learned his heritage.  Although Lois knows and was witness to the way Jonathan and Martha raised Clark, it has also been shown explicitly in the narrative that these same traits were also exhibited in the “real” Jor-El and Lara, Clark’s birth parents.  It has similarly been shown in other Kryptonian characters such as Raya, Kara Zor-El, Dax-Ur, Faora and Vala, and ultimately the Kandorians as a whole.  However even with these positive portrayals within the Kryptonian community, Clark as Kal-El/Superman will continue to be the lone representation as if his singular experience encompasses all Kryptonian life.

The Post-9/11 Supergirl, even with Superman’s endorsement, is met with more xenophobia than her cousin because she, unlike Superman, identifies more with her true heritage than she does with humans[xiv].  As is often the case of American citizens that identify with their distinct culture rather than as “American”, she is labeled unpatriotic and therefore untrustworthy.  By this definition, Superman suffers from stereotype threat:  as an alien living amongst humans, he feels he has to defy the stereotype of the “alien invader”, or even the stereotype of the burdensome immigrant, until he is considered “one of us”, or at least until he acts out of character.  As an involuntary representative of his whole race, he must at all times present himself in a way so that negative stereotypes will not be attributed to all Kryptonians, or so his trustworthiness is not called into question.

Yes…they did see, didn’t they?  They saw all the ugliness.  The anger…and I bet it frightened them.  It frightened me.  When I decided to cross the line…do what you do…I was terrified.  Thought it would be tough—but you know what?  Anger is easy.  Hate is easy.  Vengeance and spite are easy.  Lucky for you…and for me…I don’t like my heroes ugly and mean.  Just don’t believe in it.[xv]


The ramification of Superman presenting himself as anything other than the benevolent, hopeful, non-killing superhero to the human race (specifically the governments of the human race) are more devastating to him than a human non-superpowered hero.   The consequence Batman would suffer if he is apprehended or publicly unmasked is possible incarceration for vigilantism.  Superman (like many minorities) has more to lose if he is seen as anything other than the “boy scout” Superman, not the least of which is the trust of the human race, exile at best, and at worst his right to live.   Because he is not human, he is not protected by human laws, much like people of color prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (in spite of Constitutional rights) were not universally protected under Jim Crow laws.  Whether or not Clark Kent is discovered to be Superman, he is still a Kryptonian—an alien—and this Post-9/11 portrayal lives with this internalized fear daily.

These consequences are not so extreme if we take into consideration even recent media attention to those that present a perceived threat to so-called normative lifestyles.  Members of non-white racial groups are, as a whole, continually seen as physical/societal threats, homosexuals are seen as moral threats, Islamic groups are seen as national threats, the evolving role of women is seen as a threat the role of men or to the nuclear family, and the disabled are viewed as a burden.  The problem is that fans are often blinded by the physical representation of Superman as a cis-straight-able bodied-white-male of some privilege that we fail to take into consideration the facts placed in canon as to the difficulties that maintaining a public persona has on him as a person.  “In the absence of racism, man–sadly–tends to find other ways to discriminate.”[xvi]  We also fail to remember that he is the brainchild of two Jewish kids in the 1930s at the height of the Third Reich, and that Superman’s origin story is not-coincidentally allegorical to that of Moses, a figure who was also accepted in a foreign society until he was unable to deny his true heritage and was then outcast.  Superman is supposed to present himself as the Boy Scout, the non-threat to everyday law-abiding citizens, because to do otherwise would present more dire consequences than any Bat, Arrow, or Lantern, with their privileges as non-powered human beings, could fathom.

[i]The terms Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis are a reference to all canon that took place before (Pre-) and after (Post-) the company-wide event Crisis on Infinite Earths.  It is essentially the line of demarcation distinguishes all canon in the Golden and Silver Age from the canon of the Modern Age.  The goal of the event was to overall do away with the concept of the Multiverse, or parallel universes within the DC Universe, but also to reboot the main DC franchises.  Superman in particular received a new origin story that eliminated his Silver Age Superboy persona, stripped Superman down to his most basic superpowers of flight, speed, strength, heat vision, x-ray vision, and micro/macro vision.  It also eliminated the various forms of Kryptonite save green, and reclaimed Superman’s role as the sole survivor of the planet Krypton, thus eliminating the Silver Age concepts of Supergirl, the Bottle City of Kandor, and even the superpets.

[ii] The idea of “passing” has both a racial and heteronormative foundation.   In the post-slavery era through the early part of the 20th century during the height of Jim Crow, blacks who had white ancestry and therefore appeared more white than black in skin color and facial features often tried to pass for white because it was easier. Often the implications of being found out of their so-called “true” racial identity was imprisonment and/or lynching. And it is no secret that this form of passing exists in the LGBT community for similar safety reasons, although unlike during segregation, there are now laws in place to protect against these retaliations, however effective they are.

[iii] At least three stories, both Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis, have dealt with the ramifications of one of Superman’s or Clark’s Kent’s enemies discovering that he and Superman are the same person.  Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, the Death of Clark Kent, and Ending Battle each explored the reasons for Superman or Clark Kent maintaining the secret identity persona as Clark Kent’s friends, family, and wife Lois Lane are targeted.  In the first story’s instance, the majority of Superman’s supporting cast, with the exception of Lois, is even killed because of it.

[iv] Superman: Birthright, pg __, Mark Waid

[v] Birthright and Clark/Superman’s struggle was inspired by Smallville

[vi] The storyline itself could be considered as starting in Identity (Season 8, Episode 7, Todd Slavkin & Darren Swimmer (w)) when Clark officially becomes a public figure when his blurred picture is first placed on the front page of the Daily Planet.  It becomes officially named in Ambush (Season 10, Episode 7, Don Whitehead & Holly Henderson (w)) when General Sam Lane announces its progress in Congress.

[vii] Season 1, Episode 9: Rogue. Mark Verheiden (w). Clark’s first encounter with an authority figure discovering his superpowers.  Sam Phelan, a rogue cop, exploits Clark’s abilities to help himself break into the house of an Internal Affairs officer.  After Clark outsmarts him, Phelan frames Jonathan Kent for murder.

[viii] Season 1, Episode 21: Tempest. Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (w).  Clark’s superpowers are discovered, due to Lex Luthor’s investigation of him, by a tabloid reporter named Roger Nixon, who sets Clark up to record and prove his abilities by placing a bomb in the Kent’s truck.  He later attempts to kill Jonathan and essentially kidnap Clark (using Kryptonite) to prove his discovery of an alien to the world.

[ix] Season 7, Episode 14: Traveler.  Don Whitehead & Holly Henderson (w).  In a misguided attempt to protect him, Lionel Luthor has Clark placed in a Kryptonite gilded cage to be watched by one of his security.  The security officer takes it upon himself to torture and try to kill Clark simply because he isn’t human.  Season 7, Episode 20: Arctic. Don Whitehead & Holly Henderson (w).  Lex Luthor learns Clark is an alien and, even knowing Clark to not be a threat and previously acknowledging Clark’s good nature, attempts to eliminate Clark and even himself if it means saving the world.

[x] Season 10, Episode 11-12.  Genevieve Sparling (w); Jordan Hawley (w), The Vigilante Registration Act arc climaxed in Icarus and Collateral respectively.  After a failed attempt by the Vigilante Registration Agency to extract information from the Blur’s allies as to his location, Clark and his teammates, including his fiancée Lois, are captured by the VRA with the purpose to discover the source of and take away the heroes powers.

[xi] Season 8, Episode 15: Infamous. Caroline Dries (w)

[xii] Season 10, Episode 13: Beacon.  Don Whitehead & Holly Henderson (w)

[xiii] Season 10, Episode 14: Masquerade.  Bryan Q. Miller (w)

[xiv] Consider how people who identify themselves more with their race/culture than as “American” are treated as less patriotic and therefore “someone to watch out for”.

[xv] Ending Battle, Action Comics #796, Joe Kelly.

[xvi] Superman: Birthright, pg 25

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