Captain America: a poor kid from Brooklyn whose parents raised him to stand up for what’s fair and just. Dorothy Gale: a Kansas farm girl whose hard-working family taught her that everyone, even Munchkins, cherish the place they call home. King Joffrey Baratheon: a sadistic bully who’s empowered to ruin people’s lives by his parents’ cruel belief that the powerful can do whatever they like.
Whether we call them heroes or villains, the most interesting characters in our favorite pop culture epics tend to wear their strong parental influences on their sleeve.
It makes sense. Childhood makes us the people we are. While writing our new book, Geek Parenting, we realized that there’s another interesting truth that follows from this. The family dynamics we appreciate in a great fictional protagonist are just as visible in the true stories of the Americans who set out on a larger-than-life quest to become world leaders.
Superman’s parents are super-important to how he inspires people. And Donald Trump’s, Bernie Sanders’s and Hillary Clinton’s parents are, too.
If You Change the Parents, You Change the Hero
Let’s look first at the fictional side of that equation. Take Superman, the archetypal American hero through much of the 20th century. The idea that this was a hero with an unshakeable moral compass—an absolute determination to do good by helping people—was the very centerpiece of his character. His parents were always portrayed as the source of that morality: kind-hearted, regular folks who cultivated in their son the sense that truth, justice, and camaraderie were the American way.
But the Superman we meet in filmmaker Zach Snyder’s two recent blockbusters, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, is a noticeably different hero. Especially in Man of Steel, he is morally ambivalent and emotionally volatile at best—and carelessly, fatally negligent at worst, using his powers to punch supervillains but not so much to save innocent bystanders’ lives from the fallout.
Unsurprisingly, Superman’s parents have been at the heart of the furious fan debate over how the character has changed.
In this new version of the mythos, it’s pretty explicit that Martha and Jonathan Kent, though personally kind and loving, did not foster in young Clark the same sort of unwavering commitment to helping people—to doing what’s good and right no matter what. “You don’t owe them a damn thing,” the hero’s mother tells him in Batman v. Superman. The Kents’ priorities are 1) keep their son safe and 2) encourage him to temper his abilities and thereby perhaps become more “human” (rather than more “super”). When Pa Kent suggests that maybe Clark should hide his power, even if that should mean letting people die, it’s because he knows how badly the world tends to treat people seen as different.
This Superman is a reflection of a different moral climate than before, a reaction to a 21st century where so much is uncertain and menacing. Schools and churches aren’t safe places; technology erodes our privacy a little more every day; those entrusted to protect and serve cannot always be trusted to do that.
So we can empathize with the Kents’ fear for their alien son. But we have to acknowledge that revising the character’s family background like this does indeed make him a somewhat different person.
Seeing superheroes in the context of their parents is a reminder that raising kids is, in large part, a series of exercises in teaching them how to use and respect power—their own, and also the various kinds of power that the world exerts upon them. Go find your sister and bring her in for dinner. Are you going to sit quietly while that bully picks on your friend? Yes, you can get your driver’s permit, but only if you’re being carefully trained in how to avoid killing anyone.
For most regular people, our interactions with power are fairly personal, affecting only our families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. But for world leaders, like superheroes, power games can mean life or death for large numbers of people—quickly, through their management of wars and natural disasters, or slowly, through their allocation of resources to our food, medicine, transportation, and law-enforcement infrastructures.
It’s hard not to wonder, then: What sorts of role models did our presidential candidates’ parents present them with?
I Learned It By Watching You, Dad
Former senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, currently the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, has cited her mother, Dorothy Rodham, as one of her greatest influences.
In her memoir, Clinton describes Rodham as someone who lived through considerable childhood trauma to become a kind, wise parent. “I asked my mother how she survived abuse and abandonment without becoming embittered and emotionally stunted,” Clinton writes. “How did she emerge from this lonely early life as such a loving and levelheaded woman? I’ll never forget how she replied. ‘At critical points in my life somebody showed me kindness,’ she said.” That inspiration, Clinton writes, shaped her own desire to do good for people in the world.
Bernie Sanders, also seeking the Democratic nomination, hasn’t talked as much about his parents, but their presence is certainly felt in the issues Sanders has championed. Eli and Dorothy Sanders were working-class Brooklynites of Polish Jewish ancestry—many of Eli’s family were killed by the Nazis—which meant their son, born in 1941, grew up identifying as both an economic and political underdog. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Bernie Sanders has spent his political life trying to stick up for the less advantaged in American society.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has followed the most closely in his father’s footsteps during the course of his long professional career. Trump got his start as a real-estate developer working in his father Fred’s company, which built large numbers of apartment complexes and rowhouses in New York City. The elder Trump’s operation was both successful and controversial: On the one hand, during the ’40s and ’50s he built barracks for the U.S. Navy and housing that rented to thousands of veterans. On the other hand, in the ’50s, the U.S. Senate investigated him for profiteering, and in the ’70s, the Justice Department filed suit against him for refusing to rent to black people.
One of Fred Trump’s tenants was songwriter Woody Guthrie, who wrote at the time: “I suppose Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate he stirred up.” Certainly, Fred’s son Donald has not shied away from stirring voters’ racial and nationalistic feelings on the campaign trail, either.
Winter Is Coming, Kids—Try to Stay Warm
In many ways, television’s current favorite fantasy epic, Game of Thrones, is the ultimate mashup of epic adventure, realistic political jockeying and parental influence. Set in a magical yet depressing dystopia of walking dead, sorcerers, dragons, and battling kings, the HBO series blurs the line between heroes and villains, and its characters, representing several family dynasties, struggle with morality as they look to see which leader will emerge to save them.
In Game of Thrones, power is complex, greatness is subjective, and pulling the strings behind it all are complex religious, political, and military “networks”—and families, too. The parents behind the rulers battling over the Iron Throne may have been devoted, but their dedication was often self-serving (as in the case of Cersei Lannister and her twin brother/lover Jaime, parents of Joffrey and Tommen) and sometimes sadistic (like “Mad King” Aerys II Targaryen, father of Daenerys). Those who do instill in their children a healthy sense of integrity and service (like Ned and Catelan Stark, whose children are among the series’ most honorable of characters) usually end up dead, having been taken advantage of or betrayed.
These families may be more violent than those of our presidential candidates, and yet they remind us how various parenting may shape different philosophies about power and privilege. Hillary Clinton’s model of political power is rooted in social connections and networking; Bernie Sanders’ call to action relies on the internal power of personal integrity and fortitude; and Donald Trump’s relentless emphasis on winning reflects a tendency toward power through overwhelming displays of domination.
America is almost 80 years past the day when Superman was first introduced. Back in the ’30s, we were sliding into another recession; a hurricane had just killed hundreds and displaced thousands; the planet was on the brink of another world war; and people were afraid. Superman was a response to the climate of fear and insecurity. By fighting for those who were persecuted, afraid, and helpless, Superman was a symbol that things could get better.
Today, national and world affairs are no less chaotic. How do parents prepare children to live in such a world? What kind of power do we hope that they will wield? And will we encourage them to celebrate would-be heroes who reflect back to us the problems of our world—or leaders who work toward changing the world for the better?
Stephen H Segal and Valya Dudycz Lupescu are the co-authors of Geek Parenting: What Joffrey, Jor-El, Maleficent, and the McFlys Teach Us About Raising a Family, (Quirk Books).