I was recently having lunch with a friend who also works in the mental health field. As we began talking about our burgeoning professional interests, I mentioned my passion for working with teenagers. Without blinking an eye, he responded, “teenagers scare me!” His comment was said partly in jest, but nonetheless reflected a sad theme in our culture.
Throughout generations, adolescence has been misconstrued as a time of prolonged demoralization, senseless adrenalin seeking, and self-obsession.
It’s pretty clear – teenagers have and have always had, a pretty bad rap. While the media is not entirely to blame for the perpetuation of this stereotype, it’s rare that adolescence gets the portrait it deserves in pop culture. Shazam! is a refreshing exception to this. In this recent superhero epic, 14-year-old Billy Batson, who was separated from his mother at a young age, bounces from foster home to foster home throughout his childhood.
“Throughout generations, adolescence has been misconstrued as a time of prolonged demoralization, senseless adrenalin seeking, and self-obsession.”
Not only does Billy provide an inspiring portrait of adolescent resilience, but he also represents the thunder that makes teenagers primed for superheroism.
Let’s explore three ways that Shazam! debunks myths and highlights the forgotten thunder of adolescence.
Risky Business isn’t Always Bad Business
Billy Batson was not afraid to take risks, and some of those risks were undoubtedly foolish. Take for example his ploy of luring and trapping two Philadelphia police officers so he could search for his mother using their database. Though not all of Billy’s risk-taking behavior was this futile. Billy’s propensity for risk-taking fueled his transition from a 14-year-old boy to the incredible Shazam.
Immediately after Billy was first transitioned by the Wizard into the champion Shazam, he was tasked with exploring and discovering his newfound abilities. This discovery operation required a hearty dose of creative risk-taking. Billy and his foster brother, Freddie, share the same excitement as Billy tests out his new superpowers including strength, speed, and on-demand lightning bolts.
It is Billy’s willingness to explore novelty that led to these discoveries. Many people consider adolescence to be synonymous with impulsivity and dangerous risk-taking. While sensation and novelty seeking are certainly part of the adolescent journey, dangerous risky behavior is not as inevitable as we may think. In fact, there is a large body of research that show similar frequencies in risk-taking behaviors between adolescent and adults.
Moreover, not all teenage risk-taking is dangerous.
The novelty and sensation seeking embedded within adolescence can often lead to beautiful discoveries…like perhaps discovering that you can shoot lightning out from your hands.
Pure of Heart
As the mysterious Wizard explains to Billy, he is looking for someone who possesses ‘pure of heart,’ a quality that every superhero requires. Billy’s passion and fight kept him alive in the epic final battle against the supervillain Dr. Sivana. Billy’s pure of heart enabled him to rise from the ashes and defeat his evil counterpart. It is this very emotional spark that is so special to the teenage years.
In his book, Brainstorm: Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Renowned psychiatry professor and author, Dr. Daniel Siegel discusses the upside of this emotional spark writing, “life lived with emotional intensity can be filled with energy and a sense of vital drive that give an exuberance and zest for being alive on the planet.”
One of the most pervasive myths about adolescence is that it represents a tsunami of emotional misery, that abruptly and magically settles when the teenage years end.
If you doubt the ubiquity of this myth, just perform a simple google image search for, “teenager.” You will quickly notice that about 50% of the pictures show a sullen and mopey looking youth. Like most myths, however, there is some truthfulness here. Teenagers simply experience basic emotions, positive or negative, more strongly than adults. This is because the area of the brain that houses emotional control and regulation (i.e., the prefrontal cortex) is still developing.
Therefore, a teenager’s limbic system (which houses emotional processing) is left relatively unchecked. As you can imagine, this is not always pretty, and it is this heightened emotional intensity that can create significant conflict between teenagers and parents.
However, as Billy Batson showed in his victory against Dr. Sivana, there is another side to it. That same emotional spark can drive us to do amazing and positive things, like take down a supervillain and save the world.
The Flip Side of Peer Pressure
In a pivotal moment, Billy (now as Shazam) accidentally punctures the tire of a city bus while flaunting his superpowers. After remedying his error and saving the bus from disaster, his foster brother, Freddie, arrives at the scene. Freddie accuses Shazam of misusing his superpowers and challenges him to use them for the betterment of mankind, rather than his own vanity. At first, Shazam balks at Freddie’s confrontational tone but is eventually influenced by Freddie’s message. This segment illustrates the often neglected side of peer pressure.
I’m willing to bet that almost all of us have the same mental video that plays in our head when we think of peer pressure: a group of teens, dressed in baggy jeans, backward hats, loitering outside a dilapidated convenient store, goading the new kid on the block to take “just one puff.”
“In reality, teens are not so much pressured as they are influenced by their peers.”
OK, maybe your tape reel is a bit less stereotypical than mine, but you get the point. At the end of the day, most of us have a negative picture of what peer pressure looks like. While negative peer pressure is alive and well, the positive side is often overlooked. In fact, the word “pressure,” is misleading and not reflective of the actual processes at play.
In reality, teens are not so much pressured as they are influenced by their peers.
The word pressure suggests an element of force and intimidation, whereas peer influence takes place on a subtler, often unconscious level. Just as much as this influence can be negative, it can be positive as well. Peer engagement is an important part of the teenage journey, as teens become more influenced by their peers than ever before. As Shazam and Freddie show us, a positive social circle often leads to positive peer influence.
There is little question that our popular culture has perpetuated many unfair myths regarding adolescence. Shazam offers a nice reprieve from this and shows audiences that teenagers have something special that just might make them our real superheroes. And that special something is the thunder of adolescence.