Growing up, my favorite character in G.I. Joe was Cobra Commander. Star Wars? The stormtroopers. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe? Skeletor. Grumpy Bear was my Care Bear of choice. Who knows why I related to a moody bear with a rain cloud on his belly. Funshine Bear would have been a much more positive influence.
I was recently reminded of my subversive tastes when my older boy, Jackson, said, “Cobra Commander is the coolest,” as he inspected the action figure in his hand. “Yeah, he’s really cool,” I said without hesitation. Then it hit me: You shouldn’t be fawning over a psychopathic killer in front of your son. I know, I know, but he’s a totally awesome psychopathic killer! He has a snazzy blue uniform and a mirrored mask. (Imagine Kim Jong Il with Lady Gaga’s stylist.) My son loves bad guys, and so do I. If given the choice to have a beer with either Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader, I'm grabbing a pint with the pitch black half-human cyborg every time. ("DV, you got a little blueberry ale on your voice processor.")
Admiring bad guys is largely a boy issue. The make-believe characters tailored to girls are sweet and decent. (Did you see the episode of Rainbow Brite where she makes a shiv from a unicorn’s horn? Me neither.) But research suggests that bad guys aren’t devoid of useful, positive qualities. The California State University, Los Angeles conducted a survey about the appeal of movie monsters. It found that superhuman strength and intelligence—both potentially productive qualities—were the top traits that we like in our bad guys.
My plan of attack: Encourage Jackson’s imagination without a single edit. We all dream of being the bad guy sometimes—the vigilante who enacts justice on a mouthy punk, or the rebel who doesn’t scrub the oatmeal residue off the bowl before putting it in the dishwasher. The mind remains the safest place to be a dastardly rogue.
Still, I need to know once and for all that Jackson won’t be Tasering kittens in ten years. So I asked him, “Jax, why do you like Cobra Commander so much?” His response: “He has a cool metal mask.” It turns out we both like him because he’s fashionable.
Allowing our kids to flirt with evil while bad guys are still largely a thing of make-believe is just fine. But sometime between now and his manhood, I’ll need to explain to him that immoral deeds aren’t excused simply because you’ve got a cool outfit. That said, a quick message to the good guys: Get a better stylist. You make honor and justice look frumpy.
Darth Vader and the stormtroopers make a cameo appearance in Shawn Bean's new book Show Dad How. Get it here.