Lydia DuBois, '19

January 29, 2019
Senior researches superheroes' connection to American identity, leadership

Storytelling is fundamental to the human experience. It evolves with and informs personal and cultural identity.

Lydia DuBois, ’19, has spent much of her college career researching storytelling. She has drawn from her leadership studies and English majors to analyze the effect of storytelling on conceptions of leadership.

“My research happened in three stages,” DuBois said. It began when Dr. Kristin Bezio, an associate professor of leadership studies with a Ph.D. in English literature, picked up on her interest in storytelling.

“She suggested I spend the summer of 2017 examining the crossover between folklore, storytelling, and leadership studies,” DuBois said. A Jepson summer research grant supported her research project, “A Theory of Leadership and Oral Folklore: Myths, Legends, and Folktales.”

“When America was growing and developing, tall tales—such as stories about Davy Crockett at the Alamo and George Washington and the cherry tree—were spreading and becoming part of the American social identity,” DuBois said. “Some of these tall tales are inappropriate in modern-day contexts. They might be racist, sexist, or environmentally degrading—promoting the conquering of the wilderness at all costs, for example.”

But they reflected the cultural norms of their time and place, and to some extent, they continue to reflect American identity, she said.

In fall semester 2017, DuBois continued her research, with Dr. Bezio's guidance, through an independent study, “Tall Tale American Heroes.” Specifically, she examined the American tall tale in the context of implicit leadership theories—the tacit beliefs and traits people associate with leaders and leadership.

“We have certain perceptions about how leaders act,” DuBois said. “We don’t necessarily think about how well a leader is actually doing versus how well they are fulfilling our preconceptions.”

This year, she has embarked on the third stage of her research through her senior honors thesis, “Superheroes and ‘the American Way.’” She is examining American superheroes, an evolutionary offshoot of American tall tale heroes.

“Our perception of hero has become almost interchangeable with leader and role model,” DuBois said. “For years, the portrayal of superheroes in comic books and in films has been responsive to and reflective of how Americans view ourselves and our nation.

“They have typically been white males and tend to have a militant bent. ‘Black Panther,’ which has the third highest box office ranking for domestic gross, has been a huge deal in the African-American community, in part because it is the first superhero film where the main characters are black.”

Some of DuBois’ research has focused on the importance of having superheroes of different races and genders, including LGBTQ+ representations.

“Creators of superhero stories and movies are becoming more sensitive to problematic tropes,” she said, “but they still have a lot of work to do.

“I’m looking at how superheroes connect to American politics, history, and identity. Superman, the original superhero, idealized what it meant to be an American hero in the late 1930s during a time of heightened nationalism. Likewise, many recent superhero films have been deeply concerned with what it means to be an American hero.

“My study of tall tales and superheroes has helped me understand the way people think and interact with one another and what that means for leadership.”