Icons through the Decades at America’s Monsters, Superheroes, and Villains

This fall, the Goldstein Museum of Design filled Gallery 241 with action figures, dolls, and tiny plastic vehicles for their latest exhibition, America’s Monsters, Superheroes, and Villains. Guest curators David Barnhilll and Stephen Rueff of SuperMonster市 City see these characters and toys as a reflection of American politics, culture, and society.

Take Batman, first introduced in 1939. “He started out as a vigilante with a cowl and cape and a gun,” said Rueff. It wasn’t until his seventh comic that readers learned Bruce Wayne’s origin story: his parents were shot and killed in a mugging. Shortly thereafter, his creators moved away from arming him with a gun, but Batman still fought street crime with a revenge motive.

In the 50s and 60s, his character and plot lines softened in response to political pressure. After Congressional hearings to reduce violence in media marketed to children, Batman comics and shows became cartoony and lighter in tone. The villains were no longer violent criminals and sociopaths, but greedy business owners or space aliens.

“It wasn’t until the 70s that they tried to reclaim Batman as a creature of the night,” Barnhill added. Since then, we’ve seen a number of directorial interpretations—with varying levels of violence and vengefulness—in mainstream movies. But Rueff noted that a few elements have remained constant for more than 75 years. “He doesn’t have a superpower. He uses his mind and his body and his wits and technology as a way to outwit and overcome crime.”


Children’s toys and media can also reflect social issues, such as feminism. “Back in the day, superheros were only marketed to boys,” Rueff remembered. That is, until Wonder Woman appeared in 1941. “Her first stories celebrated the power that woman can and do yield and offered girls a positive role model, but that vacillated over the years due to external forces.”

As American women who’d been working traditionally male jobs during WWII (think Rosie the Riveter) returned to the home in the 50s, Wonder Woman’s plot lines shifted from superhero adventures to romantic interests. And in the 70s she abandoned her bustier outfit in favor of a pantsuit, illustrating “a cultural war between two ideologies: sexpot vs feminist,” Rueff said.

The guest curators also believe that toys can shape culture as well as reflecting it. “We really celebrate the story and the imagination. This is the 21st century, a digital and interactive world. What want to make sure happens comes out of this world are creative thinkers are prepared to engage in the world as adults, robust problem-solvers who can think on their feet. Our view of the role of play and imagination and toys is really about going through that process,” explained Rueff.


The average American child today spends seven hours a day on entertainment media. In Barnhill’s words, “kids are inside on a couch instead of finding a woodpile to turn into a fortress of doom, creating something out of absolutely nothing but their toys and outdoor environment.” He and Rueff expressed concern that because some video games limit children to set landscapes and scenarios, they also limit the number and type of problems children must solve through play.

“But it’s kind of heartwarming that when you do go down the toy aisle at Target, there are more toys than ever. There are options now that weren’t there ever before,” Barnhill added.

Rueff and Barnhilll are looking to follow up the Goldstein exhibition by touring this exhibition to art and design programs and museums across the country. They are also developing several other projects, including a show of Japanese toys, a photo book of Barnhill’s collection and a sociocultural history on modern American toys.

For now, you can see Batman, Wonder Woman, and more at America’s Monsters, Superheroes, and Villains, showing in the 241 Gallery through January 3, 2016.


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