Jul 3, 2023
How Spiderman helps us navigate our adolescent identity struggle.
When we think about one of the most crucial stages of our lives, the majority will agree that adolescence has had a significant impact on our development as individuals. According to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, this stage of adolescence is marked by the Identity vs. Role Confusion crisis. This crisis, common in teenagers, is marked by one's struggle with their life role and overall identity. The way we emerge from this stage, Erikson argues, heavily determines the type of adults we become.
When you're a kid, it's easy to fall victim to what your parents convince you to do, and you typically follow their lead and trust they know what's best. Becoming a teenager, however, is about figuring out who you truly are, what type of student you want to be, what type of friend you are and what type of adult you will become once released into the real world. Ultimately, adolescence is about the struggle to find what your destiny as an individual in this reality is.
Do you know which fictional character embodies that struggle best? Spider-Man. Throughout its various adaptations over the decades, one theme remains consistent: it is a story of maturation and the search for identity; a theme that has such a strong enduring quality it has allowed the character to remain relevant throughout generations.
Spider-Man has almost always been a teenage character thrust into a strange new life with unfamiliar responsibilities—a situation many of us can relate to. This new shift in lifestyle dictates the challenges of the Identity vs. Role Confusion stage. Whether it's Peter Parker, Miles Morales, or Gwen Stacy, they all feel lost in the new lives they have created. They grapple with what it means for their relationships with family, friends, love interests, and, most importantly, themselves. The identity of Spider-Man is marked by a character who struggles to find balance in all aspects of their lives. They don’t want to disappoint anyone, but they also lack the time to find peace within their own identity.
Representing Spider-Man as an adolescent facilitates the exploration of this identity struggle through the lens of the superhero lifestyle. Being a superhero is not a safe path; it involves significant risks, dangers, and the obligation to do what is right. These challenges may not come easily to a teenager still navigating the most critical stage of their development. Therefore, many Spider-Man plot points revolve around moments when balancing various aspects of their lives are critically challenged—whether it's their families, love interests, friends, or even their superhero identity. However, through pivotal moments, speeches, epiphanies, or fight scenes, both Spider-Man and their audience discover the possibility of balancing life on their own terms and the importance of trust.
One of the key aspects of the Spider-Man characters is that they all have a mentor or role model to look up to. Whether it's the advice of an aunt, uncle, or parent, they help their respective Spider-Men understand more about what they're meant to do in this crazy life. Even if they don't know what their secret identity is, their advice manages to still ring true in all aspects of their lives and even our own. It's the type of advice that can help us look within ourselves and make us think, "How can we become the type of people prepared to face the scary struggles of the world?"
Most of us are not web-slinging, crime-fighting superheroes (at least, not that we know of). Nonetheless, the struggle of searching for something greater than ourselves and attempting to live up to a grand vision of our future can be overwhelming. We all aspire to greatness, talent, and being role models. However, this often entails the responsibility of juggling work, school, family, friends, romance, and self-care. Even though many of us may have recently emerged from adolescence, the identity crisis can continue to play a significant role in our lives. That is why characters like Spider-Man hold a special place in our hearts. They show us that it is possible to overcome adversity and take a leap of faith into a larger stage of life. That at times, it feels the whole world is out to get you and everything you hold onto is at risk of crumbling. But in that adversity there always exists someone or someway to help you become the version of yourself you've always dreamed of being.