One disadvantage of going the historical route in refuting the charges of syndromic sadism made by Wertham and Legman is that both authors are dead and cannot respond to my refutations. There are modern critics who object to violent entertainment on aesthetic grounds, and occasionally one of them will toss out the "sadism" accusation as a passing brickbat, sometimes even with a light-hearted manner (see below). I'm not aware of any who have attempted to make the accusation via a psychological schema, such as the one used by Legman and Wertham, though.
Thus I have to anticipate how these two deceased intellectuals might have found fault with my assertion that the paradigm of the adventure-genre (hero fights villain with both having the ability to defend themselves) does not match the paradigm of classical sadism (victimizer tortures victim, who has no ability to defend him/herself). Based on their writings, I think I can assume that both of them would use some variant of an "inconstant reader" argument. Assuming that both of them granted the difference in paradigms, they would leap to say that even though the hero of a given superhero comic generally faces the villain mano-a-mano (or even womano-a-womano, etc.), the budding young proto-sadist ignores the ethical ideals put forth in the text (much as they thought he did with the phony "you can't beat the law" preachments in the crime comics). From there (they might say) the budding young proto-sadist would go on to become obsessed with characters beating other characters without the benefit of self-defense, and of course, violent comics would be to blame for this development.
While I would not agree with the "blame" part of this imagined argument, I would certainly agree that any individual who did so transform the dominant "hero vs. villain" battles into one-sided beatings for his/her personal fantasies would indeed be a syndromic sadist. (For convenience here I will use "sadist" after Freud's somewhat-indiscriminate formulation; that is, including the phenomenon of "masochism" within the "sadism" rubric.) That such individuals do exist is testifies by a number of sites on the Internet, one of which is touched on by BEAT reporter Heidi McDonald in this post from 1/31/08, "The One With a Lot of Comments."
Now, McDonald does not call for a ban (direct or indirect) of violent comics as did Wertham and Legman did. However, she does stray somewhat into their territory when she lumps together syndromic sadism with what might called "casual sadism."
"Casual sadism" as I conceive it is not a syndromic phenomenon. It is just one of many affects communicated by many forms of fiction generally and the adventure-genre specifically, and it refers here to the pleasure one takes in seeing a "villain" violently beaten by the hero. For that matter it can occur in any number of non-literary contexts, particularly those of adversarial sports. Legman and Wertham assumed, perhaps both of them were so phobic to any kind of fictional violence, that "casual sadism" could develop into the syndromic kind. I take the position of Plato's PHILEBUS, which asserted that the "soul" could experience many affects in the course of its "owner's" life, and that some would have transitory effects while others would permanently "make their mark," so to speak. In my opinion, most audiences who temporarily take pleasure in seeing hero beat villain are experiencing a transitory effect that does not noticeably warp their lives. If the effect were more than transitory on a wide scale, one might expected by now to see civilization reduced to the fascist state that both of the anti-comics critics feared.
It's unclear to me as to whether McDonald really believes that most superhero readers are potential syndromic sadists, as her comment toward the end of the post is made with a somewhat flippant tone. However, it would be a mistake, due to that slight humorous tone, to believe that she doesn't hold strong views on the subject of women being beaten. even within the bounds of fiction. In part I'll be examining some of the philosophical aspects of McDonald's expressed views in my next post.
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