Superheroes Don’t Look Back

It always used to frustrate me that Peter Parker never told anyone that he was Spiderman. If I had his strength and reflexes, you wouldn’t be able to get me to shut up about it. Partly because I’d talk about it every chance I got, but mostly because I’d have the strength and reflexes to physically prevent anyone from shutting me up.

“Hi Greg? This is Peter. Peter Parker.You don’t know me, but I’m actually Spiderman.”

As I got older (but not much older), I started to realise the shocking reality of Peter Parker’s silence. If anyone were to find out who he was, they would be able to find and hurt his friends and family. The worst way to hurt someone is to hurt the ones they love. So, I got it. Peter Parker had to protect those closest to him, and because of that he could never tell his secret. I understood that part, but as far as sacrifices go, hiding your identity never felt like too much of a big deal. Sure, Mary Jane, and Gwen Stacy, and Aunt May would be forever kept in the dark – Peter exposed himself to all of the risks and in return received none of the reward. But that didn’t mean all that much to me. At then end of the day, he’s still Spiderman.

I think the reason that I didn’t fully understand the burden of this secrecy was because I knew his secret.  The people in his world might not have given him the attention he deserved, but everyone watching the film knew lowly Peter Parker was in fact Spiderman, and that kind of took away from the secrecy.

More recently, however, I discovered that there is a remarkable depth to this secrecy that I had previously been entirely unaware of. It came to me in a flash a few months ago when I decided to follow a beautiful woman without her knowledge.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to her as Claire. I’d decided to follow Claire because I wanted to conduct an experiment.

I adjusted my pace until I was walking in step with her, but a few yards behind. I was far enough away so that she wasn’t aware of my presence, but close enough so that I could get an approximate idea of what was in her line of sight. We were in one of the more upmarket parts of the city, in the middle of a business day, so there weren’t too many people out and about. In the twenty-or-so yards in which I followed her we passed only two men coming the other way, and it was on these men that I focused my attention. What I saw made me a little bit uncomfortable.

The moment one of the men caught sight of Claire, his gaze would dart down to her legs, back up to her face level, and then slowly, slowly, back down to her legs. It was, as I’d once read in a Sherlock Holmes story, an “all comprehensive glance.” A full body scan. A thorough eye-interrogation. The gaze lasted no more than five seconds – the time it took for Claire to walk past the man – but I knew with utmost certainty that I would never want anyone to look at me that way. Now, I didn’t follow Claire for very long, but based on what I’d seen I could extrapolate that she probably got bombarded with that kind of awkward attention quite a lot during that day. And possibly every day before and after that.

As discomforting as that moment was, I felt as if I had learned something important. I had gotten an intimate glimpse into Claire’s life, and by extension, the lives of women all over the world. And I didn’t really like what I’d seen.

But before I self-righteously bash men everywhere, I think it’s only fair to point out that I’m right there with them. An attractive woman draws the eye, and when I see a lady in a short skirt I immediately get the impulse to stare. So I can’t really blame my fellow man for wanting to act the way he does. The least I can do is exercise a little more empathy, and beseech others to do the same. And this is where being a superhero comes back into the picture.

Staring at a woman is less creepy if you hold a coffee cup at shoulder height. It makes you look more casual.

Not all superheroes, they say, wear capes. I understand this to mean that the march of goodness in the world is not driven by grand moments of heroic bravey. Instead, heroism is a constant, ongoing process, manifesting itself in the tiniest of actions that often go unnoticed. One such miniscule act would be acknowledging that people don’t like to be stared at by strangers, and by passing them without a second glace you’re creating a slightly more comfortable environment for them.

You may think it is easy, and not heroic at all, to simply ignore a stranger. But I assure you it’s not. You see, there’s a second part to this – the part that that comes afterward. The first time I made an active effort to ignore an attractive woman, I felt a desperate urge to turn and look back. Maybe, I thought, this woman would appreciate not feeling objectified. Maybe my action of non-action would give her pause. Maybe she’d acknowledge that I didn’t make her feel uncomfortable. Maybe she’d stop in her tracks, or even turn around in order to thank me for not staring. One can certainly dream.

But the burden of the superhero is to avoid acknowledgement. So I kept walking, and I didn’t look back. Walking away from explosions is one thing, but walking away from a beautiful woman is quite another.

This? This is easy!

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