Friday, January 25, 2008

The X-Men and identity politics, pt. 1

In response to a complaint at the X-Universe Message Board that there are hardly any gay mutants - despite the fact that the mutants in the X-Men's universe are popularly understood as analogous to queer or racially Othered youth - a poster named Tiger Shark wrote the following: "the X-men is already a metephor for minorties everywhere and of all kinds, so there's no need to trot out a 'gay' X-Man just to fill a quota".

There's something immediately appealing about this logic, though I'd suggest that it ultimately fails. It's appealing, I think, because claims to X-Men's metaphoricity are incredibly seductive. Under the logic of metaphor, an implicit comparison allows for the attributes of a to be read on to b. So X-Men is not just a superhero comic - depending on who you talk to, it's also about race relations and civil rights, homosexuality and homophobia, 'the red scare', Jewish-American assimilation, and/or teen alienation.

That said, a metaphorical relation implies equivalence, and some of these metaphors are more equal than others: given the overwhelming normativity - the characters are almost universally whiten, malen, able-bodied, middle-to-upper-class, and heterosexual - of the X-Men, the race and sexuality readings can be contradicted and deconstructed without much effort.

The same poster later accused me of "being too literal" and "lost in minutiae", though these sound like reasonable demands to place on language. We should be skeptical of a comic book that, literally, presents us with dozens of heterosexual characters but asks us to understand (misrecognize?) them figuratively as non-heterosexual. A certain degree of dissimilarity is expected in a metaphor, but this isn't just minutiae that I'm getting stuck on - it's a fairly evident contradiction that's embodied in nearly every X-character.

[This was all inspired by a specific textual incident, but I'll get to that in the next installment. My apologies if you've read my 'Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants' paper, which I posted here, and this sounds redundant. But most people don't want to bother with a 20 page document, and it feels helpful and necessary for me to rewrite some of those arguments in a more concise manner and with some tweaking and more contemporary examples.]


Omar Karindu said...

One of the more valuable elements of Claremont's use of fetishistic and other nonnormative sexualities on his X-Men stories was precisely the way in which every character's sexuality was queered in some fashion.

Whether suggesting bisexuality in Storm, polygender polyamory in Mystique and Destiny, or mildly subverting the apparent normativity of heterosexuality with some of the more outre Phoenix-and-Cyclops and Savage Land sequences, he tended to trouble a simple reading of the characters as sexually normative. (I'm leaving aside the more prominent use of bondage themes, which I think are oddly enough subtextually NOT about sex where Claremont's X-Men is concerned.)

Of course, Claremont also generally made his villains less normative than his protagonists, so that heteronormativity tended to end up subtly reinforced. Granted that the model was more Kinsey scale than binaristic orientation, but the hetero end of the scale tended to be the side of the ostensible good. Storm might be tempted by Yukio and jealous of Kitty's female dance teacher, but it's her checkered love affair with Forge that becomes her grand romantic arc after all; Mystique and Destiny are, after all, murderous terrorists.

It also occurs to me that it's possible to read Morrison's Beast subplot -- the one in which Henry pretends to be gay for various reasons -- as a satire of the tendency you critique here. On the other hand, I got the sense that readers were meant to support Henry's efforts at social engineering and go with it as some kind of risky performance when it was, of course, anything but.

As an addendum, it's a bit curious to see a sophisticated reading of the tropology of a comic book as "too literal." Surely "too literary" was what was meant, yes? In any case, I take any poster who's proclaimed Camille Paglia his intellectual model with more than one grano salis.

neilshyminsky said...

Tiger Shark's response was a bit confused, I think - he wanted to say I was wrong but couldn't say exactly why that was so. The "literal" complaint was with regard to the way that I suggested the characters' whiteness disrupt their racialization as 'mutant' (which I was going to discuss in a bit more detail in another blog entry). The "minutiae" comment is more along the lines of those "too literary" type complaints. What option is left to me, I'm not quite sure.

As for Claremont and queer characters, he's always carefully hedged those bets, as you suggest. His ostensibly queer characters are always already Other, which is not all that surprising or unconventional: women, people of color, and villains (and Storm, Mystique, and Destiny being the most obvious examples). Given that his white men have most often been unambiguously straight, and that the majority of his readership is likewise mostly white males, Claremont's queered characters at times seem more like objects than subjects. They're at an arm's length distance, whereas Wolverine's uber-masculinity remains safely entrenched and readily available.

And yes, I think that Beast's strategy is indeed an attempt to show how the X-Men fails when the metaphor/analogy is taken to literally - whether we supported him or not, a number of people were quite rightly pissed off and offended at Beast and/or Morrison for such a problematic comparison. Morrison might have played into this metaphor with his creation of mutant ghettos and culture, but he also only ever explicitly described mutants as the cool edgy kids, not as some grand literary project in social justice.

scott s said...

I agree with most of this, but do you think that more complex non-straight/ non-white characters would improve the identity politics of the x-men? I think the problematic attraction of white male youth to superhero comics runs much deeper than the identity of individual superheroes.

I don't think the majority readership is seduced into thinking they are Other because the "excluded" mutant characters happen to be white, but that the inclusion/exclusion dialectic is the characteristic fantasy of the white male readership. Isnt this why so many "Other" theorists reject and attempt to overcome that binary?

I think the superhero's identity struggle can absorb any kind of sexual/ethnic/racial orientation without ever becoming very progressive.

neilshyminsky said...

scott: The problem does run deeper than individual heroes' identities, which is why any serious attempt at a progressive X-Men would require enough new, complex, non-male, non-straight, non-white characters such that white boys could no longer easily identify with them. And then they would stop reading it and the book would be canceled. Where that leaves us in terms of a workable solution, I don't know.

I think that the whiteness and maleness of the characters can't be discounted, either. Those links to the normative Western tradition is precisely what allows them to walk the line of that inclusion/exclusion binary without falling on the wrong side (effeminate, racially other, disabled, queer - the morally suspect and problematic side).

I'd wager, though, that superheroes can't quite absorb any kind of Otherized category without some disruption to their coherence as normative heroes, though. Perhaps they can manage the Other so long as they're in a minority, or relegated to the sidelines, or are recognizably normative in every way but their appearance, but signs of deviance from the norm accrue and, eventually, acquire a certain undeniability.

scott s said...

I agree that superhero comics probably cant absorb every identity or change fundamentally without losing readership. But on the other hand, series like Sandman that problematize identity still attract mostly privileged white males. Same with the great Indy comics.

Anyways this is a good topic. Keep writing about it. Is this what you work on in school?

Scene Guy -- said...

Nice. While I've had these thoughts before, I'd never thought them through enough to reach this:

"any serious attempt at a progressive X-Men would require enough new, complex, non-male, non-straight, non-white characters such that white boys could no longer easily identify with them. And then they would stop reading it and the book would be canceled."

I'll think about this more, but I already know you're right, lol.

Streebo said...

"the X-men is already a metaphor for minorities everywhere and of all kinds, so there's no need to trot out a 'gay' X-Man just to fill a quota".

I'm probably the only person that read this and thought it implied that the X-men were tropes for every marginalized group - except for homosexuals. Heh.

Neil, this is a fantastic post. I always took it for granted that the X-Men did represent the disenfranchised everywhere - but I never took into account the normative whites males and their entirely heterosexual relationships and how it precludes the X-Men from creating a strong metaphor for homosexuality. No doubt, most of the posters you talk to think along the same lines. That's why they have to try to discredit your views as "too intellectual" or involving too much "minutiae". There's no getting around the truth as you've presented it.