Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Uncanny X-Men 503 and THAT scene

I wanted to write something else - less contentious, more literary - about Matt Fraction on the X-Men, so it's a shame that this has to be the first thing. See, there's a scene in the middle of 503 where Cyclops and Emma Frost are investigating the Hellfire Cult's warehouse, during which Emma dresses up in some bondage gear and, presumably, things get a little unprofessional.

The thing is, as we learn at the end of the issue, it's not Emma in the bondage gear. Apparently, I was the only person (on a message board, at least) who was immediately skeptical - "this is kinky even for you", Cyclops' mentioning that she's unnecessarily in his head, and the uncharacteristically glowing red eyes were pretty much a dead giveaway. Or so I thought. But there are other, rather obvious clues: the story arc's mystery villain, the Red Queen, is shown telepathically extracting information about Emma Frost's personality earlier in the issue, and Emma admits to having no idea what Cyclops is talking about when he mentions the scene at the end of the issue - after which Cyclops immediately sees the Red Queen, who he identifies as his ex-wife, Madelyne Pryor. So it's implied and not totally clear until the end, but it happened nonetheless: Cyclops was telepathically raped. (If you're still not with me, see my brief discussion of the issue of consent in the very last paragraph of his blog post.)

When I asked why no one was talking about this on the message board, it was suggested that it's a sort of comeuppance for Cyclops. During Grant Morrison's run, Cyclops and Emma had a psychic affair that the former dismissed as not disloyal to his wife because it wasn't physical, and so Maddie is sort've toying with that logic - that is, it must not be sexual assault because it was only psychic. And, going back to Claremont's pre-Inferno days, the same person suggested that the story element of tricking him into doing something without his informed consent is not unlike the process by which Madelyne was herself transformed into a villain during what she thought was a dream. Notably, Cyclops didn't accept this as an explanation of her transformation, nor did he accept any blame for the mental distress that led her to that point, much of which was his fault.

So to the extent that it seems to be invoking these earlier moments of Cyclops' hypocrisy and using it against him, it works. But there's something so incredibly distasteful about the suggestion of rape, here, that I just can't get past. Maybe it's just that sexual assault is so often sensationalized, and that instances of gender-reversal of his sort are so often handled poorly, that I'm having a knee-jerk reaction that will turn out to be unfounded. And maybe it's also because I have some affection for Madelyne's original character and didn't like her transformation into a villain in the first place - and so I find it additionally detestable that she's been reduced again, this time into a rapist.

[I should also note that this scene caused me to reconsider an element in the last Casanova story arc where something surprisingly similar happens, though it escaped my notice in the moment. In that story, Casanova is undercover as his sister, Zephyr, and has a sexual relationship with a male terrorist named Kubark - who, predictably, feels deeply betrayed and disturbed when he learns that Zephyr was never Zephyr at all. This fits all the same criteria for any legal or moral definition of rape - you can't give informed consent when someone is withholding information that prevents a full awareness of the consequences of your actions, ie. when they're lying about who they are or intend to do you harm. And yet I totally missed it - probably because Casanova is deeply apologetic and Kubark is totally evil, responding with homophobia rather than admitting any emotional pain. It's probably to Fraction's credit that he can do this twice before I catch it, and that it can work so well in the context of the story. But I still find it a troubling sort of trope.]


Geoff Klock said...

Excellent points, Neil.

James said...

Not sure about Casanova. If a post-op transsexual didn't tell you about their previous gender status until after you slept with them*, is that rape?

*Hypothetically - I've no idea about the logistics of this.

neilshyminsky said...

james: It was the common element of lying about 1) your identity, and 2) your wanting to do harm to the other person that I wanted to address in the comparison. Less than total disclosure with a sexual partner is hardly a crime - and full disclosure is almost always unreasonable - and it wasn't the trans element that I found objectionable. Rather, it was that Cas, like Maddie, enters into the relationship with the intention of destroying the other person.

Okay, so maybe I'm stretching when I suggest that it could be considered rape in a legal sense. But I kinda see it as the equivalent of someone crawling into your bed in the middle of the night (while you're drunk? groggy? an analogy that allows for the victim to be totally clueless is tough when we lack something equivalent to telepathic powers and EMPIRE's surgical prowess) and allowing you to think that they're someone else - you consent to the sex, seemingly, but you've consented to sex with someone other than the person in your bed. (This is why the question of trans doesn't apply. That person isn't pretending to be someone they're not - that is who they are - while Cass was pretending to be his sister.) And that person not only realizes that you don't know it's them, but has some sort of malicious intent in mind - wants to kill you or have you locked up or just fuck with your head. In those contexts, the sex is actually an assault, right?

I'm still not totally sure what to make of it all. But this makes sense, right?

Jason said...

I haven't read the issue in question, but presumably the other layer of irony here is that -- given the whole story of Scott and Maddy as told over the course of Claremont's issues 168 to 243 (which from one point of view is all one giant, 75-issue-or-so story and which was -- oddly enough -- published almost perfectly concurrently with the massive, 63-issue "Church and State" saga in Cerebus; how's that for trivia that's apropos of nothing?)

Anyway, that story invites us to assume, certainly, that in all the times when Scott and Maddy were intimate, there were surely no small amount of times when Scott was wishing/fantasizing/pretending/believing that Maddy was actually Jean.

Thematically, Maddy's punishment here is sickly appropriate from that standpoint.

It may also be an attempt to strike a resonance with a Greg Pak X-Men book that had Cyclops getting it on with Emma and suddenly fantasizing that she was Jean -- with Emma knowing about it because she's a telepath. In a telepathic conversation, Scott says, "I'm sorry," and Emma replies, "It's all right, you can't help where your mind goes." (The Pak scene may in turn relate to something from Whedon or Morrison that I don't even know about ...)

I don't know, given all that on top of the invocations that you've already pointed out ... one can imagine the idea being too compelling NOT to use once it was conceived by Fraction (and/or Brubaker, if they're still co-writing ... ?).

All that said, it doesn't sound like anything I'd like to read, for much the same reasons you mention for disliking it.

James said...

Oh, definitely. Sounds like you've got a case with Maddie (I've not read the book - love Fraction, can't takes no more Land).

Cass though... so it's the sum of the deceit and destructive intent for you?

Cass's deception differs from Maddie's in that Kubark and Zephyr have no prior relationship. He thinks he's on a kill-fuck rampage with a hot chick... and he is. It's no different than if it really WAS Zeph in deep cover, using an alias, say. The double agent who (gasp) really DOES fall in love with their mark... that's standard spy-stuff, and not one that's ever made me think "rape". The difference here is that Fraction takes that standard trope and twists it, elevates it and makes something new and devastating (oh boy I love that comic).

Back to X-Men: Troubling? Sure, but I don't think in an unintentional way. Like you say, there's more to play out here, and Scott and Maddie's prior relationship, Scott and Emma's psi-affair, the meta-knowledge of Maddie's treatment at the hands of editors (and Scott?), heck, pretty much every thought-sex scene since Morrison... all those things muddy the waters as far as rape goes, I think.

At the very least, this seems a far preferable approach to the subject than the smashed-teeth murder stuff you get in Justice League comics. (Which - and maybe this is more ammo for you oops - Fraction criticized in Casanova #2.)

neilshyminsky said...

james: Fair points on Casanova. There's a betrayal, but maybe it's not categorically different from any other non-assaultive betrayal between two sexual partners. Like I said, there's a disturbing subtext to it, but I'm not totally sure what to make of it. Maybe I'm simply reading the Cyclops-Maddie thing back on to it and making it seem worse than it was.

James said...

"Maybe I'm simply reading the Cyclops-Maddie thing back on to it and making it seem worse than it was."

Sure, and maybe there's a case for doing so - it's a very similar twist, as you say.

(Just wanna say: I hope it didn't seem like I was trying to tar you - of all people! - with having hang-ups about the transgender stuff.)

To harp on Casanova some more, I just found it so, so sad. I still can't read that "I'm not a faggot" panel without getting choked up. Maybe because it's so unlikely, y'know? Unlikely that nihilistic Cass would fall in love, unlikely (spy-fiction tropes aside) that he would do so with a target on an undercover mission, unlikely that it would be a with a guy. And then he gets it thrown back in his face; it's heartbreaking. Seriously, I love that comic.

Gordon Harries said...

This is/was an interesting post.

I haven’t actually read The X-Men since I was a teenager.

In fact, the stuff I remember loving (just to illustrate how fundamentally I swim against the tide on these things) was a long suspense story when they were presumed dead and hiding out in Australia, with the team being whittled off one by one.

(although there was an absolutely bizarre movement within the story where Storm ended up being regressed to childhood) has any of that made it’s way into those Essentials yet?

Anyway, once we got to the Blue Team/Gold Team era it just felt like a block buster, with the more abrasive group dynamics of Claremont’s best stuff sanded off.

Is the fraction run good? I may have to pick up a trade…

Jason said...

Gordon, I *love* the Australian era. Truly underrated material.

I skimmed an issue of Fraction's run -- (I think, based on reading this post of Neil's, that it must've been #502) -- and was surprised at how appealing I found it.

I'm thinking of picking up the first Fraction trade myself.