Sunday, February 15, 2009

The X-Men and identity politics #2: Xavier's man Friday

[An exchange on Geoff's blog a couple weeks back with someone who didn't like my X-Men paper had me thinking that I need to start writing about mutants and race (and, obliquely, all aspects of identarian politics) again. For those few people familiar with the old paper, some of this will seem like a retread. But since that paper is long and, by virtue of being written with an academic audience in mind, not accessible enough. Which was one of the reasons I started this series in the first place.]

A paraphrased defense of the X-Men's politics: 'Focusing on fighting other mutants does not make the X-Men anti-mutant, assimilationist, or conservative. Those mutants are evil and would make relations with humans worse, and it's that working relationship which they're trying to build and preserve.'

My short response to this is an unequivocal 'sorry, but I don't buy it'.

The sort of assimilationist practices (and their rationalizations and justifications) that the X-Men engage in are at least as old as the novel format itself, so maybe it would help to historize them. Remember Friday, the slave-turned-servant to Crusoe in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe? Friday is the model non-white citizen of European colonialism - a savage who is so grateful that the white man has undertaken the burden of educating and saving him that he devotes his life to serving that same white man. Quite the opposite of encouraging us to embrace difference or form equitable relationships premised on mutual enrichment and growth, Defoe's story proposes an entirely unilateral transmission and unidirectional relationship. Friday is only worthy of notice because he recognizes his master's superiority and assumes an entirely deferential position relative to him. To do otherwise - to challenge Crusoe's authority or assert an equal standing - would be to threaten the natural order of the world and situate yourself as an enemy to it.

Appropriately, one of the tag-lines for the 2000 X-Men movie was "Trust a few. Fear the rest." And, sadly, the X-Men have participated in a similar politics for much of their publication. Like Defoe, the X-Men's publishers would have us believe that the only mutants who deserve to live in peace with normal humans are those mutants who would unquestioningly protect all of humanity. Yes, even those who would rather see all mutants jailed or dead are more deserving of the X-Men's protection than are the mutants who fight back because they don't want to be jailed or dead. These mutants who reject their oppression and the moral authority of those who oppress them are, at best, ignorant to the natural order and, at worst, evil. Like the hyperbolic island cannibals whose only function is to supply a contrast as the evil Other to Friday's good one, these evil mutants are often made to seem insane or power-hungry, and so undermine the standing of any mutant who objects to the X-Men's approach. Even when an 'evil' mutant, like Magneto, poses legitimate ethical and political concerns, those same concerns are undercut by unnecessary displays of violence and mutant supremacist language - as if these things are ultimately inseperable.

Bryan Singer, echoing the common refrain, suggested that Professor X is a Martin Luther King figure and Magneto was Malcom X. But if it weren't already clear, then I'll make it explicit: if the X-Men comics are meant to be read as any sort of metaphor on the politics of race, then we have to consider that Professor X is actually Crusoe's man Friday.

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