Thursday, May 16, 2013

The X-Men don't represent what you think they represent


I'm very late to the game with this one, but I wanted to get some thoughts down on paper. (Or on keyboard. On the screen. Online? Whichever.)


The X-Men, we've been told many times, are less a team of superhero than they are a metaphor. Their creator, Stan Lee, wanted a group of heroes that would engender fear for the simple fact that they are different. "People fear things that are different," writes Lee, and it's hard to think that Lee, a Jewish-American, wasn't thinking of Jews and Roma during the Holocaust.

So, I was a bit disturbed when I saw this scene in an issue of Uncanny Avengers. The character speaking in the panels below is Havok, one of the X-Men. He's never been a particularly vocal advocate for mutant rights - he was briefly involved with a mutant terrorist group, but that was revealed to be an undercover job - but that's probably beside the point. Here's the leader of the Avengers' Unity team - a joint X-Men/Avengers effort to improve the standing of the mutant community - effectively telling everyone that he advocates a post-mutant (or, I guess, mutation-blind) society. And it left me cold:


In a subsequent panel, a reporter asks Havok what they should call him if not "mutant". He replies "Alex."

Now, the problem is not that Havok's speech is unrealistic or unconvincing. Havok has never shown himself to be the most dedicated X-Man - he's quit a couple of times, and for the first couple decades of the comic he preferred to be completely uninvolved in mutant politics or superheroics - and it might be compelling to situate him as a conservative voice for a post-mutant America. The rhetoric is certainly familiar: he doesn't want people to see his powers, just as the post-race bunch pretend that they don't see race; he sees himself as the product of his choices, ignoring the systemic realities that restrict those choices, just as many conservatives do.

It might not be an ideology that I value, but it could make for a compelling read. How would mutants with a more progressive take on human-mutant politics react to the choice of Havok for such a prominent role? Would they perceive some agenda on the part of Captain America, who selected him? And what kind of mutant politics erases the "mutant" from its own politics? I imagine that Havok would face a lot of the same criticisms that were lobbed at Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell when the post-race Bush Administration came to power.

Alas, Marvel and writer Rick Remender weren't planning on taking it in that direction. For them, Havok's rhetoric was not political or even controversial. Funny, the sorts of nonsense you can sell yourself when you're able to write about - and enjoy - oppression from a position of privilege.

Mind you, this isn't new. Marvel has always used the X-Men to encourage people of privilege to experience - and derive some enjoyment from - oppression at a distance, vicariously. But I've never seen them do this, at least not so explicitly. Marvel is using the X-Men to violently undermine the relevance and reality of identity politics, to reduce social categories, from which people derive their sense of self and worth, to dirty words and systems of social inequality to "choices".

That kind of thing is going to make people angry, especially the fans who have been told that the X-Men are a minority like they are. As Ladies Making Comics so aptly put it on Twitter, "Telling people whose rights have been trampled for decades 'But we're all people! Let's get along!': guaranteed to piss them off." Yep, them and everyone else who gets it.

But, wait! said Marvel and Remender. That's not happening at all, because the X-Men aren't actually a metaphor. They're just a fictional category of superheroes, and YOU are reading too much into it. Cue Remender's response to Ladies Making Comics: "Mutants come from all races and sexual orientation. It's not an apt analogy you're making." And fellow X-Men writer Jason Aaron: "It's not the story of what it means to be black or gay in today's society."

In a sense, Aaron is right - the X-Men don't tell us what it's like to black or gay, because the people writing the X-Men are almost always straight white guys who can only guess. But that doesn't mean that they don't pretend that they can. To claim otherwise, as Remender and Aaron (and I can only guess who else) do, is disingenuous, if not dishonest. (Indeed, Racialicious has a huge piece on this story, which includes other writers - and Remender himself - contradicting these comments from Remender and Aaron. You should probably read it.)

But don't take my word for it:
  • "What's fascinating about these two characters [Magneto and Professor X] is that they're really the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King of comic mythology." -Bryan Singer, director of X-Men, X2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • “I know, speaking to Marvel Comics, that it’s not just gay people who identify with mutants – it’s other minorities, too, religious minorities, racial minorities” -Ian McKellan, Magneto in the X-Men films
  • "Every time I would hear one of these ideas, I would always ask myself, 'What's the point of being so specific? A gay mutant? An African American mutant? An HIV-positive mutant? Oxymorons, all of them.' To my mind, mutants are all those thing simultaneously. They're every oppressed minority and disenfranchised subculture, all rolled up into one metaphor." -Joe Casey, former Uncanny X-Men writer

When people are gushing about the property and it's inclusivity, they're quick on the draw to brag about how the comic was always meant to accommodate all these identifications and readings. It speaks to the real world, it allegorizes real people and situations.

But when people start to critique it? When they begin to disagree with the message that Marvel is selling, that it's effectively putting into the mouths of disempowered peoples? Then, the creators deny that it was ever supposed to reflect reality, that it was ever intended to be more than escapist fantasy.

And that's probably the most infuriating part of this whole thing. It's not that they simply deny responsibility for or awareness of the metaphorical reading that everyone is familiar with, it's that they forsake it in one breath but accept any and all kudos in the next. Marvel wants to have it both ways, and they shouldn't get away with it. But they do.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"That kind of thing is going to make people angry, especially the fans who have been told that the X-Men are a minority like they are. As Ladies Making Comics so aptly put it on Twitter, "Telling people whose rights have been trampled for decades 'But we're all people! Let's get along!': guaranteed to piss them off." Yep, them and everyone else who gets it."

Problem is here, it's not a hypothetical oppressor saying, 'Let's all get along.' It's one of the oppressed. And you know what? That is exactly the message MLK had. Both he and this character were saying that anytime someone is judged by a physical characteristic that they didn't choose, it's wrong. They're saying that people should be judged on their choices, not their birth.'

And frankly, for you to turn around and say that an oppressed minority shouldn't be able to say that is despicable. Any other accurate points you made (and there were a couple) are outweighed by this blinded and frankly offensive attitude.

neilshyminsky said...

Oy. You've kinda managed to misrepresent both the comic and the critique.

The thing is, in that comic, it's not "one of the oppressed" that's saying this. Havok did not make up those words. A mutant is not actually speaking. A person of color is not actually speaking. A person who belongs to any minority group is nowhere to be found in the authoring of that speech.

Instead, a white dude who never experienced what Havok describes has written those words. It's one of the oppressors who has imagined a script for one of the oppressed. And, ostensibly, he's imagined a speech that absolves oppressors of any fault in the oppression of other people - or, at least, of the responsibility to clean up their mess. It's a bit fucked up like that.

So, I'm not saying that an oppressed minority shouldn't be able to use post-race language. I don't think it's realistic and I think it's a bit problematic, but I definitely would never say they "shouldn't be able to say that".

But I'm absolutely saying that Rick Remender shouldn't be allowed to put those words in their mouth.

MARK WILLIAMS said...

" And fellow X-Men writer Jason Aaron: "It's not the story of what it means to be black or gay in today's society." So stop telling people this is what X-MEN is about.

bracehare said...

Good take-down of the subject. Having a conservative mutant as a distinct voice would be great, but it would require self-awareness.