X-Men Essays

"Fiction," said Stephen King, "is the truth inside the lie." He might have also mentioned that, for many, it is the only truth they get, at least about some issues. It's no secret that popular fiction exerts a strong influence on how kids, adolescents, and the rest of us think about controversial topics. It is therefore noteworthy that recent books and films such as Harry Potter and Avatar have well-developed racial allegories. Both franchises present clear and unmistakable anti-racist themes, while at the same time (probably unintentionally) reinforcing harmful racial tropes (see here and here for the corresponding racial analyses).

The X-Men franchise is in the same tradition. In draws deliberate parallels between the oppression of mutants and that of other marginalized groups.  As long-time X-Men writer Chris Claremont explained back in 1982, "The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have..., intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice."  As a result, these important but usually avoided themes have become part of the dialogue - both online and at the kitchen table. Moreover, with several more Avatar and X-Men films currently in production, these themes are likely to be part of our pop-cultural discourse for the foreseeable future.

Good stuff, dialogue. But what exactly does a popular franchise like the X-Men teach about race and racism? What precisely does it mean, for example, when Magneto, the principle villain in the X-Men comics/films, tells Xavier, the leader of the X-Men, that he will fight for the liberation of his people (mutants) "by any means necessary"?1 Despite what I assume are noble intentions on the part of the creative teams, for this generation of filmgoers it likely means a distorted view of Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement, an unrealistic understanding of contemporary race relations, and an unintended promotion of the racial status quo.

These are serious problems, and I will give them the attention they deserve, but it is also worth noting that X-Men provide the opportunity to have those much-needed conversations about tolerance and inclusivity. The importance of being comfortable and proud in one's skin is one of several prosocial messages of X-Men First Class, as well as of the original trilogy.  The X-Men films handle many racial themes well, but, like Avatar, they may have some negative consequences too. In this space, I briefly examine two specific racial myths perpetrated by the X-Men franchise. For those interested, a much more detailed discussion of this topic, including an in-depth examination of the Magneto-Malcolm X parallel, is available here.

Myth #1: All oppression is the same

One of the most popular themes in popular fiction's depiction of group prejudice is the drawing of explicit parallels between the plight of the fictional group and real-world historical oppression, most commonly the Holocaust and the legalized segregation in the South under Jim Crow. Although the comics pursued both analogies at length, Until X-Men First Class, the films had focused primarily on the latter, drawing a variety of explicit and unmistakable parallels between Xavier's and Magneto's fight for mutant rights and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. On the surface, the parallels seem well-informed. The mob violence and the hateful slogans (e.g., "The only good mutant is a dead mutant") are remarkably familiar, and the anti-mutant hate groups, such as Friends of Humanity and the Church of Humanity, are clearly intended to represent real oppressive forces like the Ku Klux Klan and a variety of other Christian Identity and White Supremacy groups.

This is fine as far as it goes, but the parallel is built upon the flawed premise that the mutants' experience of prejudice is analogous to the oppression experienced by Blacks and other racial minority groups. It's true, of course, that both mutants and Blacks experienced prejudice, but the specific prejudicial attitudes that people hold and express toward these groups is often very different. Consider a 2002 study by Susan Fiske and her colleagues in which racially diverse samples of undergraduate students and adults rated 23 different out-groups on the basis of how society views them on two dimensions: expressed warmth (i.e., how positively people feel toward out-group members) and perceived competence (i.e., how competent they perceive out-group members to be).

Results consistently revealed three different types of prejudice: paternalistic prejudice (high warmth towards the group with low perception of the group's competence); contemptuous prejudice (low warmth towards the group with low perception of the group's competence); and envious prejudice (low warmth towards the group with high perception of the group's competence). While this study did not include mutants in their list of out-groups (clearly a glaring oversight!), X-Men fans know that though mutants tend to be regarded with little warmth by humans, they are nevertheless perceived to be high in competence. This combination would place them squarely into the envious prejudice category, quite far from how "Negroes" were perceived by the White majority prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement. Which brings us to Myth #2.

Myth #2: An oppressed group is in some way responsible for its own oppression

The distinctions above are highly relevant. Although oppressed groups that are viewed by the dominant majority with contempt are not necessarily powerless (even nonviolent protest is a show of power), unlike mutants, they typically lack the physical force or political power to stop their own oppression. Under these circumstances, placing the burden of peace and tolerance on the oppressed group (this is essentially Xavier's agenda) can itself be seen as a subtle form of oppression, for this expectation blames the victimized for their own victimization. Thus, while it's reasonable to expect super-powered mutants to make certain accommodations in order to fit into mainstream society, this expectation is hardly reasonable in the real world, where ordinary human beings comprise both the oppressed and the socially privileged. Even if we believe (as I do) that those with less power vis-à-vis mainstream society deserve greater protection, no oppressed group should ever be expected to bear the burden of accommodating to their own oppression.

Applied to real history, Xavier's mindset would have blamed Jews in Nazi Germany and Blacks in the antebellum South for their victimization--and would have expected them to make accommodations for the sake of peace, rather than demanding that the society itself become more accepting and less oppressive. In fact, this is what actually occurred as Nazis blamed the Jews for their condition and slave owners rationalized the institution of slavery by arguing that the "uncivilized" Africans needed the firm hand of the slave masters to lead happy and productive lives. 

Unfortunately, the tendency to blame the oppressed group for its victimization is not just a fictional or historical phenomenon. Today our society continues to express this mindset in a variety of instantly recognizable ways, as when we suggest that a woman who was sexually assaulted should have worn less revealing clothing or imply that a gay man could choose to have a different sexual orientation. On some level, the X-Men franchise understands the folly of this type of thinking. X-Men United (X-2, 2003) even pokes fun of victim-blaming tendencies in its very effective parody (and social critique) of how some families react to a child who "comes out" as gay. Indeed, it is no more possible to will oneself into not being a mutant, as it is to will oneself into not being gay or female or a person of color. Yet, the X-Men creative team fails to take the critique to its logical conclusion, for though Magneto actively challenges this notion, since Xavier is presented as the film's moral compass, the viewer is expected to ultimately accept the assumption that it is the mutants (and, by extension, gays, lesbians, and people of color) who must somehow make themselves fit into mainstream society, rather than expecting society to become more inclusive.

Conclusion

This propagation of racial mythology is not a minor flaw, and the resulting probable harm to readers' and viewers' thinking about race relations should not be dismissed or minimized. And yet, unlike Marc Antony, I come mostly to praise Caesar, not to bury him. There are frequent moments when the X-Men creative teams manage to turn a superhero soap-opera into an opportunity to meaningfully engage readers and viewers of all ages with social issues that are too often ignored by both the mainstream media and mainstream educational institutions. Even if the X-Men comics and films at times fail to adequately or accurately convey what scholars have learned about prejudice and group relations, they nevertheless open the door for historians and social scientists to weigh in and provide their own perspectives. My hope is that those perspectives also become part of the popular discourse.

Footnotes

1Magneto uses this phrase in his conversation with Xavier at the end of X-Men (2000), saying: "The [human-mutant] war is coming, and I intend to fight it by any means necessary."

This essay is adapted from a longer chapter in The Psychology of Superheroes published by BenBella Books. 

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It's not just the X in X-Men that makes us think of Malcolm X

It’s funny that it’s so resoundingly universally accepted. It’s been repeated so many times, from everyone from fans and comics professionals to scholars, that it’s become an article of faith.

X-Men is about racial tolerance, right? Here are those good mutants, eternally being persecuted even after saving the world a million times, a plot threat used long, long after it makes no sense in the universe of the book — but forget that. Forget that what we’re reading is costumed super-heroes fighting each other, just like any other comic book, for some thirty years now, in far more than that worth of issues and material, over and over, any social message totally subsumed in muscle-bound people with ridiculous powers and gorgeous women in skimpy outfits, all fighting each other in one cosmic mud rink. Yes, forget all that. The point remains, and the point is that these mutants are blacks, or any minority race, and they sadly have to hide that fact due to persecution, right?

The answer is no for many reasons. To begin with, X-Men was not just about race — it was also about Communism. The same dynamics classic to films dealing with Communism apply here. The key is that there is no way of knowing who is a Communist or a mutant: as an ideology, not a race, there are no outward signs. Only over time, the X-Men have increasingly had characters who were physically deformed from their mutation.

Beast is a good example of this: in the original issues, he has beastly hair on his arms and legs, visible through his costume, but he cannot be distinguished from a large man when dressed in pants and a jacket. Similarly, the Angel has wings, but those wings were strapped down with “restraining belts” (page 17) so that, in normal clothes, there was not so much as a bulge on his back. So too with Iceman, who looked normal until he iced himself over, and Cyclops, whose visor for controlling his optical blasts were replaced with a normal-looking pair of dark glasses. The powers of Professor X, Jean Grey, and Magneto were all invisible. Yet when Jean Grey first uses her telekinetic powers, she confesses that “All my life I’ve had to conceal this power of mine … / now, I must admit it’s a pleasure to be able to be able to practice telekinesis openly, without fear of being discovered!” (page 9; ellipse original).

Today, in stark contrast, the Beast is blue-skinned and inhumanly beastly. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men is filled with outwardly-visible mutations, including a boy with a large beak and a person who is invisible, except for the skeleton and certain internal organs. The Communistic overtones have been shed, their role in the original formula forgotten. Only very occasionally is the idea, classic of American fears about Communism and depiction thereof, expressed that one’s lover or child could secretly be a mutant.

I do not mean to suggest that Communism should supplant racism as the dominant interpretation of the X-Men — in fact, far from it. I merely mean to point out, before proceeding to an analysis of the racial dynamics of the X-Men, that those dynamics were originally mixed with the popular dynamics of Communism, and that combination made for a more successful book. But let us proceed to those racial dynamics.

If you’re inclined to read the X-Men themselves as racially different, the point is that their race is evil — it is everything the racists suspect it is. Look at the first issue, at the concept behind the series. It’s got Magneto, who takes over an army base “in the name of homo superior!!” (page 15). And when you think of all the super-powered people in the world, the vast majority of them are evil. There are far more villains than heroes. This has conveniently been overlooked in the traditional interpretation of the X-Men, as if thought simply a necessity of the plot featuring good protagonists who are analogous to another race. But let’s actually analyze what’s going on here.

From the first issue, Magneto and Professor X are juxtaposed. In fact, more certain as the X-Men are the racial other, that other is split between “good” and “bad” factions. Professor X has formed the X-Men “to protect mankind from those… from the evil mutants!” (page 11; ellipse original). When Magneto first appears, Professor X says that “the first of the evil mutants has made his appearance!” (page 16). Clearly, if we are to read the X-Men as symbolic of a minority race, the distinction between the “good” and “bad” of that minority race is greatly emphasized right from the start.

Seen in this light, Magneto is the Black Panthers, or how whites feared Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: he’s the revolutionary edge to racial politics at the time. He wants to seize the army bases. He wants to overthrow the order of the American government. Taking Cape Citadel is just the “first objective” (page 15) of a wider revolutionary plan. And who’s there to stop him? Who’s there to support the status quo? Who’s there to step in and help the military who are sending blacks to die in Vietnam? That’s right, the X-Men. Defenders of The Man.

It has often been a point of some humor that Stan Lee later called Magneto’s anti-X-Men squad “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.” This has typically been seen as just another indication of Stan Lee’s confessed thoughtlessness in his writing, but it expresses the crucial dichotomy made so clear from the first issue. Indeed, if mutants are read as analogous to blacks, the predominant minority “race” in America at the time, Magneto’s unit should be read as “The Brotherhood of Evil Blacks.”

The X-Men, then, are those within that race who, out of their American “good”ness, violently oppose the more radical members of their race, those who are out to actually oppose the American government. Whereas the X-Men have no concern about the government. They do not demand representation or an end to discrimination. They do not demand anything. They simply step in to help the government put down members of their race who step out of line. Cyclops actually asks the military if the X-Men can help. His language is deferential, like a good darkie: “I respectfully request you to hold your fire for fifteen minutes while my partners and I go into action” and “You won’t regret it, sir!” (page 18, italics mine). There is no irony here, no satire in his tone. The army is played as helpless before super-powers, but only for dramatic purposes; we never get the impression that Cyclops or the X-Men have anything but the utmost respect for authority. And remember, that authority is the military wing of the dominant race.

Seen as symbolic of a racial minority, The X-Men are that conventional trope of blacks who are at least relatively happy with their “massa”s and eager to put down niggers who get out of line. Which is, after all, exactly what they do, what they were created to do, by Professor X, if not by God. The establishment — if not governmental and military — connections of Professor X are established when he informs new recruit Jean Grey that he “was born of parents who had worked on the first A-bomb project!” (page 10).

And while the X-Men recognize that whites distrust them, they do not use words like “oppression.” Nor does Magneto. In fact, oppression of mutants does not occur in the first issue. There’s just no sign of it. So if the X-Men are blacks, blacks are distrusted and seen as “other” by the whites who dominate, but those whites don’t protest the blacks, don’t treat the blacks with derision. As a statement on race, the X-Men’s was not at all conceived as a world with whites protesting blacks or bigots protesting mutants; rather, it was conceived as a world in which the protests were being made by blacks, or mutants, and being made violently. The threat, decidedly, is not from the powers-that-be. It is from the “evil” members of the racial Other.

The X-Men were not revolutionary. In fact, they were explicitly counter-revolutionary. They were not created to fight for civil rights; rather, they were created to fight against those who did so.

To the extent that the message is racial, that radical message was that blacks don’t have it too bad and that the “good” blacks will fight those nasty blacks who oppose the social order and the instruments of white power and authority. And this is not without precedent. None other than celebrated black Booker T. Washington argued, after the Civil War, that blacks should not demand the right to vote or compensations from whites, but should instead prove themselves valuable members of the community first, showing that they not only supported white values and structures of authority but could educate themselves and hold white jobs, acculturating to white society. It was a smart suggestion on Booker T. Washington’s part, a way of avoiding white resentment of uneducated negros being granted the right to vote. But that line of quietist thinking had, by the 1960s, become the conservative line in the wake of the growing civil rights movement.

Where mutants — or blacks — do get credit is in their power. But we should not imagine that an image of blacks as seriously dangerous, or even as smart, is at odds with racism. Racism of all sorts has often had this strain. The most classic example was Nazi Anti-Semitism, which saw the Jews as such a threat precisely because of their intelligence; they were not an enemy to be trifled with. Indeed, the portrayal of a racial other as a legitimate threat to the social order necessitates a certain respect for that racial other’s power, if not its values. Some racism is simply a looking-down upon another race, which may well be blundering and stupid; other forms of racism, often directed at the same targets, is heightened by a perception — even a fear — of another race’s power and abilities, dangerous when combined with a concern about the revolutionary values of that minority.

In The X-Men as racial allegory, blacks are indeed a serious threat to the white social order. And let us make no mistake: it is the white social order. No blacks appear in that first issue. The soldiers on the base are entirely comprised of good Aryans. Moreover, The X-Men offers us a racial allegory (of black and white) in black and white: “evil” mutants or blacks who want to take over America and “bad” mutants or blacks who will put their lives where their mouths are andfight their rebellious brothers for the very social order that cannot accept them.

The conservative, even reactionary tone to the racial message of X-Men haunts the books to this day. In the ensuing years, many protests and acts of violence on the part of whites or non-mutants have been added to reflect first the growing sympathy towards the civil rights movement and then the dominant view of blacks as oppressed, as the victims. The atmosphere of lynchings, so absent from the X-Men’s first outing, has been thoroughly added and the racial message of the book transformed, its tone quite changed with the times. This has very much been read backward upon The X-Men, the presumption being that it existed from the start, though this is thoroughly not the case. Yet the basic premise of the book, of the X-Men as counter-revolutionaries, as out to stop blacks or mutants who go too far by opposing the dominant social order, has not changed. In fact, the more white or non-mutant violence and oppression have been added to the book, the more the counter-revolutionary nature of the X-Men becomes painfully apparent, if not clearly immoral. In the wake of such violence and oppression, the topic of the X-Men’s own role is usually avoided, addressed only in the most confusing of arguments, usually boiling down to “this is not the way” to go about gaining civil rights or acceptance.

In order to give this some weight, and thus to support the X-Men’s position in the matter, especially in the wake of a changed nation in which racism is no longer publicly acceptable on a national stage and in most social situations, and in the wake of increased depiction of violence and oppression from the white or non-mutant camp, Magneto and the “evil” mutants have necessarily become more violent. It is important to note that, although people were killed in comic books at the time, including those by Marvel Comics, Magneto kills no one in his original appearance. The present incarnation of “evil” mutants oppose the status quo that discriminates against them so violently that few can agree with their tactics and thus not support the X-Men’s counter-revolutionary mission. Yet the “good” mutants almost never support mutant civil rights; there is no such noticeable peaceful movement in the comic books even today, and all attention seems to be on stopping those Black Panthers, now depicted as horrifically violent, however much in reaction to society’s now commonly depicted oppression.

As a consequence of this tension, many fans side with Magneto, whose rhetoric has shifted away from a stereotype or caricature of insurgent blacks as evil even to themselves. He was created as the mutant equivalent of a white man’s image of a violent, dangerous black man out to destroy the government; today, no matter how extreme his methods, it often seems preferable to the X-Men sitting on their asses in their mansion, doing nothing of note to stop the oppression and murder of black people yet all too eager to put down the members of their own race who try to do so. It seems increasingly obvious that Professor X’s much-celebrated vision is negatively defined — confined to stopping all visions of social change since they all involve violence. Again, no peaceful but progressive option is offered, for to do so would either make us side with the villains or undermine the very premise of the series.

I hasten to point out that the recent film, entitled simply X-Men, is a good example of all of these points.

What X-Men needs to survive, at least in any intellectually respectable fashion, is for it to go beyond its narrow premise and the staunch conservatism implicit in the dynamics it has faced since its creation. What we need is a middle path. What we need is for the X-Men to go beyond that premise as the mutant policing agency and instead stage sit-ins, peaceful protests for which they will, at least as surely today as in the 1960s, get arrested and have to spend time in jail, made all the more poignant for their ability to easy break free. A kind of peaceful version of The Authority, out to change the world though through very different, and thus slower, tactics — tactics made all the more inspiring to the world because of the restraint it requires, more than even blacks following Martin Luther King.

But it’s hard to implement this in a line of 20 books a month, generating massive profit for the company. And the fans of X-Men would probably rather not see Cyclops in Birmingham jail for twenty issues, or X-Men take on more the tone of Stuck Rubber Baby than the easier dichotomy between “good” and “bad,” told with a copious dose of spandex fetishism.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on Julian Darius's author page.

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