The X-Men characters are presented in more palatable heterosexual bodies but they are very much a coded narrative on two branches of queer protest and resistance. Sean O’Toole writes about why X-Men stories resonate with queer trauma, safe spaces, and survival.
The X-Men stories have always somehow resonated with me since long before the first major movie hurtled toward the big screen in the late 1990s. Since the story’s comic book inception in 1963s – around the same time as the gay civil rights movement in the United States was taking off – the X-Men comics have been symbolically tied to more than just one social justice movement or political event. The movies have been less resonant but still, I suppose, they have been politically present in a way. Creator Stan Lee himself said has that X-Men was conceived partially as a response to McCarthyism and other Red-scare era acts of congress. When actor, Ian McKellan, was initially pitched the role of Magneto, he was told to see Charles Xavier/Magneto on a sort of Martin Luther King/Malcolm X axis.
What all of the heavyweights involved in the production of the X-Men films appear certain about is that the mutants in the X-Men stories are undeniably “symbolism for persecuted minorities.”
It was almost a week before the mass shooting that claimed 49 lives at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida occurred, I took a trip to the cinema to see Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which is the latest instalment in the often confusing film saga.
I found myself dwelling on certain scenes in the context of safe spaces, particularly regarding Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and its regularity for being invaded, threatened or destroyed by outside forces intent on harming Xavier’s young students. In the wider X-Men universe, the destruction of Xavier’s school also occurs with some degree of frequency, despite the professor’s continued and unrelenting insistence that humanity and mutant-kind can live in peaceful co-existence. Xavier is consistent on this ideology—that no matter how much death and danger his students experience, he rebuilds the school time and time again and re-declares it a safe space for young mutants to learn how realize their potential.
However, Xavier never examines the point of young people harnessing potential without also having the agency to participate and use that potential. Potential plus agency equals power and the mutants in the X-Men stories never seem to solve that equation.
His old rival and friend, Erik Lehnsherr (also known as Magneto) doesn’t agree, however. Magneto is a survivor of Auschwitz; he knows a thing or two about what happens when you herd large groups of marginalized people into spaces that segregate them from the rest of humanity. He feels that this story never ends well and wants to confront the forces that threaten his kind. He also deems that Xavier wants mutants to fit into a world that runs on the pre-set rules of normativity, where Magneto desires an outright and total revolution by any means necessary.
Mostly, the two leaders tersely agree to disagree until world events start to eclipse their uneasy friendship and their opposing ideologies fully clash in a struggle to find the best way to bring about some kind of balance again, through an eternal waging of the binary debate of whether assimilation or revolution is the answer to the violence they suffer. And thus it continues for all eternity. Because at the end of an X-Men event, there is never a sense of resolution, we just get a simple return to the status quo of neither visionary’s aim being fully achieved. When the arc of a story has fully played out, the surviving characters merely revert to assuming opening positions for the next struggle to commence. So the experiences of mutants in the story is unmistakably one of survival, not co-existence.
Xavier wants mutants to fit into a world that runs on the pre-set rules of normativity, where Magneto desires an outright and total revolution by any means necessary.
Author and poet Maggie Nelson dwelled upon the topic of Xavier and Magneto in Argonauts, her 2015 memoir, that mused on aspects of queer relationships, social normativity and motherhood, against a backdrop of popular culture and personal memory, as well as through political upheavals, such as that of Proposition 8 in the United States. In Argonauts, Nelson questions the value of reading the X-Men narrative from a queer lens. At only 14 or 15 years of age, I had already decoded a lot of thoughts on my queerness from these largely hetero-bodied X-Men stories, as I searched for any form of self-examination in media narratives through the bleary gaze of a building sense of melancholy and almost blanket exclusion.
Nelson doesn’t tap into physiological queerness in terms of X-Men though. What she does focus almost wholly on the ideas of assimilation versus revolution that Xavier and Magneto represent.
On Magneto/Xavier, she wrote:
“I’m no cheerleader for assimilation per se, but in the movie the assimilationists were advocating for nonviolence with identification for the Other in that bastardized Buddhist way that gets me every time. You expressed sympathy for the revolutionaries, who argued, stay freaky and blow ‘em up before they come for you, because no matter what they say, the truth is they want you dead, and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise.”
However, she is quick to call out the emptiness in trying to find resolutions for queer narratives in mass media entertainment. She notes that her debates with her partner on the assimilation vs. revolution questions in the X-Men narrative quickly led her into the realms of futility:
“That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.”
There’s a scene in the second X-Men movie where Magneto tells a young mutant named Pyro that he is a “God amongst insects” at a point where the youngster is growing fatigued by sticking to Xavier’s respectability program, which has thus far failed to illustrate any sort of end goal or assurance of survival for the young mutants in his care. This is a prime example of how X-Men always shows a great deal of promise to carry an interesting exploration of queer agency and power, without delivering on that potential. It’s another gun in the first act that doesn’t go off in the third. In the Comics, Pyro is skinny and effeminate and thus he is unlikable. In the movies, he is more neutral. However, in both story mediums, he’s a secondary character at best. Considering ‘the Brotherhood’ of the comics is rounded off with the characters Toad, The Blob, the blue-skinned Mystique and an elderly blind woman named Destiny, it was clear that it was the revolutionaries in the story that were more physiologically “abnormal” creations, whereas Xavier’s heroes almost uniformly tapped conventionally attractive bodies for heteronormative sexual stimulation requirements. And this is how physiology and mannerisms in media narratives are coded– that goodness, skill and bravery are shaped into a gendered ideal for traditionally masculine and feminine bodies to champion— physically either buff or busty characters embody these traits. These hero avatars are also usually white (an exception being the introduction of Ororo Munroe/Storm in 1975) and up until 1992, when Alpha Flight’s North Star character came out as gay, our comic heroes have been routinely heterosexual.
The revolutionaries in the story that were more physiologically “abnormal” creations, whereas Xavier’s heroes almost uniformly tapped conventionally attractive bodies for heteronormative sexual stimulation requirements. And this is how physiology and mannerisms in media narratives are coded– that goodness, skill and bravery are shaped into a gendered ideal for traditionally masculine and feminine bodies to champion— physically either buff or busty characters embody these traits.
Still, X-Men still refrained (only somewhat) from doing the one thing that always really got to me as a young, queer media consumer: painting any character that looked like me (or acted like me) either as evil and cowardly, or as inexplicably evil and then being murdered without recourse by an heroic heterosexual character.
If popular media is indeed any reflection of society, then that reflection can’t construct more incidents such as that of Orlando: seeing compoundingly marginalized LGBTQ people pushed into “safe spaces”, while the world outside continues to construct a culture of hatred toward its occupants.
However, it’s Nelson, more so than Singer or McKellan, who has measured the reading of the narrative absolutely right: Who needs to be told that revolution either cannot be allowed to occur, or that a proposal as to how one can occur should remain unoffered and unexecuted?
So although the stories have run from 1963 to 2016, we’re clearly still buying nothing more than an impasse, even after all this time. And twenty years on, I’m obviously still buying what they’re selling. In light of the 49 real (and young) LGBTQ lives lost so recently, the symbolism remains somewhat valuable but the quality of the message being conveyed has become unmistakably stale.
Follow Sean on Twitter (@seanpeterotoole)
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