Does science fiction have the power to function as a Trojan Horse, to infiltrate the mass consciousness with socially progressive ideas that can ultimately change a person’s worldview? That is one way to read the X-Men, says Alex Jeffery.
(Click images to enlarge)
After a faltering start in the 1960s, the X-Men comics finally took off following a reinvention in the 1970s. They have diversified so far that they have become not only a cornerstone of the Marvel comic universe but a hugely successful science-fiction film franchise. While the X-Men have long had a following among comic book readers, the release of the first film X-Men in 1999 finally brought them into the cultural mainstream, reinventing the comic book with a darker, more realistic tone. While comic book universes frequently ask readers to suspend their disbelief over a wide range of rather hokey superpowers – cosmic rays, radioactive spiders and mystical gems, etc – with the entire cast of mutants that form the X-Men Universe you only need to accept one central tenet: genetic mutations, in the form of an “X-gene”, have given a group of humans superpowers. The powers range from telepathy or control of the elements to looking like a big blue furry cat – and some of them rank among the most outlandish super powers within science-fiction. The genius of this is that X-Men could subsequently be read as an allegory for the struggles of almost any feared and persecuted minority, from those who looked different on the outside, to those whose powers made them different on the inside. And that’s where it starts to appeal to a gay readership.
Struggles between mutants and the wider society lend themselves to being read as allegories for similar struggles undergone by minority sexualities. In X-Men, one group of mutants (named the ‘Morlocks’, after the H.G. Wells characters) are driven to a life living underground by their outlandish appearances and inability to fit in with society, and they form their own society. The X-Men have also had not one but two religious fundamentalist hate groups after them – the Purifiers and the Church of Humanity. In the storyline with the most obvious parallels with gay struggles, a deadly plague (the ‘Legacy Virus’) sweeps through the mutant population, eventually mutating so that it affected regular humans as well as mutants. In Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, mutant numbers increase, leading a mutant ghetto District X to spring up. Soon after in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, Dr Kavita Rao develops a serum that can supposedly cure mutants of their ‘affliction’. (This was later exploited for the film plot of the disappointing X-Men 3: The Last Stand). Across the entire series, coping with their powers, appearance and difference has led several characters to self-hatred, self-harm, and even suicide. Accepting your difference, building solidarity and, yes ‘pride’ are often the solutions to mutant persecution. Although many of these concepts now seem spread widely through the mainstream (most recently with True Blood) X-Men comics were often the first time they gained a hold in popular culture. It is frequently noted that science fiction has the power to function as a Trojan Horse to infiltrate the mass consciousness with socially progressive ideas and ultimately change peoples’ worldview.
Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique / Angela Davis
And indeed, queer readings of X-Men are far from being the only possible ones. The fear of mutants and their physical differences has parallels with race struggles and, although to a lesser extent, disability issues. In the 2011 film X-Men: First Class, a newly radicalized Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) makes the rather ham-fisted pronouncement that she has become “mutant and proud”. That the film is set in 1971 gives her statement strong resonances with both the Black Power movement and the Gay Rights movement, both fairly new but growing in power at the time. And indeed in the follow-up film, this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, Mystique’s ongoing radicalization has been compared to that of Black Power icon Angela Davis.
If the ‘coming out’ analogy is applied, mutants can be divided into two groups: those who can pass for normal human beings and those whose mutation is manifested visibly. While the former face the dilemma of whether to ‘come out’, the latter have no choice, being forced to face the world with two external stomachs (Maggott), with your bones growing out of control (Marrow) or as an unfortunate half-formed flightless chicken-boy (Beak). The agonies of revelation have encouraged the use of ‘image inducers’ to fool the public with several major characters such as Beast and Nightcrawler. In one of the most remembered scenes in the film X-Men 2, Bobby ‘Iceman’ Drake ‘comes out’ as mutant to his family. After demonstrating his powers by turning a cup of tea to ice, and flipping the results over into a saucer, the poignancy of the scene is deliciously undercut by the family cat giving the tea-ice a good licking (masterfully handled by the film’s gay director Bryan Singer). When Bobby’s mother subsequently asks him “Bobby have you tried not being a mutant?”, you can feel the audience cringe. Singer’s long-term attachment to the X-Men film franchise (director of four and producer of one) is significant and a portion of the comic fan community have been critical of what they see as him pushing a gay agenda in the films that is not explicit in the comic books. While these concerns are probably tinged with homophobia, they also reveal a text-blindness that suggests that many fans simply aren’t aware of what the X-Men might mean to large groups of people.
Northstar and Kylie’s Wedding
With Singer’s future involvement in the franchise looking more solid, there is a possibility that we may yet see a gay X-Man or woman in the films. Candidate number one for this is Northstar, who alternates between the Canadian mutant team Alpha Flight and the more mainstream X-Men comics. As far as your actual X-Gays are concerned, yes there have been several in the comics over the years, although Marvel has been famously slow in introducing them – there was an effective ban during the 1980s. Although his creator has stated that, from his first appearance in 1979, Northstar was designed to be gay, he didn’t ‘come out’ until 1992, just a few years after Elton John. I mention this because in many ways Northstar is the Elton of the X-Men: he has been around for ages, has a tendency to act like a bit of a diva, and his attempts to suppress his sexuality, if you read it as such, led him to obsessively divert his energies into his career (as a rather non-Elton-like competitive skier). In 2012, Northstar had the first high-profile gay wedding in comic history to his partner Kyle, a big deal in comic publishing at the time. This wedding caused a moral panic among right wing groups and was much commented upon within the comic book and science-fiction fan communities. The normalizing of gay characters at Marvel continues at a slow pace, with the Young Avengers Hulking and Wiccan involved in an ongoing relationship since 2005, although they weren’t allowed to kiss until 2012. Consider that Eastenders went through the same gay kiss controversy in 1985, and you have some idea of how conservative mainstream comics can still be.
New X-Men Special Class
Gay characters in the X-Men are rarely defined by their sexuality or transgressive attitudes to gender though and mostly fit under the ‘just happen to be gay’ banner. While older characters are simply too well-established to be retconned as gay, gay teens are often introduced in the many popular young X-Men series (X-Men Academy, New X-Men, Young X-Men), which are generally used as testing grounds for new characters. The range of sexualities, races, appearances and abilities, though not without its tensions, represents something of a utopian Monsters Ball for mutants, if you like, where queerness is ideologically embraced. Here, the youngsters are generally discovering their sexualities at the same time as their mutant abilities and both are presented as part of teenage growing pains.
However, aggressive or subversive sexuality has been largely ignored in the comics possibly with good reason. When Chris Claremont – who wrote many of the X-Men’s most memorable story runs in the early 1980s, such as the ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga – had a pop at sado-masochism with the ‘Arena’ storyline, the results were disastrous.
One exception to this was a less well-known mutant character Stacy X (now dead), whose abilities included exuding pheromones which could even bring her conquests, both male and female, to orgasm. Stacy was first discovered working in a brothel, but her unique powers are soon put to good use as a member of the X-Men. She certainly belongs to a more subversive group of mutants, including Mystique, whose powers to seduce lead them to be feared and often reviled, even by other mutants. While it is unfortunate that such characters are represented as marginalized and often stigmatized by their powers, it does at least perhaps reflect the reality for many sex workers.
At the end of the day, quantifying representation in X-Men by counting the number of gay and queer characters they contain is surely missing the point. Yes, there are certainly issues of representation within comics and science fiction in general. However, the allegorical power of the series over the decades has probably done more to shape contemporary culture than placing a range of rather token gay characters ever could, and this alone should justify X-Men’s place within queer history.
There are two testimonials to the impact of the X-Men to accompany this article. Click here to read about how the characters of Havok and Mystique influenced the lives of two gay men.