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Mutant & Proud
June 30, 2014 10:51 AM   Subscribe

"For a kid growing up with the fear of estrangement from the people they love the most, the possibility that someone else out there might see enough good in them to take them in — not regardless of their differences, but in celebration of them — is as empowering as a superhero story can get." In a series of three essays for LGBT Pride Month, ComicsAlliance's Andrew Wheeler explores the X-Men as a metaphor for queer family and community, the marginalization and hatred that LGBT people face, and queerness itself.
posted by narain (31 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is hardly a groundbreaking analysis.

Also, the author, in his youth, may not be aware the "do you know what your children are" is also a riff on "Do you know where your children are."
posted by entropicamericana at 10:58 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]


Counterpoint: "Like, if I had to pick a group which mutants seem to most closely resemble, I’d suggest it’s upper-middle class suburban white kids; they have no inherent culture of their own, inherit tremendous advantages which they choose to portray as handicaps, go to ridiculously well-funded private schools and spend most of their time arguing with each other about who had a worse childhood. Then when they grow up, they get themselves into situations which imperil the rest of the world - stock brokers and angel investors and shit, man. Hell, most of the actual X-Men basically are suburban white kids, I don’t have to go that far for that metaphor…"

and follow-up: "Comic book mutants, as a whole, lack almost everything that truly, systemically oppressed minority groups possess: common lands, language, heritage, culture, music, literature, folklore, or all the other indentifiers of community which systemic oppression typically targets to abolish, diminish or appropriate; an historical relationship with majority cultures which is, again, endemic in oppressive systems; obliquely extant social mores which keep them at a disadvantage; demeaning semiotic signifiers in language, media, etc. Also, not ever turning into giants and wrecking whole cities accidentally."
posted by komara at 11:02 AM on June 30 [12 favorites]


Have you tried... not being a mutant?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:04 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]


komara, I don't know if I agree with that Counterpoint up above, but the quote you included made me laugh out loud, so there's something there, I think. I need to read the whole link and give it some thought.

As for the queer/mutant connection, do you guys remember the scene with the young kid trying to cut off his wings in the bathroom, while his dad pounds on the door and yells? That actor (ben foster) was so good, I was crying right along with him. It's a horrible feeling to know you are unloved by those who are supposed to love you unconditionally for something you cannot (and don't wish to) change.
posted by MoxieProxy at 11:13 AM on June 30 [3 favorites]


"Like, if I had to pick a group which mutants seem to most closely resemble, I’d suggest it’s upper-middle class suburban white kids; they have no inherent culture of their own,

Look, you may not like white upper-middle class culture, but it sure as fuck exists.

inherit tremendous advantages which they choose to portray as handicaps

Rogue literally cannot touch another human being without causing that human being harm; this is hardly a portrayal of a handicap.

and follow-up: "Comic book mutants, as a whole, lack almost everything that truly, systemically oppressed minority groups possess: common lands,

Gay people have no 'common land' and the entire rest of this list is composed of things that of course a 'brand-new' oppressed group like comic-book mutants cannot have. Give them fifty years, and sure as fuck there's going to be a common language, culture, music, literature, folklore, etc. And if you want a demeaning semiotic signifier, maybe you can start with "mutant" itself and work your way up to "mutie" and okay I'm done.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:15 AM on June 30 [5 favorites]


Rogue literally cannot touch another human being without causing that human being harm

OTOH, she is nigh invulnerable.

Sugah.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:21 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the counterpoints are a little like saying, "Hey, some gays are rich and white, so clearly no gay person has ever experienced oppression of any kind."

I don't think mutants are a perfect metaphor in many ways, but they're ignoring a whole lot of text in the comics. I mean, even leaving aside the whole people-building-giant-robots-to-kill-them thing, how about the Morlocks? Remember them, the poor mutants that live in the sewers and don't actually go to the fancy private school?

Individual privileged members of an oppressed group does not invalidate the notion that the oppression exists. It does not even invalidate the notion that those privileged few may have experienced the oppression themselves.
posted by kyrademon at 11:29 AM on June 30 [10 favorites]


One of the more interesting bits of poetics I read this year was the observation that metaphors tend to break at the first bit of difference, while similes tend not to. Of course, some of these tensions were explored in the X-Men universe, for example, the contrasts between the prep-school teams and the Morlocks and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Yeah, the metaphor doesn't work if you squint at it too hard, but superhero stories rarely do unless they inhabit their own pocket world of deconstruction.

(Of course, this is before X-Men became even more of an exercise in recursive navel-gazing attempts to fix their time-travel continuity problems, and the race for the bottom with Wolverine and Cyclops competing on grimdark. But I'm not bitter.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:30 AM on June 30


inherit tremendous advantages which they choose to portray as handicaps

I don't really get how not being able to touch people or blasting everyone with uncontrolable death beams anytime you open your eyes are advantages. Being covered in blue fur or having a tail and dark purple skin with cloven feet and being thrown down a well at birth probably don't make for comfortable childhoods. Also I am not too familiar with the comics, but in the movies the government was demonizing them and actively trying to round them up. That's not what happens to a bunch of rich kids outside of the French Revolution. This seems like a pretty half-baked counterpoint, even if the point itself is a bit overstated in the first place.
posted by Hoopo at 11:44 AM on June 30 [1 favorite]


Yeah... X-Men was created partially as a response to the American civil rights movements of the 1960s. They were pretty explicit about that, and over time the two mutant leaders started to imitate the respective ideologies of MLK and Malcolm X. But also over time, the whole series has become metaphor for (or simile of) being an outsider of some sort or another.

With that said, these are fairly detailed anaylses and worth the read--not to mention exposure to the communities--if you're uninitiated.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 11:47 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]


Rogue literally cannot touch another human being without causing that human being harm

OTOH, she is nigh invulnerable.


Yeah, because she had an accidental permanent transfer while fighting another superhuman. And that led her to have all sorts of identity problems, too.

(Caveat: Can't say I feel sorry for her on that score, though. I like Rogue and all, but Carol is awesomer.)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:02 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]


Remember them, the poor mutants that live in the sewers and don't actually go to the fancy private school?

...and who were the victims of a mass murder, kind of like a lot of other oppressed minorities?

And yes, that mass murder was conducted by other mutants, but it's not like oppressed minorities never wind up hurting themselves and/or one another.

(Man. Big crossover events used to be handled so well...)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:07 PM on June 30


I think that the counterpoints are worth considering, even if they tend to fall apart pretty quickly when compared with the actual canon. The whole point of the X-Men is that, yeah, they're hated and feared by a world that doesn't understand them, but there are compensations in the form of their powers, just like that other extremely popular fiction series about teenagers who have amazing abilities and live and learn how to use their powers in an isolated school while they occasionally battle their evil counterparts. Powers are the equivalent of money in that they let you do things that people without it don't really get to do. And, yeah, there are some of them that are more differenter than others, and some that are more powerful than others, but the comics really don't spend a lot of time on the mutants that have skin like flocked velvet upholstery fabric but otherwise have no special abilities, any more than Harry Potter spends a lot of time hanging around with Squibs.

The X-Men are really about that oppressed minority of one, the teenager, and the power fantasy is the payoff; it's based on the wish that, if you're going to be treated like a freak, at least you get to fly, or punch the occasional bully into orbit.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:14 PM on June 30 [9 favorites]


> I think that the counterpoints are worth considering, even if they tend to fall apart pretty quickly when compared with the actual canon.

Okay...

> Powers are the equivalent of money in that they let you do things that people without it don't really get to do.

Okay, what? The powers are the very unwanted things that make them outcasts. People in this thread have already mentioned that some of the powers are terrible and non-compensatory, and the comics explore this thoroughly. One of the most recent series about time-travelling (ugh) has a scene at a mutant rally where someone discovered they have a really boring ability to change their voice or something, but they still get disowned and demonized as badly as the X-Men. I think they even made a point in one of the first movies (ugh, again) to forcibly give a senator or something really shitty mutant powers to show him what the struggle is like.

Defending this counterpoint puts you in the odd position of suggesting that people should pity the super-rich for some kind of alienating, uncontrollable burden they must face dealing with all of that inhuman wealth and power. And you know what? If someone could really sell me on that, I would believe them. Because the story is supposed to be about unconditional acceptance and belonging.

Don't tell me what the X-Men are really about. A quick look at Wikipedia or two seconds on a search engine will tell me what the X-Men are really about. The message would have no doubt been clearer if the only difference between mutants and humans were something boring like skin color or sexuality, but this is apparently the thread where we learn what a metaphor is.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 12:41 PM on June 30


The X-Men are really about that oppressed minority of one, the teenager, and the power fantasy is the payoff; it's based on the wish that, if you're going to be treated like a freak, at least you get to fly, or punch the occasional bully into orbit.

Kinda like Harry Potter, in that sense - he's a lonely, marginalized underdog! But he is also the most popular boy in school, incredibly rich, super good at magic and also instinctively excellent in the most glamorous and important position in the sport everyone at school is obsessed with.

Of course, there are so many X-Men, and they have gone through so many stories, that at this point there's probably an X-Man or supporting cast member who can serve as a metaphor for pretty much anything...
posted by running order squabble fest at 12:48 PM on June 30 [5 favorites]


I attended Catholic school until 5th grade. I still remember a 3rd grade religion class when a classmate asked "what happens if a boy marries a boy, or a girl marries a girl?" The teacher told us that the scenario in question was called "gay", and that it was a sin. I got really angry based on my love of X-Men and Greek mythology. I didn't want anyone penalized for having a "superpower" that made them different. I'm not sure if the gay rights movement would benefit from a Colossus n' Pegasus based campaign, but it made me a supporter of all forms of sexuality before I even knew what sex was.
posted by yorick at 1:36 PM on June 30 [4 favorites]


I guess a part of it is that until the late 80s and early 90s, the mutant metaphor was about as close as you were going to get to having issues like the closet and sometimes-invisible minorities addressed by the big-two, who had "no gays" as an official or unofficial policy. (Never mind a handful of characters who were kept firmly into wink-wink-nudge-nudge plausible deniability territory, like Mystique/Destiny.) The British Invasion shook that up a bit. But the Invasion moved on to other things.

There's not much point in following whichever B-list character the Big Two chooses to write as LGBT, because B-listers probably have a mean run of 24 issues before they're back into production hell or used as drama fodder. I just can't get enthusiastic about Prodigy, Julie Power, or Neu Loki as out bisexual characters because two of them are no longer in print (according to Wikipedia) and who knows how long the third will last in the current incarnation.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:38 PM on June 30


> Of course, there are so many X-Men, and they have gone through so many stories, that at this point there's probably an X-Man or supporting cast member who can serve as a metaphor for pretty much anything...

This is really the key point to make. I'm talking about the series' overarching theme and source material, but there are certainly enough individual plots and stories by different artists and writers over the last half-century. And certainly the occasional power trip or a story that doesn't focus on anything beyond how badass they can try to make Wolverine.

That's probably the reason why there are so many characters. How many stories have underdog protagonists with absolutely no redeeming or compensatory qualities that still end up victorious in the end? In that sense, X-Men is also kind of a go-to for these walk-of-life stories because they can introduce a character and have them "come out" later to magnify the scope of how outcast they are without really addressing the plot.

But Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were pretty damn explicit, so I take offense when people try to explain what the mutant powers mean. If anything, I saw the mutant powers as little more than a representation of identity. The only thing mutants really have in common is the symbol of their oppression.

Even accepting that the powers are all somehow beneficial, the story is still about how people handle this issue in the world at large. For example, I'm not sure how many of Harry Potter's arch-nemeses were wizards as opposed to muggles, but the X-Men antagonists are constantly things like hate groups and government sponsored discrimination (e.g., the sentinels) in addition to the competing ideologies of the Mutant Academy, Mutant Brotherhood, Morlocks, etc. And I think that makes it more human. Whether it's laser vision or tax preparation, the powers aren't necessarily alien or desirable; they're just another part of you. The very thing that makes you different or oppressed can be used for revenge, isolation, assimilation, integration, or whatever makes the world a better place in your eyes.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 1:43 PM on June 30


X-Men discussions like this always make the '80s comics nerd in me wince a bit. Though discrimination and alienation were always part of the dialogue and such, I remember X-Men comics being much more about gonzo time travel plotlines and uber-powerful alien menaces than those allegedly core themes of being an oppressed minority.

The New Mutants, an X-Men spin-off title, was the one that really drove home the themes of being alienated, awkward teenagers as a constant part of the narrative. X-Men demonstrated the sort of "it gets better" message that we now see about LGBT experiences, because while yes, the X-Men still had to deal with all the bullshit hatred and fear, they were generally grown-ups who were fairly well-equipped to deal with that. The "junior" team of the New Mutants was the one that really delivered the alienation and awkwardness.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:55 PM on June 30


And the New Mutants featured Cypher, a mutant teen alienated from the other mutant teens because his superpower - super language skill - was no use in a fight.

(Although later I think he got all "oh, kung fu is totally a language THWACKAPOW!")
posted by running order squabble fest at 2:10 PM on June 30


Also, the author, in his youth, may not be aware the "do you know what your children are" is also a riff on "Do you know where your children are."

Wheeler's older than I am. I find it impossible to believe he did not know the reference, just that it wasn't relevant to the point he was making.
posted by rewil at 2:24 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]


> "(Never mind a handful of characters who were kept firmly into wink-wink-nudge-nudge plausible deniability territory, like Mystique/Destiny.)"

While this is true, I clued into the fact that they were a couple when I was eight years old. Claremont was as unsubtle about it as he could manage at the time, e.g. calling Destiny Mystique's "leman" (which means lover, presumably he got away with it because his editors didn't know that.)

I haven't read X-Men comics for over two decades now (whoa, weird to realize that ...), but I understand that their relationship is canon now, and that there has been a scene in which Rogue wonders if things would have turned out differently if her mothers had been able to get married. That makes me happy.
posted by kyrademon at 2:37 PM on June 30


Wow. Shit in this thread got serious.
posted by MoxieProxy at 2:47 PM on June 30 [1 favorite]


The mutant metaphor also becomes a little more wobbly because people like the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Hulk, and Spider-man are pretty much mutants except in name only.
posted by FJT at 2:57 PM on June 30


Are we seriously doing the Oppression Olympics about the mutants from X-Men? That's really what's happening right now?
posted by strangely stunted trees at 5:58 PM on June 30 [4 favorites]


I think some of us are waiting for the chance to say "not all X-Men".

Damn it.
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:11 PM on June 30


I saw the queer metaphor in X-Men 20-odd years ago when I was reading it, it was pretty obvious (but I was eagerly looking for any coded metaphors at that time, being a freshly-out young militant queer).

I'm glad that the metaphor isn't lost on newer, younger readers either. Because it's a powerful one, and is a worthy literary subject to examine, both then and now.
posted by hippybear at 11:52 PM on June 30


I Was A Teenage Wolverine: On Superheroes and Disability

(site seems to be down right now, cache link here)
posted by Evilspork at 12:57 AM on July 1


The mutant metaphor also becomes a little more wobbly because people like the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Hulk, and Spider-man are pretty much mutants except in name only.

Some people in the Marvel universe protest all superheroes, sure -- see the outcry that led to the Superhuman Registration Act -- but mutants tend to get the most hatred. This is usually attributed to the genetic origins of mutant abilities. Anyone (fewer than before, but that's neither here nor there) can have the X-gene, so everyone's a suspect.

FF, Cap, Hulk, and Spider-man are technically mutates in that their transformations were induced, and even Cap's status is debatable on that front; it's fairly often said that Steve Rogers has simply been raised to the limit of human potential, but no further. (See also the late Michael Van Patrick.)
posted by lumensimus at 2:11 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]


The X-Men somewhat made the queer subtext explicit with their own version of the AIDS epidemic, the Legacy Virus, a deadly disease which only affected mutants and claimed both heroes and villains before finally being cured (an act which required one more death).

Fitting that mutants have a different version of AIDS, since it is canon that they cannot acquire the syndrome itself.
posted by aedison at 4:51 AM on July 1


it is canon that they cannot acquire the syndrome itself.

How did I know even before I looked that that would probably be the work of Chuck Austen? (Bonus: the panel where Angel's wings appear to have been replaced by two feather boas.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:45 PM on July 1 [1 favorite]


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