We’re all “mutants”.
May 20, 2019 9:12 AM   Subscribe

The Lazy Design Aesthetic of Misrepresenting Genetic Conditions [Plenty of Minds]
“In books, films and video games, “mutant” is often used interchangeably with various terms that essentially mean “other”: “freak,” “monster,” “beast,” et cetera. However, it isn’t completely interchangeable because everyone understands that “mutant” has something to do with genetics and biological development. Therefore, the choice to use the term “mutant” implies that there is some biological, likely genetic, basis for why these “monsters” are the way they are. [...] It appears to me that the designers were just cribbing dysmorphic features that occur in real life and applying them to the game’s monsters, then naming them “mutants” and going on their way. Why do they look the way they are? Because they’re “mutants.” No additional thought went into that.”
Michael California draws upon his background as a geneticist to compliment a discussion of Rage 2‘s industry-standard ableism with an explanation of why the “mutant” tropes of disfigurement and disability widely perpetuated in popular media make no scientific sense whatsoever. [YouTube][Rage 2 Launch Trailer]

• Rage 2 is a fun game that makes me feel like garbage [Polygon]
“Last summer, I had a chance to talk with id Software studio director Tim Willits about Rage 2. After a relatively straightforward interview running through the game’s grabbag of inspirations, the conversation shifted to something more personal: my birth defect and how the game presents it as a crude joke. Rage 2’s publisher Bethesda had just revealed a $119.99 collector’s edition that would come with a talking, robotic bust of Ruckus the Crusher, one of the game’s many goliath mutants. Like all the other Crushers in the game, Ruckus has a gash running from the top of its upper lip through his nose, as if its face didn’t fully form at birth. [...] Fiction has long associated clefts with both villainy and mental health disorders, and it appeared the Rage franchise would perpetuate this cruel, damaging misrepresentation to a broad audience.”
posted by Fizz (14 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
A Canticle For Leibowitz is one of the earlier nuclear post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels, and probably the most famous and influential early one. It definitely comes in hard with the pejorative sense of mutation, and ignores the fact that we are all mutants. I suspect that probably set the tone for the vast majority of mutants in following work.

They called mutants "sports" back then and so does the book, which was a little confusing on my first reading, because I thought it was in the sense of "Hey old sport!" like Gatsby would say. Sport retains a somewhat distinct usage in botany, where it's a part of the plant that has a different morphology, usually due to mutation.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:29 AM on May 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I feel like Borderlands is also a game where we have so called "mutants" who just exist that way because they look cool and/or to create an enemy for the player to gun down. I've played through half of both the first and second games, but I do not recall if the in-game lore tries to even justify or explain this characterization. I mean, it's set in outer-space on a colony where criminals who were previously forced labour have been let loose on the populous.

I guess it doesn't really matter because it looks cool and they're the "enemy", so guns-a-blazing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

posted by Fizz at 9:31 AM on May 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Don't play The Binding of Isaac then...
posted by The Power Nap at 9:48 AM on May 20, 2019

I'd like to point the obvious and only, in my experience, good use of the term 'mutant' in SF&F fiction, the X-Men comics. Not only is it not pejorative, it is sometimes a mark of pride (or Pryde), and is implicit and explicitly about marginalized populations, touching on ethnic, religious and gender issues. It has been problematic (i.e. God loves, man kills), but overall I feel it has more positives than negatives.
Also, just in case, I'd like to direct you to the Mutant, Trans and Proud symbol by Jay and Miles Xplain the X-Men, which is available to buy but also as a downloadable stencil and explicitly authorized to use on whatever.
posted by signal at 9:54 AM on May 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

Don't play The Binding of Isaac then...

Oh for sure, that is a game I've sunk hundreds of hours into and I hate that I have to sort of ignore the more juvenile (being generous with my criticism here) themes that he's infused into the game. It's not very woke or sensitive, that's for sure.
posted by Fizz at 9:58 AM on May 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

When the doctor told me my cancer was caused by a random genetic mutation, I asked him what superpowers I was going to have. He kind of gave me the side-eye; I think he was wondering if my post-op pain medication needed reducing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:21 AM on May 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

I feel like Borderlands is also a game where we have so called "mutants"

There are only a couple of kinds of "mutants" in Borderlands 2: Mutated varkid, that are produced by an injection administered by the player and the mutant "rats" encountered during the Splinter Group mission. Most enemies tend to be bandits, mercenaries, robots or very angry wildlife.
posted by SPrintF at 11:15 AM on May 20, 2019

They called mutants "sports" back then and so does the book, which was a little confusing on my first reading, because I thought it was in the sense of "Hey old sport!" like Gatsby would say.

It is the same sense...like you would say to your child (usu boys): "Listen, sport, go clean up your room"...the etymology goes like: genetic sport>your own child> "son" in general.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:33 AM on May 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don’t get it. Are you saying that people calling their friends or children sports was the same as calling them deformed freaks? To me those seem like different senses.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:09 PM on May 20, 2019

I remember Calvin O’Keefe referring to himself as a sport in A Wrinkle In Time

"…I'm a sport."
At that Charles Wallace grinned widely. "So ‘m I."
"I don't mean like in baseball," Calvin said.
"Neither do I."
"I mean like in biology," Calvin said suspiciously.
"A change in gene," Charles Wallace quoted, "resulting in the appearance in the offspring of a character which is not present in the parents but which is potentially transmissible to the its offspring."

posted by corey flood at 12:12 PM on May 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

I don't think A Canticle For Leibowitz set the tone for anything so much as it was following established tradition by applying it to something new. The idea of beauty=good, ugly=evil has been around for a long long time.
posted by ToddBurson at 12:24 PM on May 20, 2019

Just throwing Wyndham's The Chrysalids in here because, y'know, it both predates Canticle… and is definitely on the mutant's side.
posted by Pinback at 5:07 PM on May 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sure ugly and evil go together, and have for millennia, I just didn’t know of any famous earlier works that put up literal biological mutants, though I will check out Chrysalids.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:31 PM on May 20, 2019

Hero-of-many-SF-novels Miles Vorkosigan opposes discriminating against humans with mutations, but often slips into conversation that his own condition is not because he's a mutant but because he was exposed to a teratogen. Later on in the series there are more POV characters who react with weary contempt this deserves.

I kind of felt that way with this article, which felt lecture-y on the scientific definition of mutation when it really doesn't matter for the point about othering.

On a different note I really enjoyed the book Mutants. It's good scientific writing on genetics and gene expression but also manages to be the opposite of a freak show. By the end my take away was the incredible number of forms humans can take and still live and prosper. (Skimming my goodreads review I see I called the publisher out for calling the book "Mutants" when many conditions involved other effects such as, yes, exposure to teratogens.)
posted by mark k at 10:18 PM on May 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

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