Miscellaneous Musing: Triple X Part II – X-men and Prejudice
Last time around, we observed how dichotomies work in the context of X-men movies and the failure to properly evoke the oscillation between Xenophobia and Xenophilia in them. Here’s the link, in case you missed it!
Today, we’ll take a look at prejudice and jealousy, a crucial leitmotif in the X-men franchise. In the first 3 movies, neither Magneto’s hatred, nor the stance of the X-men, is truly functional, they are reductionist and all exhibit problematic forms of jealousy and issues in their ideology. Let’s begin with a simple exercise to qualify and quantify the types of prejudice:
Imagine two axes, if you will: The vertical axis being emotional warmth and the horizontal one being competence. We’ll use this model to take a look at how different types of prejudice work.
The prejudice exhibited by e.g. a person in their prime towards the elderly, a housewife or the disabled is characterized by sporting an expectation of low competence and high emotional warmth – we’ll call this paternalistic/maternalistic prejudice. (And yes, I am aware of this nomenclature being problematic and reductionist as a gender-based duality – indulge me for the sake of simplicity here for a second.)
When low, perceived competence and a lack of emotional warmth collide, we can witness a contemptuous form of prejudice. The suit-wearing man who kicks a beggar’s cup away, the elitist frowning upon those less gifted – those would be classic examples for displays of contemptous prejudice.
High competence, however, tends to engender envy and as such, the final form of prejudice I’d like to use is envious prejudice. When we idolize a given star, athlete, scientist whose prowess eclipses our own, a sense of envy swings with it, one that may well turn into full-blown negativity.
Now these three categories are not absolutes – picture them as bubbles with different degrees of category membership on our graph. Secondly, please bear in mind that we could devise the opposite version of this graph just as well – call it empathy, sympathy or the like. Which of these graphs you’d use to describe your feelings to which degree can and will oscillate: The star you adore, who just complained about a 6-figure salary while you’re only scraping by? From a positive prejudice, you could easily switch to a negative prejudice, switch graphs.
Of course, this is a simplification for the sake of argument – in practice, our feelings will, more often than not, feature on both graphs – me may display envious prejudice towards the rich and powerful, while at the same time adoring them. We oscillate in degrees between the love and fear of the Other, between xenophilia and xenophobia.
How is this complexity translated in the X-men movies?
Well, category-wise, our stance on the perception of the X-men is one categorized by an expectation of extremely high competence (they can, after all, do things we never could), but it is, in the movies, coupled with a nigh non-existent emotional warmth both within the context of the movie itself and in regards to the audience. We simply don’t know enough about the individual characters to empathize with them – they become stereotypes: Cyclops “The Straight Man”, Wolverine “The Anti-Hero”, Storm “The Mysterious One”, Xavier “The Mentor”…I could go on all day. Take the movies’ Storm, one of my favorite X-men in the comic books. The images this properly evokes in your mind’eye is her floating down, while electricity bursts from her finger tips, the white mane in the wind. It’s an awesome image. Now let’s do the Plinkett-test: Please try to describe Storm’s character in the movies WITHOUT commenting on the fact that Hale Berry plays her, her powers or how she looks. I’ll be waiting here.
If you’re like me, you’ll be standing before this question…and draw blanks and only the most generic of statements. To some extent, you can do that for all “characters” in these movies. They are not characters, they are not even archetypes – they are cardboard cutouts on which you plaster cool CGI.
The characters in the X-men movies, to me, are one-dimensional, something that is reflected in their behavior: The oscillation between Us and Them, the very notion that they are both, is completely lost on the movies. To use the categories established above:
Magneto and his supremacists display contemptuous prejudice versus the human race; the regular humans display envious prejudice towards the mutants in general…and the X-men, as depicted, exhibit paternalistic prejudice towards the regular humans. Notice something? Namely the absence of words like empathy or sympathy?
There is a reason for that. When “Man of Steel” got, somewhat deservedly, a lot of negative press for the deconstruction of Superman, I understood that. What I didn’t get was how the X-men movies, which ruined the core tenets of the series without a conscious effort to do something different with them, got away. It frankly struck me as unfair. Whether we like Man of Steel or not (I don’t – just to make that abundantly clear), it at least is concise in its depiction of Superman as the Other and the psychological ramifications of that. Superman, in this movie, is supposed to be pretty hard to relate to, there is supposed to be a barrier between the audience and him. The X-men, though? They are usually characterized by the indivisible component of their identity that sets them apart; their subtext codifies them as persecuted for such a component, yes…but they’re still supposed to be “like Us.” Much like people adhering to a different set of beliefs, a different sexual orientation or a different skin color, they bleed red, they are NOT aliens, they are not an ideal, an archetype – they are the everyday men and women…plus the X, plus the mutation. They are supposed to be Us with an addition, a component that ultimately should not divorce them from our sense of humanity.
The first three X-men movies remove them from the audience, bury the characters and their triumphs and tragedies in a CGI-schlock-fest and make them, ultimately, just as hard to relate to as the Man of Steel Superman, but in a blundering, arguably more incompetent manner. When characters died in the movies…I shrugged. I exhibited not a single iota of emotional response. Why? Because the whole ideological set-up features the leitmotif of prejudice…but in a reductive, universally negatively coded manner. There is no oscillation, no positive response beyond awe at the effects created between audience and “characters” – the interesting factor, the duality between X-men being both Us and Them, is lost; There is no admiration, only envy. To put it more bluntly: There is no love in these movies. Only cynical prejudice, contempt and hate – which may also be one of the reasons people cheered for Magneto when I saw the movies…at least, he isn’t hypocritical about his hatred.
Wait…is he? Well, I’m not done yet. Join me next time when I pick apart the reprehensible ideologies displayed in the movies, what ultimately really riled me up against them.
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