Welcome, dear readers, to the first in many posts discussing miscellaneous components of geek and nerd culture in an opinionated and hopefully, informative manner!
Okay, I’m going to begin this series of posts with an easy one – basically the intellectual equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel: I will try to make a point for why the first 3 X-men movies miss the point in literally every conceivable way, in 3 different posts.
The X-men are an interesting team of superhero characters because they very much epitomize crucial differences – not between Marvel and DC, but among the very societies we live in…and between us. They are very much the incarnation of the “Other.”
To elaborate: As a society, as any kind of social group, really, we have a hard time defining ourselves as a cohesive entity – whether during a political rally, in a given stadium at a sports event or at a concert. We are social animals and generally consider, at least for a time, belonging to a group as a positive experience, as our individual identities are subsumed under the collective identity constructed in such an environment. We have a sense of belonging.
All of these collective experiences feature an intriguing component: The powerful identity created as a fan of the band, of the fan of the sports team, etc. seems to not be enough on its own. Let’s try a little experiment, shall we? Think of one “tribe” you belong to, of one organization, party, nationality. Now think about what constitutes the identity of said group.
Chances are, upon thinking about this, you may have noticed something: We tend to think in absolutes in such instances. We may be able to define what constitutes “Us” – but in doing so, we rely on also creating the construct called “Them” – whether by inference or directly – if there is something that is “Us”, then there also needs to be something that is “not-us” – this tendency towards exclusion is deeply entrenched in our thought-processes.
We define ourselves, the “Us” against “the Other.” Whether it’s a different ideology, nationality or religion, the easiest way to describe a given social, identity-constituting element is by stating not only what it *is*, but also what it *isn’t*. In sports, the dividing line between fans of a team and other teams is easily drawn; among bands and their fans, “us against them”, whatever “them” means, is a pretty common strategy as well. The more complex and diverse a given group is, the more we rely on the “Other” – no wonder! The more diverse a collective identity is, the harder it becomes to properly define traits that apply to all of “Us.” Thus, describing a sense of belonging to a given sub-set of a culture obviously requires a contrivance of language to describe and codify a conventionalized experience of our world via language, one most easily expressed as a dichotomy – we create an identity-constituting element defined by being jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive: One cannot be both “us ” and “them” and one *must* be either.
There is a huge danger in these dichotomies, as Derrida (and many, many others) observed, for one dichotomy tends to propagate more dichotomies, often while overlooking the crucial component this practice creates: The dividing line between them. Whether it’s infidel/believer or a pubescent human wanting to be different by dressing in a manner that deviates from what is perceived as conventionalized norm – we are cognizant of this whole process and the effects of deviations from such normative structures ultimately create *different* normative structures, but normative structures nonetheless.
The mopey goth kid that I once was constructed himself as something deviating from the “normal” by utilizing a preset configuration of identity-constituting elements via externalized signs of perceived ideological and internal deviations – ironically, as South Park famously and poignantly observed: “So you want to be a non-conformist individual? Great, all you need to do is wear the same clothes and listen to the same music as we do.” It goes one step further: By not adhering to a normative structure or its signs, one automatically is assumed to belong to a different normative structure.
Here’s the problem: Unlike the subcultures or tribes we choose to belong to, there are characteristics that must be defined as indivisible components of our identity: The color of our skin, our sexuality – it is here and here to stay; each person has non-negotiable, central parts of one’s identity that may not be compromised. There are simply identity-constituting elements that are crucial for our sense of self and the problems the us/them divide creates when interacting with and negotiating them, is one of the X-men’s central appeals.
The X-men are the Other – not for only for the “Us” as e.g. “Normal Americans,” “Normal Europeans,” “Normal Christians” or any other group – they are perceived as the Other for what one could consider as “normal human beings” – X-men are eternally the Other, the non-belonging. They allow for an easy construction of the identity of non-super-powered hetero-normative normalcy and an even easier identification with anyone not subscribing to said normalcy. The reactions to the Other often oscillate between Xenophobia, fear of the Other and Xenophilia, love of the Other.
The X-men are basically the escalation and externalization of identity-constituting elements we adore and fear at the same time; they represent, much like an alien species, a group that can actually shape a cohesive, more defined identity of mankind, they are the “it gets better”-message; the fantasy of power, yes; but also and more importantly, the fantasy of belonging for the misfits and misunderstood, for the marginalized and traumatized. At least they are in the comics.
Here’s what sets the X-men apart, though: They are US. They are THEM. They are both the familiar and the Other. They X-men resonate BECAUSE they are Us. They are the heroes. When we see Magneto and his followers running rampant, we understand their pain and frustration; we may not subscribe to them, but it basically is a mirror of our own behavior: Where Xavier and his X-men protect, exert a benevolent influence in the face of the populace’s fear, Magneto and his ilk are the mirror image: Beyond the seeming supremacy due to the powers mutants have, they fear non-mutants.
They are the mirror image of the villainous characteristics in society; supremacist mutants ultimately utilize the very narrative and dichotomies that victimized them – much like the racist populace traumatizing them, beating them, fearing them, for Magneto, it’s literally Them or Us. Magneto’s movement constitutes a supremacy movement, much like that of e.g. groups like the Church of Humanity of the Friends of Humanity, which in turn clearly are intended to represent a variety of White Christian identity supremacy groups. That’s okay. They are the bad guys, after all. We’re supposed to root for the heroes, not them.
The X-men as the heroes we’re supposed to empathize with, always worked best when they did not work within the boundaries of “them” and “us” – the comics are often hailed for their inclusive stance for anyone not belonging. Whether it’s discrimination due to color, sexuality or beliefs (or lack thereof) – to me, the essence of X-men (as opposed to evil mutants) always did lie within the very notion of NOT subscribing to the dichotomous model explained above, of not succumbing to fear – the X-men are very much human and they suffer; their mutant-power-based competence is relativized by virtue of their humanity. They are constructed as both more and less than “Us”. They are not necessarily paragons of virtue – they are struggling much like we, the readers; do, they are constructed as everyday people thrown into an impossible situation, struggling with components of identity not fitting. The X-men work because they are relatable, because they are not constructed as the Other.
…or rather, they should be. They are not in the movies. Apart from the problem of not engaging in sufficient character development for the individuals to transcend the status of cardboard cutouts and stereotypes, the movies, by virtue of their formulaic adherence to the genre-standards, construct a spectacle of the Other; an oscillation between fascination and repulsion, between xenophilia and xenophobia in the tradition of freak shows that constructs the viewer as the gawking spectator instead of as an empathetic participant. The movies enforce the very concepts the characters ought to undermine via the insistence of action over character development, mitigating the main draw of the X-men in comparison to other superhero comics.
So that would be the first big issue I have with these movies. Next time, we’ll take a look at the REALLY big issues with the X-men movies and, in particular, their ideologies. See you then…and, if you enjoy this type of post, please let me know! Of course, if you do disagree, drop me a line as well and elaborate your point!
Oh, and it should be noted that this kind of article is sponsored by the generous patreons supporting me at the miscellaneous geekery-level – so yeah, if you do want me to write on a given subject matter, please take a look here and consider supporting the patreon!
Thank you for reading and see you soon!