The Racial Politics of X-Men

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and Theories of Psychotherapy, writes about the new X-Men film and its racial politics.

"Fiction," said Stephen King, "is the truth inside the lie." He might have also mentioned that, for many, it is the only truth they get, at least about some issues. It's no secret that popular fiction exerts a strong influence on how kids, adolescents, and the rest of us think about controversial topics. It is therefore noteworthy that recent books and films such as Harry Potter and Avatar have well-developed racial allegories. Both franchises present clear and unmistakable anti-racist themes, while at the same time (probably unintentionally) reinforcing harmful racial tropes (see here and here for the corresponding racial analyses).

The X-Men franchise is in the same tradition. In draws deliberate parallels between the oppression of mutants and that of other marginalized groups. As long-time X-Men writer Chris Claremont explained back in 1982, "The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have..., intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice." As a result, these important but usually avoided themes have become part of the dialogue - both online and at the kitchen table. Moreover, with several more Avatar and X-Men films currently in production, these themes are likely to be part of our pop-cultural discourse for the foreseeable future.

Good stuff, dialogue. But what exactly does a popular franchise like the X-Men teach about race and racism? What precisely does it mean, for example, when Magneto, the principle villain in the X-Men comics/films, tells Xavier, the leader of the X-Men, that he will fight for the liberation of his people (mutants) "by any means necessary"?* Despite what I assume are noble intentions on the part of the creative teams, for this generation of filmgoers it likely means a distorted view of Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement, an unrealistic understanding of contemporary race relations, and an unintended promotion of the racial status quo.

These are serious problems, and I will give them the attention they deserve, but it is also worth noting that X-Men provide the opportunity to have those much-needed conversations about tolerance and inclusivity. The importance of being comfortable and proud in one's skin is one of several prosocial messages of X-Men First Class, as well as of the original trilogy. The X-Men films handle many racial themes well, but, like Avatar, they may have some negative consequences too. In this space, I briefly examine two specific racial myths perpetrated by the X-Men franchise. For those interested, a much more detailed discussion of this topic, including an in-depth examination of the Magneto-Malcolm X parallel, is available here.

Myth #1: All oppression is the same

One of the most popular themes in popular fiction's depiction of group prejudice is the drawing of explicit parallels between the plight of the fictional group and real-world historical oppression, most commonly the Holocaust and the legalized segregation in the South under Jim Crow. Although the comics pursued both analogies at length, Until X-Men First Class, the films had focused primarily on the latter, drawing a variety of explicit and unmistakable parallels between Xavier's and Magneto's fight for mutant rights and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. On the surface, the parallels seem well-informed. The mob violence and the hateful slogans (e.g., "The only good mutant is a dead mutant") are remarkably familiar, and the anti-mutant hate groups, such as Friends of Humanity and the Church of Humanity, are clearly intended to represent real oppressive forces like the Ku Klux Klan and a variety of otherChristian Identity and White Supremacy groups.

This is fine as far as it goes, but the parallel is built upon the flawed premise that the mutants' experience of prejudice is analogous to the oppression experienced by Blacks and other racial minority groups. It's true, of course, that both mutants and Blacks experienced prejudice, but the specific prejudicial attitudes that people hold and express toward these groups is often very different. Consider a 2002 study by Susan Fiske and her colleagues in which racially diverse samples of undergraduate students and adults rated 23 different out-groups on the basis of how society views them on two dimensions: expressed warmth (i.e., how positively people feel toward out-group members) and perceived competence (i.e., how competent they perceive out-group members to be).

Results consistently revealed three different types of prejudice: paternalistic prejudice (high warmth towards the group with low perception of the group's competence); contemptuous prejudice (low warmth towards the group with low perception of the group's competence); and envious prejudice (low warmth towards the group with high perception of the group's competence). While this study did not include mutants in their list of out-groups (clearly a glaring oversight!), X-Men fans know that though mutants tend to be regarded with little warmth by humans, they are nevertheless perceived to be high in competence. This combination would place them squarely into the envious prejudice category, quite far from how "Negroes" were perceived by the White majority prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement. Which brings us to Myth #2.

Myth #2: An oppressed group is in some way responsible for its own oppression

The distinctions above are highly relevant. Although oppressed groups that are viewed by the dominant majority with contempt are not necessarily powerless (even nonviolent protest is a show of power), unlike mutants, they typically lack the physical force or political power to stop their own oppression. Under these circumstances, placing the burden of peace and tolerance on the oppressed group (this is essentially Xavier's agenda) can itself be seen as a subtle form of oppression, for this expectation blames the victimized for their own victimization. Thus, while it's reasonable to expect super-powered mutants to make certain accommodations in order to fit into mainstream society, this expectation is hardly reasonable in the real world, where ordinary human beings comprise both the oppressed and the socially privileged. Even if we believe (as I do) that those with less power vis-à-vis mainstream society deserve greater protection, no oppressed group should ever be expected to bear the burden of accommodating to their own oppression.

Applied to real history, Xavier's mindset would have blamed Jews in Nazi Germany and Blacks in the antebellum South for their victimization--and would have expected them to make accommodations for the sake of peace, rather than demanding that the society itself become more accepting and less oppressive. In fact, this is what actually occurred as Nazis blamed the Jews for their condition and slave owners rationalized the institution of slavery by arguing that the "uncivilized" Africans needed the firm hand of the slave masters to lead happy and productive lives.

Unfortunately, the tendency to blame the oppressed group for its victimization is not just a fictional or historical phenomenon. Today our society continues to express this mindset in a variety of instantly recognizable ways, as when we suggest that a woman who was sexually assaulted should have worn less revealing clothing or imply that a gay man could choose to have a different sexual orientation. On some level, the X-Men franchise understands the folly of this type of thinking. X-Men United (X-2, 2003) even pokes fun of victim-blaming tendencies in its very effective parody (and social critique) of how some families react to a child who "comes out" as gay. Indeed, it is no more possible to will oneself into not being a mutant, as it is to will oneself into not being gay or female or a person of color. Yet, the X-Men creative team fails to take the critique to its logical conclusion, for though Magneto actively challenges this notion, since Xavier is presented as the film's moral compass, the viewer is expected to ultimately accept the assumption that it is the mutants (and, by extension, gays, lesbians, and people of color) who must somehow make themselves fit into mainstream society, rather than expecting society to become more inclusive.

Conclusion

This propagation of racial mythology is not a minor flaw, and the resulting probable harm to readers' and viewers' thinking about race relations should not be dismissed or minimized. And yet, unlike Marc Antony, I come mostly to praise Caesar, not to bury him. There are frequent moments when the X-Men creative teams manage to turn a superhero soap-opera into an opportunity to meaningfully engage readers and viewers of all ages with social issues that are too often ignored by both the mainstream media and mainstream educational institutions. Even if the X-Men comics and films at times fail to adequately or accurately convey what scholars have learned about prejudice and group relations, they nevertheless open the door for historians and social scientists to weigh in and provide their own perspectives. My hope is that those perspectives also become part of the popular discourse.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D.

Member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The article first appeared here and is re-published under the Creative Commons terms as detailed.

Footnotes: *Magneto uses this phrase in his conversation with Xavier at the end of X-Men (2000), saying: "The [human-mutant] war is coming, and I intend to fight it by any means necessary."

Archived Comments

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The Racial exploitation of the Xmen

During and after i read the thesis, i was compelled to comment on the fallacies and broad assertions made by the writer. The film presented a balance view of our society and our struggles, as mankind and i am pretty sure no lines were crossed. Indeed a lot of the materials are borrowed from our histories and social sphere; nonetheless the presentation was somewhat fair.

I obviously object with the writer that the " ..tendency to blame the oppressed group for its victimization..." is not a true observation of the situation in the film. Clearly, the Professor understood the sensitivity of the matter at hand and knew it must be dealt with in a wise manner. Which may mean a careful execution of the reality of mutants and their "powers", also it was noted, the severity of the mutants existence as an infringement upon the humans. Which may have been perceived a threat to the humans, but an encouragement for the far left mutants.

The sceneries, on the surface may seem similar, yet i will have to disagree at the very core they are diametrically different in comparison to sexual orientation and race. Perfectly demonstrated within the mutant community was the propensity for destructions i.e Magneto controlling metals and Professor X ability to control the minds of others unwilling. These issue cut straight into the hearts of Moral Values and what are considered as Natural and Humane. If one begins to defy the natural laws and boundaries, then what else is possible, in the latter progression of the series, we find Mutants who are able to manipulate reality.

I believe, it may be easier to pick out what is real to us and draw conclusion, rather than looking at the whole picture and then drawing a rational conclusion, so we have to remain in context of the premise and be true to the story at hand. The nature of the mutants are due to genetic mutations, which was curable in the previous film, like all mutation if there is a cure, then we apply them. Obviously, the film had its own intent, and naturally wanted this to be a controversial issue. Yet I am very assured if there are cure for many of the genetic mutation or disease’s then we would apply them, what makes Gene X so special?
In reference to the X Men Last Stand, it was interesting Professor X was challenged with Einstein professed Philosophical conclusion that there are no Supernatural Being, and the Professor responded and undermining that “Einstein was not a Mutant….”. Clearly a distinction was drawn here, in comparsion to Human Thoughts with Mutants and the Mutants are the supreme ones. This was all in the context of Ethical and Moral decisions, and even the entire talk was never completed and we did not get the Mutant hold on the controversial topics of Ethics.
Either way, my point was clear, the topic and concept of the Mutant cannot be fairly compared to our ethical problem, though they may share similar grounding at the surface level, at the very roots we see a different situation. Race and Sexual Orientation are not human threatening and competing against the survival of the human race or evolution. So if we can discern the premises, then we can come to a logical and coherent conclusion.
So I do disagree with Myth 2 and the others, however I do observe that, if we are to ignore the fact, that the Mutant are not only biologically different from Humans but also possess Metaphysical abilities. Then we are making a bigoted argument and presuming that mutants are not a threat to themselves and Humans, and we unbalance the scales and become unfair to the humans and insensitive to their existence. So delaying their exposure to Humans is logically sound, in as much to allow them time to adapt and be familiar to the topics.
I saw this in the Human Right Movement and I see it today in all parts of the World, time is needed for change and a decision is what propels a plan of action.
In all that said, I do see the alleged assertion in the film, which I find controversial in itself:
1. Evolution of Species
2. Ethical Issues, Killing, revenge, defrayal etc

X-Men allegory for the holocaust and the civil-rights movement

It's all so simple if you do not wish to over-complicate. X-Men is an allegory for the holocaust and the civil-rights movement in America.

It is expressing the belief that gradual intergration and co-operation, as suggested by Professor X, is better than risking anarchy and war in order to enforce integration in order to preserve the principles of integration that would not be realised if such a thing happened. This is Magneto's catch-22 (As described by the author of the book:Catch-22" is a military rule, the self-contradictory circular logic that, for example, prevents anyone from avoiding combat missions).

Many of the writers and artists for Marvel Comics are people with a Jewish background, some who would have felt the effects of segregation and isolation from a community and the part that America played in redeeming their lives while also recognising some of the problems found within American society.

X-Men is the conflict between those that think people commit acts of bigotry because they are scared and those that commit acts of bigotry because they should be scared. This, in particular with X-Men: First Class, is explored with the relationship between Professor X and Magneto. Magneto wants a war both as a result of seking vengeance for his tragic past (first discovering his powers while bein sent to a concentration camp, as a child, by the Nazis and because of his Jewish heritage) and as an element of his character that suggests his internal pain is always the fault of others. He comes to hold contempt for every person and blames everybody for the effect that Regime Fascism in Germany had on him. He would even hold contempt for those that actually fought to liberate him and others. Magneto cannot recognise the good intentions of people and rgidly holds on to his principles that, as explored earlier, can create a negative catch-22 situation that emerges as a paradox (Si vis pacem, para bellum: "If you wish for peace, prepare for war".

Perhaps you could say that Professor X is Martin Luther King to Magneto's Malcom X.

"Today our society continues to express this mindset in a variety of instantly recognizable ways, as when we suggest that a woman who was sexually assaulted should have worn less revealing clothing".

No, Saudi Arabia does that and suggests so as a part of their law/customs on account of the views exhibited by their monarch. I do not believe that you can generalise social vews based on ill-interpreted 'zeitgeist' notions, given that many free countries live as divided societies (something else that the writers of x-men were attempting to portray. As a psychology professor, you should perhaps be more specific about who thinks what and why.

At the end of the day, like any creative medium, x-men explores serious ideas through the use of play, a common idea seen prominently among children in both the human and animal kingdom. It is there to create a canvass for amusement or ideas that is found inside. It is not supposed to be a serious and dry discussions about racial theories and it would be detrimental to the entertainment industry if such a thing were attempted, become more akin to a boring soviet-era propaganda cartoon, devoid of creativity and the benefits of free expression.

X-Men

"Perhaps you could say that Professor X is Martin Luther King to Magneto's Malcom X"

The director of the film is on record saying he modelled them both on both King and X so that's intentional in the story...

It's been that way since the start.

I think that the relationship had been modeled on King/Malcom X by Marvel Comics ever since the '60's when the X-Men comics were first published.

Marvel comics often have thinly veiled allegories for topical situations in American society. The first issues of Captain America in the '40's, printed before America had even joined the war, had him punch Hitler in the face after invading Germany in 1941 (many astute people will realise that such an exent by the allied forces did not occur until the beginning of 1945). Not exactly subtle...

It was a way for the writers and artists to express their distain for the policies of the Wehrmacht-driven Third Reich and quite likely to be a reason for the sudden American popular support of the War-effort after years of expressed desires for isolationism - a sort of 'positive propaganda' (again, through Professor X, the ability to 'brainwash' people through emotional change is a debated moral issue). Some of the most iconic characters or artistic works in history have arisen as a result of a writer's frustrations with the times that they have inhabited.

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