All of my life, I’ve been in love with the X-Men. The similarities between mutancy and being gay aside, the X-Men have one of the strongest rosters of kick-ass women (and we all know gay fanboys and girls love them some Strong Female Protagonists). Storm, Rogue, Phoenix, Psylocke—these women helped me see that a person can defy societal expectations and do it with strength and style.
Thus, with a heavy heart, I admit a difficultly arrived at conclusion: the X-Women may not be the best representation of true equality in comics. Going one step further into sacrilege—the Avengers may do a better job at portraying well-rounded women who are equalized with their male counterparts.
Now, I can already hear the seething outrage:
What about Storm: the first black woman on a team, leader of the X-Men, Queen of Wakanda who was worshipped as a goddess?
What about Rogue: also leader of a squad of X-Men, able to go toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Juggernaut and Gladiator?
What about Phoenix: the cosmic-fucking-force-of-nature that made galactic empires soil themselves?
(Better get fresh linens ready...)
Believe me, I hear ya. I once was on your side. But let’s put down our banners of fandom and look at this issue from a different perspective. For the sake of time, I’ll only be mentioning some of the more well-known X-Women and Avengers. Let’s start with the obvious…
While some powers that the X-Women have are formidable, many of their abilities send the wrong message to the reader. Women are not allowed to be the physical equals of their male counterparts; their strength comes through protection, generation, manipulation, seduction, or deception —archetypical of the nourishing mother and femme fatale.
Telekinesis, the power to move objects with your mind, has been a mainstay of the X-Women for decades. Although this ability could be used offensively with ease, it is often relegated for protective uses. Similarly, Emma Frost’s diamond form (which, by way of reminder, is one of the hardest substances known to man) is usually relegated to the protective category as well since Emma’s mind is shielded from telepathy while in diamond form.
(That time when Phoenix made a shrapnel snowflake...awwww)
Other potentially kick-ass women such as Storm, Dazzler, and Jubilee have abilities that would be lumped into the generative or creative category. While creating weather patterns or energy could put a character in the big leagues, there are a couple problems. First, the person is still very vulnerable to attack. Storm may be able to control weather on a global scale, but one good punch to the head and she’s out. Second, these powers aren’t properly utilized by writers to be intimidating (at least not when wielded by women).
Exhibit A: Jubilee shows the extent of her powers (essentially firecrackers) and then Synch—a mutant who can mimic abilities—utilizes them like a boss. P’owned.
Another commonly reoccurring powers in the X-Teams is telepathy. Basically, this ability boils down to a person having the power to sneak into and manipulate the minds of others. Several notable X-Women have had the power to rearrange the thoughts of others (including Phoenix, Marvel Girl, Psylocke, and Emma Frost). While most of the women who have this ability are ethical enough not to abuse it, Emma Frost has thought of some creative ways to get what she wants. The message is heard quite clearly through the overused trope: women are always going to try to manipulate others to get their way.
Exhibit B: Where Emma causes an angry crowd to simultaneously orgasm (look away, children!)
This example segues into the next category the X-Women (and never the men) are lumped into: seduction. Have you seen what Emma wears to work? Did you know that she used to work as an exotic dancer at the Hellfire Club? She is a walking sex-symbol who uses her natural features in concert with her mutant gifts to get exactly what she wants.
Exhibit C: The time Emma seduced Cyclops away from Phoenix with a “psychic affair”. Where's that left hand, Emma?
However, others like Rogue, can fall into this classification too. Although Rogue is one of the physical powerhouses of the team, her chief power is to steal the life-energy and powers of others. While this succubus-like ability can be categorized as deceptive, it is also seductive. Rogue is often shown peeling her gloves off while giving her opponent bedroom eyes, and the fact that she has to make skin-to-skin contact speaks to the inherent sensuality of the act. Additionally, many writers depict Rogue kissing a foe in order to steal his powers (Freud, eat your heart out).
Exhibit D: Rogue swapping spit instead of swapping licks with Archangel
Finally, several of the X-Women have abilities that could easily be called deceptive. As I wrote about previously, comic writers have a tricky path to navigate when scripting women-on-men fights or even women-on-women fights. Females are not often shown gaining the upper hand on a male opponent physically, which means that their victories are cheapened and can be called into question. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Shadowcat. Her ability to phase, ghost-like, through matter isn’t necessarily combat-ready; therefore, she is regularly shown slinking around the battlefield and taking “cheap shots” at opponents. Dazzler’s holograms, Magik’s teleportation disks, and Psylocke’s ninja training all amount to the same thing: women who have to “trick” their opponents in order to gain victory.
Exhibit E: Psylocke sneak attacking Magneto & Shadowcat suprising Lady Deathstrike with a heart exam
Shifting outside of the obvious, let’s take a look at how society views the X-Men. Our favorite team of merry mutants has always found themselves as outsiders to a “world that hates and fears them”. Since they spend a majority of their time evading authorities, combatting negative media portrayals, or trying to avoid hate crimes from groups of zealots, the X-Men don’t have much time to think about being positive role models. In fact, the X-Men are an extremely insular community, taking care of “its own” and fighting for a voice.
Moreover, many of the X-Women have less-than-savory pasts.
Storm was a pickpocket and a thief in Cairo. Rogue was a former villain who is notorious for having stolen Captain Marvel’s abilities (strength, endurance, flight). Phoenix (or at least the entity that controlled her) destroyed planets. Did I mention that Emma Frost used to be an exotic dancer, and she was a villain for years?
And, although I said I was only going to stick to the main ladies, most notorious of all was a woman named Stacy X who briefly joined the team. Her profession? Prostitute. Definitely not a group of women I would want my future daughter to latch on to.
Exhibit F (as in: what the F were they thinking to have this hooker with a heart of gold on the team?): Stacy X
Due to their status as social pariahs, outlaws, and criminals, the X-Men find it rather difficult to hold down meaningful careers. Aside from Dazzler (who was a well-known musician) the majority of the X-Women don’t have jobs. Some of the ladies attempted to go off to college (namely, Shadowcat, who did not obtain a degree) and now most of them double as teachers for the school hides their vigilante group. I should note that none of them actually have teaching degrees, so they amount to skilled professionals. The things they teach are meant only for comedic value, with classes like “Brain Spelunking”, “Outer Space Survival”, and “Downloading Foreign Languages” (all taught by Marvel Girl).
Exhibit G: If Stevie Nicks and Ziggy Stardust had a baby...Dazzler!
While it would be difficult to hold down a job in the midst of what is essentially a battlefield, these women are left in the dependence of wealthy sugar daddies for their most basic needs (first Professor X himself [estimated value 7 billion dollars], then Archangel). Emma Frost has been stated to be a millionare herself, but her money came through inheritance and skullduggery (definitley not through grit and determination). Even though the intent of demeaning women is most likely unintentional, having a group of women (who have been in print over 50 years) being incapable of supporting themselves is an egregious error.
Overall, the message that these women send out is that females can only be seen as equal to men if they engage in underhanded tactics, are viewed as outsiders in society, and cannot have serious, fulfilling careers.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the She-vengers and see if they come out ahead as female role models.
Got a comment or suggestion? Chime in below!