"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 dialog - 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, dialog. 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"?1 Despite what I assume are noble intentions on the part of the creative teams, for this generation of film-goers 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 pro-social 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.
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 other Christian 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.
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-Ã-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.
1Magneto 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."