Without too much preamble I’m going to jump right in. I spend a lot of time thinking about X-Men. This won’t come as a big surprise to those of you who are familiar with the blog. On this particular occasion a discussion between a friend and I inspired a digression into how the television incarnations of the X-Men (the primary gateway into the franchise for many of its current fans) have dealt with certain issues of women and gender. I feel this is a relevant inquiry given the social justice theme implicit in so much of the X-universe. I’m going to be limiting my scope to X-Men Evolution and the 90’s X-Men, as those are the two series I have the most experience with and which I think are the closest reference for most of my readers. There isn’t really a thesis statement binding these observations together, more just an interesting series of conversational points.
First up, X-Men Evolution.
Not as well regarded by some fans for various character reinterpretations and being a little heavy on the teen drama, Evolution was ultimately a kind of return to classic formula. The idea of Xavier’s as a school for outcast youth was a central idea of the comics for years, but had not been strongly represented in the media up to that point in time. Given that conceit, I’m going to focus on the three female protagonists among the student characters (excluding the adults and the antagonists for the moment). Jean Grey, Rogue, and Kitty Pryde.
Jean Grey is easily one of the most self-possessed students at the school, male or female. She is an archetypal overachiever that seems to excel at everything she puts her mind to, academically, athletically, and socially. Also by far the most secure in her own identity and in her sexuality, being in an emotionally committed relationship with Scott. In many ways this is made easier for her by her mutant abilities. They are active rather passive powers. Telekinesis granting her a profound level of physical agency and telepathy allowing her to sidestep many of the uncertainties that plague normal adolescents.
Rogue on the other hand is arguable the least so of the student characters. She is a loner who is perpetually stymied in her ability to assert herself. Her mutant life-draining power effectively erects a barrier between herself and those around her, robbing her of both physical agency and interpersonal intimacy. Because of this she is withdrawn from others and any time there is an attempt to emerge from her shell there exists the possibility that she will be punished for it, as over the course of series she is on several occasions.
Kitty Pryde is an interesting counter example to both of them. Her ability to phase through matter is not the boon to self-assertion that it is for Jean Grey, but neither does it impede her as it does for Rogue. What it does grant her however is a means by which to escape from the perilous situations of life, adolescence, and emerging identity that Jean glides through and Rogue is trapped by. She has access to a level of unspoken security that allows her to take chances and make mistakes.
Then, there’s X-Men.
This one is a little more complicated, in that its relationship with gender politics is rather problematic. It has a variety of classically empowered female protagonists, but the show has this weird tendency of subtly undermining them and reminding us of their vulnerability in a way that rarely becomes a problem for the male characters.
Jean Grey seems to have much less overall presence in this incarnation, often almost acting as a prop for her teammates. She also repeatedly finds herself overwhelmed by some great telepathic force and swooning into the arms of Scott. When she is finally in a situation where she is unbridled from these constraints by the Phoenix Force it results in a threat to the entire galaxy (and a brief stint in the Hellfire Club wearing black leather if subtly isn’t your thing).
Rogue has significantly more physical agency in this series than in Evolution, owing to her additional powers of flight, super-strength, and invulnerability. Accordingly she is much more assertive in her personality and even rather flirtatious, nearly a polar opposite of her other portrayal. That being the case she is on several occasions incapacitated by her own life-draining ability, or herself becomes a liability, finding herself overwhelmed by the act of touching another (often male) character.
Storm really needs no introduction, her goddess archetype is almost an image of power personified. Still though she seems to be neutralized with uncommon frequency, often in such a way that reinforces a kind of submissive status (such as through her claustrophobia). I’m going to gloss over Jubilee in this analysis, since in my judgment she isn’t really written as a female character and more as the kid sidekick, however there are still other characters of note.
Morph is a rather interesting case, being much less lantern-jawed than the other X-Men and having an ability of physical and even gender fluidity. The only other character in the series with this ability is Mystique, practically a self-evident primer on dangerous boundary-crossing femme fatales. Morph is placed directly into the fridge, only to be removed as an on-again-off-again antagonist whose moral confusion seems to dovetail with his cis-confusion.
Also noteworthy is Professor Xavier. Like Morph he lacks the strong physical character of the other male protagonists, needing to be carried out of danger and otherwise rescued on a number of occasions. Throughout the series his role is often that of both father and mother figure, and like Jean he has a tendency to swoon following some psychic intercession. This scene, now familiar to approximately everyone on the internet, is essentially one in which Xavier’s lack of physical agency is culminated, largely helpless to act even in defense of another while his step-brother the Juggernaut and eventually Gladiator overpower the situation with brute force.
I cannot really speak to the portrayals present in Wolverine and the X-Men as my exposure to the series has been very limited. It is a question worth asking though as the multimedia faces of the X-Men brand are ultimately gateways into its universe, and each end inevitably informs the other. With the interrogation of equality forming the X-Men’s philosophical core, it stands to reason that one should explore whether the branches of its creative continuum succeed at living up to these ideas. The answer to any one of these questions does not form an immutable verdict over the whole, rather it points out a new direction for these ideas to travel. Only by engaging with the weaknesses of a thesis does it become stronger, and the same is true of the X-Men.