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X-Studies

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.

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 Because of this she is withdrawn from others and any time there is an attempt to emerge from her shell there exists the possibility that she will be punished for it, as over the course of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.

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.

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Stone By Day…

Warriors By Night!

I’m getting a leg-up on the oncoming wave of 90’s nostalgia, as the focus of that particular niche moves inexorably forward with the advancing age of its original acolytes. I’ll be upfront, while I am familiar with most of our current nostalgia touchstones (Transformers, GI Joe, Thundercats, et al.), I’m not really their target audience. I was just a little too young to have caught most of them in their prime, and the properties I formed a connection with belong primarily to the following decade. In what exposure I’ve had to the cauldron of pop culture discussion, from which springs our obsessions with the artifacts of youth, I’ve noticed a certain undercurrent of elitism among the hierophants of 80’s nostalgia. They tend to get a degree of tunnel vision, disregarding what came before and what came after their particular window of genre saturation as beneath analysis, added to by the confirmation bias of seeing their niche so well represented in today’s revivalist pop culture environment. This being the case, insomuch as I have observed, I sense a war of hegemony on the horizon. Like a broadband John Brown I predict flame wars that shall scorch the very tubes of the interwebz as Young Turks of the 90’s vie for position against the fattened referential hierarchs of the Reagan era. In preparation for this battle of thinly-legitimized infantilism, allow me to loose my colors and cry hosanna to one of the truly great things to rock Saturday morning.

Gargoyles.

In the early 1990’s the Fox network had managed to hit not just one but two spectacular home runs in the realm of youth programming, with Power Rangers and Batman the Animated Series coming out of almost nowhere to create media and merchandising powerhouses. The Walt Disney company wanted in on this. After all, this was Disney. Kid oriented stuff was the mortar of their empire. Moreover, the “Disney Renaissance” was just really getting its feet under it, and it was a time that rewarded experimentation. So, Disney put its chips down on an ambitious gamble. A gothic fantasy adventure series that sought to capture the ensemble dynamic of Power Rangers and inject it with the brooding, slightly mature melodrama of Batman. The result was Gargoyles, and it was absolutely freaking sweet.

I recently undertook to watch a good portion of the series, wearing the equivalent of two hats as I did so. On the one hand, I watched it with the unbridled enthusiasm of nostalgia. On the other, I did my best to evaluate it objectively as a critic. The verdict? Still absolutely freaking sweet. Gargoyles still holds up almost two decades later, and in a way that supports more intellectual weight than most of its forebears and indeed many of its contemporaries. Don’t just take my word for it, check it out!

No small part of this is owed to the fact that Disney did not screw around on this project. The animation is fantastic, leveraging the full weight of Disney’s legendary art studio. If you’ve got an eye for it you can catch the occasional recycled sequence or hastily celled frame, but these are overwhelmingly the exceptions to the rule of Gargoyles‘ memorable, dynamic, and highly articulated visuals. Then there’s the voice cast. Oh the voice cast. You know what, let me just link you to the freaking page. Go nuts. I’ll wait.

Then there’s the writing. While it’s not without some occasional dissonance, mainly stemming from the inevitable strictures placed upon ostensible children’s programming and the occasional mediocre filler episode. The show by and large remains very solid though, with more than a few digressions into some fairly heavy stuff. Discrimination and xenophobia are their preferred drum to beat, but other questions of man’s inhumanity to man abound. In the action sequences realistic firearms are commonplace, and in one particular “very special episode” there’s even an unexpected amount of blood. The plots run the gamut from science fiction to high fantasy to modern intrigue, a consistent tone and rich mythology being the only things that keep its otherwise schizophrenic premise from falling apart. That the show manages to function at all given its quirky premise, complex machinery, ranging story, and mosaic of plot devices is something of a small miracle in itself. Work it does, though.

Despite that, unfortunately, Gargoyles never really became the breakout hit it was envisioned to be. It did respectably enough, consistent if underwhelming ratings and some moderate merchandising, but it didn’t mount any serious challenge to the lords of television at that time. After three seasons, the second of which a mammoth fifty-two episodes and the third of debatable canon following the departure of much of the original writers, the show got the axe. To date only the first season and the first half of season two have seen a DVD release, but with the twentieth anniversary of the show looming and its cult following gaining momentum with the dawning of 90’s nostalgia culture, it isn’t unreasonable to think there may soon be a complete series set in the offing.

In the place where I would normally close with something witty I’m instead just going to say “Go watch this show. Seriously. Go do it.”

Xanatos planned for me to say that…

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Frontiers New And Final

I’m feeling another funk coming on, but I’m going to see if I can turn it into motivation to do something distracting. Like, I don’t know, writing or something.

So here it comes. You knew it had to be sooner or later. The Star Trek post. This kid is a Trekkie. Deal with it. Anyway, I want to talk specifically about the original series of Trek. You know, the one your mom likes. Its cool though, cause they made a new version of it that was ‘deliberately’ retro and funny looking, so you can enjoy it and still be hip.

The original Star Trek is rightly hailed as a landmark both for science fiction and for television. It broke down barriers, asked tough questions, and generally pushed the boundaries both of its genre and its medium. Moreover, it cast the mold for an entire subset of science fiction that would broadly imitate the model established by Trek. Part of Trek’s popularity came in its idealistic outlook, the notion that mankind would one day leave politics behind, uniting in a spirit of mutual betterment. That said, Star Trek was not without an ideology. The central ethos of Star Trek was an extension of a system of ideas which under-girded the first years of the 1960’s and which Star Trek effectively stewarded through the latter half of the decade. These ideas resonated with the American public in part because they were articulated by this man:

President John F. Kennedy. His spirit is infused in every atom of Star Trek, which in many ways represents the ultimate expression of his scientific and social goals. The utopian society presented in Star Trek has some times been jokingly referred to as being pseudo-communist, with its rejection of currency as a unit of value and other such anti-capitalist trappings. However, the truth is that human society in Trek is much more akin to a vast “technocracy,” in which the predominance of scientific principles as societal movers has reduced all social ills to variables in an equation which can then be corrected for and eliminated. This is the logical end point of Modernization Theory, a school of thought which was really coming into the fore with the advent of the 60’s and which strongly informed Kennedy’s rhetoric. The opening monologue of Star Trek echoes sentiments of Kennedy speeches, particularly the famous “New Frontier” speech accepting the Democratic nomination for President.

“[W]e stand today on the edge of a New Frontier–the frontier of the 1960’s–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils– a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats […] I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”

Beginning to sound familiar? It was this ideology that gave us not only the space program but also the Peace Corps. This latter development also informs the Trek ethos, establishing the crew as missionaries of progress. Just as Modernization sought to divest itself of “the white man’s burden,” so too did Star Trek invoke its Prime Directive. Nevertheless, Moderinzation’s frequent conflict with ill-defined notions of “traditional” society made it difficult not to ascribe it a “civilizing” or “westernizing” quality. So too does Star Trek at times feel possessed of a kind of moral agency, a sense of carrying the light of “civilization” into the untamed blackness of space. While it deliberately avoids attempting to “lift up” less technological societies, rarely does it hesitate to “enlighten” them. This kind of high-minded imposition of values can’t help but seem a little poorly fitted with the rest of the series’ humanistic message, but in the context of the time it isn’t so strange. Modernization carried with it a current of objective morality that was in large part a reaction against more ethically subjective philosophies which, many at the time believed, had led to the excesses of the Nazis and the Holocaust. Consider that these events were scarcely twenty years removed from the cultural memory and this kind of sermonizing isn’t really surprising.

Consider also, the primary antagonists of the original series, the Klingons. They represent everything antithetical to Trek society. They are clannish, warlike, and duplicitous. The honor-bound depiction of Klingons most Trek fans are familiar with wouldn’t be introduced until The Next Generation two decades later. In fact, the original history and culture of Klingon society published in the early 70’s actually emphasizes their untrustworthiness. Even their ships hide behind cloaking devices. Certainly this plot-device had the advantage of allowing them to use fewer expensive models on set by rendering the other ships invisible, but it also served to drive home the notion that Klingons were cowardly and alien. Even the iconography used to communicate the Klingons’ “otherness” wasn’t new…

The top image is a Klingon. The bottom image is Fu Manchu. While Star Trek was trailblazing casting George Takei, a Japanese-American, in a leading heroic role it was also putting its villainous archetypes in yellow-face. Some of this was unintentional. The Fu Manchu style makeup provided an easy visual shorthand for audiences who were familiar with its use in villain imagery. On the other hand, the imagery in question was based on antiquated, racially-motivated caricatures. When you also consider that the Klingons were used to represent much the same things as the Fu Manchu archetype; savage outsiders who threaten good enlightened society, the case becomes more damning. More broadly, the Klingons represented the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. According to Modernization, the USSR was state in which something had gone wrong during the transition between “traditional” and “modern” society, resulting in a writ large Frankenstein’s monster with the capacity of a modern state but a savage worldview. So too are the Klingons an advanced spacefaring race like humanity, but possessed of a ruthless expansionistic quality . I won’t go into the problems of these assumptions right now, but content yourself for now knowing that they are there.

Does any of this invalidate Star Trek’s profound impact on our culture? No. Does acknowledging that Star Trek is a product of its time period, replete with compromises, rather than a spasm of divine inspiration mean that you can’t enjoy it without irony? Of course not. I still do. Amidst the unfortunate baggage there remains the fact that Trek created a time capsule for American idealism during an era when that was in short supply. It took the best of Kennedy’s vision and became its steward, its shepherd. Great men can be killed, but their legacies endure eternal. Star Trek is the legacy of the New Frontier, and though it may be long until we finally cross it, these shall be our voyages…

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