This is the second in a series of “intimate critiques” produced by masters students in my Comparative Media Studies proseminar on media theory and methods. Each essay tries to blend personal narrative with larger theoretical issues as a way of digging deeper into the place of popular culture in our everyday lives. This year’s set can be seen as a series of narratives of “coming out” as fans and how this process relates to other aspects of one’s personal identity.
I HEART Mutants
(Except for that Shameless Mary Sue, Jean Grey)
Lan Xuan Le
I met the X-Men for the very first time on Saturday, October 31st, 1992. It was 9 AM, prime time for the grade school demographic, and the Fox Network was debuting its second attempt at an animated cartoon series based on a comic book of the same name. The first episode opened in the midst of the government’s Mutant Registration Program, an initiative to find and round up all the human beings who possessed genetically-enhanced superpowers. In a recent, unexplained evolutionary burst, people across the world had begun manifesting unusual abilities at the onset of puberty. Pyrokinesis, telepathy, super-strength, invulnerability – the public had been waging a campaign of repression on these so called “mutants” out of a fear of their superior abilities. The first episode dumped the audience right into the middle of a long-standing conflict between homo sapien and “homo superior.” It was in this political climate that Professor Charles Xavier and his band of select mutant followers have been fighting to preserve mutant rights against the human government and other mutants who would enslave humankind.
Running for a total of five seasons, X-Men was Fox Kid’s second most successful show after Batman The Animated Series and continued airing reruns for a year after the release of its final episode. X-Men began as a popular serial comic book under the Marvel Publishing arm of Marvel Entertainment in 1963. Created by the legendary duo, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Uncanny X-Men told the story of a band of humans who struggled to protect a “world that hated and feared them.” Although it was an established, long-standing franchise in American popular culture, the television show was my first point of entry into this universe.
I was not quite 12-years-old, the daughter of Vietnamese-American political immigrants, and a “gifted and talented” student in the mid-Western educational system. It seemed inevitable that the idea of mutant alienation and political struggle would ignite my young imagination. At the heart of the X-Men mythos lies a powerful metaphor of marginalization. Race, gender, sexuality – mutation stood in for and made visible the oppressions suffered by a class of people, of which I was a part. It spoke to the systematically, discursively constructed category of “othering” I suffered as a racial minority, de-naturalizing and exposing them. It spoke to my experience of systemic exclusions as a girl in America and a daughter in a family with Confucian values. X-Men represented my nascent political consciousness, the burgeoning understanding of myself as part of a larger grouping of people and an agent acting within a system of conflicting pressures. The story of X-Men became powerful to me in a way that the individual struggle of a character such as Batman could not.
The idea of mutation, a flexible metaphor, resonated with many of my experiences of exclusion. But race and gender remains, even today, the most powerful level of my experience of the mutation metaphor. Race is often discursively inscribed upon the bodies of racial minorities, like the “oversexed and savage” stereotype of black, male bodies or the sexual, pliant bodies of Asian women. So too is mutation a bodily “othering.” This “otherness” of the mutant body often takes physical form, like with Doctor Hank “Beast” McCoy’s hairy, animal-like appearance. Similarly, racialized or mutated bodies become the difference against which white or human bodies are visually and discursively normalized.
Some mutants in the X-Men universe, however, do not wear their differences on their bodies. Their abilities manifest in subtler ways, allowing them to “pass” as human. The conflict that arises between the obviously mutated and the “pretty” mutants erupts periodically in the story. In the X-Men universe, the physically mutated characters gathered into an underground, sewer-based community called the Morlocks after a similar, villainous society in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. They could not avoid the political experience of mutancy and became angry at those who remained sheltered and apolitical in their appearance of humanity. This, for me, mirrored the way my Asian girlfriends used the increasing invisibility of their race to avoid or even deny themselves as racialized subjects, often as gendered subjects as well. Those were precisely the moments that I understood my decisions through the mutant metaphor. By choosing to be a Morlock, I chose to openly live a fraught political reality that would act upon me whether or not I confronted it.
The metaphor of mutation, especially as applied to bodies, became a very powerful expression of the ways in which my own body had been re-written without my permission. As an Asian woman, my body is all too visible and yet my “color” has receded, being neither white nor black. I too have been inscribed upon, defined into my very DNA. But for mutants, their power lay precisely their differences. The very performance of their differences gave them the power to resist. The heroes of X-Men were those mutants who could come to accept and judiciously use their powers, not those who remained silent. That proved an important idea for me at the age of twelve, the ability to appropriate the performance of difference in some way, to reclaim the language of these performances to empower myself. It gave me a option to act, to vocally resist the silencing and naturalization of my exclusions.
While the characters in X-Men fight against the teleological framing of “mutation” in the same way I do as a woman of color, the metaphor to race and gender is imperfect. What I find most unsettling about the mutation metaphor, and the differences this represents, is the struggle between the biological reality and socially constructed nature of “mutation.” Linking differences to the term “mutation” implies a kind of biological determinism. Within the story, however, these genetic changes actually produce an incontrovertible difference in the X-Men. The ability to mentally levitate objects is not comparable to the experience of race, gender, class, and sexuality, which are socially determined. Many groups have struggled to shift the debates of difference from biological determinism to social construction, and I remain ambivalent about how powerful this imperfect metaphor is for me.
I read more than just race into the bodies of these mutant characters. The bodies of women take on another significance in the X-Men television show for me. The idealization and display of female bodies is a standard part of the comic book industry’s practice, which is dominated by a male culture of production. But female bodies often become sites of social anxiety. Asian female bodies, for example, were considered dangerous during earlier immigration to the US, because reproduction is the power of a marginal, feminine body to spread and contaminate the normative political body.
One of the most interesting women in the X-Men universe is Rogue, a member of the X-Men. Rogue is lushly beautiful, possessing super-strength, flight, invulnerability, and the ability to steal the life force of anyone she touches skin to skin. I envied Rogue because she represented the impenetrable female body. Rogue has the appearance of a woman who is sexually permissive, but the body which denies penetration. The markers of Rogue’s class – her Southern “trash” stylings – are intimately linked to this perceived sexual permissiveness. Rogue’s yearning to touch and be touched, especially when expressed in the presence of her on-again-off-again boyfriend Remy, yield to both innocent and lascivious interpretations. But because of her powers, she remains a non-reproducing body, one that is safely neutered, a contagion contained. Whether or not I understood it as a child, Rogue has always represented to me a site where masculine anxieties about women found expression.
Just as I found Rogue and the text’s relationship to her body intriguing, I found the character of Jean Grey equally repugnant. In all the ways that Rogue embodies ambivalence, Jean Grey equally and oppositely represents the heteronormative forces within the text. Beautiful and in control, Jean Grey’s cerebral powers mirror her middle-class origins, which stands in contrast to Rogue’s physical (and blue collar) powers. Jean Grey’s empathic social role in the team was to mediate the tensions of class, gender, and sexuality. She invoked her authority as the mother, the sanctioned, reproducing body, to quell insurrection and unify the group under a liberal morality invested in the feminine as a site of cultural reproduction. She became a symbol of the ways in which liberalism’s promise of social justice sacrificed so many marginal voices to speak from a unified position. In a story that allowed me discursive reprieve, that provided catharsis in its simple acknowledgment of my exclusions, Jean Grey violated the agreement offered by the text.
I followed the television show until its end in 1997, at which point I sought to find the “original,” the comic books, and continue my relationship with the story. I quickly discovered that the series had been running for nearly 40 years, the whole of it beyond my reach both economically and logistically. The serial nature of the comic book defeated my ability to master the canon as thoroughly as did my economic circumstances. The Internet, however, offered a different way into the X-Men history.
In 1998 I discovered fan websites, places where pieces of the X-Men story came together, character by character. But I found these dry, journalistic recitations insufficient to approximate the experience of reading the comic books, of knowing the X-Men first hand. It was during my web surfing that I found fan fiction, the resource that finally opened up X-Men to me. These stories became a snapshot of the fan’s ongoing experience of reading, problematizing, and subsequent (re)writing of the X-Men comic books. It seemed a recursive, cyclical process carried through many stories, probably extending to other media properties. Whatever they represented to the fan author, for me as a reader, fan fiction became a constant renewal of the X-Men text. Through these stories, I could read X-Men anew through the lens of another fan’s love. I began a two-year journey into the collective imaginary of X-Men, a historiography of myth and memory.
These fan stories explored the tensions of the comic book, perhaps further than the original format would have allowed. Dozens of stories addressed the same events in canon, correcting, changing, darning over the snags and tangles of plot holes. I had access to a collective record of the major shifts in the X-Men franchise and the fan reaction to them. Reading fan fiction was like mining the secondary sources of an historical event. Fan fiction, for me, became a record of what could never be part of the comic book canon, the discourse of an experience. The “truth” of the canon became irrelevant compared to reading the fantasy of the reading.
Fan fiction transformed my experience of the X-Men story, turning it from a monoglossic text into a multiple, unstable, heteroglossic pleasure. Every character, every relationship took on a complexity impossible in a single text, even a serial one. Although the series was multi-vocal, containing a diverse, international cast and expressive of a range of views to begin with, the very nature of fan fiction and individual interpretation allowed me a far broader experience. I adore, for example, not the canonical character of Gambit, but a layered memory of Gambit as can only be possible through people who both love and loath him. And so he is even more fascinating, engaging, and ultimately satisfying a character than any single text could offer.
By early 2000, the tide of fan fiction on the web had begun to ebb, bringing my journey with the fan community to an end. I attended college later that year and moved on to other media properties, but the X-Men would remain an essential part of my cultural imaginary. But my relationship to the franchise continued to change nonetheless. In 2000, Marvel released a full-length, live action film adapted from the comic books followed by two sequels. The same year, the X-Men: Evolution cartoon began on television, aiming to recapture the popularity of the original by re-imagining the X-Men’s beginning in the present day. In 2001, the X-Men comic books spun off another alternate universe under the title of Ultimate X-Men that again re-imagined the beginning of the X-Men, but in a completely different universe from the Evolution cartoon.
The increasing number of alternate universes validated my increasing distance from the “canon” that I was originally so keen to obtain. It only added to the multiplicity and richness of the X-men text. While this move inspired fan anger for “selling out” the franchise and violating the integrity of the story, I saw this move as a way for the franchise to preserve its heteroglossic mythology. Each one of these re-imagined beginnings was designed for me, the interested audience that found itself excluded from the long-running history of the comic book. I finally felt courted by a universe that likely was not speaking to me, but from which I had appropriated strategies of resistance. While these alternate universes aimed to renew my relationship to the series, the ties had faded over time. I now possessed academic theories and frameworks through which to parse my experiences and exclusions.
In early spring of 2008, a fan group, in defiance of copyright, scanned and released all the volumes of the X-Men as PDFs online. Through the magic of peer-to-peer downloading, I finally acquired the whole of the X-Men canon. But in the end, I could not come to love them. With the exception of Joss Whedon’s short stint at the helm of the Uncanny X-Men, the story was written predominantly by men for an audience that was not me, nor necessarily a group that included me. Fan fiction, on the other hand, was written primarily by women with whom I shared many salient experiences. In the end, I chose not to read the comic books lest they fundamentally change the relationship I had already nurtured with the franchise. The potential loss of that wonderfully unstable text could not ultimately compare to the gain of the comic book itself.
Lan Xuan Le
Swarthmore College, BA Biology and Asian Studies 2004
Boston University, Masters of Public Health 2007
Lan Xuan Le, who has BAs in both Biology and Asian Studies from Swarthmore College (2004) and a Masters in Public Health from Boston University (2007), has been part of the “games for health movement,” conducting a qualitative study and co-authoring a white paper for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the use of games to combat childhood obesity. She also has a strong interest in the globalization of media and the construction of alternative understandings of what it means to be Asian and Asian-American through popular culture, an interest which led her to design, research and execute a library exhibition of anime and manga for Swarthmore’s McCabe Library. She wrote an undergraduate thesis on problematic gender and sexual representations in Japanese popular culture with a particular focus on Card Captor Sakura, a paper which won the Swarthmore College Asian Studies Program’s top writing prize.