Gender Flipping Plots and X-Men

Yeah, go ahead and scoff at me for talking even more about X-Men right after discussing Days of Future Past, but this is something that I was curious about following seeing that movie.

In the post viewing analysis, Rachael and I were discussing the movie’s treatment of women (much of what I talked about the other day stemmed from that conversation) and we agreed that the female characters were generally treated very well, but it was problematic that there were so few of them.  She pointed me to a recent blog post from Maria Dahvana Headley that provides plot synopses of several different potential films that just happen to be about women doing important things in the world (and which all happen to be gender flipped versions of blockbuster and award winning movies that have already been made in the past).  It’s a good read, so check it out.

Cover of X-Men #1. From left to right: Psylocke, Jubilee, Storm, Rogue, Rachel Grey, Shadowcat. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Anywho, after Rachael mentioned this, I had a moment of nerdgasm, because what she was describing (a story centered around a cast of female characters doing something that doesn’t dwell on their femaleness) is what happened last year with the relaunch of adjectiveless X-Men.  I’ve probably gushed about this before, but Chris Claremont, when you can get past the weird bits that seem to be him just writing his personal fetishes into his stories, did a lot of great things as the writer for the X-Men books for sixteen years.  His single biggest contribution (in my opinion) is the hugely diverse cast of characters he created and multitudes of complex female heroes he wrote.  Looking at the core team from the #1 of the new X-Men book, the team roster consists of six female heroes, five of them created by Claremont.  To be fair, several of them have been developed far beyond what Claremont and the various artists he worked with to conceive the characters original imagined, but the point stands that this book has this roster because Claremont wanted more female characters in the books that he wrote.

So how does the first arc of adjectiveless X-Men stack up to the ideas that Headley’s putting forth in her blog post?

The plot is a pretty standard setup for the start of new superhero teams.  There’s a crisis (in this case Jubilee, one of the youngest X-Men to ever be on the team, calls the X-Men to help her escape some guy who’s been following her across the country since she picked up an orphaned baby at the crash site of a meteor) and because of circumstances (either being the nearest available responders or being specifically targeted by whatever villain’s behind the crisis) a group of heroes go to help out and discover that they don’t make a bad team.  Our heroes, consisting of Storm, Psylocke, Rogue, Jubilee, Shadowcat, and Rachel Grey (Rachel’s codename is kind of fuzzy, just like her mom’s, so I’m not sure if at this point she’s going by Marvel Girl or Phoenix), deal with the stalker who turns out to be John Sublime, a villainous super-bacteria that possesses and controls people, who is trying to stop the spread of his sister Arkea, a super-bacteria with the ability to possess and control electronics (I know, science doesn’t work that way, but just go with it) that arrived on Earth with the meteor that crashed near Jubilee.  Things go sideways (as they tend to) and Arkea infiltrates the X-Men’s defenses and takes control of the body of Karima Shapandar (a human who was forcibly turned into a Sentinel way back in her introductory story from 2000; naturally, she was created by Chris Claremont) who’s been in cold storage with the X-Men while they’ve been trying to figure out how to keep her cybernetics from killing her (or something; I’m fuzzy on what was happening with her the last time she was featured).  Eventually everything works out with Karima getting saved and Arkea defeated.

The characters are interesting and varied, and no big deal is made about this being a group of all women (there were some criticisms that the all-female cast was a publicity stunt on Marvel’s part when the roster was first announced, which is telling by itself of how alien the idea of a story just about women is to comics audiences).  Storm and Rachel Grey argue throughout the arc about the dilemma of killing Arkea in Karima’s body (Storm takes the pragmatic approach, pointing out that there’s no way of knowing if Karima is even still alive after being possessed, while Rachel rails at the idea of killing their friend without even trying to find out if she’s still inside), Rogue bursts with energy, relishing the fact that she can borrow anyone’s powers and play with them as she likes, Kitty’s the responsible one who thinks constantly of how much money it’s going to cost the school (yes, the X-Men run a school; it’s one of the better features of the ongoing saga) to replace or repair all the property that they’re destroying, Psylocke remains grave and serious throughout every crisis, and Jubilee deals with the fact that she’s suddenly found herself with an infant son.

To put it briefly, these characters, while filling personality profiles that are pretty standard in superhero team books, are diverse in their outlooks and skillsets, and none of this has anything to do with them having vaginas.

Of course, there are still some problems.

"We don't need him telling us not to make ridiculous sexy poses in the middle of an emergency." (From X-Men #2, vol. 4)

“We don’t need him telling us not to make ridiculous sexy poses in the middle of an emergency.” (From X-Men #2, vol. 4)

First and foremost, the credit page for each issue is a sausage fest.  Both the writer and artist for this first arc are male, as are the inkers.  It’s not until you get to the colorist credits that you see any female names (and while colorists are very important to the artwork, they don’t do much to affect what’s presented on the page).  The book’s two editors are female, which is good, but unfortunately I don’t know how the editorial structure at Marvel works and there’s always like five people in the editorial chain, meaning that I don’t know if these editors are just focusing on pacing and plotting, or if they have any power to tell the writer and artist “these pages need to be redone because you undermined the mood of the interrogation scene by having Psylocke stick her butt in the air when she’s supposed to look intimidating.”  And that sums up my biggest gripe about the book.  It’s a competent story, and the characters are treated with respect, but the art still indulges too often in sexy poses for the sake of sexy poses.  I know that’s a common problem in mainstream comics, but it still needs to be pointed out or else it becomes invisible and no one does anything to change it.

Besides the art, I also feel conflicted about Jubilee’s character arc here.  On the one hand, this is a book full of women, and there’s nothing wrong with exploring the experience of parenthood with a young female character (heck, superhero comics so rarely feature any heroes who are actually parents in the process of raising children that I want to cheer the change of pace), but on the other, that’s a story that gets revisited a lot in mainstream media.  So I don’t know.  I don’t think it’s poorly handled, but all Jubilee does in this arc is run away from danger with her kid in tow (I don’t think there’s a single panel where we see her doing anything besides running or talking about the baby).  The problem feels mitigated by the presence of so many other competent female actors in the story, but it’s still a problem.

So the execution of this story is far from perfect.  You still get boobs and butt poses, and some of the women still get reduced to footballs that the heroes and villains fight over.  But this story does fulfill the purpose that Headley laid out in her post.  We see women doing stuff, and it’s not all about their sexuality, and its not because there are no better qualified men available.  These women are dealing with a problem because they’re the ones who can handle it, just like women in the real world do every day.  Minus the superpowers.

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One thought on “Gender Flipping Plots and X-Men

  1. Great review. I shared similar concerns about the portrayal of women in X Men: Days of Future Past. Jennifer Lawrence was allowed to be many-layered and fantastic but the film lacked a supporting cast of women. All the same I still adored the film (maybe just because I’m an X-men nerd and they gave me Blink and Bishop!)

    I think you’re right to highlight that whilst Marvel may be trying to get more female characters into their roster they’re still lacking in actual female input in the creation of the comics. It’s hard to achieve any real progress until there is female viewpoint involved in the storyboard. Baby steps for the comic book genre I guess.

    Really enjoyed the read. Keep it up 🙂

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