Tuesday, June 28, 2011

X-Men: First Class on LGBTQ, Racism, and Sexism

Delving deeper into the X-Men: First Class fandom—watching interviews and behind-the-scenes clips, reading press releases, etc.—I learned that the blockbuster is supposed to be an allegory for many things. Not just appearances and being an outsider, as I’ve pointed out in my first (and very giddy) post about the film.

I understand that there’s a multitude of reasons to love this flick (I really loved it, if you can’t tell), but there are things that can disappoint as well.  These reasons are making the balance beam of good points and bad points in my book precariously teetering. I’m not talking about unconvincing CGIs or plotholes or how far writers in the franchise’s newest big-screen installment have gone from canon (come on purists, give it a break! It’s a friggin’ reboot!) I’m referring to the social issues that it tackled—some ineptly, some very well; some I liked, some otherwise.

LGBTQ Metaphor?

sInadvertently out of the closet! Thanks, talkative telepath.

"You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell,” says Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) when Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) unintentionally reveals his being a ‘homo superior’ or a mutant to a CIA official. Apparently, one of X-Men: First Class’s main theme—the struggles of mutants to be accepted into the society where they are feared—is a parallel to the hardships and bigotry facing the LGBTQ community in our society today. The scene where Hank confirms he is a mutant is the movie’s not-so-subtle equivalent representation of queers getting out of the closet.

Zack Stentz, one of the writers of the film, stands by this metaphor. There’s one heated debate in a website discussing this movie where a commenter violently disagreed with those who believe the film is alluding to gay rights. One of Deborah Hoff’s comments said, “Great. But this movie is not about gay rights. It is a movie about the origins of X-Men. That’s it. Solely for the purpose of entertainment. I didn’t see ‘Brokeback Mountain’ here. I saw, the origins of X-Men.”

The commenters’ thread was turned into a wild ping-pong of opinions, and then Stentz finally stepped in: “Um, no offense, but you’re wrong. I helped write the movie, and can tell you that the gay rights/ post-holocaust Jewish identity/ civil rights allegory stuff was all put there on purpose. Joss Whedon designed the whole “Cure” storyline in the comic books specifically as a gay allegory, and [producer] Bryan Singer wove his own feelings of outsiderdom as a gay man into the movie series. The whole “have you ever tried NOT to be a mutant” coming out scene in X2 isn’t very particularly subtle, while it’s effective.”

End of argument, right? Maybe. I loved how the writers incorporate these LGBTQ support themes into the plotline cleverly. That doesn’t deter me from having my own gripes though. For one, the new gay-related spin on the slogan “mutant and proud” and the don’t-ask-don’t-tell theory have one grave drawback: it scribbled a visible line between gays and straights. It’s like emphasizing “we’re different from you [straights] and not ashamed about it” or “we are our own team and you have yours!” It lacks the “we’re different and we want you to accept us” vibe, even if the movie is leaning heavily towards that direction. I do see the painful point of that though, because as I’ve observed irl, some straight people claim to love homosexuals yet don’t do anything aside from just saying they love them.That’s one ugly truth for you.

Also, I like to point out how the creators downplayed their showing of insights (don’t pounce on me yet—I know what a metaphor means). I mean, they could have further strengthened their presentation, put more flesh in the skeleton of their allegory. Mystique is canonically bisexual; I haven’t read all the graphic novels, but I do know that she’s been romantically involved with Destiny/Irene for a long time. Why didn’t they use that? I wish they would, in the next installments.

Moving swiftly on…if you look at it from another perspective, I think it’s not just about being gay and proud—it’s about belonging into any minority group and being proud about it (see the first three X-Men films). Which brings us to our next topic…. 

Blatant Racism?

I’m going to be as objective here as possible. X-Men: First Class, on the surface, presents very offensive elements when it comes to colored people. Take for example Darwin (Edi Gathegi), the cab driver who has the mutant powers to “adapt to survive”.

DarwinCue in Hollywood movie cliché: the black guy in the team is the first to die.

In the  covert CIA base scene, where Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) finds the mutants, he cajoles them to jump ships by saying things that may strike a chord with them. He says, “each of us will face a choice, be enslaved or rise up to rule.” After the word enslaved, the camera cuts to Darwin’s face. My first reaction? “What the actual heck? That's racist!” I still haven’t recovered from that when Shaw suddenly kills him. I was practically sure I wore the what-the-actual-heck-to-the-second-power reaction. I couldn’t believe it.

Now we also have this ‘brown’ X-Woman: Angel (Zoe Krevitz). She’s a stripper/sex worker who was—get this—saved from the topless life by the good guys (look, I’m in love with Charles’ character but his overall smugness and holier-than-thou demeanor sometimes get on my nerves). A mention of being a ‘queen’ is the bait Angel takes. So there you have it, the first person on the team to be lured to the dark side. Tsk, tsk.

Oh, and that doesn’t end there. I have to note that Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is colored too in an unconventionally fiction-ish way, and she considers herself as one of the “outsiders of the outsiders” when she’s comparing herself to mutants who have invisible powers (she’s pointedly saying this about Charles). While she can hide by using shape-shifting, she still wants to look normal. For more than once I saw how Charles makes her feel more like abnormal. Embarrassing her, making excuses for not dating her aside from her blue form (“I feel responsible for you, you’re my oldest friend” blah blah), or expressing his relief on Hank’s ‘normalizing’ cure. Poor Raven. In the end, whose camp does she belong to? Magneto’s. The bad side.

Also, have you taken a look at the Hellfire Club’s Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez)? Like Mystique, Azazel is a colored mutant; I believe Riptide is Mexicano or Latino or something. I jokingly refer to them as the ‘bad guy props’ because seriously, how many freaking lines did they say?

The second time I watched the movie, I mulled over it. It was incredibly offensive at first look but I couldn’t help but wonder: it seems impossible for a movie that fights for the rights of a marginalized minority to actually overlook that racism stuff, or in other terms be “color-blinded”. The creators couldn’t be that dense.

A riot in my system then ensues. Sure, director Matthew Vaughn took bits of real-life situations from the 1960s and meshed it with the superhero storyline, but is that reason enough to single colored people out and bring the white characters to the fore as better than the others, like not dying or ending up bad?

If you zero in on the story and not the fact that it’s a movie, I guess it’s going to be easier. The whole point of the flick is that it’s all about mutants and ordinary humans. Mutants. It’s akin to another race, and the ones that are discriminating them are their less-evolved kin. Banshee, Havok, Darwin, Mystique, Angel, Hank, even Charles and Erik—they have no colors to speak of, because they belong to the mutant-race. They are all the same. I’m guessing that Shaw deliberately makes that ‘enslavement’ comment to get Darwin’s attention, because in trying to live as a normal human Darwin must have already experienced that distinct kind of discrimination. If you come to think of it, Darwin's death was not in vain; it made him unforgettable. In fact it kind of helped in lighting the match of the first class' first lessons with Professor Xavier.

Remember, this movie is an allegory to oppression. This is set in the 1960s, and the Civil Rights era is at its full swing.

But let's face it: critics and moviegoers are going to point out the racism here, and shoving down their throats the very point of the film via clarification—which is actually a failure in itself already because a good film would be able to convey its message without any sort of explication—would be too lame. For the majority, even magnifying the core of the story wouldn't justify the treatment it gave the non-white characters.

Gender Politics?

Emma FrostFor feminists, the Hellfire Club’s White Queen doesn't seem to
be a queen in this flick…

Emma Frost (January Jones) is one of the most sexualized female figures in this movie. She’s scantily clad for the most part, and serves as nothing but a shapely sidekick to Shaw. "I think this [wine] needs ice”, Shaw says. Emma follows and Shaw comments, “That’s a good girl.”

Donning ultra-feminist’s goggles would reveal you some things that may depict violence against women. First, that scene where Erik (Michael Fassbender) ties up and strangles Emma (I'm going to take this opportunity to say I'm not convinced that metal bed frames can actually crack diamonds); second, that training session with Havok/Alex (Lucas Till) where the targets are female mannequins.

Let's don't forget Angel's job and all. Then we have Agent Moira McTaggart running around in her underwear for a good few minutes while on a stakeout (please don't be blind though, the plot begs for that because she wouldn't be able to infiltrate the club if not for the stripper outfit). Moira is being a little ‘oppressed’ as a part of the minority—at least in the CIA. "This is why the CIA is no place for women!” groans her boss.

I guess everything’s a no-no for the feminist’s eye.

Well in my opinion, the flick gives us a good depiction of sexism in the 1960s—painful maybe, but a good, realistic depiction just the same. It's not that the movie refuses to hold everything in; understand that it's a reflection. When Shaw tells Emma to freshen his drink, we see how she puts on a face but obeys anyway. Canonically Emma shouldn’t be a weak character, but the creators are trying to show the gender inequality parallels of the decade where it’s set.

However, as a movie that challenges prejudices, they could’ve done more. I mean they’ve practically rewritten history with the Cold War and the mutant fear-induced almost-World War III, why not put changes in the gender politics? Better yet, also in the racism issue? They are trying to convey a message to and teach the audience all right, and spot-on nods to the realities of that decade don’t seem to be the best way to relay what they really are trying to say.


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