Revenge of the Feminerd: X-Men Goes Retro
I was really excited to catch X-Men: First Class this weekend. The previews looked amazing and since the X-Men universe has some great women characters, I couldn't wait to see how they were portrayed, especially young Mystique.
The movie starts in the same way as the first X-Men, with Erik/Magneto being separated from his mother in a concentration camp. When he bends the metal gates of the camp with his powers, he attracts the attention of the evil Dr. Schmidt (later Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon). As an adult, Erik (Michael Fassbender) is driven by the desire for revenge against Schmidt/Shaw and eventually all humans as potential mutant oppressors. Meanwhile, a young Professor Xavier (James McEvoy) brings Erik in to work with the CIA and Xavier's new mutant recruits to stop Shaw, who is atempting to turn the Cuban Missile Crisis into full-scale nuclear war. Where Erik is bent on revenge, Xavier is bent on gaining respect and acceptance for mutants in the larger human society.
I enjoyed most of X-Men: First Class. The acting, special effects, and writing were excellent, except possibly the two times Xavier tries to hit on women in bars by saying they have "groovy mutation[s]".
But then again, the whole movie had a cheesy retro vibe to it, with its Cold War setting and costumes (turtlenecks for the men, not much clothing at all for the women) giving it the feel of a cross between X-Men and a Connery-era Bond movie.
Which brings me to the disappointing gender and racial dynamics of X-Men: First Class. Jane Goldman, the movie's co-writer said in an interview with Bleeding Cool: "I think the film is very strongly connected with real life race issues, and references to the Jewish holocaust. We were obviously aware of the civil rights movement contemporary to the events in the film, but didn't want to force it down anybody's throat. It absolutely potentially could be a storyline for a whole new film. Certainly the Malcolm X/Dr. King parallel was something that was absolutely present in our minds."
X-Men has often been used as a metaphor for the Civil Rights Movement, but given that it's set in 1962, I would have thought the actual Civil Rights Movement might've merited a mention. And for a movie that claims to be connected to race issues, I found it tended towards tokenizing. (spoiler alerts ahead!) Of Xavier's new mutant recruits, only two are non-white (not counting Mystique, who is naturally blue-skinned but maintains a disguise as a blonde, white girl). One, a black man called Darwin, gets killed before getting more than 3 or 4 lines in in a classic example of erasure. The other character of colour, Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), is the first to betray Xavier's group and join Sebastian Shaw's mutants. Racialicious points out that the character of Riptide (the wind guy, played by a Latino, also sides with Shaw and then Magneto.(end of spoilers!)
On the gender side of things, it's not much better. And here I should say that my X-Men familiarity is mostly with the other movies, not as much through the comics, so this might make a difference. I had seen some early comic book representations of Emma Frost (played in the movie by January Jones, whose presence Manohla Dargis called "sullen, bosomy"), but was surprised they made her costumes in the movie equally skimpy. For a mutant with some pretty cool powers, it was disappointing to see her come across as little more than a seductive sidekick for the evil Shaw. At one point he even orders her to get him some ice for his drink, saying, "There's a good girl."
(More spoilers!) Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) was a bit better, spending much of the movie struggling with shame over her blue appearance but eventually coming to terms with her looks, deciding to be "mutant and proud". But the transformation is slightly overshadowed by the fact that she only ends up embracing her blueness once Magneto validates her beauty. (end of spoilers)
At least Mystique was less disappointing than Moira McTaggart, the non-mutant CIA agent played by Rose Byrne. The first time we meet Moira, she infiltrates a Vegas party by pulling off her clothes to reveal Emma Frost-level lingerie, and pretending to be part of a group of strippers. Unfortunately, she continues to be treated poorly throughout the film, including at the very ending, which I won't give away.
In the Bleeding Cool interview, Goldman says that parts of McTaggart's story were edited out:
I think there's definitely an element of 60s sexism, which is supposed to be not-a-good-thing, running through the movie, though unfortunately sometimes, when a film is edited you end up with a thread seeming that you're not following all elements of all threads. There was much more of story about Moira being oppressed…I think what was originally there is that Moira was a woman, so in the minority in the CIA, and in that sense was an outcast in her own way, just as all the mutants are. She was a victim of prejudice.
I'd say you definitely do get the sense that she's oppressed in the CIA, but not to the extent that it's ever really challenged. The gender inequality, especially with Moira, came across as more a kitschy element than one we're really supposed to think about or learn anything from.
Finally, there's a disconcerting subtle element of violence against women, which includes a scene where Erik/Magneto begins to strangle Emma, and new recruit Havoc/Alex practicing his blasts of explosive power on female mannequins.
So overall, as an X-Men fan, it was pretty decent, but as a feminist I wasn't wowed. I'd be interested to hear what fans of the comics thought of the movie, and for fun, I have the following question:
If you could choose a mutant power, what would it be?
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