Revenge of the Feminerd: X-Men Goes Retro

X-Men: First Class: the cast of the film--seven white people--stand outside looking off into the distance

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!)

January Jones as Emma Frost: a white woman in a bra and underwearOn 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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Comments

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I interpreted Darwin and

I interpreted Darwin and Tempest (Angel) differently. Both the good and bad guys were made of of primarily white characters, but when Tempest turned against them, Darwin stood firm feigning traitor to try and save his teammates and Tempest. He ends up dying for this action and it was early on in the story, but it had a lasting effect. His sacrifice made him memorable to me. It showed in a single scene that people of any race can take the easy route on discrimination and quite literally become the bad-guys themselves, or they can step up for what's right, risk everything, and yes even die doing it.

pretty good summary/review.

pretty good summary/review. You are right about some major time period/ civil right issues that could have easily been incorporated. I think all the sexism was used wisely because of the time period and came off as blatant ( hopefully not just to us feminist who are attuned to such) But, it would have been nice for there to be more backlash from really strong females. ( And in general female characters in superhero movies only really ever seem to be used when they are villains - see Jane Gray whose power had to be controlled as an Xmen, but had much more power as the uncontrollable villain dark Phoenix, who is a level 5 mutant). wow that felt super geeky to write.

I really do not care for J. Jones and he lack of acting ability, but at least the casting was right for Emma Frost - who to me usually comes off as vapid and bitchy (but again that bitch strength is portrayed as a good thing if she is a villain).

<3'd the wolverine cameo. I think I loved this Xmen movie the best so far. I want to give props to the delicious man candy that was in this movieas well- I thought it was a nice balance since women are so often objectified in film.(not that is was anywhere near as close).

Also being diversitively sensitive, I have noticed a trend in different versions of the Xmen series to hint at Beast being homosexual. Maybe I am way off but here are some examples of ("you didn't ask, so I didn't tell," not making a move on Mystique who clearly wanted the moves made on her, and some other small things in the astonishing xmen series where he is concerned about how their costumes will look- maybe those are just stereotypical things but the recurrence of them makes me wonder)

& to answer your question, I would totally be Rogue (too bad Palin has tainted that word to me). I am eclectic (& indecisive at times) and she can borrow anyone's power, plus kill you with a touch (& fly in the comics). Mind control would also be pretty sweet.

Please keep up these movie reviews from a feminist p.o.v. They are nice to see in an overly male review dominated world. I sometimes feel like I am the only person in the world who likes to geek out to all kinds of movies, with feminist issues in mind. Have you done any other movie reviews, especially for recent movies like Suckerpunch or even Kick-Ass from last year? Just curious because those were some movies that I had many debates with (male) friends about sexism or lack of it in.
Thanks!

Reviews

I loved the Wolverine cameo, too. I'm not sure about Beast being homosexual, but it'll be interesting to watch if they make more movies with this group of characters.

I haven't reviewed or seen Kick-Ass or Suckerpunch but I'd be interested to hear what the debates were around. I'm a pretty big homebody and don't get to see a lot of movies until they're downloadable. If you follow my regular blog at Gender Focus you'll see I spend more time on book reviews. But feminist movie reviews are important and here are some links to other reviews I've done in the past few months.:

Bridesmaids: http://www.gender-focus.com/2011/05/18/bridesmaids-achievement-for-women/
Orgasm Inc: http://www.gender-focus.com/2011/04/29/orgasm-inc/
Pillars of the Earth (miniseries): http://www.gender-focus.com/2010/09/08/pillars-of-the-earth/
Cairo Time: http://www.gender-focus.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=752&action=edit

Emma Frost is not vapid...

...bitchy, yeah she totally is. But like any character, how well rounded she is does indeed depend on the writer. If you look at the sum total of her, she is a very interesting character. Sure some people have written her stupidly, but they are generally terrible writers. Currently in the X-Men comics she is very much an equal with her partner Cyclops and never needs rescuing by him. Of course, the X-Men have had a long history of strong female characters that can stand on their own on both the side of heroes and villains.

And sure, her sense of style is ridiculous, but there is something fun about a superhero wearing fetish wear and not apologizing for it in addition to not even using her sexuality as a weapon. She, at least to me, is very different from most female characters that wear too little. In addition, her most infamous costume (http://www.comicvine.com/emma-frost/29-1457/earth-616-emma-frost/108-106...) is probably the costume most hated by a majority of fans. But, in the end, nowadays she wears more clothing than a lot of female heroes.

It is sad though in the movie she is relegated to being Sebastian Shaw's sidekick, when in fact during her original time in the Hellfire Club in the comics she was his equal.

I enjoyed the movie as well,

I enjoyed the movie as well, but as a sex-worker and feminist, I saw it differently than the author of this article. They effectively showed the sexism of the 1960s. However, the way they treated the subject of sex-work was very scatter-shot.
The "strippers" in the first scene drew party-goers into curtained-off private booths, which effectively blurred the movie-goer's perspective-line between dancing and engaging in sex-acts.
When Xavier and Erik locate Angel, she is working in a parlor that includes private rooms with full beds, but is wearing an outfit that many a 60's go-go dancer would sport in any night-club. They offer her a chance to have a job in which she can "keep (her) clothes on." I don't have to go into the implications of this type of prejudice. Angel does show a sophisticated level of social critique when pointing out that, as a mutant, she is treated even more poorly than she is as a sex-worker; but I doubt that is what most non-industry people would garner from the exchange.
After joining the mutants against normal humans, she proceeds to live the life of "keeping her clothes on" to the hilt, by wearing as little as possible... implying that those in the sex industry are just predisposed to expose themselves both to the gaze of others and to criticism.
..well, all I can say, is at least in X-Men First Class, sex-workers aren't being completely ignored.. which is more than I can say for the victims of the Long Island serial killer.

Depictions of sex work

Thanks, Ciara. Good points and I agree, especially about Angel. I felt like I could've almost put a whole new post to that and I agree that the way she was portrayed came across as stereotypical - the idea being that she was degrading herself in her previous job and not that she had any agency.

As to depicting the sexism of the 1960s, I agree but since X-Men has been about challenging social inequalities, wished they would've challenged the retro sexist narrative instead of what I felt was just playing it up for kitsch value.

Americanization = Insult to Injury

I find myself increasingly disappointed with the film adaptations of comic books. After seeing the third X-Men installation, I was so outraged I refused to even see Wolverine: Origins. I gave this one a try, but I fail to comprehend why the creators have such a disregard for comic book fans and purists: half of them are made by people who don’t even read the comics or who dislike the characters (i.e., Spider-Man 3). The films are mostly geared towards attracting a new audience, but there is no reason why they have to have such a disregard for those of us who are familiar with the Marvel Universe. None of the X-Men movies have been bad films, but they stray so far from the original plotlines and have such a hodge-podge of timelines that I find myself unable to relate to the stories. While some of it is certainly forgivable (I really didn’t mind that they brought the Phoenix story to Earth), others are completely nonsensical. Jean Grey was one of the first students at Xavier’s institution, so are we meant to believe that between the time First Class ends and Jean Grey is recruited that Prof X has aged from McEvoy to Stewart? Seriously. And of all the mutants they have to choose from, why on earth was Havok put in this film – are we supposed to believe that Cyclops’ younger brother is actually decades older than he is, or are they just not brothers in the films? It’s nonsense.

To me the most frustrating part of the films is their complete disregard for the international characters: nearly all of them have been turned into Americans. Colossus is Russian, Pyro is Australian, Storm is Kenyan (not mixed race and practically white as is Halle Berry), Banshee is Irish, and Moira MacTaggert is a Scottish geneticist, not an American CIA agent (wtf?). How utterly absurd. This isn’t merely straying from the Marvel Universe, it’s completely reinventing it in a way that means the actual comic-book storylines can never exist, and it completely detracts from her character. Moira was in an abusive marriage she can’t get out of wherein she is raped by her husband... I highly doubt she would be walking into a Las Vegas club in negligée.

The issues with race that are presented in this article are interesting ones, but it should be noted that race was not an issue in the comics until the 1970s when we were finally introduced to characters like Storm, T’Challa, etc. and this was very consciously executed specifically due to the extreme lack of non-white comic book heroes, much like the increase (and failure) of female characters in the 50s and 60s. Because this film takes place prior to that point, it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense to have a highly racialized cast (although they seem to have strayed from every other comic book avenue, so...). However, the creators were sloppy with their racial representations, and this was particularly evident in the third X-Men movie where characters like Psylocke (Asian), Quill (Asian), Callisto (Latin), etc. were all members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, when in reality none of them were. Regardless, the contention that the Civil Rights Movement should have made it into the film doesn’t ring true to me. The main characters are European, not American, and they would likely not be concerned with an American movement, especially when they had more pressing matters on their hands. In many ways, the X-Men comics were meant to parallel what was going on in America at the time of their publication, just as, say Harry Potter was meant to parallel WWII: it’s already metaphor, so we don’t need to insert the actual movement that is being represented.

As for Emma Frost’s outfits... frankly, I found it highly entertaining that they managed to clothe an actual person in comic book attire. It was either Famke Janssen or James Marsden who stated that the reason they didn’t dress like comic book characters was because nobody could actually pull that kind of attire off, so Emma Frost’s clothing was entertaining. She always wore the most horrifically skanky items, and she wouldn’t be Emma Frost without them, however awful that truth may be.

X-Men is the most interesting study in race and sexuality for comic books because they’ve introduced such a plethora of diverse characters, especially in the past few decades. Even into the 1990s the majority of female characters had a tendency to be far above average height and far below average weight (i.e., 5’10 and 110lbs). With the advent of the New X-Men in the 1980s and particularly Academy X in more recent years, we have characters like Wolfsbane who is Scottish, 5’2” and 110lbs, Dust who is Afghani, 5’4” and wears a burqa, etc. Unfortunately this has not translated through the movies because the creators direct them entirely to an American audience and feel the need to Americanize everything about the films. How hard would it have been to give a few characters accents and who would it have offended? Sure, it sucks that the films are plagued with racial stereotypes and scantily clad women, but the American-centric nature of the films is what really gets my goat. Are we meant to believe that Americans are more highly evolved than the rest of us? Apparently the only mutants in the world who aren’t American are Xavier, Magneto, and Wolverine. It breaks my young Canadian heart.

And if I could have any superpower from X-Men, it would (bar-none) be Prodigy's.

Thanks so much for sharing

Thanks so much for sharing your analysis - it's really interesting to see how being more familiar with the comics changes your perspective. As someone who's been pretty into canon in some other areas, I can see how all the breaks (Havok, Beast, etc) could be really frustrating.

Ambivalent

I know it was sort of cheesy and campy, but I still enjoyed it (says the girl who still watches Buffy and Xena, I'm all about the camp). But after my friend and I went to see it and finished geeking out about how much fun it was to watch, we were both a little unsure of the treatment of the women in the film. Was it so crappy because it was taking place in the 60s or was the writing for the women just crappy (see end with Moira)? I felt ambivalent about the treatment of most of the female characters, but I did think Mystique was pretty well done. True she only felt proud when she was validated by Magneto, but it's consistent with her character later in the series. She continues to stay with him even though she's BA on her own until the 3rd movie (which has separate issues). Not empowering, but realistic still.

"Was it so crappy because it

"Was it so crappy because it was taking place in the 60s or was the writing for the women just crappy (see end with Moira)?"

I saw it as both. A lot of Moria's writing was really lazy, and Angel's character was a deep cliche. But a lot of the rest of it was, I believe, an intentional nod to the politics of the time. Unlike Moria, I think Emma Frost's treatment was intentional on the part of the writers and was meant to be a commentary on the times. Shaw's "we are the children of the Atom" speech to Emma Frost followed immediately by "get me some ice for my drink?" was clearly intended to portray Shaw as a man deeply blinded by privilege. His mutant Utopia would be just like every other society he lived in: deeply stratified with him at the top.

Xmen Goes Retro

While I share your views, I have to mention (having lived through the era in question) that the early 60's were a pre-feminist time and that the sexism was blatant, open and socially sanctioned. It wasn't until Betty Friedan's seminal "The Feminine Mystique" (cute irony there) that women began to organize and demand better treatment.

I found "Xmen, First Class" to be a highly accurate, if painful, reflection of that time

This movie was hard to

This movie was hard to swallow if you have read the comics. Outside of the obvious nerd mess ups (like Emma being a diamond doesn't happen until much later and is a secondary mutation) it is a slap in the face of some pretty awesome female characters. The movies, without fail, make the female characters weak in comparison to the comics. It is funny because they do the exact opposite with the men (the man guy could only absorb kinetic energy, they expanded a bit didn't they?).
In the comics, Emma Frost is a total bad ass. She would never be some dude's lackey, in fact once she does join the x-men she becomes a co leader of sorts with Scott (cyclops) and holds her own if not more. Wolverine using a metal bed frame to hurt her...yeah because diamonds aren't a hard substance, oh wait. Emma's depiction is very upsetting. The choice for Emma to be in skimpy clothes and things is in keeping with the comic, but the comic definitely allows for her to have much more control over her life, situation, and self.
Also Moira was a geneticist in the comic, not a bumbling agent.
One more nerd thing, beast would never have told mystique she was ugly naturally. He was obsessed with losing his intellect much more than his appearance. This is not illustrated in the movie, just a point.
Also the fact that Darwin, whose mutation is surviving dies first is ridiculous and takes care of the diversity in the movie.
If anyone is interested in reading some Xmen, I would suggest reading what Joss Whedon wrote. It is a great intro and definitely feminist friendly. When you venture back further you find it to be a bit hard to read. Also for further history on female characters in comics :The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid is a good read.
This movie was belch from the movie nerd to the feminist in me.

Agreed

As my (extremely long) tirade above mentions, I am in complete agreement. The thing about the X-Men films is not that they are bad films, but they are bad X-Men films (despite Jarrah's opinion). Basically, they destroy everything good and sacred. Could Rogue have been any more pathetic/useless? I thought she was the most horrifically portrayed until Moira came along. I could not be ANY MORE DISAPPOINTED!

And yes, I was also confused as to how a brass bed could crack diamond. Ha!

However, I think something that is too often glossed over when it comes to comics is the depictions of masculinity. Yes, the women are made to be exceedingly weak, but the men are also over-masculinized. This is just as problematic.

Plus, Kevin Bacon is just not, not, not Sebastian Shaw. And how on earth did the Hellfire Club get such a pathetic/measly representation? I was also disappointed that, with Magneto and Prof X's tendency to play chess, the parallels between chess and the Hellfire Club were completely ignored (especially consitering Sebs was the Black King and Emma was the White Queen... hardly a position in which to be his lackey, and a much more powerful player).

Oops...

Apparently when I'm outraged I can't type "considering..." Please ignore my typos.

Just a nod to '60s sexism? No.

I'm completely on-board with the analysis of this article. Some of the comments here suggest that the sexist lines in the movie, such as (SPOILER) the comment at the end of the film, something like "this is why women don't belong in the CIA," are simply nods to the sexism of the 1960's, and that these lines make fun of the sexism rather than reflect the sexism. In my opinion, this is always a very fine line. I agree that that type of dialogue was supposed to be a jab at sexism. HOWEVER, these are not the parts of the film that I found to be sexist. Yes, the film took place in the '60s, but the writers were writing now, the director was directing now, etc., and the 100% lame female characters are an example of contemporary sexism. The writing was plain terrible for the female characters. Give me a break. What was up with Angel, the stripper who inexplicably betrays her friends? That plot line made no sense whatsoever, and as far as I could tell, Angel was there in an entirely decorative capacity -- another hot chick on the set. I haven't read the comics, but I can only assume that these female characters actually made sense in the comics.....in this film, they were just there to look good. It really is a shame, because I agree that this was otherwise a pretty good flick.

Having finally seen this, I

Having finally seen this, I have to chime in and mention that sex and gender is definitely on the movie's mind. There's a reason the film is set in the '60s, the decade of the sexual revolution.

Many of the complaints I've read revolve around January Jones performance as Emma Frost. That she's emotionless or whatever. I think this is very much the point. She's sort of a self-aware Bond girl, in that she's accepted her role as a sex object (she turns into a diamond, literally) and distances herself from her acts (conveyed in the scene with the Russian general). Or how about Angel feeling more comfortable as a stripper than as a mutant? The implication is that while women have a place as sex objects in the '60s, there's really no place for mutants ("You didn't ask so I didn't tell"). There's not really much of a victory for the women in the film (or the lone black guy). Like can we really just buy that Magneto is liberating Mystique even though she does seem more comfortable using a disguise? Mystique is pulled between Magneto and Xavier, where the former encourages her to give up her disguise (because he views her as a child, which only reminds him of his own issues) and the latter does not want to have sexual thoughts of her (because he sees her as a sister). Her body isn't exactly hers, so to speak. She's a person for Magneto and Xavier to project their issues onto, hence her ability being shape-shifting.

Other noteworthy things: Xavier's mind-reading is shown as penetrative, such as when he gives Magneto a pleasurable mindfuck that puts him in a state which allows him to control his powers. The flipside of this is the invasive mind-read of Emma Frost, when she is bound to a bed by Magneto.

If being a mutant is coded homosexuality (or transgressive sexuality of any kind), then Havok's jokes at Beast's expense could be thought of being homophobia on the former's part. Havok is incapable of controlling his power until they help him divert that power into one big beam that shoots out his chest. The film is filled with phallic imagery like this. I think the idea is that Havok's homophobia stems from his inability to control this masculine power. Back to the treatment of women in the film, it's important that Havok's training targets are mannequins of women and he's specifically told not to hit the male characters. This culminates in him blasting down Angel at the climax of the film.

There's so much sexual subtext going on this movie and it all comes across so legibly. It's kind of surprising, considering how notorious Marvel movies have been lately with their restrictions on the directors.