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More Thoughts on X-Men: First Class

So I saw it again last night, because I’m an addict, and because I haven’t seen a movie since Inglourious Basterds that I wanted to pull apart so much. I swear it’s just coincidence that they both star Michael Fassbender. I’ve already written about the queer subtext (basically text) of the film, and Ta-Nehisi Coates has written beautifully about the near-complete absence of any acknowledgment of the Civil Rights movement (I saw a tweet yesterday: “Where are the black people?” “The white people are metaphors for the black people!” that sort of summed that up) and the generally crap race politics of the film. But what struck me last night, which relates to what I wrote before, was the gender politics. And while I’ve seen a few posts generally “calling out” the film on its regressive gender treatment, I want to complicate that a little more. I confess to being a Magneto fangirl—I’ve always been the girl who likes the bad boys, and also the Xavier/Magneto tension has always been fascinating before being subtly queered by casting out gay actor Ian McKellen to play opposite sexy Patrick Stewart in the first few films. And anyone who follows my Tumblr knows what I think of Fassbender. So of course I come to this film with a pro-Erik Lehnsherr slant. But even so, I think that his treatment of women adds a layer that’s been missed in most of the posts I’ve read on the subject. Erik is defined by the loss of his mother and his singleminded focus on revenge. Until he meets Xavier, we have no other insight into his character. Until Xavier says “There’s so much more to you than you know,” no hint that he might have a personality, a life outside of the hunt. He doesn’t seem innocent, but rather bored by the whole thing. “Kinky,” he says, laconically, coming upon Raven flirting with Hank McCoy as Hank tries to take her blood for research. In the strip club with Angel, he makes a dirty joke but both he and Charles appear more interested in one another than in her body (and Angel later goes off with Sebastian Shaw after making the telling remark that she’d rather be stared at with her clothes off—Shaw will certainly oblige that). While Charles exhibits casual sexism, ignores Raven in favor of more “normal” girls and uses the same pick-up line on several of them, lines up female mannequins for Havok to practice on, and generally treats women quite differently from men, Erik treats everyone with the same disinterest or scorn. His interest in Raven is never sexual (even their kiss is nearly chaste, and then cuts straight to her confronting Charles, implying that she did indeed leave as he told her to), but in making her see and embrace her mutant self. “Perfect,” he says to her when she lets her natural shape take over, but he also tells Hank “Never looked better,” when he’s in full-on Beast mode. Sebastian Shaw, of course, is the near-pure embodiment of masculinity (I’d argue the only better example in the X-Men mythos is the Juggernaut), and he entertains powerful men by bringing in gaggles of scantily-clad girls, and treats Emma like a servant—and what a great subplot that would have made, were this movie at all interested in Emma Frost, for her to subtly undermine Shaw or flat-out turn against him and decide to help Erik, rather than to be passively stuck waiting in jail for whomever will free her. While I’m on the subject of Emma, I acknowledged in my first piece that she was completely wasted here, but I need to linger on it because I love the character so, normally. The script (which has at least one woman’s name credited) does her no favors, but January Jones does herself no favors, either. I’m not a Mad Men watcher, so I don’t know if Jones is capable of much better. Interestingly, Kay Steigerwonders if Mad Men is the inspiration for the sexism (and perhaps the 60s setting?). If the part had been better written and acted, even though it’s a small role, it could have done more to undermine the feeling that Kay notes here, that the sexism is sprinkled into the film without commentary. (One of the reasons I couldn’t get into Mad Men after a couple of episodes, actually, was that I had trouble understanding where that commentary was on the show’s sexism. But I haven’t watched much, so.) I want to disagree with Kay, though, on the lack of commentary on the sexism in X-Men: First Class,though, because I think that the contrast between Charles’s treatment of women and Erik’s, or Shaw’s and Erik’s, is telling. Professor X is too often painted as near-saintly, the Perfect Mentor (and the most interesting part of X3 was his admission that he’d screwed up with Jean), the Perfect Friend always ready to forgive Erik and welcome him back. The fact that he does as much to drive Erik away as Erik does to leave is too rarely remarked upon, as is his arrogance, his willingness to decide that he knows best for everyone around him. By showing us his mistakes, his foibles, his generally jerky moments, this film humanizes him and makes him a real character—but it also makes plausible that Raven/Mystique and Erik don’t just up and turn evil because it’s fun. That they were driven off by a guy who talks a good game about mutant rights and equality but wants to shove them in the closet, by a guy who finds mutants attractive as long as they don’t step too far outside the bounds of “normal,” by a guy who treats women like dirt. Come on, progressive women, don’t we all know men like that? And don’t they just make you want to bail on the whole project, sometimes? Erik, meanwhile, treats Emma and Raven as equals. He treats Emma with the same violence that he treats male enemies (less so, actually, because he doesn’t kill her, but he shows the same willingness to use pain to get what he wants), and he treats Raven not as a child to be coddled or a trophy to be bedded by as a person in need of mentoring. While Charles has ignored her to mentor the boys (remember, the only other woman in the “First Class” of the title has gone off with Shaw to be his new arm candy), Erik takes the time to push her, to support her. Yes, the scene with Emma against the bed, the pole wrapped around her throat and cracking is unnerving. It’s meant to be. So is the scene where Erik stabs through a man’s hand twice, or where he slowly yanks out a man’s tooth by its metal filling. He’s a victim of abuse and torture who now uses it on others. But he doesn’t go out of his way to do it to women, or to abuse them in ways specific to their femininity. Further, Emma Frost has already, in a previous scene, dropped him to his knees with her telepathy and then knocked him off a boat with one punch. She’s hardly helpless. (In a way, it reminds me of the “Ellen Willis test”, where Willis wrote that to test the sexism of a song, reverse the genders. Thus the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” is less sexist than Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” because “Under My Thumb” works fine when you picture it sung by a woman, but the condescension in “Wild World” is of a sort nearly always directed at women by men. In my version, if you flip the genders in a particular scene, would it work? You could easily picture Erik wrapping a bedpost around the throat of a male villain, but could you see Charles treating a male CIA agent the way he treats Moira, or treating his male trainees the way he does Raven?) Erik’s violence is part of his character, part of what repeated abuse as a child did to him. Part of his trauma and part of his appeal. I over-quote this Jean Genet line, but I can’t resist applying it to this character, this actor, this portrayal:
“I give the name violence to a boldness lying idle and enamoured of danger. It can be seen in a look, a walk, a smile, and it is in you that it creates an eddying. It unnerves you. This violence is a calm that disturbs you.”
Near-great movies sometimes interest me more than great ones. I often want to rewrite small parts of them to make them better. This one does that to me again and again. Its ending, for instance, would be once again a much more powerful commentary on the sexism of its time if the crash heard right after the CIA agents mock Moira for her femininity was Emma Frost breaking her own badass self out of jail. They’ve already shown her breaking through the glass to talk to her jailers on the other side—couldn’t she then force them to let her go? She’s certainly capable of it, with the one-two punch of telepathy and near-unbreakable diamond form. But no, Emma waits. Waits for Erik, who then once again acknowledges her as equal—this time to Charles, asking Emma to fill the gap in his life. And leaving me hoping for a sequel that actually spends some time and effort on her character. That draws out all of Charles’s unacknowledged privilege and Raven’s growing into the fierce Mystique we know and love, and that maybe spends some time grounding itself not in near-nuclear war, but instead in the social movements and upheaval of the 60s. What better place for the X-Men to continue hashing out all their identity issues?
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