Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Strong Independent Women, Used As Furniture

I made no secret of the fact that I really liked the third X-Men movie. Given the decidedly mixed reaction among many bloggers and commentators, however, I have to wonder what some people were expecting -- it's not The Decalogue, people, it's a comic book movie! Maybe if you're not willing and able to turn off your brain for the amount of time it takes to enjoy a silly superhero movie, you've lost the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy the genre on any level? It's OK -- people outgrow superhero comics all the time. But if you're disappointed with X-Men 3 because it was loud and cheap and violent, well, I honestly have no idea what you were expecting from an X-Men movie in the first place. Also, you should probably watch out for Snakes On A Plane, because despite what you may have heard on Entertainment Tonight it's not actually a modern retelling of As You Like It.

But anyway, despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, it still left a slightly icky taste in my mouth in regards to gender issues. (Obviously, SPOILERS are in full effect -- and yes, I find spoiler warnings annoying as well, but it's easier to put them up then deal with people bitching at me because I gave away the ending of Angels In The Outfield.) Now, the problem here, as with many instances of questionable sexist story elements, is not so much the individual stories themselves (although there is always room for complaints), but their context within a much larger tapestry of similar and, dare I say, repetitive attitudes towards the place of female characters in superhero books. It's the "Women In Refrigerators"* syndrome: females in superhero comics do not exist as distinctive characters, but as objects manipulated with the express purpose of providing motivation for the male heroes (the ostensible focus for the readers' identification).

The X-Men books and their associated storylines have always been something of an anomaly in the boys club of superhero books, for the simple reason that the books have always (at least since the "All New, All Different" era began) presented a solid mixture of both male and female protagonists for reader identification, and have also never shied away from objectifying the male characters in addition to the female. Now, true, if you went back and counted up all the Rogue and Psylocke** ass-shots, they'd undoubtedly outnumber the Gambit and Wolverine ass-shots -- but still. The very fact that there are many, many, many female fans out there idolizing the likes of Gambit, Wolverine, the Beast, Colossus, hell, even Cyclops, tells me that the series has a cross-gender appeal that trumps any other franchise on the racks. Women love the X-Men. Hell, my own mother loves the X-Men.

Which make the instances of icky sexism all the more awkward. The Dark Phoenix Saga is rightly remembered as the high point in the franchise's history, one of the most successful storylines in the history of superhero comics. If the number of times a storyline has been plagiarized and revisited can be any judge of it's influence, it's probably the single most influential superhero story of the last thirty years (yeah, even more than Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen -- I think you'd have a hard time topping it). But at the same time, it's kind of sad that such an influential story revolves around one of the hoariest tropes of fiction from the dawn of time: Bitch Crazy. Basically, to sum it up in a few words: Jean Grey gets really powerful, her weak and puny female constitution can't take it, she goes nuts, she has to die. The men sit around acting all morose because they can't do anything to help her, they've all got enough fuel for character-building exposition to last them a decade, and everyone's happy.

I'm simplifying, of course. The problem with Dark Phoenix is that it's hard to argue with the story itself, because on its own terms it works really well. More than any other superhero book up to that time, the X-Men had always dealt with the consequences and responsibilities of power. Even if you go back to the very early Lee & Kirby material, long before any of those overused and corny Martin Luther King / Malcom X parallels had been conceived, you still have good mutants versus evil mutants: two sets of players who begin on a fairly even setting who decide what to do with their power based on disposition. The specific idea of a mutant gaining so much power that they simply couldn't handle it wasn't even new -- Byrne and Claremont had already done the Proteus saga. Dark Phoenix was essentially Proteus with slightly more power and a bit more of an intimate connection to the team. But regardless of the fact that the story works, you kind of wish it didn't, because any closer examination of the scaffolding on which it is built reveals a regrettably casual attitude towards gender stereotyping.

Jim Shooter may be rightly demonized for many things, but the Dark Phoenix story is one instance where his intervention turned out for the best. Because, honestly, Dark Phoenix had to die. Clarement and Byrne, for whatever reasons, couldn't see it. She was a murderer. She had destroyed an entire planet. Insomuch as such fantastical concepts have any basis on our real-world ethics and morality, there was simply no satisfying way the creators could get out of the story other than by killing her.*** To Byrne and Claremont's credit, they at least had the notion to give Jean some degree of autonomy over her death in the story's final iteration, by framing it to look like suicide. Now, of course, self-determination as suicide is a pretty depressing -- not to mention self-defeating -- idea, but at least she chose to go out with some semblance of dignity. This is as opposed to the movie, wherein she gets killed by one of the male heroes because (bum BUM bum) Bitch Crazy and needs to be stopped. The unrestrained power of the female id must be kept under control by the patriarchal forces! While he's at it I hope Wolverine takes care of all the copies of The Bell Jar in the X-Mansion library.

Now, of course, Dark Phoenix had to die in the movie for the same reason as in the comics -- she killed many, many people, was a threat to the world, blah blah blah. But . . . why did they have to play it the way they did? Throughout the film Jean is portrayed as a strangely passive creature. Sure, she goes buck wild and lifts a few houses, disintegrates a few people and all that jazz, but the whole crux of her plot is Magneto telling her what to do, which she does. Then after she follows Magneto she sits there looking powerful but not really doing anything, until such time as she goes crazy and tries to destroy the world. In the comics, at least, there was the notion than Jean was fighting against a force far more powerful than she understood, and there was some modicum of heroism in her struggle. But in the movie, it's basically just Bitch Crazy and then the big stoic he-men have to clean up the mess.

Rogue, at least, meets a far less unfortunate end. In the context of the movies, there's really no reason at all why the concept of a "cure" wouldn't appeal to her, since her powers are nothing but a problem for her, preventing her from achieving any semblance of normalcy. Thankfully, no one in the movie even attempts to make the specious argument that she specifically wouldn't benefit from the treatment. While it's probably true that there was some regret over the decision, it was still an easy decision for her to make****.

But still, the fact remains that Rogue was not served well by these movies, and for a very simple reason. Rogue is an interesting character to X-Men fans not simply because she has a power that isolates her from human contact, but because she is also duly compensated by being one of, if not the single most powerful X-Man. Of course, getting her to that point in the movies would be incredibly difficult, because the reasons she can fly and toss boulders in the comics has nothing to do with her mutant power and everything to do with accidentally absorbing Carol Danvers' strange Kree physiology during her first Ms. Marvel phase. There are at least four different concepts in that last sentence that would, in the context of a movie, be essentially inexplicable. The folks who made the movie made a wise choice to exclude any extra-curricular information from the narrative. I'm sure everyone who knows the comics flinched a bit when it was strongly implied that Hank McCoy's blue fur was part of his mutation (and not an unfortunate side effect of his career as a chemist for the Brand corporation), and when we found out that the Juggernaut was a mutant . . . but those are essentially harmless exclusions, made for the audience's sanity. The comics can pull off a massive tapestry of parallel narratives, such that every character can have their own story, and even cross into other stories (so that the Juggernaut's history is linked to Dr. Strange minutiae, and the Beast is also a key member of the Avengers), but movies have different properties.

In a comic book, the narration can easily take little detours to explain the details of characters' distinctive origins and motivations, but that's almost impossible to do in the movies. There was no way to get the Rogue from the comics onto the screen without deviating from the comics' blueprint. So the question is: why did they bother with Rogue at all? So much of her appeal in the comics depends on factors that weren't present in the movies -- her power, her ballsy attitude, her romance with Gambit -- that the movie character was almost a different person entirely. Why take a character who is essentially a very strong and forceful personality and put them in circumstances that force them to be, um, merely another weak and puny female? That's not very cool. Perhaps they should have left Rogue out of the movies altogether. She doesn't do a lot in the films that couldn't have been done as good or better by Kitty Pryde or Jubilee. Given the fact that there are already two characters who serve the same purpose in the comics -- young females taken under Wolverine's wing in order to mature and grow -- it's slightly puzzling that they had to take a third character from the comics who didn't fit that mold and shoehorn her into a well-defined role meant for someone else.

This isn't even mentioning the bit about Mystique which, again, made sense in the context of the story but added up to just another female disenfranchised in the context of a superhero story, a power player taken off the board as a plot device. Why can't any of these writers learn one of the most basic lesson of fiction, that it is more interesting to see characters do things than to have things done to them? Passive characters are uninteresting, and female characters are usually portrayed as passive, ergo, female characters are primarily uninteresting. I guess when all is said and done the Hollywood types are just as bad as comic book people: chicks are interchangeable objects differentiated by the size of their physical attributes.*****

*The really weird part is that while the phenomenon was based on a particularly gross Green Lantern story where Kyle Rayner's girlfriend was found dead in a refrigerator, DC didn't stop there -- they've killed every other subsequent woman who Kyle Rayner has been romantically linked with. Now true, neither Donna Troy or Jade died in the context of Green Lantern stories (and Donna Troy even came back, even though she'll undoubtedly get killed again one of these days because it happens with the same regularity as the swallows returning to Capistrano), but still. Come on, people. This is just getting silly.

**As an aside, I should just mention that this is a proud day for me because I actually forgot how to spell "Psylocke". That's one less bit of useless information in my head...

***It's interesting to note that this is pretty much the same thing that happened to Hal Jordan, with the crucial difference that the people at DC made Hal a mass-murderer with the express purpose of rendering the character unusable for future creators. And, similarly, the contortions they had to go through to bring Hal back were only slightly more convoluted than those used to bring back Jean Grey. When she was resurrected later in the decade (by the same people who had killed her, oddly enough), they had to make it explicitly clear that it hadn't been Jean who had committed mass-murder, just as they did with Hal (both were possessed by cosmic entities of great power, which is a great alibi I'm surprised doesn't get used in court more often).

****I liked how they contrasted the bit with Mystique refusing to answer to her "slave name" with Rogue asking Wolverine to call her by her real name -- a nice bit of narrative symmetry, that.

*****Of course, anyone who follows the teachings of Sim knows this is a True statement, but we're not supposed to talk about it out loud for fear the Feminist-Homosexualist axis will catch us and absorb our male light with their all-consuming female void. Good thing those icky gurlz can't read! Haw Haw!

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