X-Men Recharge: People in the Margin or Powers on a Pedestal?

Posted by Brendan Parent on June 22nd, 2011

Charles uses this wheelchair later as "Professor X"

X-Men: First Class is the most recent addition to the X-Men series, which features humans born with mutant powers battling for their lives and respect while feared by the general population. Its release last week is sparking rich but in some cases misguided public conversations around genetics and human rights. One commentary focuses on its regrettable omission of civil rights events despite being set in the early 60s, while another makes dubious claims that it represents our “post-racial” society.

But no one appears to be questioning the whole premise of the X-Men series: Would people marked by their genetically-based physical and mental advantages actually experience group discrimination? The series depicts “gifted youngsters” who are oppressed because they are mutants; in real life young people with their “gifts” would be more likely to get dedicated websites and multimillion-dollar contracts.   

X does several things well. Beyond its seamless computer graphics, tremendous acting, and cohesive storyline (it’s a prequel to the other films in the series) is a poignant portrayal of intolerance. Charles (future “Professor X”) and Eric (future “Magneto”), the leaders of mutant solidarity, are drawn together by their common goal of redressing hardships endured by their kind. But their allegiance is severed by divergent strategies: Charles intends to educate his oppressors, while Eric intends to overcome them (and obliterate one in particular).  

This rift conjures heady questions of culpability, intentionality, and practicality. Must oppressors be punished, even when their offenses are motivated by ignorance rather than malice? Or do they deserve the opportunity to rectify their wrongs? Should the oppressed strive for peace and satisfaction by arduously cultivating equality, or by using brute force to demand respect?

The parallel between the Professor X/Magneto dichotomy and the one ascribed to MLK and Malcolm X is hard to miss. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates effectively argues in the New York Times, the new movie portrays “enlightened white dudes” confronting discrimination during major real-world events of recent US history. The filmmakers choose not to portray the concurrent movement for civil rights and racial justice. Is this an effective framework for social commentary?

This brings us back to the question of discrimination against the privileged. One clue: Unlike all non-mutant humans in the film (save one quirky scientist), we don’t hate these mutants; we want to be them. We leave the movie theater wishing we could teleport to the car while our children run ahead flapping their outstretched arms.

Ironically, the desire to achieve body/mind “greatness” underpins history’s most egregious human rights abuses (see X’s opening scenes). Conscious attempts to promote “X”-esque traits in society have led prominent scientists, Supreme Court justices, and even presidents to make ludicrous correlations between culture, race, social status, and value, sometimes expressed in laws and social practices of persecution, sterilization and torture. If human desires for faster/stronger/smarter can cascade to such nadirs of brutality, perhaps we should question our pursuits of enhancement.

As trait-selection genetic technologies develop, it would be wise to keep in mind who is likely to need protection from discrimination. X-type powers like flight or teleportation are unrealistic for the foreseeable future, as Emory bioethicist Paul Wolpe and others point out. Selecting for traits that emulate the current “best achievements of the species” is much more plausible. So the real X-persons would not be as fearfully different as characters like blue-skinned Raven (future “Mystique”). Far from persecution, the privileged “selected” would likely be primed as our greatest athletes, thinkers and leaders. That is, until selecting for these traits becomes the norm, and even higher standards are set for greatness (the Bell Curve is a fickle mistress). In this not-too-distant world of trait selection, what happens to those who choose not to adopt, or do not have access to, the technology?  

“Whoah, slow down,” you might be saying. “No one said anything about human engineering. The movie is an allegory for the adversity and perseverance of historically marginalized groups. Besides, the effects were cool.”

But does it really serve this noble purpose?  (Spoiler alert.) None of the mutants have less-abled bodies or minds; the only major black character is killed before critical narrative developments; and the mutants face persecution only because of their superhuman powers. In this movie, a group is forced into society’s margin for traits that keep people out of the margin in the real world. Neither present nor future human rights issues are well represented by this allegory.

But the effects were very cool.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Arts & Culture, Eugenics, Genetic Selection, Human Rights


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