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June 29, 2011

Objectified Feminists and Marginalized Activists: Gender & Race in “X-Men: First Class”

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Written by: Andy
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Objectified Feminists and Marginalized Activists
(Gender and Race in X-Men: First Class)

By guest journalist, Alexander Lorenzen

Before I get started, please remember that X-Men: First Class is not a bad film. In fact, I’d say it’s the best adaptation of comic characters this summer (so far at least). It was a step up from the previous movies in the franchise, and it had a few little tidbits that gave me the chills. That being said, there are a few far-from-progressive things that need to be addressed.

The positive aspects of First Class do outshine the negative for the most part. Magneto was done very well. Michael Fassbender did such a fine job at acting the part, I actually took his side for about ninety percent of the story. Near the end, one could argue that Xavier was the unethical one (I’ll get to that later). The costumes were also astounding. When Wolverine once asked in X-Men: “What would you prefer, yellow spandex?” most comic fans said, and would still say: “Yes.” This was the closest we’ll ever get to that in a mainstream movie.

Sadly, there were other strong points, but they were quickly buried by irony. In the midst of fans’ caps-lock ridden comments strewn across the internet about the “EPIC” film, I failed to find more than a few people who acknowledge the ironic amount of 1960s sexism and racism in First Class—a movie that seemed to be blatantly pushing the theme of tolerance. Credit is due for noble intentions, but it was a miserably failed effort.

The first major moment of pervasive Hollywood sexism was near the beginning when Moira MacTaggert, the CIA agent (a geneticist and mutant expert in the comics), gets undressed to infiltrate the Hellfire Club. How convenient. She doesn’t even start putting her clothes back on when she returns to the car. One may argue that this was legitimate infiltration attire because of the club’s overall atmosphere, but the fact that this pointless type of scene happens in so many movies is proof that it was merely engineered by suits trying to appeal to typical male audiences, rather than an effort to portray the Hellfire Club in an accurate-to-source-material fashion.

There was also virtually no reason to waste so many valuable storytelling seconds on shots of dancers in the scenes that followed. It could be argued that these scenes served the purpose of showing the bad guys as chauvinistic, but based on the way the shots were filmed, I beg to differ. There were constant close-ups on Emma Frost’s chest/lingerie/CGI from ten years ago. This came across overwhelmingly as pure fan service rather than a portrayal of a woman being victimized and objectified (like the more sympathetic scene on the submarine where Shaw asks her to get him some ice) by those who are supposed to be on her side. The camera’s perspective practically begs the viewer to ogle her. Also, remember the scene where Emma manipulates the Soviet general? If the entire experience is in his head, why did she need to physically take off her jumpsuit? Fan service of course.

One laughably racist moment involved the death of the character Darwin. In this day and age, people make plenty of jokes concerning the untimely deaths of African-American characters in movies. In the history of film, they have usually been the first to die (unless they are a famous Hip-Hop or R&B star), and what do you know, the only African-American in First Class dies almost right away! In a film about tolerance set in the 1960s! It’s completely absurd.

Angel Salvador was another example. Here we have a character that is non-white and female. Diversity! Too bad she’s a stripper who joins the bad guys just before the only other non-white character dies. She does talk about how she dislikes the way people look at her with her clothes off (less than the way people look at her for being a mutant), but the scene when Charles and Erik recruit her in no way shows her occupation as a negative thing. Why does the film glamorize the strip club if she feels that there is nothing glamorous about being gawked at?

Mystique was an actual character in First Class, which is a step up from what I expected. Her relationship with Xavier was interesting and believable, and I found myself genuinely caring about her. I was extremely let down when she promiscuously shows up naked in Erik’s bed. Why did she do this? She and Erik had no established relationship, and there was no evidence present to make one believe that they would want each other physically. Erik even tells her that she is too young, but kisses her anyway. It’s like studio executives were unhappy with her being characterized because they assumed audiences didn’t want to think, they just wanted to watch that “blue chick” walk around completely naked.

Overall, I think the lineup of the two teams at the end is a good overview of my point. The remaining X-Men are all white, all male, while the only non-white non-male characters are all on Magneto’s side. At this point I officially gave up on Riptide (Spanish actor Álex González) having even one line. The message of tolerance and diversity is silenced right there.

The only situation that wraps it up more painfully is the fate of Moira. Instead of trusting her to do her job as a trained CIA agent, Xavier erases her memory, which eventually causes her to be ridiculed by an entire room full of her colleagues. When her superiors ask her to relay what happened, she practically acts like a thirteen-year-old with a crush. This made me feel like the men of the CIA had probable cause to fire her. After all, why would having her mind wiped cause her to act ditzy and give the details about kissing Xavier? If I were her, I would have been downright frustrated and determined to get to the bottom of what happened. This really brings up the question of Xavier’s morality, and the confusing views on morality presented in X-Men: First Class as a whole. Was it ethical of him to assume she couldn’t keep a secret, and cause her to be fired as a result? What caused him to decide he couldn’t trust her? Was it because she is a woman? I see no evidence to prove otherwise, especially with Xavier’s repeated attempts at womanizing throughout the film. It couldn’t have been that pro-human-mutant relations activist Dr. X thought that a non-mutant couldn’t keep a secret. Xavier was obviously not intentionally portrayed as distrustful of women, but his actions contradict his noble aspirations in the scene where the CIA mocks Moira and comically states that “This is why women have no place in the CIA.” The mocking tone of that scene was meant to make them seem ridiculous, and for us to feel bad for Moira. I did feel bad for her, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was all Xavier’s fault. I found his treatment of Moira to be much more unnerving than Magneto assassinating a mass murderer who shot his mother and was going to bring about nuclear war.

I encourage a second viewing of X-Men: First Class. Enjoy its strong points, but be aware of the characters; what they do, who they are, how they are portrayed, and how they relate to the theme of tolerance and equality. Sexist and racist generalizations are becoming less frequent, but progress still needs to be made.

Alexander Lorenzen



  1. Excellent points! I’m glad to see this conversation becoming more pervasive in the comics world.

  2. Nick

    Great article, really encouraged a second viewing

  3. As I watched this movie it seemed to me that all of the female characters that are portrayed as strong, capable, and very intelligent in the comics were all watered down to their base element here. Yes Emma dresses in tight scantly clad outfits in the comics but that’s a weapon of sorts which helps her to manipulate the men that she comes in contact with since they’re distracted by the TnA. Plus January Jones wasn’t the best choice with her horrible and just plain boring acting. And Moira becoming a ditz was a silly ass plot developement and could have been left out.

    Now when I saw that Darwin was going to be in the movie I was thrilled but soon joked that he probably would have a weak part or die. Too bad I was correct on both accounts but the fact that he was the ONLY mutant that died was just stupid when you consider what his power is. It was also blatant when Shaw was giving his speech, he’d play the race card and the camera gives us a full shot of Darwin which was predictable and just weak.

    Sure XMFC was an o.k. movie but some tweaks in both the areas of race and gender could have definitely made it a stronger film.

  4. Billy

    This is just the tip of an iceberg (crap that isn’t necessary) with movies in general.

  5. ken meyer jr

    I’ve been watching Mad Men lately and January Jones is one of the most boring blondes I have ever seen…the fact that she was chosen for a character like Emma Frost shows that whoever did the choosing either has a thing for her, doesn’t know the character she is playing, or both. Oy.

    On the other hand, we have Ellen Page, so I can’t complain too much.

  6. ken meyer jr

    …or HAD Ellen Page, since I guess she isn’t in this one. Oh well.

  7. Alexander Lorenzen

    Thanks for reading everyone! @InfiniteSpeech so true I didn’t even think about how odd it was that Darwin died in spite of his powers.

  8. Blakeney

    Every female character in this thing is in a state of undress at some point. I’m not buying the “oh, it was done for story reasons” loopholes. I can almost imagine the producers gleefully realizing that with just a few repetitive plot twists, they can depict women being condescended to, filmed in various states of undress, and in scenes of pseudo-bondage. All under the benevolent guise of “exposing the sexism of the 60’s”. What a hypocritical load of crap.

  9. CJ

    Thank you Alexander for writing this and everyone for commenting. I’m really encouraged that it wasn’t just me who noticed all the blatant sexism and racism in this movie. I think the film made a loud, white suppremacist message when they killed Darwin right away and the only other mutant of color (Mistique and Beast do not count) joins the evil Shaw. How convenient that only the white mutants are left to be our protagonists!

    It’s paradoxical that a movie with so many illusions to Black and gay civil rights movements has a cast of nearly all white and straight actors. I appreciate that these themes are being explored but it’s also a slap in the face to underrepresent actual marginalized people in a movie about the marginalized. In addition, the women and people of color in this movie are presented in such a one dimensional way that it further inflates the importance of the white male protagonists. Unfortunately this is one of many things in the media that asserts ideas of white supremacy and patriarchy but I am so glad to see everyone thinking critically about this film!

    • I find it funny that Sunspot (another person of color) was supposed to be in this movie but Vaughn cut him: “We cut Sunspot because we didn’t have enough time or money. They couldn’t make him work, he was a pain the ass.”

      Seems like a weak excuse to me considering the advancement of CGI and the crap that they did make work and allow on the screen.

  10. SPoonshoe

    I really wonder sometimes, if their are any serious conversations any more. I don’t have the time or the will to go into too much detail but simply, just because a woman is seen naked, half naked or sexual in ANY context is not the same as ‘sexism’. It is appealing to human beings sexuality, which they SHOULD. As we are human, we have sex and we WANT to see people naked. This is not a serious critique, unless it is a high school newspaper.

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