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.