We Deserve a Better Storm and other thoughts on race and the X-Men

storm
Picture of Fox cartoon Storm aside, this entry is about the X-Men movies.

I don’t remember where I saw the comment. It was probably a tweet. I don’t even remember what the wording was, exactly, but the substance was something like: why, just before the climax in X-Men: Days of Future Past, are all the characters of color standing sentry (and then dying) outside, while the white dudes (and white lady) stay inside and save the world? How had this comic book franchise, of all the franchises out there, fallen into the same white-centered tropes and patterns of so many other Hollywood movies?

Well, shit, I thought. I love the X-Men comics precisely because they’re diverse and tell stories of othering and oppression, but the Forgotten Commentator was right. The X-Men movies (which, let’s face it, have been pretty white from the beginning) duplicate the tropes that have gotten so common and so tiresome over the decades: White people save the world, people of color are expendable. White people are the leads, people of color are the supporting cast. 

I’ve been mulling this essay over in my head for months, and have been hellishly blocked on it, but also unable to forget about it or move on. I watched all the movies again, taking notes, trying to make some kind of quasi-objective evaluation that didn’t feel right. I wrote a bunch of it and it was boring to read, even for me. And I could also write a whole thing on how if people of color don’t have any substantive parts in the X-Men movies, well, that’s totally natural, right? When you have actors as good as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and a character as popular as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, of course there aren’t any prominent characters of color who last for more than half a movie. There just isn’t space in the story, you see. It’s a perfectly natural narrative/money-making decision. Why would they make a movie about Storm, who was perfectly terrible in the first movie, when they could make one about Wolverine, who was amazing?

Well. Let’s think about Storm for a second.

On the one hand, the X-Men franchise does a reasonable job of avoiding some of the most common racist tropes in cinema (Sassy Black Woman, Black Best Friend, Black Guy Dies First, etc). They avoid these pitfalls by…not having any Black people in the movies other than Storm until Days of Future Past. And Storm has basically no lines, especially in the first movie, where almost all of the ones she does have simply provide exposition (she asks how the adamantium got bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton, for example).

Storm also has these conversational moments (in both the first movie, talking with Senator Kelly, and in the second movie, with Nightcrawler) where she sort of…stands in to speak to where prejudice comes from? Which is a little bit of a weird choice, from a character point of view. When she’s alone with Senator Human Purity, he asks if she’s afraid of “normal” people, and she says, “Sometimes. I think…I think I’m afraid.” She’s a member of a persecuted minority, being afraid isn’t a prejudice, it’s a reaction to her life experiences. The power dynamics are never addressed, it’s just fear=prejudice=bad. The Senator never reflects out loud where he thinks his prejudice came from.

That said, the emotion behind this line worked fine with the late-90s/early-00’s. Conventional wisdom back then was that bigotry stems from lack of understanding. But I don’t like that line anymore. I can see why Singer (a gay man who definitely saw mutaphobia more as a metaphor for homophobia/gay panic than anything else) included it, but hatred of a thing isn’t always because of fear of that thing. Sometimes hatred is a cynical power grab, because if you can convince other people to fear the thing, you have power over them. If Senator No Education For Mutants had more air time, I bet he would be the second. He doesn’t fear mutants. He thinks he can control and exploit other people’s fear of them. 

Anyway. Back to Storm. Goddammit, old white dudes, still distracting me from talking about Storm. In the comics, Storm is amazing. Her mother is Kenyan, her father American. Born in America, she grew up in Cairo, and as a young girl, survived a terrorist attack that killed both her parents and left her an orphan. She survived by learning to pickpocket, and eventually traveled south to the African plains and lived with a tribe there, where she learned how to master her mutant powers. She was already a powerful mutant in control of her abilities before Xavier ever found her and brought her back to New York (and yet somehow, later on we’re to believe that Jean is the true badass here? Pffft). She was the bedrock center of the X-Men team for a long time, taking over leadership of the team when Cyclops couldn’t do it. She eventually became the Headmaster at Xavier School for the Gifted. She always prefers negotiation and preserving life to fighting, but when she decides to fight, she is one of the most formidable opponents you could ever imagine. She beat Cyclops in battle. Storm is a fucking badass. She is amazing. Also, Bryan Singer had Halle Berry, an Oscar-caliber actress, in his cast! So what does he do? “Do you know what happens to a Toad when it gets struck by lightning?” Goddamit, Singer. Just…goddammit.

To be fair (?) to Singer, his problem may not be black women, but just women, as I also have serious problems with how Rogue is portrayed (Rogue is not some frightened, delicate flower who hides in her shell. Rogue is also a fucking badass. She is sassy Southern, not demure Southern). Mystique doesn’t have any lines, but she spends much of the climax fighting Wolverine, so you know she’s tough. Jean is powerful but there’s hints that she has powers that she doesn’t use because they are uncontrolled and “dangerous.” But Rogue seems lost, and Storm does nothing. It’s infuriating.

So in this movie, which is establishing the universe for future movies, there’s one character of color, and that character of color has almost no lines or character establishment. The white actors (who are great! Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman are all amazing) dominate the movie, and fans and movie-goers responded accordingly. With everyone responding positively to Wolverine and nobody responding to Storm at all, it becomes that much easier for the screenwriters to give Wolverine screen precedence on the next outing.

The racism we have here might be called where the fuck is everybody, because we are supposed to accept that just outside of the most diverse city on earth, in a school devoted to serving a population that are the result of random genetic mutations, most of the faculty of the school, and even most of the students that we see, are all white. Except for Storm. And that just carries on for another 5 movies and 13 years (including two solo Wolverine movies), until we get to Days of Future Past, where it turns out that the PoC characters who have been established are expendable. No setting up a multi-movie arc for Bishop or Warpath here.

Days of Future Past isn’t even where the expendable PoC tropes begin. In X-Men: The Last Stand (the third movie), a bunch of new characters are introduced when Magneto recruits new followers. Lots of these folks are PoC, which is cool (I really like Arclight, for the record), but we never get to know them, and a bunch of them die at the end of the movie. None of Magneto’s new recruits survive to have an impact on subsequent movies in the franchise. As far as I remember, none of them even appear in any of the subsequent movies.

And look, I realize that this is maybe not on purpose. The studio can certainly make an argument that there’s a finite amount of marketing space, a finite amount of space in a story, a finite amount of space in merchandizing, and that Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman just take up a damn lot of space. And a lot of folks will see that argument as having merit. But racism isn’t always on purpose, and impact doesn’t equal intent. And it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: Storm doesn’t have enough of a following to get toys made in her likeness or a movie made about her, so kids going to see the X-Men movies never learn enough about her to get curious, so they don’t demand more Storm, so the studio doesn’t make a movie that it doesn’t think people would be interested in. And we can all talk ourselves into never having people of color on screen and make it never about race at all.

So, no more Storm. No more Bishop, or Blink, or Warpath. No Sunspot. No Jubilation Lee. We had Lady Deathstrike, for a hot minute, but she’s gone. And whatever reasons you or the studio wants to give for why we had three Wolverine movies and no movies about Storm, I think that sucks.

 

 

Random Tangent #1: I know that Magneto often plays the role of the villain in the comics, but can we just take a minute and sit with the fact that all the villains in these movies who hold systemic power and influence (Senator Kelly, Colonel Stryker, Bolivar Trask) are tertiary villains, passing fads, while the primary, unkillable nemesis is…Magneto? The Jewish war refugee who lost his family (twice!), whose anger and grief is deep and cold and bottomless, and whose reaction to oppression may be summarized as, “You killed my family and there is no justice for that so come on, just try it, try anything, because I have been looking for an excuse to drop a football stadium on your heads”? That’s…not how oppression works at all, actually. Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender are both great. And it’s really hard to make a compelling narrative about fighting a power system (see also: the Captain America: Civil War movie, which took all the thematic conversations in the comics about freedom vs oversight and made it into a personal beef between Captain America and Iron Man). But also, making the survivor of a genocide into a perpetrator of terror while white villains disappear in between movies is not a politically neutral decision.

Random Tangent #2: Speaking of evil-doers, in X2: X-Men United, the most queer-coded movie of the entire franchise, the baddie is Col. William Stryker, who enslaves mutants as part of his master plan to eradicate them. Near the climax, it’s made clear that his son is also a mutant. Stryker declares that he “has no son,” rather than accept the fact that a) his son is a mutant; b) he has subjected his son to brutal scientific experimentation to control him because he can’t accept him; and c) he is sitting right there. (Perhaps it wasn’t intended to refer to this at the time, but when I watch it now that line makes me think of the ex-gay movement that holds gay kids captive and brainwashes them into trying to be straight). There’s adults out there who haven’t talked to their parents since they came out in the late 90s, because their parents disowned them. There’s kids out there right now living on the street because they can’t safely live with their parents, because their parents are homophobes. William Stryker declaring that he has no son is perhaps the most pedestrian, believably evil line in that entire movie.

In the middle of All This

Oof. It’s been a week, hasn’t it, Best Beloved? A year. An interminable, endless year.

I had at least half an entry in my head last week (was it last week?), when the video of Amy Cooper, a white woman in Central Park who (among other things) doesn’t think that dog leash laws apply to her and will enforce that belief by threatening random black men with murder-by-cop, was circulating. But then George Floyd was murdered, and then protests, and then riots. I don’t know that I have anything like a cohesive post, but I got some things. (Also, I’m not the first to say any of these things.)

A.) I was accused of having a “laundry list” of things that worried me more than property damage when I responded to a person on social media who was lamenting property damage. And…yeah. I do indeed have a long-ass list of concerns. Because I am 38 years old and this list has been growing for my entire lifetime and then some. That’s the thing about lists, and grievances, and grief, and trauma: they don’t go away when you ignore them. They sits there, festering, self-replicating, creeping out the cracks in the walls until the walls lose their integrity and come tumbling down. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up…or does it explode?

What “rational” response should people be engaging in right now? Colin Kaepernick engaged in peaceful protest and lost his job. MLK engaged in peaceful protest and he was murdered. How many black people have to die, and the people who killed them face no justice, before it’s okay to break some shit? Activist Stokely Carmichael said that, “in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” It’s clear that forces with power in the US are fine with ignoring peaceful protest; violent protest they can squash with guns and tanks and then do what they can to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. Because if activists really wanted change, they would do this shit nonviolently, right? And they think we’ll forget that activists already tried that, have been trying that, will continue to try that. What’s left, then? What are folks supposed to do?

How long are communities expected to go without health care, including mental health care? How long should activists spend trying to reform the criminal justice system, to get nonviolent offenders out of jail, to get cops to stop killing people? Does systematically depriving children of an education because you don’t want to pay for schools count as violence? What about systematically depriving children of their parents because you want to house them in a for-profit jail system and make money off of them? What about systematically putting children in jail because you don’t know any other way to change their behavior? How do we change all that? I agree that lighting a dumpster on fire won’t directly change that, but neither has decades of direct activism and hard work, so I got no answers and I’m not going to judge the people who got to the end of their rope and found that it dropped off a cliff.

B.) Just after George Floyd was murdered, I said on social media (kind of offhandedly, while talking about something else) that I thought it was important that videos like that be shared. That white people should watch them and not look away. I changed my mind, though, after seeing multiple people of color (on other social media platforms, not in my mentions) talk about how traumatizing they find these videos. How they’ve become more traumatizing over time because it’s a cycle now: graphic video/protest/nothing happens/rinse/repeat. To watch black people die, over and over and over, is traumatizing. To have it show up, unasked-for, in your social media feeds, is exhausting. When’s the last time you saw a white person murdered on camera? When’s the last time that got broadcast over and over on CNN? We (white people) have to expand the definition of “don’t look away” to something beyond “share shit on facebook.” Or if you’re going to share that shit on facebook or twitter, commit to doing something else, too. Contact your congressperson. Donate to a bail fund. Make some art. Buy some art from a person of color. Don’t just feel sad/mad for a minute, share the news story, and move on. Do something.

There was a time when it was important to see and share and take in these videos, along with other accounts of the trauma and danger that people of color live through in this country every day. I’m glad that more people seem to believe people of color when they tell their stories now. I wish we white folks could have gotten there without the need for video documentation, but it is what it is. Now we have to keep believing them and keep sharing stories and do it in a way that isn’t traumatizing our friends and family and people who are just trying to walk through the world without getting killed or harassed.

If sharing videos of these atrocities could have stopped them from happening, they would have stopped by now. But the death of Philando Castile didn’t even galvanize change in the state of Minnesota. We gotta do something else.

(Also: relying on videos and viral sharing is a bad way to do justice, friends. There’s no way it can reach every murder, galvanize every city. Look at the difference in reaction between George Floyd’s death and Breonna Taylor’s. Is one of them more deserving of justice than the other? Is one of them, at this moment, more likely to see justice served? This is what we’re talking about when we need systemic change. We can’t rely on social media to catch everyone who deserves justice and find it for them.)

C.) Talk to your people who still believe that colorblindness is how we solve racism. It is not. Thinking and talking about race is hard and uncomfortable, especially when you’re a well-meaning white person who doesn’t want to piss anybody off. It still is for me, and I’ve been reading/thinking/talking about systemic racism and whiteness for well over a decade now. We have to know our own history and how racism is tied into it. You think the Nazis and the fascists and the slavery nostalgists don’t know this history? You think they don’t use our ignorance against us, to outflank us and cause harm to PoC and Jewish people, every step of the way? They use our loyalty to and investment in colorblindness and they make us complicit in the harm they cause. It’s one of the reasons why people of color end up doing so much of the labor, physical and emotional. This investment in not acknowledging race or racism has never helped black folks. It has only helped white supremacy.

And we have to start talking about this shit with kids. Kids can see the difference between how white folks live and how black folks live. They want explanations. They want to know why the world is the way it is. And right now, with white kids, a lot of the best explanations they can find is coming from racists. And that’s a problem, right? We can agree that that’s a problem?

I remember going to punk shows as a teenager, and reading zines, and the ARA (Anti-Racist Action) would hand out and distribute fliers from the SPLC showing different names and logos and code words of white power groups, publications, websites. I got warned off Skrewdriver before I even knew anything about them. There was no hoping that failing to recognize them would make them go away. Instead, there was positive action. Naming them. Showing what they looked like. Forcibly ejecting them from shows when they were recognized. Maybe if white liberals had learned how to talk about racism forty years ago, Bannon and Miller and the other racists in this administration could not have gone so unchecked for so long, or built up the empires that they have.

When Trmp says, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he is quoting somebody. Do you know who he’s quoting? I didn’t, I found out like two days ago. Were there white nationalists out there who heard him say that and understood exactly what he meant? You bet your ass. And yeah, maybe he didn’t know who he was quoting either (it’s not like he reads anything), but I bet that somebody in the White House does. Somebody put that line in his head. Learn to recognize dogwhistles and call them out, if you do nothing else. If today is your first day looking around and thinking, Holy shit, maybe there’s something to this racism thing, welcome! You don’t even have to start with systemic racism or implicit bias or white privilege! Our president is giving real-time lessons in how racists talk to each other when they don’t want to be obvious about it. Learn the language.

Black people have known how to talk about race for decades. White racists have known how to talk about race for decades. We white liberal antiracists have to learn how to talk about it too.

D.) White women in particular: Don’t forget about Amy Cooper. Watch that video, and sit with that. That was such a perfect fucking textbook example of how white women wield their social standing and their fear to enforce racist outcomes in this country.

E.) Buy work by black artists, musicians, and writers. Support their podcasts. Find their patreons. Share those videos. Listen to those stories. Lift up voices, allow other perspectives into your feed.

F.) This is all aspirational for me too. I’m not saying I’m great at doing any of this, but it’s past time I redirected some energy into trying harder. We all need to pay attention, and keep paying attention. Learn what hushing up and letting other people talk looks like (it probably doesn’t look like this entry, which I realize is full of all kinds of white-centered thoughts and feelings, but that’s what blogs are for, I suppose).

G.) Stephen Dubner, the host of the radio show/podcast Freakonomics, has started signing of off episodes with the phrase, “Take care of yourself, and if you can, take care of someone else.” I like that. I might start using it.

Take care of yourself. If you can, take care of someone else.

 

Poets I’m reading this week: Langston Hughes. Martin Espada. Danez Smith. Ross Gay.

Prose I’m reading and/or listening to: Roxane Gay, NK Jemisin, Stokely Carmichael, W Kamau Bell, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Frederick Douglass (1852 Fourth of July Speech), MLK Jr (Letter from Birmingham Jail).

Music is good: Jurassic 5, the Flobots, the Gossip, Le Tigre, Strike Anywhere, Lizzo, Yo-Yo Ma.