Beating blog block: What do mutants do all day?

The recent hiatus on this blog is due to having a complete writer’s block re proper blogging of medieval papers/seminars. To try and get round this, the next few posts will be short and unimportant and trying to get me back into the groove of writing this. Don’t feel obliged to read them if you’ve got more useful things to do.

I went to see X-Men First Class on the recommendations of my friends (some more guarded than others, and some probably influenced mainly by it containing Michael Fassbender). There are bits of a decent film in there, but not much of one, and the reactionary treatment of female characters is fairly depressing. (I don’t know how much of this is due to the constraints of the source material and how much was deliberately chosen).

There are three female mutants, as against nine male ones, and their superpowers are shown as inferior to those of the male mutants. Raven/Mystique can change her appearance (very feminine, somehow) and Angel is basically an angry fairy. The most powerful of the women is, of course, a baddie: Emma Frost, a telepath who can turn her body into diamond. She is conveniently captured in time to be absent from the final great confrontation between good and bad mutants, in which she might otherwise even up the fight a bit.

The section of the film I want to focus on is where the hero, Charles Xavier, who has collected together a gang to fight the baddies, takes them back to his mansion to train them. Most of the training sequence itself is quite enjoyable, but it was only afterwards that I realised that while we see Charles training all the male mutants, we don’t see Raven (the one female left on the goodies’ team) training. Now you can argue there’s a reason for this – she’s been raised with Charles as his sister, so she’s already trained, but she doesn’t get to help doing the training either. What that means, in practice, is that all we see her do during this segment of the film is sitting around being angsty and/or romantic. And this got me thinking about a) the role of depictions of women working in films and b) whether having female characters as part of a ‘gang’ does in itself help produce more interesting female characters.

On the first point, one of the main ways in which women now define themselves is by their work (if you include study and being the primary carer of babies and small children as work, which I would). Any piece of art which doesn’t make work look an important part of a woman’s life now seems odd to me. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it either has to be a good job, or that she has to be good at it: I wouldn’t have minded seeing a sequence in which Raven repeatedly tried and failed to take on a particular appearance. Or films/TV shows where the heroine is stuck in a crappy job and aware of it. But if they’re not shown doing any kind of work, then they’re basically ornamental.

This is particularly the case because, judging by this film at least, good mutants don’t do much all day, anyhow, but sit around, unless there’s a mission on. (Bad mutants, in contrast, are constantly plotting and so much busier). And that’s a more general problem with the ‘gang’ style of TV/film, where the story’s focus is on a gang who have adventures. From the viewer’s viewpoint, the gang’s adventures must be more exciting than anything else they do, or why isn’t that on display instead? So Raven can’t be sneaking off having more exciting adventures, because she needs to be on hand to be part of the gang.

In contrast, we don’t know what Angel or Emma Frost are doing for most of the time, and that I would suggest, makes it easier to imagine that they are doing daring and independent things. I’ve become very interested in the last year in fandom and fanfic and the way that women, in particular, can use it to transform works of art to their own purposes. I’m starting to wonder whether, given the unimaginative way in which supposedly central female characters often get written, whether in many shows it isn’t the more marginal female figures who actually offer the more interesting imaginative potential.

Note: if anyone has read this AND wants to comment, please bear in mind that I’ve spend the last decade mainly not watching either films or TV, so make the pop culture parallels sufficiently plain for an ignoramus.

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8 thoughts on “Beating blog block: What do mutants do all day?

  1. The lack of female heroes (as opposed to heroines, who lie around in floaty dresses, waiting for the knight in shining armour to do something impressive) in general tv series is something which concerns me. I first noticed this when I realised that the thing which made me love Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the existence and actions of the main character. Although she has a male mentor, she’s definitely the star of show, and controls much of the action. This has proved to be something that makes me like, or dislike, series – whether the women are actually actors in their own lives, or whether they’re just tokens.

    And, hey, it led to my focus on female saints, as medieval women who are in control of their lives, or afterlives…

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  2. Joss Whedon (who also wrote Buffy that is praised so by zcat) is famous for his “strong female characters”. If you enjoy watching shows with no real difference between women and men playing their part, I can totally recommend “Firefly” (damn you, Fox, for canceling it after first season!). There’s several ladies in the main group, and none of them is ornamental. At all. Nor is Penny in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, another Whedon thing.

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  3. This is slightly to one side of your expressed topic, but you might be interested in http://bechdeltest.com/, if you don’t already know it. The Bechdel test looks for scenes in movies which
    – have at least two women
    – who talk to each other about something other than a man.

    I do think that we have gone backwards in recent years (not just in fictionalized form, either!). Look at Star Trek: the original series was very forward-thinking for its time: the first interracial kiss, more than one woman who actually did things, and so on. The Next Generation took a few more steps forward both racially and in terms of gender, Deep Space Nine did as well, and it culminated in Voyager, which had an abundance of strong women. The next step, though, was Enterprise, which basically centered entirely on white men. Yes, there were token women and a token black man, but basically it was white guys who got to do stuff. I see people of color and strong women disappearing from television at a remarkable rate lately (can’t really speak about movies, because I don’t go to them enough).

    I’m glad to see you reappearing in the blogosphere; you do have readers everywhere, if that helps 🙂 (American woman, older, newly-minted Ph.D. in medieval history)

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  4. I’m a longtime tv fan who’s also become very recently interested in fanfiction. That new interest for me is more about a playful sense of freedom in writing (as opposed to my day job which is rigidly structured nonfiction writing) than about exploring male and female roles. BUT . . . via fanfiction, I’ve come rather late in life to an interest in science fiction and fantasy, particularly because of the female characters. I’ve not seen XMFC yet, but plan to and so will come back and comment after I do. But what I’ve noticed in my recent leaps into scifi worlds (including Firefly as mentioned above and Stargate Universe and Buffy–oh yes, I’m so late to the Whedon party) is that the women in these worlds are endlessly fascinating, complex, and defined very much by their work and intellects. All my life, I’ve been a fairly devoted tv fan, and what I think I see in these sci fi shows, and a very few non-sci fi shows (Mad Men, for all its obnoxious, gorgeous chain-smoking 1960s men, is full of deliciously complex, irresistible female characters) is a rich population of female characters that’s absent from film–at least the American films I tend to see. I heard one actress say recently that all the good writing for women is now on tv, and that seems true to me. More after I see X-Men.

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    • You might want to look at Battlestar Galactica (the recent series, not the original). In addition to being an amazingly well-thought-out, well-written drama with really interesting themes, it has any number of complex and fascinating female characters.

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  5. The Bechdel Test is a grand thing that works for so much more than movies. Historically, I think it would pretty much fail in superhero comics, which have always played to strong gender stereotypes (all men have six-packs, all women have unrealistic cleavages, etc.) and costumes that accentuate their display. (And nowadays there are webcomics that parody *that*, and so on.) I think I dimly remember a conversation between She-Hulk and The Invisible Girl about make-up when She-Hulk briefly joined the Fantastic Four, if that helps… So the source material probably does constrain the films, but only if the films are themselves based on it, which I believe this one is only by the thinnest of threads. I suppose that they probably can’t invent characters in whole cloth, but the X-Men have had so many members that the selection could still be better-balanced than that. I suppose that retconning the sexism, or at least, hyper-sexualisation, out of the genre might make it unrecognisable, but it may also not be a priority, especially since there’s a demographic that are coming for the æsthetics of the actors and/or actresses.

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  6. As my learned colleague above observes, there are (at least) two factors in operation in this kind of pop culture product: 1) the sources material, its established characters, inherent rules, etc.; and 2) the choices of the makers about how to represent, stick to, subvert, expound on (etc.) those characters and rules. A really nice example, to my mind, of pop culture TV that managed both to draw reasonably faithfully on its source material (much of which was from Suetonius), *and* to do things slightly differently (and more richly), especially in terms of agency and gender, was the HBO series “Rome”.

    Once you get past the shock of the ‘after 10pm’ language and copious nudity familiar to viewers of HBO productions over the years, Rome is a thoroughly fabulous program. After several episodes I realised one of the (many) things I loved about it was the complexity of the female characters. They can be ‘political’ and domestic; powerful and submissive; they manipulate their sexuality and are manipulated in turn. Their capacity to influence the outcomes both of great events and the mundane events of their own lives is circumscribed by forces beyond themselves, but some choose to challenge those boundaries and they sometimes win. The sphere in which the deploy the agency they’re given is not the same as that in which the male characters move (obviously: they’re not on the battlefield or in the senate much!) but they are shown conceiving of and executing real influences on ‘great’ events, as well as within their own lifes, loves and households. This show also achieves complexity between characters: there is a subliminal feminism in the kind of agency permitted to women generally by the show’s creators, but not all the female characters respond to its possibilities in the same way. Some push right up to the limit of what they can achieve and beat in rage at the walls of resistance they eventually meet; others decide to withdraw from the attempt. Some exercise their power ostentatiously; others with a cold calm. Some chose to act strictly within the confines of ‘perfect womanhood’, as wife or mother, etc; while some clearly don’t care a fig for what others might say. And all of them seem to have ‘tipping points’ that can force a behavioural or strategic shift.

    I really recommend it if you want some light relief with *real* characters both women and men. (Just be sure to put the kids to bed first!)

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  7. I like this concept of fan fiction as a way of re-imagining and extending women’s roles in canon literature. I have recently started reading and writing fan fiction in the Harry Potter fandom and, while I hadnt put it so clearly to myself, it is the deeper exploration of characters like Minerva McGonagall that really fascinates me. Of course there is some execrable stuff out there and plenty of it, but there are also some gems that provide wonderful insight and adventures for these characters too.

    In response to the concept of medieval women’s saints’ lives as a means of portraying women with agency, I’m also interested in the possibility (this might be a bit of a stretch but bear with me) that these might have been written by women themselves as a sort of ‘fan fiction’… Assuming that in some cases ‘Anonymous’ might have been a woman instead of a man. Worth thinking about perhaps…

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