"X-Men," and the End of Multiculturalism

So, there’s another X-Men movie out. Oh, goody!

Critics have immediately gone to work uncovering the film's social implications, and the political message behind it. Indeed, as many have noted, the X-Men have made a tradition of positioning themselves as champions of multiculturalism, contrary to all forms of discrimination. Since the mutants always play the “different” ones, their story offers the perfect allegory for everything from apartheid to the gay rights movement. The problem, though, is that everyone is “different,” yet, clearly, not everyone is oppressed. So, then, what difference does “difference” make? Let’s step back for a minute and talk about what “discrimination” even means before we go on celebrating the X-Men’s progressive sensibilities.

In a review for The Atlantic, Paul Schrodt points out that X-Men: First Class explicitly addresses the gay rights issue. Quite clearly, as Schrodt demonstrates, the director was thinking specifically of the gay issue when he put together a movie concerning characters that “grew up feeling different.” The issue at hand, however, is much larger. The notion of “realizing that one is different from everyone else” is not in anyway unique to “gayness” as such; it could be anything. In this case, yes, X-Men plays specifically to gay identity politics, but the question is why? Why not something else? Schrodt references an article noting how the character Mystique’s shape-shifting ability “closely mirrors the gay phenomenon of ‘passing’.” Need I remind Schrodt of the origin of the term “passing?" There’s nothing “gay” about it, or, more precisely, nothing particularly “gay,” even if it may apply in general to the gay experience.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his piece for The New York Times, notes how the X-Men’s legacy of multiculturalism has led it to include, at some point in the franchise’s history, a mutant hailing from essentially any demographic category imaginable. Coates then asks an astute question: If “First Class” is set in 1962, why didn’t it talk about the civil rights movement? Perhaps by taking all “difference” as the same, the director thought that gay rights could act as a surrogate.

Or maybe X-Men makes “the gay” into the most immediate person of “difference” because he is the most tamable, or the least different. “The gay” is not really a threat to anyone because he, at his core, is very much like “us,” whereas for many more Americans, “the illegal immigrant” or “the woman in a burqa” is seen as a threat. Why can’t a mutant “grow up feeling different” because, for example, she’s the only one wearing a burqa? That would be going too far!

At one point, Coates takes a second to describe today’s America as “postracial.” I wish I could be as optimistic. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but the blank sense of “difference” in the politics of the X-Men may, contrary to its intent, serve to mask the problem at hand. There’s a difference between “difference” and oppression. We need to ask why certain differences can be overcome with good old-fashioned multiculturalism, whereas others remain too taboo to even bring up in a science fiction film.

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