Fire and Water by thommas68 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
“I’m going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my noseholes–everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!” — Audre Lorde
The trope of the wealthy, white, male hero who does whatever he pleases, only legitimized by his own ego, wealth, and arrogance and who completely ignores any established democratic separation of power, became a well-developed one in US-American mainstream superhero cinema in the last decade. The trope also has some disturbing real-life equivalences in the political landscape of many democracies worldwide, above all the United States and its current regress into white supremacist thought and action, right-wing populism, and the continuation of violent neoliberal capitalism backed by conservative oligarchs.
The Marvel character Tony Stark, for example, is the son of an industrial mogul of weapon technology who has enriched his family for generations by fueling the US-military-industrial complex with new ideas for weaponry. Stark has a change of heart in his 40s and in order to become the celebrated hero, Iron Man, is re-using the war technology of his company to do better.
His DC comic book equivalent, Bruce Wayne a.k.a. Batman, is a billionaire’s son dressing up as a grim vigilante by night, after his parents got shot in a dark alley, to do frontier justice with decadent financial means in the fictional city of Gotham City. Movies about these prototypical wealthy, white, straight, cis men with daddy issues, huge amounts of money on their hands, and a god complex encourage their audience to identify affirmatively with the wealth, arrogance, and hyper-masculinity of these types of heroes who follow their own rules to fight for the greater good and ignore any democratic institutions in place.
The character Professor Charles Xavier is cut from a similar cloth, as he also comes from privilege. He represents the trope of the good wealthy white man who is taking law into his own hands by starting his personal militia called ‘The X-Men’ in collaboration with his estranged foster sister Raven, a.k.a Mystique. But in contrast to Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne, Charles Xavier is depicted as a double minority in the X-Men universe: He is one of the very few superheroes with a disability and also a mutant.
Jennifer Lawrence as Raven / Mystique (IMDB)
Mutants in the X-Men world are a fictional, marginalized minority. They are humans who develop paranormal abilities in their teenage years and as a group are commonly understood as an allegory for real-world civil rights struggles. Charles’ decision to fight injustice on his own is explained as deeply rooted in his experience of being a minority. Charles sees that the system in place is not sufficient to safeguard the fictional minority in his world. Hence, he decides to become proactive in order to “protect a world that hates and fears them”. Charles also starts a school where he raises abandoned and marginalized mutant children who have struggled with the acceptance from their biological families. Thus, the X-Men movies are not only a series about a private militia but also about a queer family (Weston, Families We Choose, 1997) — about the creation of kinship networks which are not limited by notions of biological genealogy or blood ties but based on a shared identity and experience of being a mutant.
Nonetheless, I argue that characters in these movies refuse to see Charles as solely benign and altruistic and call out his privileges: white, male, upper class, and highly educated. His worldview is furthermore shaped by multiple complicities with power that influence some of his actions and choices. This is especially seen in his foster sister, Raven, who often functions as a voice of reason in these movies. In X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who has committed her life to helping mutants in need by traveling the world’s undercurrents, calls out Charles for remaining ontologically complicit (Bourdieu, In Other Words, 1990, 11-12) with systems of power by hiding behind the walls of his family mansion in Westchester, New York. According to Raven, he lacks commitment to action besides being a teacher for a new generation of mutants. His complicity with power makes him blind to the misery and pain that less privileged mutants continue to experience in their lives on a wider global scale. She responds to Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after he celebrates the improvement of human-mutants relations:
“No Charles, [humans] still hate and fear us. It is just harder to see because they are more polite about it. […] Maybe in Westchester [things are better]. Out there, mutants are still running, hiding, living in fear. Just there’s not a war, doesn’t means there’s peace. You want to teach your kids something, teach them that. Teach them to fight. Otherwise they might as well live in this house for the rest of their lives.”
Critic Nirmal Puwar, following sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, has described how ontological complicity with systems of power often leads to a denial of the particularity of experiences that disenfranchised social groups go through in their lives: “Those who are in whatever regard – race, class, sexuality or gender – fish in water, whose habitus is immediately adjusted to the demands of the field, do not feel the weight of the water, and hence they do not see the tacit normativity of their own specific habitus, which is able to pass as neutral and universal” (Space Invaders, 2004, 131). I argue that the X-Men movies can be understood as a parable for inclusion and that Charles’ desire of finding ways of acceptance for mutants in majoritarian society is informed by a privileged upbringing and the strong desire for assimilation and for belonging to the mainstream. The idea of “more polite forms of discrimination,” which Raven articulates in the quote above, also correlates with (or at least adumbrates) social theories describing the ideology of ‘color-blind racism’ or ‘post-racial paradigms’ in the United States, which have led to a situation in which, since the 1960s, racial inequality can be sustained without any clear articulation of a violently racist rhetoric (Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists, 2013).
The most recent movie in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix (Simon Kinberg, 2019), takes Raven’s criticism of privilege one-step further by making the founder of the X-Men the villain of his own story. The idea of the good, white, wealthy male hero as innocent and benign is subverted and the movie engages with the negative consequences of an unrestricted hetero-patriarchal use of power. We will see that the character who feels most severely the fallout from Charles’ unrestricted decision-making is his closest ally and foster daughter, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).
James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier (IMDB)
Jean Grey is a powerful hero with telepathic and telekinetic abilities. In her early 20s, she works as a teacher in Charles’ school for young mutants and is also a central piece of his militia known as X-Men. Jean is Charles’ closest ally and also one of his most faithful disciples. Both are connected by strong familial sentiments and also by a shared struggle of having similar and extraordinarily powerful mutant abilities of telepathy and empathy. But in the course of the movie, Jean’s bonds with her mentor are challenged because her powers are increased by a cosmic force she encounters in space. This leads her to realize that Charles has telepathically manipulated her childhood memories without her knowledge or consent. He forced her to forget a car accident, which was caused by her emerging powers and killed her mother when she was still a child. He has also concealed from her that her biological father has survived the accident and abandoned her, as he was unwilling to raise a mutant child that he considered responsible for the death of his wife.
Thus, Jean accuses Charles of taking advantage of her as a child by using her as a pawn for his liberal agenda to fight for the greater good. She feels he selfishly rewrote her history and prevented her from dealing with her own experience of childhood trauma; she therefore leaves the X-Men. In the course of the movie, the return of Jean’s trauma and the reveal of Charles’ lie destabilizes her and turns her from the poster image of heroic pride into its dark and vengeful mirror-image and finally leads her to undo herself entirely by escaping all societal norms and bodily restrictions by evolving into a new being of energy. The audience goes along with Jean’s journey of coming to terms with how all the father figures in her life have failed her. She rejects being seen as the mirror image of Charles’ favored politics of respectability as a tool to prove mutantkind’s worth to majoritarian society.
Dark Phoenix seems to have failed to connect with mainstream audiences in the United States. Thus, my article also seeks to probe—somehow through the backdoor—why the movie became a commercial failure while more relatable and straightforward narratives about female heroism and empowerment like Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017) and Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2019) have become such celebrated and commercially successful pop culture phenomena in recent years. For his female protagonist, Director Simon Kinberg has chosen rejection and negation over more acceptable forms of feminist empowerment like direct political resistance or the desire to break the glass ceiling and compete within male-dominated worlds. Kinberg tells the story of a woman who chooses to regain autonomy over her life by undoing herself as a means to reject all roles society could possibly offer to her. In the end, she does not return to the normalcy of her former life, refusing the audience a desired happy ending.
The narrative sparks to a certain level of frustration in the audience by showing a character that remains for a large part of the movie in a state of suspended agency, refuses to leave her negative emotions behind, and hence evokes Ahmed’s thoughts on the politics of happiness in feminist and anti-racist discourses. I use Jack Halberstam’s notion of “Shadow Feminism” as a conceptual framework to understand Jean’s journey and why Dark Phoenix can indeed be read as a queer-feminist text about the political dimension of unhappiness and the rejection of the representational burden that society often puts on the shoulders of minorities and women in the public domain. Jean “undoes” herself through self-sacrifice, as well as through the killing and silencing of several parental figures. Is she therefore capable of freeing herself from societal pressures of heroism and respectability?
Photo Credit: Doane Gregory – © TM & © 2017 Marvel & Subs. TM and © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication. (IMDB)
How do we keep hope alive in an unjust world?
One of the core themes of the X-Men movies is the struggle to sustain hope for humanity in the face of violence and discrimination. Similar to Octavia Butler’s idea of a condition of hyper-empathy of the character Lauren Oya Olamina in the novel The Parabel of the Sower (1993), the character of Charles Xavier—and by extension also his foster daughter Jean Grey—is the ultimate embodiment of humanity’s empathetic potential. Past installments of the franchise, above all the movies X-Men: Days of Future Past ( Bryan Singer, 2014) and X-Men (ibid, 2000), have shown that even within the encounter of humanity’s most ugly traits of violence, cruelty, and ignorance, Charles is the one who sustains his hope for humanity. He keeps believing that humanity is indeed capable of social change, acceptance, and he campaigns for more solidarity and kin between mutants and humans.
In contrast the main antagonist of the series, the Jewish mutant Erik Lehnsherr a.k.a. Magneto (Ian McKellen), has succumbed to the immense pain and misery he has experienced in his cinematic journey: he is a holocaust survivor (X-Men and X-Men: First Class) and has also lost his daughter and wife to police brutality (X-Men: Apocalypse). Vengeance and violence are his preferred languages. He walks a fine line between sympathetic anti-hero and downright villain. In Dark Phoenix, Magneto lives a seclusive life in a self-sustained mutant community on an island isolated and distant from the rest of human society. It is a small piece of land he has legally acquired to start a new homeland for a mutant community, which is not entirely different from Charles’ school for “gifted youngsters” in Westchester.
Probably one of the most distinctive features of the X-Men movies within the genre is the constant blurring of lines between who is good and who is evil. While many superhero movies follow a rather binary logic of morality, the X-Men movies show more nuanced shades of the spectrum and debate the ethics and motivations for their villains in equal terms to their heroes. Similarly, in Dark Phoenix, the question of who can be considered a hero/heroine and who a villain of the story is not definitively answered and shifts throughout the narrative. Is Jean Grey the villain, victim, or the heroine of her own story? She is foremost a complex character struggling to find her place in the world.
Comic book authors like Chris Claremont, Stan Lee, or Grant Morrison have described that the ideological divide between Charles and Magneto has been inspired by real-life politics and, in particular, by Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s philosophies. But it is important to note here that when it comes to race representation, the movie Dark Phoenix is a whitewashing disaster. A predominantly white cast is used to engage with ‘real world’ minoritarian subject matters on a metaphorical level while Black and Brown bodies remain sidelined somewhere in the background or are depicted as silent henchmen working for white figures of authority.
It could be argued that white minorities, e.g., gay and/or Jewish men, have been at the helm for creating these movies. Hence, these particular minority positionalities also seem to have centrally informed the ‘mutant metaphor’ in the movies since the early 2000s. But what is at stake when white bodies are favored, centralized, and glorified in fictional narratives debating disenfranchised social groups and their histories of empowerment and struggle—narratives, which are thematically grounded in civil rights discourses and critical race theory?
Burdened by Representation
The burden of representation for being part of a minority group weighs heavily on Charles Xavier in Dark Phoenix. His sister Raven reveals in her criticism that his method for acceptance is dominantly rooted in assimilative concerns and the desire to belong to majoritarian society. As a highly educated, white, straight, cis man from an upper-class background, he does not keep it a secret that he wants to have a seat at the table—and a fancy one at that. In the X-Men: First Class, Charles was already portrayed as feeling uncomfortable with Raven’s physical mutation, wishing that she would hide her “natural blue form” from the rest of society. He, by contrast, can fit in easily and hide his mutation, whereas many other mutants cannot do so because their physical mutations render them different from a “human” somatic norm.
In Dark Phoenix we learn that Charles believes that he can eradicate the ignorance of majoritarian society about mutants by simply working twice as hard, by acting better than humans, by being smarter, and by showing that mutants as a group can be respectable and useful for human society as a whole. Hence, in Charles’ worldview there is no room for failure, or weakness, or mediocrity, or the experience of childhood trauma. His X-Men are stand-ins for mutant society as a whole and hence must act accordingly. Raven calls Charles out for his problematic perspective and even plans to leave the team because of it. The following conversation strikingly reveals how Raven understands Charles’ worldview to be grounded in an assimilative ideology:
Raven: “You put those kids in danger, Charles. […] We are taking bigger, and bigger risks. And for what? Please, tell me it is not your ego. Being on the cover of magazines. Getting a medal from the president. You like it? Don’t you?”
Charles: “As opposed to being hunted and despised? Well, actually I do. It is a means to an end.
Raven: What end is that?”
Charles: “Keeping us safe. […] You should understand better than anyone, we are only one bad day away from them starting to see us as the enemy again.”
Raven: “So what? We wear matching costumes and smile in pictures so we make everyone feel safe?”
Charles: “That is a small prize to pay for keeping the peace.”
Raven: “By risking our people to save theirs?”
Charles: “Yes! YES!”
Raven rejects Charles’ understanding to find acceptance through politics of respectability and also points out the extra emotional labor (Hochschild, The Managed Heart, 1983) minorities have to put up in social situations in order to make majoritarian people feel comfortable and safe about them. The dialog resonates with Ahmed’s observation who, following philosopher Marilyn Frye, has argued that:
“…oppression involves the requirement that you show signs of being happy with the situation in which you find yourself. […] To be oppressed requires you to show signs of happiness, as signs of being or having been adjusted. […] If an oppressed person does not smile or show signs of being happy, then he or she is read as being negative: as angry, hostile, unhappy, and so on.” (Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 2010a, 66)
During a mission where the X-Men set out to save a group of astronauts who lost control over their space shuttle, Charles encourages Jean that she can do whatever she sets her mind to do. He wants her to prove her usefulness and productivity for human society at large. Charles tries to shape Jean—and his X-Men in general—into the ultimate symbol of (mutant) respectability. He puts immense pressure on his team because he intends to prove the worth of mutantkind to the human world and is even taking their death into account, if only it supports his ideal of the greater good. There is no room for weakness or time for self-care within Charles’ quest for acceptance. He is painfully aware that every mistake and every weakness shown by his team can reflect negatively on all mutants and will be used against them.
When Charles and his X-Men encounter Magneto in the streets of New York City and a fight is about to break out between the two groups of mutants, Charles tries to reason with Magneto by saying: “We do this here, now, they will see us as monsters. Violent freaks fighting in the streets of New York.” His plea, ‘What will they think about us, if we misbehave’, tries to inscribe Magneto and his group into the psychological pressure of representing mutantkind at large. Fatigued by Charles’ moralism, Magneto responds untouched with “Nobody cares!”, ignores his plea, and a fight between both groups erupts.
Charles seems to be incapable of seeing mutantkind outside the binary framework of humans’ observing gaze, because seeking their approval continues to be his chief goal. He understands mutantkind’s value mainly in relation to humanity’s will. Puwar has described in Space Invaders a similar social process with the term super-surveillance and how minority and female bodies in white and male-dominated environments are highly policed by watchful eyes:
“Knowing that they are in a precarious situation and that the most minor of mistakes could be taken as evidence of incompetence, women and racialized minorities carry what might be termed the ‘burden of representation’, as they are seen to represent the capacities of groups for which they are marked and visible per se.” (62)
Mutants like Jean have to perform their heroism in an exceptionally impressive way because her body carries the burden of representation. Charles has accepted this societal burden and has transmitted it to his students from one generation to the next by expecting and demanding their excellence. Jean grew up with Charles’ demanding voice in her head.
Jean finally succumbs to the psychological pressure that was inflicted on her by her mentor’s desire to belong—and society at large—and she is letting the darkness of her past trauma back in by becoming violent, destructive, disobedient, and non-respectable. She reclaims her right to be deviant in a society that expects assimilation and compliance from her and her “kind”. In terms of Ahmed, we could say that Jean becomes willful (Living a Feminist Life, 2017) and disobedient, as she rejects the burden of representing more than her individual experience of loss, pain, and disappointment; she becomes tired of actively managing the emotions of majoritarian society.
Built on a majoritarian ideal for excellence, the new solidarity between mutants and humans shown in the movie is a fragile construct that quickly becomes frail and breaks apart the moment Jean rejects Charles’ inflicted duty and responsibility of being a heroic poster child for successful human-mutant relations. Jean starts to become more and more violent and recklessly enjoys the use of her increasing powers. She refuses to contain her emotions any longer for Charles’ higher ideological ideal. She does not follow the psychological and assimilative pressure to prove her worth and conform to a behavioral norm that Charles expects from mutants in his care.
In one scene, we see Jean starting to toy. quite unprovoked. with a group of US military soldiers that have been assigned to capture her while she had taken refuge on Magneto’s mutant island after she had already attacked police officers and her own team. Magneto casts her out from his island because he sees her as a danger to his community. Dark Phoenix fails to give a clear motivation for Magneto’s cold behavior in regard to Jean, maybe because Jean not only humiliates human soldiers in this scene, but she also humiliates him. She shows Magneto that she is more powerful than the self-proclaimed “Master of Magnetism”. She has not only questioned his male authority over his community but also risked the autonomy of Magneto’s new homeland for mutants and the political agreement Magneto could establish with the United States. But Magneto’s decision to cast Jean out comes across as hypocritical. He seems to apply a double standard here. When he finds out that Jean has indeed killed his former ally, Raven, he risks the sovereignty of his island by going after Jean to kill her and avenge Raven’s death.
The movie shows that Jean’s actions—attacking soldiers, police officers, her own team, and killing Raven—instantly have severe consequences for the entire group of mutants living in the United States. We hear a newscaster in the background of Charles’ office who describes that Congress is considering the opening of ‘containment facilities for dangerous mutants’ after the ‘Jean Grey incident’. Charles’ biggest fear seems to come true and his lifelong project of seeking acceptance and approval through assimilative obedience seems to unravel before his eyes.
Unbecoming Woman, or a Phoenix Is Rising
Ahmed has described how negative feelings can often be understood as backward-looking, stubborn, and conservative, while good feelings are somehow regarded as forward-looking and progressive. She describes:
“Bad feelings are seen as oriented toward the past. As a kind of stubbornness that ‘stops’ the subject from embracing the future. Good feelings are associated here with moving up and getting out. […] The demand that we be affirmative makes those histories disappear by reading them as a form of melancholia (as if you hold onto something that is already gone).” (Ahmed, Happy Objects, 2010b, 50).
The oblivion that Charles has forcefully inflicted on Jean seems to have a similar intention in mind: ‘Let’s put all negative feelings and experiences aside, so we can move on and change the world for the better’. But Jean disagrees, and she does not want to move on or get past her negative feelings. She reclaims the right to be angry and shows that her experience of trauma influences the woman she is today. Charles takes a glimpse into Jean’s mind early on in the movie and describes her emotional state thus: “She is all desire, all rage, all pain, that are all coming out at once. Something is happening to her, she is changing.” Her violent actions make Charles see the full scope of her emotions and the consequences of his actions.
Within Charles’ inflicted pressure of proving one’s worth to society, it is probably easier to smile for majoritarian society when you do not remember your bigot father who gave you away because you were born different. Jean wants Charles to realize that what he had done to her was indeed wrong and that he has to take responsibility for his actions. Charles has rewritten Jean’s history so she fits better into his narrative to assimilate into a male norm for majoritarian acceptance. The character of Henry McCoy, a.k.a. Beast (Nicholas Hoult), also leaves the team after he finds out about Charles’ manipulation. He calls Charles out before leaving: “You messed with the mind of an eight-year-old girl. You pushed down all that pain and anger. Where do you think it was going to go? […] Admit it. Admit you are wrong. Please.”
Jean can nonetheless bring herself to see past Charles’ selfish reasoning for his manipulation of her, and she recognizes through her hyper-empathetic capabilities that Charles’ intentions behind his actions were not entirely selfish: he wanted to spare her the pain and sadness that knowledge of her father’s abandonment would have caused. Charles genuinely cares for Jean. He sees her as his daughter, and finally understands that his own actions were indeed wrong. He tells the other X-Men that he was the villain of the story all along and leaves the team. His liberal project of proving one’s worth through excellence and “happiness” seems to have failed. Nonetheless, Jean feels empathy for Charles and forgives him. But she still decides not to return to the normalcy of her former life.
Dark Phoenix begins with a flashback scene where Charles enrolls Jean into his boarding school after her family’s car accident. He tells Jean that he does not see her as broken. He promises her that he will be able to fix everything that she could break apart in the process of developing her telekinetic powers. This is the agreement that leads eight-year-old Jean to accept his offer and she stays in his school. Charles also offers her a new surrogate family in the same conversation. But after Charles’ lie is revealed, Jean does not want to get fixed any longer. She wants to engage with the emotions caused by her childhood trauma and quite literally desires to break apart.
The movie depicts her increasing powers as fiery cracks in her skin, as if her emotional state had physical effects on her body. If Charles has promised to fix her, Jean makes sure that he is incapable of doing so because she shatters her own body. She makes it impossible to glue any of the old pieces from her former life back together. The trauma from her childhood transforms her present self as she begins to tell her own story as a process of reclaiming her agency.
Halberstam has described with the term “Shadow Feminism”, a feminism that orients itself closer to negation and rejection than to respectability, empowerment, or more direct forms of political resistance. I see a similar form of Shadow Feminism in Jean’s actions in this movie. Halberstam describes:
“From the perspective of feminism, failure has often been a better bet than success. Where feminine success is always measured by male standards, and gender failure often means being relieved of the pressure to measure up to patriarchal ideals, not succeeding at womanhood can offer unexpected pleasures. […] Monique Wittig (1992) argued in the 1970s that if womanhood depends upon a heterosexual framework, then lesbians are not ‘women,’ and if lesbians are not ‘women,’ then they fall outside of patriarchal norms and can re-create some of the meaning of their genders. Also in the 1970s Valerie Solanas suggested that if ‘woman’ takes on meaning only in relation to ‘man,’ then we need to ‘cut up men’ (2004: 72). Perhaps that is a little drastic, but at any rate these kinds of feminisms, what I call shadow feminisms […], have long haunted the more acceptable forms of feminism that are oriented to positivity, reform, and accommodation rather than negativity, rejection, and transformation. Shadow feminisms take the form not of becoming, being, and doing but of shady, murky modes of undoing, unbecoming, and violating.” (Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 2011, 4)
Thus, Shadow Feminism is a feminism that is anti-social, favors negation over accommodation, follows a politics of deviance, and is “speak[ing] in the language of self-destruction, masochism, an antisocial femininity, and a refusal of the essential bond of mother and daughter that ensures that the daughter inhabits the legacy of the mother and in doing so reproduces her relationship to patriarchal forms of power.” (124) Shadow Feminism also disrupts generational transmissions from mother to daughter and refuses to engage with male standards for success.
Jessica Chastain as Vuk (IMDB)
In a similar vein, Jean kills all her maternal figures in the course of the movie: She kills her biological mother through causing the car accident, and she kills her mentor, Raven. She also rejects and kills a new maternal mentor, an alien shape-shifter called Vuk (Jessica Chastain), whom the narrative offers as a temporal compensation for her loneliness and previous losses. Halberstam explains that shadow feminists “refuse to think back through the mother; they actively and passively loose the mother, abuse the mother, love, hate and destroy the mother, and in the process they produce a theoretical and imaginative space that is ‘not woman’ or that can be occupied only by unbecoming women” (125).
The frustratingly underdeveloped alien Vuk appears in the disguise of a human; a white, middle-class, cis-gendered female FBI agent who tries to re-inscribe Jean into the binary conflict of men vs. women. Vuk’s character design exaggerates her whiteness by giving her light blond hair, bleached eyebrows, and pale skin. When she meets Jean for the first time she says to her:
“The better question is, who are you? Are you a scared little girl answering to a man in a chair? Or are you the most powerful creature on the planet […]? You are the girl everyone abandons. […] You are afraid [of what’s inside you] because you think it makes you bad, evil, all the words you have been taught to keep you in line. Words created a very long time ago by men with very little minds. They cannot begin to comprehend what you are.”
Her message is seductive and indeed manages to take Jean’s insecurities from her. Vuk offers a new set of moral values that was not created by (and for) straight, cis-gendered men. Vuk comes across like a leech or vampire-like creature driven by her only desire to gain more and more power in this world. In one scene, she quite literally sucks that power out of Jean’s body. Vuk is particularly inhuman in her lack of emotions and she panders to Jean’s anger about her male father figures in order to manipulate her. But when Vuk and her group of aliens try to kill her mutant family and she shows her true violent colors, Jean decides to overpower and ultimately kill her. She refuses to become a pawn in Vuk’s endeavor to take over the world and gain more power.
Dark Phoenix is strategically placed in the 1990s and thus resonates in some ways with third-wave feminism that started at the time to redefine what it means to be feminist by questioning a feminism that was dominated by white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, and middle-class women. As a woman and minority, Jean represents — although in a problematically whitewashed way — this claim for new forms of feminist thinking beyond the majoritarian and binary narrowness of the past.
The movie systematically shows how the men in Jean’s live are constantly failing her: Her father willingly gives her away after he realizes she is a mutant; Charles manipulates her memory and pushes her into his heroic (but toxic) narrative for assimilative acceptance; and Magneto is casting her out from his new homeland for being supposedly too dangerous for his mutant community and for threatening his patriarchal position as a male mutant leader. Probably in one of the most impactful scenes, after she seeks him out in her adulthood Jean simply walks away from her biological father. Her body is trembling and the encounter is visibly difficult for the young woman who is able to read her father’s emotions and thoughts in an unfiltered manner. Nonetheless, she can find the strength to call him out for abandoning her as a child. She forces him telepathically to fall asleep, and thus quiets his attempt to make her responsible for the accident.
Jean’s silencing of her biological father shows how she refuses to burden herself with his attempt to place shame and self-hate on her. Jean rejects all the members of the generation that came before her and with it the old conflicts of her parental network.
Indeed, she refuses that her life-long encounter with toxic forms of masculinity will lead her back into the same heteropatriarchal system of power. The burning cracks in her skin finally fully open in the climax of the movie. She beautifully ascends into space and transcends her gendered physical body in order to dissolve into a queer being of sparkling colors, energy and light. She is last seen as a new creature of living energy in the shape of a burning bird hovering in the stratosphere above earth. Her gendered human form entirely dissolves.
Halberstam asks if we can think about the refusal of self as an anti-liberal act, “a revolutionary statement of pure opposition that does not rely upon the liberal gesture of defiance but accesses another lexicon of power and speaks another language of refusal?” (139). Jean’s pure opposition in this scene is the defiance of unbecoming and undoing herself as a woman, or at least the understanding of womanhood, as articulated by former generations and patriarchal concepts of respectability. With her final act of negation, Jean rejects all the roles society could offer her if she would return to living in Charles’ school in Westchester: she refuses to follow Charles’ misguided politics of respectability and the continuation of her performance of usefulness to the world following a male script for excellence; she refuses to accept her biological father’s shame and hatred for being born different; she refuses to help Vuk’s ambition to gain more power, and; she negates returning to be her teammate Scott’s beloved girlfriend.
She also does not follow in Raven’s footsteps and her frustrating relationship with patriarchal forms of power represented in the redundancy of Raven’s conflict with her brother; a conflict that started in the timeline of the series in the early 1960s and continues for 30 years until Raven’s death in the 1990s. Jean’s negation of self seems to demand new relationships to hetero-patriarchal forms of power but also to hetero-matriarchal ones. She disrupts any parental or Oedipal lineage to free herself from being woman.
Hence, Jean’s negation opens up a space for a new queer potentiality that refuses to follow a generational lineage of past struggles. This resonates with Wittig’s writings where she suggests how feminist movements have to destroy the very idea of ‘women’ because the concept is defined by a socio-historical relationship of servitude towards men. Wittig understands the category ‘women’ as a heterosexual one that has to be queered. The biological separation between two dominant sexes excludes lesbians from their movement who negate being inscribed into a direct relationality and history with men:
“Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation (‘forced residence,’ domestic corvee, conjugal duties, unlimited production of children, etc.), a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual.” (Wittig, One is not born a woman, 1993, 108)
The movie sabotages its own queer-feminist narrative by showing a woman who is predominantly defined by relationships with men as her primary relationships in her life. There is also a problematic gender imbalance of who is the recipient of Jean’s rage: while her maternal figures are all killed, the men in her life are silenced, called out, pushed aside, and humiliated, and hence allowed to continue to live and grow from their mistakes.
The Present Is Not (Yet) Enough
Dark Phoenix surprisingly evokes complex socio-political themes and engages with the experience of being a minority in a multi-facetted way in a mainstream medium. I understand Jean’s journey of unhappiness as a queer-feminist text. Her journey of “unbecoming woman” is an escape from the restriction of a gendered world, as she chooses a new path outside of male-defined parameters. Jean’s several negations and anti-social behavior can be read as a plea for the development of new imaginaries for queer utopian change that is not operating in limited binary concerns of identity and gender. These binary concerns often see minorities only in relation to majoritarian issues, which try to dominate the course and content of the conversation.
Movies like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel have shown female protagonists who very successfully and heroically compete on the battlefield of male-centric power (quite literally insofar as both movies are set in the hyper-masculine settings of war and military). These women from a military background claim their own space in a male-dominated world by being exceptionally more powerful than anyone else. In contrast, I have shown in my queer reading of Dark Phoenix how it is a story about queer failure and fragility because Jean refuses to continue living in a system where her success is measured by male (or majoritarian) standards. She is not trying to partake in hegemonic powers, but instead transcends the borders of a restricted world. There is sadness in her decision, because she seems only able to find her place of belonging outside of society somewhere in an otherworldly, cosmic setting.
We can also read Dark Phoenix as a meta-commentary that speaks in a general sense about the politics of representation and what happens to many female and minority characters when they enter mainstream cinema today. Many different stakeholders are taking ownership of these characters and burden a single character with the representation of complex group identities. Hence, a single character must often face the challenge of meeting too many expectations. A single character can never measure up to the complexities of different female experiences and identities. As long as women remain under-represented and we see only such a small amount of female characters represented on screen, we will continue to burden these characters with too many expectations. The moment female representations will increase in the genre, the burden of representation will also lessen.
Trans and queer characters in particular are still highly absent from any superhero movies. Dark Phoenix‘s lack of QTBPoCs in central roles is a good example for the continuation of Hollywood’s refusal to increase opportunities for QTBPoC actors. We cannot continue to tell fictional stories about minorities in sci-fi cinema through dominantly white and male bodies. Thus, the X-Men as a socio-political commentary have to take their own metaphor more seriously and must urgently evolve. I agree with the gens QTBPOC collective that adroitly wrote in their manifesto in 2017:
“QTBPoC have everything to offer to make this world a more just, abolitionist and non-oppressive place because we live at the intersections of the gendered cis-heteronormative colonial-racist capitalist matrix and often our experiences and creative intersectional struggles embody imaginaries and practices that are committed to freeing every single one of us and the environment.” (gens QTBPOC collective, 2017)
It is time that the superhero genre centers QTBPoC bodies and let their voices lead the discussion—behind and in front of the camera—instead of casting them aside in favor of metaphorical discussions about minority experiences in a fictional world written by white cis men.