Mutant and Proud: Disability Lessons from X-Men

In this blog post, there will be many spoilers for the X-Men movies, so don’t read this unless you’re OK with that.

For any oppressed group, art can be a therapeutic way of working through social justice issues like discrimination and communicating those issues to a wider audience. It’s sometimes easier for an audience to relate to an abstract, fictionalized group than to a real group to which they bring their real-life assumptions and prejudices. It’s why I like the sci-fi/fantasy genre so much. These kinds of stories allow us to reconsider our notions and biases from a safe distance. Stories about aliens force us to challenge our tendencies towards xenophobia, or fear of foreigners, as well as our general ambivalence to pointless social customs. Superhero stories greatly grew in popularity after 9/11, perhaps because we were, at that point, a wounded nation in need of a supernatural savior.

Movies and TV have been the most popular form of art since the mid-20th century. In my last post, I talked a bit about superhero movies in particular. When X-Men came out in the year 2000, the only real exposure many people had to superheroes was through comic books, children’s cartoons and toys, and the Superman movies that had been coming out since the 70s and 80s. The first X-Men movie was popular, but its popularity was mostly dependent on star power (Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, and Sir Ian McKellan were big box office draws at the time). It made $296.3 million worldwide. When X-Men comics first came out starting in 1963, it was to an even more modestly-sized audience. It quickly grew in popularity, however, and the characters from X-Men are now household names.

Just to put us all on the same page, and because the X-Men cinematic universe is notoriously confusing, I’ll give a rundown of the list of movies and when they are set:

Original Trilogy:

  • X-Men (released 2000) – Set in current times-ish.
  • X2: X-Men United (released 2003) – Direct sequel to X-Men.
  • X-Men: The Last Stand (released 2006) – Direct sequel to X2.

Newer Trilogy:

  • X-Men: First Class (released 2011) – Prequel-ish story set in the 1960s, but it does directly contradict plot-related aspects of the original trilogy. I believe it was supposed to be a reboot.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (released 2014) – Set partially in the 1970s and partially in the future. This movie is a direct sequel to both The Last Stand and First Class, meant to connect the two timelines and clean up some of the messiness and contradictions of the movies. It does okay but not great.
  • X-Men: Apocalypse (released 2016) – Set in the 1980s, direct sequel to the 1970s portion of Days of Future Past.

Other Relevant Story:

  • Logan (released 2017) – Set in the FAR future, is a sequel to all the other movies so far.

For the purposes of this blog post, I’m only going to talk about those movies, not any of the Wolverine movies besides Logan and not any of the shows because there are a million of them and I’m not interested in writing a book here.

Since the beginning of the canon, X-Men comics and movies have been known to have their finger on the pulse of minority oppression. People have drawn parallels between mutant treatment and the treatment of the LGBT population as well as the treatment of African Americans — ample cases have been made for both claims. The conversation between Bobby and his family in the first X-Men movie, for example, was purposely written to reflect the experience of a gay person coming out to his parents, even down to the stereotypical question his mother asks: “Have you ever tried… not being a mutant?” And the relationship between Professor X and Magneto was written to echo that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. Philosophically, Professor X and Dr. King espouse the virtues of equality by peaceful and cooperative means while Magneto and Malcolm X advocate more radical means of freedom, believing that time for cooperation has long since passed.

One of the most skillful ways I think the movies explore the difference in opinion between Professor X and Magneto is by providing a rich backstory for both men. Charles Xavier (Professor X) was raised in privilege. He has never truly struggled, other than by being in a wheelchair, which happened later in life (and which I’ll be discussing later). Erik Lensherr (Magneto), on the other hand, lived through the Holocaust. He understands what it’s truly like to be an oppressed minority without the shelter of wealth and relative privacy. At certain points in the canon they work together to advance “mutantkind,” but their difference of approach allows for a spectrum of behavior that I would argue all minorities have in their members. Those of us concerned with the rights and freedoms of minorities can all acknowledge that there are some of us who are more radical than others. I’d argue that neither “side” is right 100% of the time. A happy medium can usually be found. “The middle path” as Buddhists call it.

The disability community is not only no different than other groups in the opinions and inclinations of our members, but also in the issues we face themselves. This is where the X-Men universe is especially applicable to our community. X-Men does a stellar job of discussing minority issues in general terms, but when we look at the literal issues that mutantkind faces, we can clearly see the likeness of mutants and people with disabilities.

Mutant And Proud

In the original X-Men trilogy, there’s a recurring plot point of a “cure” being created for mutants. The mutant gene has been found and a treatment has been created to reverse the effects. To some characters, like Rogue, who’s powers cause the death of anyone she touches, a cure would be a godsend. Many of the mutants in the comics are similarly happy at the prospect as well, because not all powers are good and some aren’t useful at all (looking at you, Skin). But intriguingly, the cure is only discussed in political terms. Many mutants simply don’t want to be “different” and deal with all the social baggage that comes with their special abilities. Thus, in the movies, the cure is a social tool that the greater population uses to make mutantkind more like them.

This echoes the opinions of many in the disability community when it comes to cures, treatments, and even accessibility. The question that comes up often after a new discovery or invention is “Is this treatment/cure/adaptation meant to help me or is it meant to make others see me as less of a burden on society?” In other words, “Is this something that will improve my life or is this what some able bodied guy thinks will ‘fix’ me?” It’s why disability rights topics can be an emotional discussion for a lot of us. Incessant talk about cures reiterates the message we’ve been sent repeatedly since childhood (or diagnosis): that our disability, the trait that most of us are remembered for and that shapes most if not all of our decisions, is a bad thing that ought to be thrown out at the first opportunity. Even if we’ve adjusted to it, it’s still a problem to others.

In a heartbreaking scene in X-Men: The Last Stand, we meet a young Warren Worthington III crying in a bathroom. He is plucking something from his back and it looks bloody and painful. His father bangs on the door, demanding he open it and eventually breaks into the bathroom to see that his son was trying to pluck out wings that are beginning to grow. Warren is so ashamed of being a mutant he would rather pluck his wings out than let his father know of his “difference.” It helps that his father is a powerful politician who speaks out against mutants and loudly advocates that mutant cures should be mandatory. This bigotry can be seen and reflected in real life as well. People hide their disabilities every day, even from family. “Passing” for able-bodied is enviable because if people think you’re able-bodied, your life gets a lot easier.

It’s not until X-Men: First Class comes out in 2011 that the sentiment that X-Men movies had been dancing around for years is put succinctly. Mystique mocks a girl at a bar who had earlier said “mutant and proud!” after Charles Xavier pointed out that she was technically a mutant because her eyes were two different colors.

Mystique: “Mutant and proud!” Or is it only with pretty mutations or invisible ones like yours? But if you’re a freak, you better hide.

(later, to herself:)

“Mutant and proud.” “Mutant and proud”? If only…

“Mutant and proud” is then echoed throughout the rest of the movie, with increasing levels of sincerity. And Mystique is the perfect person to say it. In the original trilogy, she worked only with Magneto and, although she was an unapologetic “bad guy,” there were times where the audience was made to feel sympathetic for her. In the original movie, she she tells Senator Kelly, another anti-mutant politician, “You know, people like you are the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child.” And in The Last Stand, she is forcibly given a cure via syringe-like weapon and Magneto tells her “I’m sorry dear, you’re not one of us anymore,” before abandoning her to presumably be captured, despite her being Magneto’s second-in-command. Her entire identity, and most of her dialogue, revolves around her being a mutant and I absolutely love that in the “newer” trilogy of prequels, she’s seen as a very sympathetic character who is on her own journey that neither Professor X nor Magneto can really understand. While they are focused on “big picture” battles, she’s simply a woman trying to fit somewhere in the spectrum of good and evil while still being true to herself.

“What do they call you? ‘Wheels’?”

Professor X is perhaps the most well-known disabled superhero. He’s also one of the most powerful. An Omega Level mutant, he is a telepath, meaning he can read people’s minds and can also control them to varying degrees. It has been suggested that the only person more powerful than him is Jean Grey, who also has telekinesis and a battery of other gifts. Professor X formed the X-Men and is, for all intents and purposes, their leader most of the time. He opened up his mansion in order for it to become a school for gifted youngsters, and espouses all the traits of a great leader. He is a good teacher, he cares about his students and takes responsibility for everything the X-Men do, while continuously training them to be heroes. He is also in a wheelchair.

One of the more impressive aspects of Charles Xavier’s characterization is that his disability does not go away for the convenience of the plot, at least not in the comics. In the movies, disappointingly, it is not so. Throughout the original movie trilogy, he remains in his wheelchair and the reason for his paralysis is not discussed because it’s not something for the characters to “solve.” A trap that often occurs in media with characters with disabilities is that the disability is the main focus of their storyline. As an audience, we don’t think about curing Professor X because we don’t know why he’s disabled and it doesn’t really matter to us because it doesn’t really matter to him. He doesn’t spend the entire original trilogy moping around and thinking that he isn’t whole because he uses a wheelchair.

In my last post, I talked about disability in media and how it’s very common for a disabled characters to have “disabled” as their defining character trait. Not Professor X. In fact, in a really funny scene from the first X-Men movie, Wolverine makes a wheelchair joke (it’s not even funny) and it’s off-putting to all the characters involved. Not because they’re offended that Wolverine wouldn’t take pity on poor old Professor X, but because you can tell that his disability is far from the most important thing about him. It’s a cheap shot for Wolverine to make that joke.

In the newer trilogy, on the other hand, his disability is handled less skillfully. He is not disabled for nearly the entirety of First Class. At the climax of the movie, a stray bullet hits him in the spine and paralyzes him. It did not have to happen that way, but I think that part of the intent on the filmmakers’ part was to show the journey of how Professor X gets to be the way he is in the comics and the other movies, an old, disabled, bald man. They even cast James McAvoy who has a beautiful head of hair, so I think my point stands. What they should definitely not have done is give a ridiculous reason for him to also be walking in the next movie, Days of Future Past. He takes a dose of a prototype version of the “cure” every day so that he isn’t driven crazy by the sounds of people’s voices in his head. Okay, fine. He’s still growing and maybe he struggled in his earlier years to be the great mutant he ends up becoming. But for some reason, this also cures him of his paralysis. WhatI don’t know why they did it, but I assume it had something to do with the various settings he had to interact with that are not accessible. It’s annoying. And it doesn’t feel like a character-based choice but rather an actor-based choice. He was disabled for (most of) Apocalypse, but they do a far better job of dealing with disability in the movie Logan.

“Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long.”

So, Logan is commonly considered to be the swan song of the superhero genre. In many ways, it’s about death, but it’s also about aging and illness. In it, Professor X is 90 and Wolverine is who knows how old. Both have a lot of health problems that they struggle with. Though Wolverine’s issues are less apparent than those of Professor X, both are finding that there is no place in the world for them anymore because they’re getting too old. They can’t fight the big battles that they used to. They have to pass the torch. What I find most interesting about this movie is that it takes a very realistic look at what fighting has done to Wolverine physically and Professor X mentally. Wolverine is scarred and exhausted. His claws don’t go all the way out all the time, as if he has arthritis in his adamantium. He looks to be in pain most of the time. And he is the primary caregiver of Professor X, who suffers with horribly destructive seizures that cause him to telepathically “freeze” and eventually painfully kill the people around him unless he is medicated.

One of the things I love about Logan is that it realistically handles end-of-life care for both men. Wolverine is Professor X’s primary caregiver because he can be. He still has physical strength enough to do what needs to be done for Professor X and he doesn’t complain about helping. Because Wolverine sees that Professor X’s life still has value. He does not outwardly act like caring for Professor X is a burden to him. After all, he owes Professor X his life in more than one way. In Logan, unlike in most other superhero films, the characters find that being a superhero is hard on their bodies. They do have limits to what they can physically do because everybody has limits. When people with disabilities watch superhero media, it’s easy to get caught up in the majesty of a super-powered person’s abilities, but in Logan, we see that being a hero goes beyond your physical skills. In the end, you might lose whatever physical advantages you once had and people with physical disabilities especially are not used to that kind of acknowledgement.

Wolverine and Professor X get old the way that we will all get old. And they both fight against it in the way that everyone fights against a newly acquired disability or physical change. Being “mutant and proud” is a great political message to send, but in the end, that doesn’t help the mutants get through their days. It is only by honestly looking in the mirror and saying “My physical self may not be the way I want it, and I may not feel as great as I once did, but I’m still a hero,” that we might be heroes as well, no matter our ability.

5 thoughts on “Mutant and Proud: Disability Lessons from X-Men

  1. Pingback: Link Loves: Convention Tips, Sci-Fi Novels, and Disability Lessons from X-Men – A Geeky Gal

  2. Pingback: My Trip to Greece | The Girl Who Sits

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