We Need a Better Metaphor for Mutants


In the latest edition of The Substandard, JVL, Vic, and I discussed Logan and the other X-Men movies as well as improvements in the theatergoing experience. (Listen below, subscribe here, leave a review!) One thing I didn't spend too much time on in the Logan podcast, but will here, is my annoyance with the way that comic books and the movies have treated mutants as a metaphor for the various civil rights struggles of our day.

So, back in the 1960s, the whole struggle for mutant rights thing was portrayed as an allegory for the civil rights movement. In the broadest of strokes, you had Magneto filling the Malcolm X role, preaching separatism and superiority, and Professor X filling the Martin Luther King Jr. role, arguing for peaceful coexistence. As time passed and the series evolved, that metaphor has shifted a bit; I think it's fair to say that the Bryan Singer X-Universe—certainly the first two X-Men films, X2 in particular—used the fight for mutant rights as a metaphor for the fight for gay rights.

Under these rubrics, then, anyone who proposes tracking or controlling mutants in any way is portrayed, necessarily, as an evil bigot. There is rarely genuine consideration given to the idea that, say, Senator Kelly's (Bruce Davison) Mutant Registration Act might actually be, more or less, a reasonable response to the fact that there are people running around the planet with abilities that range from relatively benign to dangerous to individual humans to dangerous for the survival of humanity. As JVL notes in the podcast, when you have someone like Professor X—who can, on the one hand, negate free will in others by taking over their bodies/minds and forcing them to do things and could, on the other, literally kill every human on the planet if he so chose to do so—it's hard to maintain faith in the liberal order.

Anyway, this is a longish way of saying that using mutants as a metaphor for African-Americans or gays or, as Logan director James Mangold has suggested, immigrants is really really stupid. Self-defeating at best, and actually kind of offensive if you think about it at all for a moment. I mean, if you want to argue that, say, America should be more open to immigrants, I'm not sure that embodying them as a pair of clawed, murderous, nigh-on-unkillable monsters who have teamed up with a demented telepath who accidentally committed mass murder in the recent past is a particularly smart tactic!

My annoyance with the inaptness of this metaphor is one of the reasons I compared the "dystopia" of Logan to the reality of Denmark in the Washington Post this week. Denmark is rather pleased with itself for utilizing abortion to reduce the rate of children born with Down's Syndrome, boasting that those with Down's will be extinct within its borders soon enough—no more who have it will be born. Similarly, in Logan, mutantkind is nearing extinction because scientists have found a way to end mutations in the womb. If we assume a world in which mutants are real and despised/feared by the majority of the populace and then further assume that science would allow us the ability to identify mutants in the womb as easily as we identify those with Down's, what's more likely: A world in which mutants are born but face persecution? Or a world in which mutants are exterminated before they're even born, the victims of a prenatal genocide, a choice to be disposed of?

So maybe mutants are a handy metaphor for a civil rights struggle. But maybe we're just looking at the wrong one.