Inspired by the release of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (which deserves a post of its own for another time) I’ve been re-reading the Ultimate X-Men series from the early 2000’s. Partially because of the third X-Men movie (My disappointment with which has already been catalogued elsewhere), the Phoenix storyline has quickly become among my favorite of the recurring X-Men storylines. For those of you unfamiliar with the storyline, I refer you to Wikipedia. For those of you unfamiliar with the storyline with enough of a life that you can’t read that whole thing, Jean Grey is, for whatever reason, chosen as its host by an otherworldly entity of immense power called the Phoenix Force, and must deal, simultaneously, with people wanting to use that power for some nefarious purpose and keeping it under control herself.
I find this storyline the most interesting, however, in Ultimate X-Men (I’ve only read up through volume 17 at this point) for a couple of reasons. First of all, the nitty gritty of telepathy is fascinating, and this bothers to deal with some of that. Second, I enjoy that it doesn’t feel obligated to wrap everything up in a neat little package before moving on to the next storyline. And finally, I find it interesting that they walk the line so carefully between Jean being the avatar of a powerful otherworldly entity and her being nothing other than a very powerful but emotionally unstable mutant, but I think therein lies the rub.
I’ve never been one to write about gender issues in media in anything other than the most theoretical sense, (there are many better people to look into if such a thing strikes your fancy) but I’ve since started to wonder: if Jean Grey was a male character, would there be a plotline centered (at least initially) on her being told by everyone around her that she was just getting used to her new powers, and to not worry about it? Would Professor X be able to get away with saying, “You’re not a God, Jean. you’re an eighteen year old girl with a discipline problem and I will not tolerate this behavior from one of my students… you’re Jean Grey. An eighteen year old telepath with a beanie collection and you’re doing all this because you’re scared of being happy with (Cyclops)”? There’s not too much point in speculating about what ifs when it comes to fiction, but I find it difficult to imagine that Xavier would have said that anyone else.
Of course, nobody ever says, “Quiet down, sweetie. You’re just being hysterical.” or suggests that it’s “that time of the month” or anything awful like that. Any time it is suggested that she is being emotionally volatile, or otherwise not in control of herself, it is attributed to her being a very young and very powerful telepath, (surely an immensely traumatic condition, bound to make anyone emotionally volatile) but you can’t exactly shake the feeling that this condition wouldn’t affect any of the other X-Men.
But before we dismiss this as blatant sexism too quickly, I’d like to remind the reader that because we know the Phoenix plot arc, we know, definitively, that she’s not crazy, and there really is an alien entity of immense power trying to use her body as an avatar by which it can unmake the world. Furthermore, it is suggested (though never corroborated, I believe) that Professor X knows full well the entire time that these aren’t mere hallucinations, and is instead merely attempting to convince Jean of this fact because the emergence of the Phoenix at that time would be damaging to his agenda.
So I’m stuck at this crossroads. I don’t feel obligated to cut media out of my life even if it engages in a subtle (and relatively mild) form of misogyny (I don’t think someone should stop playing Kirby Superstar even though it assumes male to be gender normative) and just because something occurs within a piece of fiction doesn’t mean that the piece condones it. But on the other hand, I would feel much better if there was any acknowledgement on behalf of the comic of what’s going on here, especially given the nature of the X-Men core fantasy about being a suspect class.
Personally, I don’t tend to put much stock in authorial intent. If someone told me that I shouldn’t purchase Super Mario Galaxy 2 because it actively contributes to the oppression of women by removing their agency, I’m sure I would be polite enough not to dismiss them out of hand, but I can’t imagine it ceasing my purchase. But is it really okay to say, “Well, even if this thing indirectly supports something I find reprehensible, it’s okay to financially support its creation because its fun”? Something tells me that “Social Justice” isn’t just a point to put next to graphics, sound, gameplay, and replay value while writing a review, but how else does one use their purchasing dollars as an instrument to affect social change?
(As a side note, I’m not saying that Super Mario Galaxy 2 does that, and the point is not in debating whether or not it does. Just imagine a hypothetical piece of media for which that statement is true. Besides, I already bought it, so too late.)