X-MEN III: A Story about Race and Sexuality?

by Devon Carbado

For those of you who have not seen X-Men  III: The Last Stand, stop reading now. For what I am about to write might ruin it for you. The short of my post here is to explore, via a few questions, what X-Men might suggest about identity and equality today. At the outset, let me clear that this is not an argument that Hollywood does, or should, reflect reality. I am simply interested in thinking about whether there are some continuities between this block-buster film and the way we think about identity–and, more specifically, race and sexual orientation. My questions (to which I will offer my own answers) are these:

  1. Roughly, the mutants are divided into two Malcolm X and Dr. Martin L. King Jr.groups: those who align themselves with the Professor Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart) and those who align themselves with Magneto, a concentration camp survivor (played by Ian McKellen). Magneto is the bad guy, and the Professor is the good guy. Magneto wants to end bigotry against mutants "by any means necessary" (and he explicitly employs this language); violence for him is not only acceptable, it is necessary. Professor Xavier, to the extent possible, avoids violence. He insists that mutants learn to control their power. His project is to integrate mutants into mainstream society.  Are we watching a particular (and not necessarily accurate) representation of the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X dichotomy that pushes us to embrace King and reject Malcolm. (My answer: Not exactly. To be sure, there are themes of integration and assimilation in the film. But there are also themes of resistance and respecting difference; themes against passing. In short, both assimilation and difference figure as tropes in the film. Separatism/nationalism, however, is clearly repudiated).
  2. Mutants are different because of biology–something not of their choosing.  Does the movie Prof. X and Magneto (c) 2003 Twentieth Century Fox invite us to think about race and sexual orientation in the same way? (My answer: Perhaps, at least to some extent. Certainly part of the reason we treat race as an identity that deserves anti-discrimination protection is because we perceive it to be immutable–fixed, not something we choose. And one of the reasons we don't protect sexual orientation is that we perceive it to be an aspect of self that is chosen.  (In a earlier X-Men movie, a mother asks her mutant son, "Have you tried not being mutant?"). Significantly, our anti-discrimination laws are explicitly structured around ideas of mutability.)
  3. One of the mutants, Rogue, absorbs the traits and characteristics of anyone she touches and so is incapable of physical contact. Is this a signification on AIDS? (My answer: Perhaps. Interestingly, among the X-Men, Rogue is the only one who opts to "cure" herself–that is, Archangel (c) 2003 Twentieth Century Fox eliminate her power by taking a vaccine).

  4. Finally, is it too much to read Archangel (the mutant who can fly) as a gay character, a person who was caught in the closet (his father literally pushes in the bathroom door and catches him cutting off his wings to hide the effects of his mutation). Archangel, in a rather dramatic scene, also refuses to "fix" his mutation–refusing, in a way, to go through a kind of conversion therapy. Is he a gay character? (My answer:  It's a plausible reading of him).

Again, I am not suggesting that any of these readings/interpretations were intended by the writers/producers/directors of the film. Again, this is not an argument that we look to Hollywood for reality. This is just an exploration of the intersection of pop culture and social issues.


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