The X-Men is a comic that has something for everyone to identify with. And there are women characters, a lot of X-Women in fact, which is unusual and rather amazing. This series doesn't believe in the Smurfette Principle, with as many women characters filling the pages as men. But how has this translated to film? I thoroughly enjoyed X-Men: First Class, and you can read my spoiler-free review here at The Void, but is it a feminist friendly outing for the mutants?
What I've been asked about this film isn't, "is this film good for its portrayal of women?" but instead, "is this film not too horrible for its portrayal of women?". Our standards are so pathetically low, it's almost a relief to have some scraps thrown our way. So while X-Men: First Class is undoubtedly one of the best superhero films this year for women, it's no surprise at all that the X-Women are completely wasted compared to their male counterparts.
Balancing a feminist critique of a film alongside my genuine enjoyment of the film on its own terms is tricky. But while the film is better than others, and certainly a step in the right direction, we still have a long way to go.
I had a great time watching X-Men: First Class and having avoided all spoilers, even trailers, I was pleasantly surprised by how high profile a character Mystique was and the fairly balanced cast. The acting, all round, was top notch, and the story, while rather clunky in parts, was fast paced and a nice return to form after a couple of mediocre installments.
With feminist critiques, an all too common complaint is that women are never satisfied and that the film or comic in question should be praised above all for its good points; in this case the number of women in the film. But I'd ask the reader to consider the film from another angle: swap the men and women around and see how it works. Of course, this fails immediately as a film where the majority of the cast were women, the two main characters women, and the main villain also a woman would be unfathomable. We'd already have heard the film described as a women's film, or perhaps made a fuss of for being such a landmark piece of cinema. But a film in which the male stars rarely spoke to each other, all stripped down to their undergarments, and were all easily led by women characters would be seen as the oddity it is. When it is women portrayed in this fashion it is the norm, and thus often invisible.
I recognise the good in X-Men: First Class, I've stated that I outright enjoyed the film on its own terms. Nevertheless, the overall result is clear: a solid Could Do Better.
Some number crunching. First Class has 15 first billed stars, 6 of which (including young Raven and the cameo appearance of Mrs Xavier) are women. This gives First Class a fairly good ratio of first billed women; at 40% of the first billed cast, this matches X-2 and pummels the last X-Outing, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (13%), along with every other superhero film this summer: Thor (33%), Green Lantern (25%), Dredd (20%), and Captain America (13%).
Some of this can be attributed to the source material, the X-Men comics almost always feature a healthy mix of characters. The other X-Men films though (apart from X-2) fail to stack up, and perhaps some of the answer lies with one of the writers: (the amazing, stunning, geeky) Jane Goldman. Four of the five films Goldman has worked on to date have a high number of first billed women: Stardust (40%), The Debt (36%), the upcoming Women in Black (50%), and First Class. The exception is Kick-Ass (27%) featuring the rather fantastic Hit Girl. Goldman was also the writer behind the James Bond video for International Women's Day 2011 which spread across the media earlier this year.
Of course, if we expand our numbers to include the entire cast, those percentages soon disappear. But the number of high profile women characters in First Class is definitely due credit. However, volume of women does not negate crap usage of them, with all the women being depicted as easily led and with few desires of their own, and all appearing in their underwear (or less).
First Class stars Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert, January Jones as Emma Frost, and Zoë Kravitz as Angel Salvadore. Mystique of course is a character we know from the earlier (chronologically later) X-Men films. The blue skinned, yellow eyed sultry shapeshifter is destined to be Magneto's top ally and possible partner. Emma Frost appears in X-Men Origins: Wolverine as Kayla Silverfox's sister but this doesn't appear to match up with First Class. Moira MacTaggart shows up in X-Men: The Last Stand as a spokeswoman on mutant ethics (and also in the post-credits scene with Xavier). I believe that this new trilogy is only taking X-Men and X-2 as canon, the following films being disregarded.
All the actresses are brilliant, and this is a critique of the portrayal of the characters, not the acting ability of the women stars.
Mystique is undoubtedly one of the stars of the film. She, Xavier and Magneto are established as the main characters that audiences will identify with from previous films, her striking looks and independence making her a firm fan favourite. Being a known character in the franchise, we can pretty much disregard a lot of her comics history as it is already so different. In First Class we discover that Mystique runs into Xavier when they are both children, the young Charles adopting a homeless Raven into his family as his younger sister. As a young girl Raven appears in her true form, and is astonished at Charles' lack of fear.
Later, as the film moves to the 60s, Raven is shown always in human form disguising her blue self. Angry at the fact she has to hide her mutantness, she is scornful of Xavier's "mutant and proud" rhetoric, but remains deeply loyal to her brother. In X-2, the blue teleporter Nightcrawler asks Mystique why she doesn't use her shapeshifting powers to blend in with non-mutant humans, to which she replies "Because we shouldn't have to". First Class unfortunately decides to beat the audience about the head with this issue on a personal level, effectively making Mystique a one note character who appears obsessed with her looks. Raven works as a waitress while her brother graduates from Oxford University as Professor. Her own hopes and aspirations are never explored, the film content to keep her in the background, and Charles refuses to take the issue of her having to hide her true self particularly seriously (wondering why she is so obsessed with her looks and spectacularly missing the point), perhaps blinded by his promise to never read her mind.
Raven has some touching scenes with Hank McCoy, a fellow mutant with abnormal feet. He too feels like he must hide his true self and it seems this is enough to have Raven falling at his aforementioned big feet. Quite why always having to wear shoes is seen to be the same as disguising your entire body is unexplained. The film's best scenes for Raven are those where she interacts with Erik/Magneto who is scornful of her wasting her powers to hide herself and full of admiration for her true appearance. It is he who inspires her to realise that she should be herself, discarding her human skin and clothing which embarrasses Xavier. Yet Raven has far more scenes with Hank than she does with the accepting Erik.
At the end of the film, Mystique chooses to go with Erik over Xavier with the latter's blessing, after her brother reads her mind and realises this is what she wants. But in not truly exploring Mystique's motivations, and by reducing her to a one issue character, the audience is left with no such realisation. Obviously Erik has touched her in a way no one else has before, but can she really turn her back on her brother after 18 years of loyalty? Of course we know from the later films that this is indeed what happens (and actually in this film it's very difficult as a viewer not to side with Erik!), but in First Class she is done a great disservice in not developing her character, beliefs and frustrations further.
CIA agent Moira MacTaggart is one of the first characters we are introduced to when the film moves to the 60s. Just as quickly she sets the tone for the women in this film, whipping off her clothes to sneak into a party along with the lingerie clad "entertainment" for the Hellfire Club. Yes, this is the 60s, yes it's a bit of cheeky fun after the brutal opening segments with Erik, but the fact remains that in X-Men: First Class every woman strips off at some point. Initially an important character, Moira is relegated to the background once Erik joins up with Xavier, often literally standing out of focus with no lines. Rose Byrne is an amazing and popular actress but almost completely wasted.
At the end of the film, one of the very rare allusions to sexism in the 60s is targeted at Moira who appears to be the CIA's only female employee. Her memory has been tampered with by Xavier to safeguard the mutants (without her permission which she would almost certainly have given I might add) and as she struggles to remember and wistfully recalls a kiss, the CIA contemptuously declare that this is why the organisation is no place for women. Which would be amusing in a Mad Men type way had her struggle against sexism in that time period been documented, but instead is just a cheap laugh (despite that kind of sexism still alive and well in the offices of 2011).
It's been commented on before that Xavier going into a woman's mind without permission is more than a little wrong. Here his tampering of Moira's mind is at odds with his treatment and respect of her earlier in the film. Apparently romance scenes between the pair were dropped from the final cut, so perhaps this makes more sense in that context if he was striving to protect her as well as his mutants. Here's hoping for an extended DVD edition if so, but I can't think of any way at all not asking her permission first makes sense.
Along with Mystique, Emma Frost is another favourite character of mine, an (initially) icy cold woman of immense power who is not at all a straight up evil villain. Emma is a first class grey character, moving between the Hellfire Club and Xavier's X-Men in the comics. As with all X-Women, she undergoes her fair share of trauma (groan), but remains a very strong woman character indeed. An omega level telepath with a secondary diamond form mutation, Emma is not a woman you'd want to mess with.
The difference then between Emma Frost of the comics and Emma Frost of the film are stark. Unlike many reviewers, I really enjoyed the portrayal by January Jones who did well to capture Emma's cold and often uninterested approach. But a complete lack of context made Emma's character very hard to get a handle on if you were unfamiliar with the character in the comics. For a franchise that is popularly known to have its own fanbase outside of the comics, this was a serious misstep. Emma's characterisation was flat, reducing her to a mere evil henchwoman despite her obviously superior powers. This lack of backstory is not unique to the women in First Class: Sebastian Shaw's other two mutants, Azazel and Riptide suffer similarly with the latter having no lines at all. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of the (awesome) Azazel as if we stick with a bit of comics continuity, he and Mystique will be hooking up at some point in the future.
The costumes of course are another point of contention, just as revealing as her clothing in the comics. But given just how much else has been changed for the films, and again with a lack of characterisation, this doesn't exactly help the audiences take Emma seriously as a character. Her taking orders from Shaw, particularly that ice scene, is all rather humiliating and she never has the opportunity to get her own back, waiting in prison (presumably of her own volition given her powers) for a new leader.
As a side note, the strangulation scene where Erik cracks Emma's diamond form makes for uncomfortable viewing; entirely in keeping with Erik's character progression, but again, unlike anything the male characters are put through.
Originally there was to be a telepathic battle between Xavier and Emma on the astral plane, but this was dropped following the release of Inception as it was felt to be too similar. Had something else been brought in to demonstrate the sheer badassery of her powers, it might have helped remove focus from her outfit and Jones' perceived lack of connection with the role.
Finally we have Angel, not the same Angel that appeared in X-Men: Final Stand, who in turn was out of continuity with the original Angel of comics (who as one of the first X-Men also confusingly features in the comic X-Men: First Class), but Angel Salvadore, a relatively recent addition to the X-Men comics. In Grant Morrison's New X-Men, Angel is introduced as a mutant with housefly inspired powers: flight and acid vomit. Additionally she has the digestive and reproductive systems of a housefly which is about as icky as it sounds. One of the good mutants, Angel is at one point under the sway of Magneto, joining his forces, but soon returns to the X-Men. She is also mentored by Emma Frost at Xavier's school for young mutants where she meets her future husband.
In the film, Angel is introduced in a fun montage of Erik and Xavier collecting mutants from around the US, picking her up in a stripclub reminiscent of something out of Austin Powers (why yes, that is the late 60s, ahem). The fun parts of First Class work to balance the very dark aspects of the film, but Angel's job ensures that yet another woman in the film is shown with her clothes off. There is a small nod towards Angel comparing the way people look at her as a mutant as how she was viewed by men in her job, but there is very little explanation or development of her character. Additionally, there are only three non-white characters in this film, with one (Darwin) killed off, and Angel easily convinced to join the bad guys despite her seeing them kill Darwin and all the humans in the CIA compound. The third is Riptide who as we mentioned before, has no lines at all.
With the other kid mutants there is some, but not enough, growth of character as they train at Xavier's mansion. Angel's defection to the dark side means she misses this, and is next seen happily attacking the mutants she was earlier partying with. It's jarring, and while helping to illustrate the struggle for the mutants of whether to sympathise with hateful humans or not, it severely reduces the impact given we know nothing of Angel's thoughts or feelings. Perhaps the relationship of Angel and Emma in the comics will be somewhat reproduced in the next film, albeit under Magneto's watch rather than Xavier's.
On the whole, X-Men: First Class mostly ignores the issue of sexism in the 60s. The film is set in 1962, just one year before the legal victory of the Equal Pay Act and the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique ignited second-wave feminism. Arguably the othering the characters feel through being mutants outweighs their frustrations, if any, with the inequality of society at that time for women, but it seems unlikely that a woman in the CIA, a woman angered at having to hide her true self, a woman upset with the way men look at her in her stripping job, and a woman with all the power and self-assurance of Emma Frost would have nothing to say about the issue.
Jane Goldman has commented on the issue, revealing that as happens in a lot of films, the backstory and development of side characters were scaled back to keep the focus on the two main leads:
"Moira is a really strong character and her involvement is massively important, but in earlier iterations, before we came along, there was a sort of love triangle thing. We had already very much drawn back from that but it was ultimately a matter of drawing back from that even further. In service of the film, these cuts were the correct decision, but in the service of Moira’s character, it doesn’t give a full picture."
"I think there’s definitely an element of ‘60s sexism, which is supposed to be not-a-good-thing, running through the movie, though unfortunately sometimes, when a film is edited you end up with a thread seeming that you’re not following all elements of all threads. There was much more of story about Moira being oppressed."
"I think what was originally there is that Moira was a woman, so in the minority in the CIA, and in that sense was an outcast in her own way, just as all the mutants are. She was a victim of prejudice. That story line was supposed to reflect what was echoing and reverberating throughout the film, including with Raven."
This was also the time of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the US, something which was alluded to often in the pre-release media for First Class, with much made of the likening of Xavier and Erik to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This is pretty much ignored in the film, perhaps as the analogy had already been made in the first X-Men film with the proposal of the Mutant Registration Act. One clumsy attempt is made to acknowledge racism in the 60s in First Class, but given that it comes from a character who previously worked with the Nazis, it's of small comfort indeed! A woman like Angel who worked in the sex industry would have been majorly conflicted at this time, dealing with discrimination as a woman, as a non-white American, and as a mutant.
Knowing too that the original comics were very much influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, it's a bit of an odd omission, particularly given that pre-release build up and the near dismissal of non-white characters in the film.
Yes, a film cannot contain everything, and yes, this really was more of a Magneto Origins film than anything else. But it's fairly clear that the women got the raw deal in this film. As I stated in my review:
"If anything, the main failing of X-Men: First Class is its major promise: what we don’t get this time may be yet to come. The time setting of the film is 1962 leaving plenty of time to tie in the mutant struggle with the political upheaval of the 60s, and the division of the mutants between Magneto and Professor X will surely let us explore backstories further now we know which teams they’re truly batting for."
And I'm hopeful that this will be the case. X-Men: First Class is a good step in the right direction, and I hope the franchise continues to progress on this path with a more diverse cast of women, and Mystique and Emma in particular given their chance to fully explore their stories.
Please note Matthew Vaughn, a boyband theme song does not make women think "Oh, maybe there is something in the film" for us after all! (Yes, that is his quote.) We do read comics y'know.
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