Sometimes when I am on a deadline, my brain wanders off into traffic with a propeller hat on and its shirt pulled up over its head because SCREW YOU IMMA THINK ABOUT EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD EXCEPT THAT BOOK YOU LIKE SO MUCH WHEEE IS THAT A FIRETRUCK? And by sometimes I mean always.
At the moment, my brain is jumping up and down on a stop sign hollering I’M GONNA THINK ABOUT X-MEN ALL THE TIME HA HA YOU CAN’T STOP ME. My brain is a stone cold doofus a lot of the time. After my chapters are done for the day, I go straight to reading about the goddamn X-Men. I’ve watched or re-watched five of the seven movies in the last week and fallen asleep three separate, majestic times with my phone in my hand, glowing with the useless, mocking light of a wikipedia entry on Genosha.
It’s not really my fault. Days of Future Past came out, and my descent into mutant madness began with watching X-Men: First Class, which I had only seen half of on a trans-Pacific flight with the sound broken so that the only dialogue was the intermittent apologies of a harried flight attendant. Which was much more genuine and interesting, it turns out, than what January Jones was actually saying. ZING. Anyway, the X-Men have always attracted me in concept, if not always in execution–it appeals to my love of categorization, of pantheons, of chosen family and marginalized groups. And matching outfits.
And so, at first, I was a happy little squirrel searching out delicious walnuts of storylines both familiar and un-, because holy cats is this shit convoluted. But then I got mad. It usually happens eventually, when it comes to blockbuster mainstream intellectual properties–and yes, the X-Men are mainstream now. Indie niche uncool flicks don’t have $100 million opening weekends. I didn’t even see X-Men: Last Stand until last week because I didn’t want to see Dark Phoenix turned into a nuclear vagina on the fritz who ruins everything with the power of kissing. Spoiler: it was as terrible as I thought it would be! Yay!
But everyone said Days of Future Past erased all that! It is so awesome, you guys! 91% on Rotten Tomatoes! Quicksilver! Time travel! Beloved arc from the comics! Mystique gets to do things other than be naked and barefoot in Xavier’s kitchen! Well, great, let’s make this happen! To the sensible compact car!
Perhaps you can see, even now, the dark stormclouds of my fury gathering in the distance. Perhaps the severity of my side-eye can be seen from space.
Because here’s the funny thing about that beloved arc from the comics. The filmmakers looked at it and clearly thought to themselves: yeah, yeah, this is all great. Everyone loves this story about a woman who takes the fate of the world into her own hands and goes back in time, with the help of another woman, to fix history and avert the horrible deaths of everyone she knows and pretty much everyone she doesn’t know either. Fans have loved it for thirty years, men, women, kids, adults. It’s universal! Literally no one has ever had a problem with the protagonist being female, which is pretty damn impressive, if you think about it. We’ll make a billion dollars. One problem, though! Women are the fucking WORST. Nobody wants to watch a chick do things unless they are sex things or secretary things or sex secretary things or sometimes bad things that the men can come clean up because, as previously mentioned, they are the worst. So here’s what we’ll do! Even though we could literally act out a comic book with stick figures, play-doh, and a fifth-grader who just woke up from a nap and still fall asleep on piles of money come opening weekend, we can’t have a girl in our clubhouse! We’ll just replace that big dumb girl with Wolverine! That way we don’t have to get any cooties on our movie of Masculine Glowering. We’ll put her in there somewhere, just so the fans know we know what we did, but don’t give her too many lines. After all, if women get more than 20% of the lines in a summer movie, the moon turns to sackcloth.
YOU SIR, ARE A GENIUS, HAVE A YACHT.
So they did it. They pulled a Morpheus and turned a strong female protagonist with agency and a storyline of her own into a Duracell battery. Instead of being the one to go back in time and make decisions and affect the course of events, Kitty Pryde sits very still, grits her teeth, and provides transportation for the male hero she’s been replaced with. She barely speaks. She gets wounded, but only because nobody thought strapping down the guy with knives for hands might be a good idea. No one gives her medical attention, though they do pet her hair and tell her she’s doing great, like she’s a dog at the vet. She moans a lot. They took her story, gave it to a man, and made her a prop.
(And look, yes, before you say it, I know she wasn’t born in 1973. If it’s cool to change the protagonist of the story, it would not be sacrilege to make her just physically go back in time instead of the younger-body-consciousness thing. Or if it really is impossible to have a woman onscreen without a chaperone, send her and Wolverine back together. Or do another damn story arc. Wolverine has shit-tons of his own. Writing is choices. Narrative is choices. The writers made a choice. And their choice sucks.)
But the thing that really gets me is The Hobbit. Non sequitur, you say? NAY, say I. See, when word got out that Peter Jackson et al were adding in a new character to their Hobbit films, a non-canon character, a female character, fandom collectively lost its fool mind. You can’t just change Tolkien! Oh no! (Except for cutting out the end of The Lord of the Rings which is totes fine even though it changes the entire meaning of the story.) Cram in a whole mess of The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales and the Appendices and whatever the lead animator dreamed about last night until the poor Hobbit burst at the seams into three unnecessary movies, but not a GIRL! Heavens to Betsy! (Not that that excuses Tauriel, who is awful, and exists for a romantic subplot and little else. But it’s not being a girl that makes her awful. It’s just bad writing, which knows no demographic.)
We cannot have a female Doctor! We cannot take men’s stories and give them to women! It would never work! The sexes are so different! It would be silly to have a woman acting like a man! But a woman’s story? Well, who cares? Give it to someone more interesting. Someone more worthy.
But replace wholesale the female protagonist of a darling comic arc with a man? Crickets. Everyone is fine with it. Oh, a couple of feminists are all buttmad, but they don’t count. Most reviews I’ve seen don’t acknowledge it, or if they do, they praise the filmmakers for making a “better” choice. Who cares? That Quicksilver scene was so awesome! Yes it was. I’m so glad yet another woman was erased from her own narrative so we could have another cigar joke. It really is a better choice. This way, no one will make the mistake of thinking there were ever women in comics, and those icky girls will stop trying to read them and everything can go back to the way it was when the real comics fans were eleven and girls were just scary aliens they could keep out of their rooms. Except in 1981, we were allowed to have a marquee comic book story that revolved around a woman. Marvel thought people would like that–lo and behold, they did. And in 2014, it doesn’t make sense to anyone anymore. That just breaks my heart. Really.
It also feeds into something else I’d been thinking about since seeing About Time, in which time travel is explicitly only possible for men, for literally no narrative reason whatsoever, just because. See, women don’t get to time travel much in the movies. Beyond Peggy Sue Got Married, which is explicitly about time traveling for romantic/reproductive purposes, the protagonists in time travel movies, and much of TV, are men. You can say it’s because history is hard for women, but it doesn’t really wash. If men can get away with clothes and words and abilities that are all wrong for the eras they travel to, women can get away with being women. Give her a strapping male intern to keep off the barbarians if you like–it’s more than Kitty Pryde gets to do. An escorted woman can go more or less anywhere, and honestly, a woman can find out more information in a drawing room in Edwardian England than a man can on a battlefield in Crimea. And there’s always, you know, the future. But no, a time traveling woman would get all her periods at once or something, so she has to stay home. There’s even a sneaky little through-meme of men not even telling their wives, girlfriends, or female friends that they are time traveling. Don’t worry your pretty head about it. Sleep on the porch.
Comic book movies are, increasingly, the only cinematic game in town, at least to bring in billions and go up on every screen in the world. In part because they take advantage of the big screen in a way most of our home theaters, awesome though they are, can’t quite duplicate yet. In part because no part of my generation’s childhood is safe from being packaged and marketed back to us. In part because they present a comforting black and white moral universe in which arms dealers are really charming heroes, honor equals military service, and there will always be some big strong man to save us whose personal integrity can be unerringly and unquestioningly relied upon. And if that sounds a little fascistic to you, well, it is. The fact that these movies, these vast cultural events, have settled into a self-satisfied world of representation that would be outdone by any 90s SF/F television series, in which one woman and/or one person of color is sufficient, especially if they are wholly defined by the most stereotypical traits of their gender or race (Black Widow and Bumblebee, I’m looking at you), to stand in for, you know, the majority of the human race that is not white, not male, or both, is alarming. When stories are taken away from a woman and given to a man, when a woman is reduced to a power source (oh, irony) for a big, strong, straightest of the straight man, what should we make of it but that she is simply not worth our attention? It teaches everyone, kids and adults, what stories are worth telling. Whose voices count. Who is allowed to act. Who is allowed to decide. And if you don’t think people carry that into their everyday lives, I’ve got a Brooklyn Bridge to destroy for you.