One of my purposes in doing this is to indulge myself by commenting about the things that come into my mind through the course of the day (or night, I tend towards insomnia). Today I want to talk about a couple of movies and the thoughts they've sparked. The funny thing is, I have not yet seen one of them, so my comment really is about its source. First, the one I've seen.
(Get ready to cue electronic woo-woo music.)
Last night ABC ran Enemy of the State, a very interesting choice for Memorial Day weekend in 2006. Directed by Tony Scott and starring Will Smith, it features the terrifying power of the National Security Agency, the NSA, to target innocent Americans, tap their phones, destroy their lives, all for reasons no one might know, and with no accountability to anyone for such terrible power.
Okay, the film gives the fig leaf of the "rogue agent," who gets caught, but it really shows what the technology can do, and how people might not even know what was happening to them. It was made in 1998, and yet so much of the dialogue could come straight from some melodramatic version of the recent hearings NSA hearings.
And now here's where it starts to get strange. Jon Voigt plays the villain, and in his whole appearance he could almost be a double for Donald Rumsfeld. Remember,this was 1998, when Rumsfeld was a more or less forgotten figure from the Ford administration. Okay, that's just a certain kind of look. But then the heroes find out about him and call up his file on their own computers, and as they scan down they comment that he was born on 9-11-1940. 9-11. They don't mention out loud much else about him, but they say that, his 9-11 birthday, as if it matters somehow when he was born.
Got that woo-woo music going?
Okay, the second subject is more standard cultural criticism. And more serious. The movie is X-Men: The Last Stand. I haven't seen it, but I plan to (as soon as my friend who shares my liking for superhero movies comes back from her weekend trip).
What prompted me to think about it was a comment in a review. The writer said that the plot concerns a drug designed to cure mutants, turn them into normal human beings. Said writer then added that this makes the connection to issues of homosexuality and homophobia fully explicit. And that comment led me to think about when I first realized that in fact the X-Men indeed was about that subject, and not pimarily racism as many people originally thought.
The X-Men originated in 1963, the same year as Doom Patrol, a comic I wrote in a later incarnation, for 2 exciting years in the 90s. Though it definitely did better commercially than the original Doom Patrol, the X-Men languished for some years as a knockoff of The Fantastic Four, for many years Marvel's flagship title.
What made the X-Men unique was that the characters did not get their powers from some freak accident, they were mutants, genetically different. While the book occasionally did stories that suggested an allegory of racism, that theme was never very developed.
Then, in the 80s, Chris Claremont began to write it. His stories were complex and deeply felt, and one of the reasons why I began to read comics again. Claremont brought two qualities to the fore: the idea that ordinary humans hated and feared the mutants, and the image of frightened outcast teenagers finding a home amongst people like themselves. The idea of the group became central.
For some years, I, like many people, assumed that Claremont was making points about race in America.
And then he wrote a story with very little action, no villains, no grand threat to the world. Instead, it told of how Kitty Pryde (note that last name) hears of a mutant high school student who has committed suicide and decides to address the student body. Now, unlike some of the weirder–queerer–mutants, Kitty looks normal. She can pass. So asking to speak on the subject, and identifying herself as a mutant, is a brave and dangerous action. In other words, she comes out.
It was then that I realized that Claremont, whether consciously or not, wasn't writing about race at all. He was writing about sexual identity. (I probably should say that even though Chris Claremont and I once gave a joint literary reading in New York, I have never asked him about this.)
It's a mistake to directly equate racial and sexual minorities. Yet both experience the prejudice of the majority, people in both groups experience hatred, fear, and violence.
One difference lies in the fact that people of color are for the most part visible all their lives. Certainly there will always be some who can pass, but for the most part they have no choice but to be out in the world. Some queer people are so visible they cannot hide it, but most can, and many do, try to look and act "normal."
And there are deeper differences. People in racial minorities belong to their group from birth. They are in the same community as their parents. While some queer people (lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual) are obvious from early childhood, others are much less clear. And in most cases their parents are straight. Their families are from the other side. This is part of what makes queer teens feel so horribly isolated.
And for those who do not even realize their own sexuality until puberty blindsides them the situation is worse. They grow up looking down on the more obvious queer kids, make fun of them the way everyone else does. They are clear that they are part of "we" and the faggots and dykes are "them." Then suddenly, they discover they are no longer "we," they have become part of those people they have learned all their lives to despise.
This is what Claremont wrote about in the X-Men. Some of the mutants are born strange, with blue skin, or animal-like features. But most of them grow up just like any "normal" kid. They learn to make fun of mutants, see them as sick or monsters. Then, right around puberty, strange things start happening to them. They develop odd physical qualities, powers. Suddenly they are part of the people they themselves have hated and ridiculed.
I am not suggesting that Chris Claremont was writing solely about the situation of queer kids. For the most part, it is the common state of adolescence to feel strange, isolated, with fears of not being really human, or at least not like everybody else. But the analogy is powerful.
Remember, this was in the 80s when gay people were not anywhere near as visible as now. And there was no internet for young people to find others like themselves. Even if it never said so specifically, the X-Men gave a voice to a lot of kids who very much needed it.
Okay, now I will go see the movie.