Mystique and the Problem of Gaze

Or, the insufficiency of binary feminist criticism in mutant discourse.

Richard Siken wrote the line history is a little man in a brown suit/trying to define a room he is outside of. A lot of the time, that’s how I feel about gender.

Growing up assigned-female, I was drawn to the idea of being ‘not like other girls.’ I spent most of my time with boys, but reveled in not being one of them. I tested out binding and packing for years before my best friend bought me my first binder. I talked to trans men about drag, about whether it was okay for someone like me — then thinking I was a girl — to participate.

When I started wandering around the queerer parts of the internet — you know, the places where kids try out new names and pronouns and try to explain themselves with a language none of us were ever taught and half of us only halfway understand. Tumblr’s a big part of that, especially for me. While I still thought I was cis, someone said, anonymously, that they’d thought I was nonbinary.

For some reason — wink, nudge — that mattered to me. So I started to consider things. What did I do with the characters I liked? I made them trans. Usually, I made them nonbinary.

And I looked back, too, on the single most consequential figure in my queer youth: Mystique, as played by Rebecca Romijn. Mystique in her nakedness, her refusal to conform. Cis feminists, I’ve since learned, see her as a concession to the male gaze, using the subtly insidious “empowered naked lady” trope. It’s the trope people associate with any character with breasts who maybe, sometimes, shows them.

Yes, I know. The male gaze is contingent upon the concept that straight men create these images of women so that they are attractive to them, and that once enough of these images have been created, the gaze propagates itself unless it is actively seen, critiqued, and dismantled. The female gaze, in turn, is contingent on women doing the same thing to men. For women, it is a form of resistance, a form of saying, this is what you have done to us for decades.

Objectively, I know Mystique counts. She’s blue, and naked, but strategically so — with no visible nipples or genitals, she’s acceptable for mass consumption. Men created that because it allows them to both be attracted to her and see her as a monster.

I understand these things. I understand that these gazes exist, and looking at them is maybe very important for coming to a new way of seeing stories, and in so doing, seeing each other.

But I find myself outside them. Only the most obvious moments of male-gaze register to me, and female gaze often does not register at all.

Instead, I am only left with my own gaze. My gaze which exists outside the understood paradigms: and with it, I too can look at Mystique. She may have been created by one gaze and critiqued by another, but I have a gaze too.

When I look at her, I see nothing overtly sexual. I see nothing overtly gender-sexual, either. It’s like how I view my own body, with its breasts and hips and general shape: it doesn’t have to inherently have a gender, or a sexual component.

Because that’s the kicker, isn’t it? The whole concept of gaze is predicated on who is doing the looking. You can argue that the dominant gaze, the gaze that matters, is that male gaze that creates a being like Mystique, a monster and a mother and the only competent person in her entire group of villains, because that is the gaze that, overwhelmingly, has power.

But I don’t like that paradigm. I don’t like being left out of the conversation of looking. Because I don’t understand it, except in superficial terms. Male gaze = bad, objectifying, harmful. Female gaze = critiquing, ironic, good.

Where does that leave me? Especially when, ultimately, a character like Mystique is what I see myself as, see myself in. She is fundamentally outside what is acceptably human in both human and mutant society. That’s what drives her to find meaning outside it. That’s why she wants to dismantle the world: because it has hurt her, and it has no intrinsic meaning for her; it is not hers.

Can we really talk about gaze without talking about the gaze of people like me? Can we talk about a character like Mystique without understanding that somewhere out there, someone is seeing her through eyes like her own?

Men can make female characters that women feel connected to; this happens whether or not the male gaze dominates the work itself. It happens regardless of intention. I’m sure the same thing would happen in reverse if the female gaze was allowed to flourish on par with the male gaze.

I’m left out, still, so far in this analogy, but I think you can see where I slot in: Mystique may not have been intended for me, but she exists now, and I want my gaze to matter as much as the gaze of men and the cis feminists who critique them.

Mystique’s body is mutable — and more than that, in later years, that body has become indispensable for the history of her people. If I want to claim that, if I want to see her as something belonging to me, I should be able to. Art is meant to communicate, and it is meant to be seen, and the way in which it is meant to be seen is not the way in which it always is seen.

I have always existed outside and in between groups, schools, nuances. I don’t see things the way other people do. And I would like, just for once, for someone to see that, and recognize that my gaze matters, too.

When men look at Mystique, maybe they see a monster, or a sexual object. Maybe she creates in them some unconscious anxiety and a desire to possess her in order to alleviate that anxiety. Maybe that is the conscious or subconscious intention of what she is.

When women look at Mystique, they may see yet another entry into the canon of underdressed Strong Female Characters who exist only for the male gaze to feel anxious and desirous of. Maybe that is the natural reaction to having so many female characters like that, reinforcing a paradigm that combines sex and violence in the way that a character like Mystique does.

Both of these things are true. But I want to argue that these things being true does not negate the potential value of the character.

One of the problems I have encountered in modern discourse surrounding female characters is a distinct lack of nuance. People try to put characters and pictures in boxes of feminist/unfeminist in particular: see the discourse surrounding any movie with a female lead and you’ll find people cogently arguing either position.

I want to offer another option: who does a character like Mystique serve?

Maybe, instead of discussing Mystique as purely a function of the gaze that created her, we should look at the gaze that she creates value for.

That’s my gaze, in case you were wondering. Looking at her, seeing her as she moves through X-Men, X2: X-Men United and X-Men: The Last Stand, I don’t see her as a female character burdened by the male gaze, though she has been created for it.

I see her as a mutable figure embodying the outsiderness that I feel every day. I don’t want to be one of the binary genders; in her curing in The Last Stand, I feel with her the pain of being reduced to a single identity, to womanhood only. In her telling her son that they “shouldn’t have to” look normal, she reassured me that I didn’t have be normal either.

In the way she passes through scene after scene, taking on the bodies of a multitude without anyone noticing, I can see my constant existence just under the radar: I can remain unseen, because I look like them, though I am not one of them.

She provides incalculable value for someone like me, and that can exist alongside everything else. She can be created by men in order to be consumed by them; she can be criticized in cis feminist discourse as objectified.

But I would like for people to take into account my gaze as well. I want people to understand that just because a character doesn’t provide value for someone as representation, that doesn’t mean that character is necessarily bad or wrong.

Mystique is not a feminist character. And considering that without her specific form of objectification — her tango with the male gaze — creates the things about her that allow her to be so important to my non-male, non-female, outsider gaze, well…

I don’t think I even want her to be.