I’ve talked about the X-Men a lot over the years — from my B.A. thesis in 2015 to an ode to Romijn’s Mystique last fall on this very blog. They’re a huge part of my engagement with comics-based media, something that has given me both great joy and endless frustration.
But today I want to talk in more depth about something really important to me:
Mutants — particularly “evil” or otherwise queer-coded mutants — as a transgender metaphor.
And yes, I’ve talked about that before, too, specifically with regard to Lawrence’s Mystique in First Class/Days of Future Past/Apocalypse. But I feel like I need to go back even further than that, to the three characters who I think speak to the metaphor the best: McKellan’s Magneto, Romijn’s Mystique, and Aaron Stanford’s John Allerdyce/Pyro.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t think any of these characters were intentionally written or coded as trans. I seldom think any of this kind of subtext is intentional. But that doesn’t mean that the subtext isn’t present. And if it’s present, I think it bears discussion.
Now, moving on to the meat of that discussion:
Names as Self-Identifiers
For trans people, names have a power that cis people don’t really often consider. When we change our names, even if it’s only on social media, or just to introduce ourselves to new people, it’s an assertion of our identity. Sometimes, a name that doesn’t match our presentation will out us; sometimes, it’s a confirmation of our status.
Mutant names function, ultimately, in much the same way. If you “pass” as human, and your’e not using your mutation at a given moment, only your name can out you.
I talked about this a little bit in my thesis, pointing out that “evil” mutants tended to go by mutant names, whereas “good” mutants tended to use their human names. A mutant name, for an X-Man, was a call-sign in the field, and nothing more. Wolverine was Logan, even when he had no other names. Jean Grey was rarely, if ever, Phoenix, until the Dark Phoenix took control.
I’m actually not sure anyone but Pyro ever called Bobby Drake “Iceman,” in any context. Huh.
A mutant name, therefore, is a step away from “humanity.” It’s an embrace of one’s mutant identity over the human one they carried before their powers came in.
If your real name is your mutant name, then you’re relegated to the Outside, usually to some kind of villainy.
Nowhere is this more apparent than it is with the version of the Brotherhood we see at the end of X2: X-Men United. Seducing Pyro away from the X-Men, Magneto and Mystique abandon the X-Men — and the brief unity they shared — to go about the work of liberation, and the desire for a safety that does not sacrifice identity or freedom.
We’re not meant, as viewers, to take it as a moment of triumph. We’re supposed to feel sad or disappointed in Pyro. And that’s valid. I understand that reaction.
But I would argue that, in the end, Pyro was never going to be happy being John Allerdyce. Pyro, with his instinctive rush toward defensive violence, with his recognition that, no matter what he does, he will be seen as a monster, with his willingness to step up in defense of being a mutant, would never have been an X-Man.
That much is made perfectly clear by one of my favorite scenes: Magneto pulls Pyro over to the “Dark Side” like so:
MAGNETO: What’s your name?
MAGNETO: What’s your real name, John?
MAGNETO: Quite a talent you have there, Pyro.
PYRO: I can only manipulate the fire. I can’t create it.
MAGNETO: You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.
Magneto is telling Pyro, essentially, that it’s okay to be dissatisfied with “humanity,” with the status quo of his life. He’s showing Pyro that there’s another option.
Is there any surprise that Pyro takes it?
The Politicization of Identity
The implication of the point about naming is this: the decision to name oneself is a political decision as much as it is a personal one.
As a trans person, existing as trans in the public space makes the act of living a political one. For a lot of cisgender people, whether or not we’re allowed to exist at all, much less in public, is something that’s up for debate.
Mutants, in the X-Men movies, face the same debate. In the first X-Men movie, X-Men, Jean Grey has the following exchange with a United States Senator:
SENATOR KELLY: We license people to drive, Ms. Grey.
JEAN GREY: Yes, but not to live.
This is the second or third scene of the very first X-Men movie. Allegorically, there are moments in this franchise that do not fuck around.
So, when a mutant commits to their mutant name as their name, they’re accepting that they will have to be a political creature, not just a human one. It’s a commitment, not just to your own identity, but to a community that needs you, and a wider world that is always watching.
Trans people — especially high-profile trans people — face that same problem when we come out, especially when it comes to name changes and pronouns. We become visible.
When Caitlyn Jenner debuted on that cover of Vanity Fair a few years ago, for example, she became one of the highest-profile trans women in America. People had questions for her — many of them obviously inappropriate, like asking about her surgery status — about everything, and particularly politics.
She didn’t know a damn thing about trans history, trans political discourse, or trans social issues, and her politics have, in the years since, often put her at odds with many trans people.
Now, Ms. Jenner shouldn’t have to know anything in order to know she’s trans, and be able to live her life the way she wants — but her visibility and her other areas of privilege (class and whiteness, particularly) mean that she’s one of the people that people will ask questions of, and her ignorance and her politics make it harder for many of us to be heard and taken seriously.
In changing her name, in choosing to come out, she exposed herself to political realities she wasn’t prepared for.
So, seeing such a focus on the name as a sociopolitical symbol in the X-Men movies hits.
Of course, names aren’t the only reason I liken the plight of “evil” mutants to that of trans folks.
The Body Politic
In 2016, I discussed Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in the context of trans allegory. I discussed, in particular, her relationship to her body, and the politicization of that body. In that article, I asserted:
When she stands before Xavier in the nude, she’s forcing him to recognize her for her real self. Mystique is not Raven Darkholme, Charles Xavier’s buxom, retiring little sister: Mystique is something else.
While there’s a lot to criticize regarding the handling of Mystique’s character in the latter X-Men movies, that aspect of them was pitch-perfect for me.
The political nature of non-“passing” mutant bodies mirrors that of transgender people in the real world. A “visibly” trans person is in reality hypervisible, and that opens the individual up to dangers the rest of us simply do not face.
Romijn’s Mystique, before she kills Senator Kelly in the original film trilogy, tells him that people “like him” were the reason she couldn’t go to school as a child. Bigots kept her from accessing an education because they feared her body; the implication being that she as a result turned that body into a weapon against a society that ostracized and despised her.
Any “visible” minority — women, racial minorities, non-passing trans folks, “visibly disabled” people — can recognize that feeling of public danger, or at least a lack of welcome in public spaces. Children at school face bullying, and often in the case of transgender children, public outrage from the parents of their classmates.
This confluence of visibility as danger and the political in terms of the symbolic is a running theme for the Brotherhood of Mutants, and it plays out in the way they present their bodies to the audience in the filmic context.
Mystique, of course, is nude when she’s herself. Obviously, one must recognize the male-gaze intent of that, but like I’ve written before, the male gaze does not invalidate the transgender gaze inherent in forcing the world to see you for what your truly are, and not the visage that makes them comfortable.
Magneto is rarely seen in “civilian” clothing in the original trilogy of films, with his primary visual look being one where he’s cloaked in that massive asymmetrical cape, wearing that helmet to keep Charles Xavier out. His choice to set himself apart visually is very attached to his recognition of himself as other. Additionally, Magneto-via-McKellan is very, very gay in his mannerisms and vocal tone, further distancing him from what a straight cis man appears as in mainstream media.
Pyro is interesting because we get to see his transformation. When we first encounter him in X2, he is dressed, according to the Chris Claremont novelization, like a James Dean character. Putting aside the queer-coding in that reference, Pyro still doesn’t dress like a good kid, which sets him apart from Rogue and Bobby, whose costuming is a little more appropriately popularly styled for their era.
After he breaks with the X-Men to join the Brotherhood, though, he shows up in X-Men: the Last Stand looking like he basically got lost on the way to Warped Tour 2005, or a Green Day show. Additionally, his hair has been restyled and dyed to have blonde highlights that aren’t present in his previous design.
Most important with Pyro, though, is the incorporation of the shark design from his lighter onto his flamethrower gauntlets. Pyro’s entire arc is about his relationship to monstrosity; when he acts on the Drake family porch in X2, he prefaces his attack by saying, “You know those bad mutants you hear about on the news? I’m the worst one.” It’s a recognition of how he will be seen, and an acceptance that, to some, that perception will always be the truth.
Working the shark design into this second costume is a way of further expressing that Pyro is willing to be seen as a monster — especially if it will keep him, and those he cares about, alive. He takes the symbol of the shark — it itself only monstrous in the way humanity has chosen to make it monstrous — as an almost personal visual brand.
Other members of the Brotherhood are primarily female, people of color, and/or visibly mutants: Toad, Sabretooth, and Spyke all being visible mutants, Arclight, Psylocke, and Callisto all being women of color (and Spyke being a man of color), and Dark Phoenix, when she joins up, being a white woman. Beyond Pyro and arguably Magneto (the racialization of Jewish people is not something I’m gonna touch with a ten foot pole), the only white men without visible physical mutations in the Brotherhood are Multiple Man and Juggernaut. All members, however, dress in The Last Stand in a similar way to Pyro; everyone leans toward the pop-punk or full-punk side of the fence.
In otherizing the visual presentation of “evil” mutants, the filmmakers have made them more relatable to many queer and trans folks watching. To be an evil mutant, one must be visibly other, either by choice or by definition.
Basically, all your evil mutants are trans, because I said so.
But really, I think it’s important for us to discuss the way names and bodies in the XMCU have, historically, been politicized in ways that mirror real-life axes of oppression. It matters that “good” mutants are primarily straight, white, and upper-middle class. It matters that the only gender-balanced team in the XMCU is Magneto’s Hellfire Club at the end of First Class.
When you continually show one narrative as heroic, ignoring other demographics, those you do not include have to find representation of themselves elsewhere.
Magneto Was Right is a slogan with traction because real people find his politics more favorable than Xavier’s. It’s fine and dandy to be an X-Man, with an X-Man’s priorities, if you’re allowed to be an X-Man.
It took until almost literally this Pride Month — since Deadpool 2 was originally slated for June 1st, before moving up to mid-May — for anyone to see explicitly gay X-Men onscreen. Bobby Drake hasn’t appeared in a movie since a year before he was outed. Jubilee’s and Mystique’s queerness hasn’t ever come up in movies, though they’ve both made multiple appearances by multiple actors.
Yukio and Ellie became movie-canon eighteen years after the first X-Men movie premiered in theaters. Will it take another decade or two for us to see a trans mutant? When does the heroic part of the allegory become representational for all of us?
If the Xavier politic is supposed to be the right one, then why are so many people like us fighting for the other guy?
I think the fandom needs to wrestle with that, and I think, if Marvel Studios wants to start making X-Men movies, they need to wrestle with it too.
To close, I want to express that I hope everyone had a good Pride, and a good anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. To a large degree, I can only write this article in public because of the work of queens like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and butches like Stormé DeLarverie. Without them, and all who came after, we would live in a much darker world.
So, here’s to them, and to all of us who benefit from their work and keep it going.