X-Men

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.

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