Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Saw the X-Men movie this past week, and was struck by how explicitly the “biological deviance” theme was brought out in the plot. Of course, that is the main driver of plot tension throughout the three movies (and to some degree in the original comic books, I gather, though I haven’t read them). But, even more so than in the first two movies, the third installment delves into the bio-politics of “normalcy” and prejudice, in interesting, though somewhat complicated, ways.
It’s a juicy subject for a worthwhile discussion, and a welcome sign in these days of otherwise unbridled bigotry and repression.
You all know the basic story, I’m sure: the Earth is populated with “mutants” who have supernatural powers, including not merely such mundane stuff as mind-reading or telekinesis, but the ability to create fire or ice out of nothing, to control the weather, to shoot laser beams from the eyes, or, in one case, to do “anything she wants”. Some mutants merely have unusual bodies, including one with angel wings and another with rather startling retractable hedgehog spikes that perform as easily the most risible special weapon in the history of the superhero movie genre. There is also the character “Wolverine”, who has a hardened skeleton and steel blades that shoot out from between his knuckles, as the result of a hideous military experiment in creating the ultimate soldier (for service in the many battalions engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with steel knuckle blades); he apparently is an honorary mutant or something.
At any rate, the mutants appear spontaneously from non-mutant parents. The science is pretty sketchy throughout. The movie makes reference to a “mutant X chromosome”, which unnecessarily complicates things because it makes it sound like a sex chromosome, though I suspect the scriptwriters were merely trying to play off the “X-men” phrase. No explanation is given for how you mutate an entire new chromosome, or why it expresses as such bizarrely different paranormal phenotypes in different people. Why chromosomal mutations should grant control of the weather is also a mystifying blank field, and the law of conservation of energy seems to mean little to these people. But never mind.
Finding mutants in the family causes consternation among squares and reactionaries, who regard them as abominations. This viewpoint is strangely mirrored by the mutants themselves, who consistently refer to non-mutants as “humans”, implicitly accepting their own categorization as a different species. In fact, there is virtually no overlap of community between mutants and “humans” in any of the movies. It is a given that they are distinct and separate groups. Nobody in the film, as I recall, ever advances the view that mutancy is merely part of the spectrum of human “species normal” phenotypy. I think this is a telling point.
Some “humans” want to eradicate the mutants; others want them controlled, removed, or somehow “dealt with”. Among the mutants, there are two factions: those who advocate peaceful coexistence, with the mutants using their powers for the good of all, and those who are angered by the hostility of the humans, and advocate separatism or even an attack on human society and the eventual rule of the mutants. The “X-Men” are among the former group; they operate a boarding school for mutant children who have been rejected by their parents, teaching them tolerance and self-love, and they also act as some sort of private paramilitary force, intervening in disasters, especially those caused by hostile mutants whipping up violence between humans and mutants.
This scenario creates a raft of political and biological parallels with contemporary society, and these parallels give the “X-Men” movies much of their cultural salience. To start with the most obvious, mutant status as an unexplained deviance from the norm, resulting in a feeling of confusion and lostness among mutant children, with rejection by their parents, legal and de facto oppression by the rest of society, and the relief of discovering others like themselves, is an obvious and much-remarked on metaphor for homosexuality. Earlier X-Men movies made this clear with scenes of children being turned away by their families and embraced by the synthetic family of the mutant community, and with attempts to outlaw the use of mutant powers, or to prevent mutants from teaching in public schools; apparently the mutant/gay trope is widely embraced by the comic-book culture that spawned these movies, as well.
There are other themes invoking social outcast groups, however. The main hostile, separatist mutant is a Nazi concentration-camp survivor, who makes explicit parallels between the drive to wipe out mutants and Nazism. The X-Men father figure uses a wheelchair, creating an explicit link between mutant status and disability; the debates over “genocide” by removal of the “mutant gene”, and calls by mutants to be seen as normal, evoke the disability rights movement and its rejection of “ablism”. There are also echoes of the US civil rights movement (with its pacifist and confrontationist camps), including rather pointed references to a “dream”, and to progress “by any means necessary”. One character’s mutation is so deadly she is unable to prevent it from killing anyone she touches, and so she must avoid direct physical contact with others; the AIDS metaphor here is obvious. Other parallels have been identified, and apparently are made much more explicit in the comic books.
There is no room here to pursue all these references. The content of the third movie, by itself, is more than can be dealt with adequately in this space.
SPOILER WARNING (Plot Points Revealed Below)
In this movie, a shadowy pharmaceutical company operating on Alcatraz (why? – who knows?) has developed a “cure” for the “mutant X chromosome” – inject one ampule of this stuff and, within seconds, your whole body reverts to “human”-normal and you lose your mutant powers. The drug is derived from the body of a young mutant whose mutant power is to reverse the mutant powers of anybody who gets within 10 feet of him; the drug company kidnaps him, holds him prisoner in their lab, and somehow extracts the stuff from him – without him, they can’t make any more of the drug. They offer the cure to the public, which sets off a howling social conflict: between those who want it made mandatory for all mutants and those who want it banned as a form of genocide against mutants, and between those mutants who accept it as a way of escaping from their social isolation and those who reject it as an attack on who they are as individuals. The hostile mutant group heats up the controversy by attacking the lab to kill the source of the drug and thus prevent it being used against them; the government responds by turning the drug into a biological weapon and mowing down mutants with tranquilizer-dart guns. Chaos ensues.
Here we need to pause again to note the social parallels. First and always, there’s the mutant/gay identity: the controversial “cure”, the conflict between self-hating mutants who will do anything to assimilate into mainstream society and those who insist on their right to be accepted as they are, the larger social tension between assimilation and ostracism, and the delicious irony that the drug company’s CEO has a son who is himself a mutant (he is shown mutilating himself in the bathroom in an early scene, to try to keep his father from seeing his mutant wings), and who refuses to accept the treatment when his father tries to force him into it. (Shades of Alan Keyes!) The mutants who accept the treatment in order to end their ostracism parallel self-hating gays who attend “ex-gay” indoctrination in search of acceptance from the right wing. (Given the “mutants as Nazi victims” theme, there may also be a parallel with self-hating Jews who attempt to over-assimilate, or who have plastic surgery to erase any distinctive ethnic appearance.)
The debate over “cure vs. accomodation” again invokes the disability-rights struggle and the debate over the definition of “normal health”. An interesting twist is the fact that the drug is taken from the body of a young child (without killing him) without his consent: this seems to be an indirect reference to stem-cell research, with a (clumsy?, or perhaps ironic?) twist: here it is the reactionaries who want this research done to assist in their attempts to stamp out a group of people they despise, while one group of mutants seeks to kill the “embryo” to prevent the development of cures for “diseases” they don’t think should be cured, and another seeks to protect him for the same reason. That throws a weird kind of monkeywrench into the right/left politics of the plot.
So too does the notion of separate species, which both embraces and rejects biological essentialism: if having a mutation makes you a separate species, then there really is something to the notion of ineradicable differences; at the same time, the fact that you can be changed into a “human” by eradicating those differences suggests that one’s “essence” is maleable. In this way, the movie is ambiguous about where it stands on the possibility of change at all, though it does seem to endose the right-wing perspective on both issues (a seemingly impossible feat).
Finally, we shouldn’t overlook the role of the pharmaceutical company, both in kidnapping “embryo boy” and in developing a medication aimed at genocide. At any rate, there are certainly many parallels between plot points in this movie and contemporary controversies in bioethics and medical research or treatment standards.
In view, particularly, of the sex-obsessive nature of contemporary bio-politics, it is important to note the sexual politics of the movie as well. I have said that the choice by mutants whether or not to take the “cure” parallels debates within the gay, Jewish, and disabled communities; it also plays as a metaphor for abortion-clinic confrontation as well. There are lines of angry activists from both sides outside the clinics where the treatment medication is being given out, waving signs and shouting slogans; the mutants lined up for the treatment are nervous and self-conscious, and some feel ambivalent about their choices. When one main character takes the treatment so that she can finally touch her boyfriend without killing him, he tells her “This isn’t what I wanted”, and she asserts her autonomy by saying “It’s what I wanted.”, simultaneously invoking the “woman’s body/woman’s freedom” aspect of abortion, and positioning the anti-mutant treatment as an exercise of autonomy. (This parallel also brings in the “sex kills” meme of the right wing, but again with a perverse twist: in this case, she’s making a fateful choice, and undergoing a controversial medical procedure in a besieged public clinic, so that she can have sex, while it was her sexual-outcast mutant status that kept her from doing so.)
Another female mutant – one of the “hostiles” – appears most often completely nude, her spectacularly stereotypically attractive body covered in blue scales (and a body suit) that make her just-barely legal for the screen; when she is shot with the treatment dart, her scales and blue skin evaporate, leaving her a perfectly ordinary, spectacular, completed naked white woman (who for some reason chooses exactly that moment to cover her body with her arms). At that moment, the other hostile mutants turn their backs on her, saying “She isn’t one of us anymore”; the leader glances at her pale-skinned, voluptuos naked body and remarks “It’s a pity. She was so beautiful.” Here we revisit the “two species” concept, and also half-heartedly reinforce the idea that there is a range of bodily normality standards – but again with a perverse twist: the hostile leader is not saying that mutants should also be considered beautiful, since that would be too expansive for his partisan viewpoint; he is saying that only mutants are beautiful, and she becomes ugly when she becomes merely a conventionally attractive human woman.
On another note, it is never established whether mutancy breeds true, or whether mutants are interfertile with either group, mutants or “humans”, which may be a significant point in respect of their plan for world domination. The implications of the “two species” view are never really addressed, and it seems as if that is mere shoddy science on the part of the scriptwriters, rather than an overt attempt to assert an ideological point.
As with the identity politics that is brought out by the various oppressed-minority metaphors of the movie, the sexual politics is confused here and somewhat inverted. Using a controversial medical treatment is rightly portrayed as a free choice available as an exercise of autonomy (in this way it matters very much that it is a female character who goes to the treatment clinic); however, this treatment is inherently a rejection of one’s nature in the face of (mostly) outside pressures. The openly sexual presentation of the pre-change blue-skin mutant is positive (even if she is a hostile character), as compared with her huddled, covered-up, and traumatized post-treatment self, but the statement that she can only be beautiful as a mutant echoes some of the more extreme fringes of separatist activism, which seems as off-putting as the parallel real-life statements by lesbian, minority, or disability separatists often are. The choice to take treatment in order to pursue an active sex life is likewise positive, but the refusal to find a sexual identity as she already is seems to offer a defeatist approach to AIDS.
And, finally, there is a deep contradiction in the transformative treatment itself: the fact that one can, and perhaps would want to, change one’s essence in this way is a kind of backhand affirmation of the transsexual community – but the fact that it works only one way, to transform “gene queers” into “normals”, seems to cut in exactly the opposite direction. Similarly, there is a brief scene with two threatening femme-y transgender hostile mutants – again a nod to the trans community, but put in a negative light. On the sexual level, then, there’s at least as much going on in this movie as in other respects, but it seems even more confused than otherwise.
The political stances these tensions and conflicts force on the movie’s characters are as complicated as the biological and social metaphors they are burdened with. The strangest of these seems to be the position of the X-Men themselves. They are unquestionably the heroes of the X-Men universe of stories: they embody a vision of mutual tolerance between humans and mutants, they reject violence and seek to stop it (their own powers are used almost exclusively against other mutants, those from the “hostile” camp), they embrace “working within the system” to effect legal equality for mutants, and they teach mutant children to accept themselves without becoming bitter toward the outside world. They represent the values that tolerant, liberal, centrist Americans are told to uphold. In this, they stand in direct contrast to the angry, hostile mutants who embrace violent dissent and seek to overthrow the system by force. This makes the X-Men the Martin Luther King faction to the hostile force’s Malcolm X (and each is explicitly associated with phrases or codewords from the two men in the movies).
On the other hand, given the Jew/Nazi parallel also evident, the X-Men appear to be assimilationist Jews who didn’t see the terror in time, opposing the violent resistance of those few who actually fought back, even, literally (in this movie), as the uniformed troops undertake a genocidal assault in the open streets.
And, in keeping with the gay theme, the X-Men break with the accepted liberal history of the gay-rights movement by taking a go-slow approach, eschewing direct confrontation (no mutant Stonewall for them), and working with the political powers to quietly advocate for less legal restriction. One of the X-Men is even a Cabinet member in the movie White House – who is kept in the dark about the development of the anti-mutant weapon and treated as a diversity figurehead for the administration. (Tellingly, he has non-white [OK . . . blue] skin, and is recycled as Secretary of State later – making his humbling by the deceitful President an even more pointed jab at a certain person.) This makes the X-Men essentially the Log Cabin Republicans of their world – which is not the kind of heroes we are hoping they would be.
This leaves us with quite a mess of a movie. It offers a broad message of tolerance for the biologically or sexually non-typical, which has got to be great news for the gay, transgender, and minority communities. At the same time, it eschews rejectionism, separatism, and even direct confrontation on issues, which may be good news for middle-of-the-roaders but slows progress in some ways, and plays off tensions in the activist community in what may be unhelpful ways. It introduces but consistently fails to interrogate seriously such claims as that non-typicals have the moral authority to stand in judgment of other nontypicals, or that mutations place one in a distinct biologically essentialist category aside from the rest of “humanity”. More than anything, it insists that the most important thing is to maintain the peace and trust the government – exactly what the Civil Rights Movement taught us was not the case in many circumstances.
In the end, the parallels and anti-parallels between the movie mutants and the bio-deviants of the real world – and the tensions that afflict both of them – are too inconsistent to sort out. At times it seems as if the movie is making a clear statement about contemporary bio-political issues, particularly gay rights. (In fact, both the director of the second X-Men movie, and the co-star of all three – Ian McClellan – are openly gay and spoke of their desire to make pro-gay themes more visible in the movies. McClellan states he only took the role in the latest film for that reason.) At other times, though, the film seems to endorse contrasting statements on the same issues, and in many places it seems as if familiar elements from these cultural conflicts are visible in the movies, but not in consistent patterns that make a coherent argument. It’s a fascinating melange, however, and a provocative one. I was intrigued enough to be willing to see it again to try and tease out all the elements. I’m not sure that it will ever unravel to a clear-headed and strong position statement on any such issue, but there are hints a-plenty in various places. Worth a look, if only to get the conversation going.
UPDATE: The Women’s Bioethics Project also notes the bioethics themes visible in the movie. They are sponsoring group discussions on X-Men III. Read here for interesting commentary and more information.
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