Sunday, June 1, 2014

Whose Girl Is She? The Intensely Problematic Depiction of Mystique in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'

Warning: Here Be Spoilers.

About a month before X-Men: Days of Future Past opened, I saw a gifset taken from this scene of the film, and I got very, very nervous. The clip appeared to show a Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnscherr (Magneto) who were at odds over a girl—Raven Darkholme (a.k.a. Mystique), retconned to be Xavier's foster sister as of X-Men: First Class—rather than at odds over an ideological difference of opinion. The philosophical difference of opinion that Xavier and Magneto have over how to achieve mutant prosperity is the cornerstone of the X-Men universe, and it is what has enabled the story of the X-Men and their foes to remain consistently compelling since their debut in the 1960s. The crux of the struggle between Xavier and Magneto (and the X-Men and their various foes) is that they essentially want to achieve the same goal, but they have radically different notions about how to do that. Where Xavier and his X-Men favor pacifism and outreach, Magneto and "villains" like Mystique and her Brotherhood of (Evil) Mutants favor vigilantism and revolution.

This distinction between the two factions was admirably maintained in X-Men and X2: X-Men United, but it began to erode in X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class. I was naturally extremely worried by the possibility that the exploration of ideological contention between the main characters might have been abandoned in favor of a two-dimensional spat over a female character—a trope that is both sexist and boring. I began to fear that Days of Future Past was not going to be the triumphant return to the beloved X-Men films of the early 2000s that I was hoping for.

As it turned out, I was somewhat misled by the gifset I saw. Days of Future Past did not simply distill a complex debate down to a fight about a woman, and it would be a gross oversimplification to say so. In fact, Days of Future Past did something far, far worse. For in this film Mystique was not merely the thing that Xavier and Magneto fought over; she was the battleground on which they fought—a blank slate devoid of agency or identity, picked up and used and tossed aside when their need for her was gone. Mystique's entire character arc, if you can call it that, hinged on a struggle between identification with one or the other of two men, and at no point was there ever any indication that she might conceivably have been her own person, capable of making her own, well-informed decisions.

Mystique as she exists in the comic books, and in the first two X-Men films, is an extremely powerful character. She is grounded in deeply-held beliefs about her mission to secure mutant prosperity. She is comfortable in who she is as a person and a mutant. She rejects other people's labels about who she should be and how she should act. She is an unqualified badass.

We see this Mystique in X2, when she disagrees with Nightcrawler's suggestion that she use her powers to hide: "Why not stay in disguise all the time? Look like everyone else?" he asks. "Because we shouldn't have to," she replies. And we see this Mystique again in X-Men: The Last Stand, when she continues to help the cause of mutant prosperity even after she has been depowered—illustrating just how strongly her sense of self is grounded in the belief that her cause is just. In X-Men: First Class, however, this Mystique was erased in favor of a depiction of her as a sheltered, naive girl-next-door, whose acceptance of self hinges entirely on being sexually desired by a man. This marks the beginning of the transformation (completed in Days of Future Past) of Mystique from an autonomous character to subordinate tool.

In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the horrible dystopic future of a world ruled by Sentinels is precipitated by an assassination carried out by Mystique. So far, so good. (This is what caused the dystopic future in the original Claremont/Byrne story arc.) However, unlike in the original comic book, where Mystique's actions were part of a larger vigilante project that was underlined by a specific ideological belief, in the film Mystique is motivated primarily by a surplus of feminine emotion (read: hysteria) over the deaths of her friends. These paper-thin and stereotypical motivations are emblematic of the way in which the writing team of the prequels have pulled Mystique's fangs. She is no longer a powerful force in her own right; instead, she is an erratic, overly-emotive will-o-the-wisp, desperately in need of guidance because she cannot stay grounded without a force greater than herself upon which to orient herself. In other words, she has no real autonomy.

This lack of autonomy makes her the perfect tool for the primary male characters to fight over, and her representation in this manner is part and parcel of a larger problem of representation in superhero films in general. As Monika Bartyzel has noted:

"The female superhero problem isn't just one of reluctance and indifference — it's one of seriously skewed attitudes. The creative teams behind superhero franchises (and much of the media that report on them) simply don't treat female superheroes as superheroes. Instead, they're viewed as objects and used for male support." (1)

The objectification of Mystique in this film could not be more clear. It is the sole basis on which the dramatic tension is built, and it is visually and narrativistically reinforced throughout the course of the film. Mystique is manipulated, physically and mentally by both of the primary male characters at various points. Magneto moves her body (by means of a bullet embedded in her leg) with his power; Xavier freezes her body by seizing control of her mind. Both men do this to her, without her consent, for her own good, and in defiance of her stated desires. Yet even her stated desires are characterized in terms of her alliance to one or the other of these men. Her decision to assassinate or to not assassinate is framed purely in terms of whose girl she is. Is she Charles' girl? Or is she Erik's girl? After all, she certainly is not her own girl.

In the end, Mystique does not actually make a decision. She merely functions as a blank slate onto which the philosophies of the main male characters are projected.

And allow me to repeat that, so that it is clear. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the desires and worldviews of the two main male characters are literally projected onto the blank-slate body of a woman who spends the majority of the film in a state of virtual nakedness. She is not a character in this film. She is an object to be used by her male counterparts, an object whose meaning and function are defined by them.

This is, in no uncertain terms, horrible. It is indicative of the deeply ingrained misogyny and male entitlement that characterize our society.

And it needs to be challenged in a major way.

1) Monika Bartyzel, "Girls on Film: The Superhero Genre's 'Giant Green Porn Star' Problem," The Week Magazine (May 23, 2014).

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  1. I can't speak to the portrayal of Mystique in the comic books, as I was never as immersed in the X-Man world as you. However, I think you are making a classical contextual error. In 1973, I was about the same age as the Mystique character in the film, so I have a good understanding of the times. Mystique/Raven would have been a child in the 50s and an adolescent in the 60s. While the sexual revolution - and women's empowerment - started in the late 60s, it didn't really gather a lot of steam until much later. Women of that generation didn't have the options you enjoy today. Women were defined by the men they dated and married. For example, I went to college with many women who were only there to get their MRS degree. Women got their status and power from their father or husband. And women were regularly treated as sexual objects. There was no sexual harassment policy - remember I was actually chased around a desk by one of my bosses. Naturally, the men of that time looked at women as possessions and objects. That's the way it was then.

    As far as Mystique's motivations. I disagree that she was motivated by an excess of feminine emotion. I think she was motivated by a stone cold anger. In this Jennifer Lawrence did a great job, as I know the look in her eyes all too well. The fury that boils inside and has to be kept in careful control so as not to spill out and harm the innocent. The rage that is so overwhelming you don't even trust yourself to speak. She had learned that Trask had experimented on and killed her friends. Is rage and a desire for vengeance an excessive feminine emotion. I don't think so.

    And in the end she did make a decision - an important one - she shifted into the President and offered herself up to Magneto's fury - to shield all the people in the bunker, including the one she hated so much. No one made her do that - it was her choice.

    I think the film did a good job of putting the characters into a time and place that has mercifully long gone. And I'm sorry that your current rage about recent events has so colored your perceptions of the entire world.

    1. Thank you for your comments. There are a number of points I want to address, so this may take some space.

      First of all, it's clear to me that I need to include an important caveat when I make critiques of this nature. Your assertion that I haven't taken the context of the situation/time period into consideration, and that therefore my critique is fundamentally flawed, is a criticism that I have had leveled at me before. This type of criticism assumes that I am not comfortable with the depiction of sexist/racist/ableist/queerphobic/etc. situations in media, and this is not the case. What I am uncomfortable with is the presentation of these situations without comment or critique. The problem with this film is not just that Mystique is presented as a blank slate onto which the desires of others are projected, it is that she is presented this way and no one in the film registers a complaint about it. And before you argue that, "Well, it's 1973, why would they?" Allow me to remind you that there is a literal man from the future in the film the entire time, and he never says a word about it.

      Secondly, while I can see what the filmmakers were probably trying to do with the Mystique character and her "decisions" at the end of the film, I don't believe that the writing supported their objectives. And for me, when it comes to media of this caliber, you don't get points for what you tried to do; you only get points for what you actually did. So, there are two ways in which the writing failed in my opinion. The first failure deals with Mystique's motivations. In this case, I think the writers fell into the same trap that the writers of "Into Darkness" fell into; they wanted to tell an origin story, but they also wanted Mystique's character to be at a similar level to where it had been in the first two films. Rather than writing a convincing transitional story for her, they attempted to rely on what the audience would know of her character from the future/past. The result was a cliched, two-dimensional depiction. Now, this depiction of the character might still have been convincing if the narrative had supported this anger by having Mystique carry through on it to the very end, but in having her ultimately side with Charles the entire representation comes to feel like a trope: hysterical woman calmed by father figure—everyone breathes a sigh of relief. This leads to the second writing failure, which was in making Mystique an avatar for the choices of others and emphasizing the worldviews of Charles and Erik. Because of this, it's very difficult to see Mystique's final choice as hers. The way the story was framed, there were only two choices. She could take an aggressive action, as Erik would do, or she could take a peaceful action, as Charles would do. There was no third option. So, while she technically did make the decision in end, by allying herself with Charles she becomes an embodiment of his worldview triumphant rather than an embodiment of her own desires and perspective. (1/2)


    2. Here's a way this story could potentially have worked. Mystique could have stayed true to her objective throughout the film, having learned the hard way that it's "us or them." Charles, Hank, and Logan together could have taken decisive action to stop her, further calcifying her beliefs about how to achieve mutant prosperity in the process and setting her on the path to supervillainhood. The decision to make the struggle in this film a triangle, rather than a square, or a pentagon, or a hexagon was a mistake. And it was a mistake on many levels. X-Men is a franchise that is about the team rather than the individual. The desire to create stories about saviors (Wolverine, Charles Xavier) who guide and protect us does not serve this franchise well. This is not Superman; this is the X-Men. This film should have been about the X-Men confronting a threat together; not about two men battling over a single objective. The philosophical debate between Xavier and Magneto lies at the heart of the X-Men story, but it is not a debate that is had solely by them. It is a debate that is had by every person in the X-Universe, no matter what their race, class, gender, or sexuality. In this regard, Days of Future Past was not even really an X-Men movie at all.

      Finally, and in brief, your characterization of me as someone whose perception of the world has been entirely colored by rage is extremely patronizing. There are many things in this world that disgust and anger me, and I have every right to be disgusted and angered by them. I have every right to address those things and explain why they are disgusting to, and anger-inducing in, me. And if just one person reads this, sees the way that the objectification of women has been normalized here, and begins to think more critically about the way our society, and our media as an extension of that society, is flawed, then my actions in response to disgust and anger have not been in vain. Nor are they without positive merits. (2/2)

  2. Final comment. Yes there was a man from the future there - but he was also a man from a past long before the 60s. And also someone who tends to be a lone wolf. So not clear why he would say anything, even if he noticed.

  3. Actually, Mystique's lack of character here is part of a much larger trope where, whatever lone female characters have managed to make their way into the cast, get steadily deteriorating roles throughout the course of the franchise.

    Some people have made this argument for Carrie Fishers role in Star Wars and Trinity's role in The Matrix. The female characters get fought over by the men and lose more and more agency or autonomy as the series progresses.

    Just a thought.

    1. That is a great point; thanks for bringing it up!