X-Men and Society’s Other

Everyone at some point in their lives has experienced the stinging feeling of being different. Sometimes it can be as innocuous as being the new person at work or school but many others have felt the pain of realizing that they are different from others based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, nationality or body type. Historically, humanity has been better at oppressing one another best on these difference than embracing each other in spite of them. As with all societal problems, our best hope for overcoming this unfortunate tendency is through our children. But how do we teach the next generation to evolve as a society and overcome the petty prejudices that have divided humankind for millennium? Take them to see the new X-Men movie this summer. xmen For the past 50 years the venerable X-Men franchise has been known in comics, television and film for its fantastical tales of science fiction, superpowers and spandex-clad heroics. But beneath the bombastic pageantry of a series that began at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement has always been an underlying theme of embracing those who are different as extraordinary and learning not to fear those who we do not understand. Science fiction has always been a great way to subtly deal with complex social issues and societal anxieties in manner that is accessible to a broad audience. The original Godzilla slyly chastised the United States for the nuclear horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Planet of the Apes addressed issues of racism in America and Star Trek boldly preached for a better tomorrow where the planet finally overcomes war, greed and intolerance. But perhaps more than these or any others, the X-Men series has always tackled these issues with unmatched humor, humanity and energy. X-Men portrays a world in which “mutants”, individuals who have evolved to possess superhuman abilities are scorned, oppressed and misunderstood by a society that fears and hates them for being different. Replace the world mutant with “black”, “gay” or “Muslim” and the parallels are impossible to ignore.

Far from shying away from these uncomfortable societal issues, the film incarnation of X-Men has always embraced them head on. Director Bryan Singer, who started the film series in 2000 and brought it back to glory with the latest installment knows what it’s like to be different. Raised in a Jewish family, Singer is also one of the few Hollywood directors who is openly gay. Both of these aspects of his identity are present in the first two films in the series. The first film begins in a Nazi Concentration camp located in occupied Poland, showing the young mutant Magneto—the film’s “antagonist” persecuted by Nazis for his Jewish identity. Flash forward to the not-so-distant future and Magneto attends a hearing where government officials call for a “Mutant Registration” act that bears a terrifying resemblance to the infamous “Nuremberg Laws” of Nazi Germany that eventually lead to the horrors of the Holocaust. The opening of the latest X-Men film, Days of Future Past reveals that these anti-mutant sentiments will indeed lead to a Holocaust that not only dooms mutantkind, but all of humankind along with it. The first two X-Men films introduce us to Rogue and Bobby, two teens coming to grips with being mutants. Rogue finds that she is unable to become physical with her boyfriend because she is a “mutant”. Bobby has to deal with “coming out” as a mutant to his parents. If you changed every reference to “mutant” to “gay” in the dialogue, the scene would play exactly the same. Bobby’s parents say that they still love him, but just didn’t know he was a “mutant”. Bobby’s mother is shocked and asks if he’s ever “tried not being a mutant”. Bobby’s brother rejects his sibling based on this revelation and storms off to his room. It is a moment that many gay teens have experienced beat for beat when coming out to their families. Perhaps even Bryan Singer’s own coming out mirrored this experience.

By the third film, a scientist whose son is a winged mutant named Angel announces he has developed a “cure” to being a mutant, much like the many pastors and priests who claim they can help people control and contain their homosexual tendencies. Young Rogue lines up to receive the cure so that she can finally hook up with Bobby. But Angel defies his father and flies shirtless above the streets of San Francisco, known worldwide as the most gay-friendly city on the planet, inspiring his fellow mutants to reject this cure and remain proud of themselves. The scene may sound cheesy (it is) but for anyone who has ever felt pressured to change who they are to please others, it is a powerful message: You are beautiful, no matter what they say. In X-Men First Class, the characters adopt the catchphrase “Mutant and Proud” which mirrors both the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s as well as the current day Gay Pride movement. In one scene, two white males in black suits ridicule the titular first class of mutants, prompting a discussion among the characters of the pain caused by the way they are viewed by mainstream society. By the end of the film, the “Mutant Pride” movement diverts into two distinct paths, with some of the characters following the militaristic Magneto and others following the more pacifistic Charles Xavier. This distinction subtly parallels the philosophical divide between the militant Malcolm X and the peace loving Martin Luther King Jr., two figures of the Civil Rights movement who would come to embody their respective perspectives on how to combat racial inequality.

Most Americans are ignorant of the fact that Malcolm X would later come to embrace the belief that the races could in fact coexist together peacefully. It is moral complication that history chooses to ignore because it blurs the binary nature of our society’s historical narrative. Days of Future Past for its part, shows Magneto following a similar path as Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little, the legendary leader adopted the stark moniker “X” as to represent the lost tribal name that was lost when his forebears were take from Africa in chains. The characters in X-Men similarly forsake their “slave names” in favor of Mutant alter egos. Magneto’s disciple Mystique refuses to respond to her human name of Raven, and when introduced to the troubled young mutant John Allerdyce, Magneto asks for the boy’s “real name”. John responds “Pyro”.   For generations, the “others” in society have been framed as weak, ugly and inferior. The X-Men series shows young audiences and readers that the others are strong, beautiful and just as good as anyone else. In fact, sometimes they might even be more evolved. Magneto, for his part, considers he and his mutant brothers to be something of God’s chosen people, another parallel to his Jewish heritage. At one point in the second film he turns to Pyro and lets him know “You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.” The actor portraying Magneto, Ian McKellen, is himself not Jewish, but he is openly gay. In fact, he originated a role in the play Bent, which tells of how homosexuals were treated even worse than Jews in the Holocaust. It is a beautiful and poetic moment indeed to see a gay actor born 30 years before the Stonewall riots turn to a young man and remind him that he should be proud of who he is no matter what anyone says. Magneto began the series as its “villain” but in Days of Future past he finally redeems himself. It takes him two Holocausts to realize it, but he eventually comes to understand that all life is precious and beautiful and that no man or woman is better or worse than any other. And if a hardened old man who has experienced so much suffering and intolerance can finally overcome his own prejudices then none of us have any excuse not to follow his example. So teach your kids to embrace their classmates no matter what they look like, who they pray to and who they love. And for god’s sake, take them to see Days of Future Past, it’s freaking fantastic.

14 thoughts on “X-Men and Society’s Other

  1. Please correct your inaccurate and insulting use of the term “Polish concentration camp.” Such torture was committed by Germans under the spell of totalitarianism.

  2. Great Article….but please check your use of “Polish Concentration Camp” They were German concentration camps in Poland. That term is considered horribly offensive and inaccurate.

    1. Thank for letting me know. I happen to be Jewish and of Polish descent and clearly don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

  3. Please note that the term “Polish Concentration camp” is insulting to the 6 million citizens (half Jewish) murdered by the Germans and hundreds of thousands of Poles who fought them. It would have been a Nazi concentration camp in German occupied Poland.

  4. “Polish concentration camp” ? that old calumny surfaces again. There were no Polish concentration camps – just camps built by the Germans to imprison, torture and murder Poles, both Jewish and gentile. Please change this deeply insulting phrase.

  5. Why have you not altered the article or at least posted my comment? Please note that the term “Polish Concentration camp” is insulting to the 6 million citizens (half Jewish) murdered by the Germans and hundreds of thousands of Poles who fought them. It would have been a Nazi concentration camp in German occupied Poland.

  6. It states above that, “The first film begins in a Polish Concentration camp”. This is impossible, since there never existed any “Polish concentration camps”. In fact it would have been a Nazi German concentration camp. Could you please alter your text, so that it reflects historical fact and does not mislead your readers.

  7. Can I ask why my comment “Please note that the term “Polish Concentration camp” is insulting to the 6 million citizens (half Jewish) murdered by the Germans and hundreds of thousands of Poles who fought them. It would have been a Nazi concentration camp in German occupied Poland.” Has not been allowed?


    Professor Norman Davies (Author, British Historian): There were no Polish Nazis. There was no Polish branch of the Nazi Party. In 1939-45, there were no Polish armed forces under German command, and, unlike almost every other German-occupied country, no Polish volunteer divisions in the Waffen SS. Despite what one often hears, there were no ‘Polish concentration camps’, and there was no collaborationist government, as in Vichy France or in Norway.

    Shana Penn (Director Media Relations United States Holocaust memorial Museum): The most common error of concern, which I will discuss further on, is the identification of Nazi concentration camps on Polish soil as being “Polish concentration camps” instead of, as they were in reality, Nazi-run camps in German-occupied Poland during World War II.

    ABC: On May 12, 2009, in a story about the deportation of a suspected Nazi war criminal from the United States to Germany, the ABC incorrectly reported that he was facing charges for the murder of people in a “Polish concentration camp”. There were no Polish concentration camps, rather it was a Nazi concentration camp during the occupation of Poland in World War II.

    David Peleg (The Ambassador of Israel to Warsaw, Poland): We, being Jews and Israelis, with reject resolutely terminology such as “Polish concentration camps”. These prejudicial and erroneous phrases represent primarily testimony about ignorance and lack of understanding of fundamental historical truth. Every thinking man knows that it was the Nazis who selected Poland for central site for dreadful genocide of extermination of European Jews. On the Polish soil the Germans built terrifying camps where they systematically murdered 4.5 million Jews (including 3 million Polish Jews) and other nationalities including thousands of Poles.

    Alex Storozynski (Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a former member of the New York Daily News editorial board, founding editor of amNewYork and former city editor of the New York Sun.) When I read the words “Polish concentration camps” in American newspapers, I cringe, and point out that this is profoundly wrong.

    Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz (Minister of Foreign Affairs Republic of Poland): Labelling the camp as “Polish” shifts the responsibility thus falsifying the fundamental truth about the Holocaust perpetrators.

    Please correct the article to say they were German concentration camps.

  8. The term ‘Polish concentration camp’ is offensive and historically incorrect. The German Nazis established the concentration camps on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

  9. ………………………………>> The first film begins in a Polish Concentration camp, showing <>The first film begins in a Polish Concentration camp, showing<< in this partial sentence from the article. Miseducation is a terrible thing to put in the minds of unsuspecting children.

  10. It doesn’t look like you corrected your prejudicial statement of “Polish Concentration Camp”, Poland did not have or build “any Polish Concentration Camps.” All of the camps on Polish soil were created, run and managed by NAZI Germans. PLEASE Correct your hurtful misrepresentation statement at once.

    Notify me at once when you correct this sentence:
    “The first film begins in a Polish Concentration camp,”

    1. Whoa. Guys. Err’body calm down. I actually happen to be both Jewish AND of Polish ancestry. And CLEARLY I’m not trying to be “offensive” or “prejudiced” because the entire article is about overcoming prejudice so…yeah…context. However, I see that it hurt people’s feelings so I’ll happily change it. But hey, you kinda hurt my feelings too by jumping on top of me, calling me prejudiced and not giving me the benefit of the doubt! So PLEASE the next time a misunderstanding like this occurs instead of getting all reactionary and politically correct for the sake political correctness just say “hey the way you worded this could be misconstrued and hurt people’s feelings so you should probably change that” instead of trying to make the person feel like a jerk. Anyway, yay freedom! Boo prejudice! Thanks for reading.

      1. Well, since you are of Jewish heritage and Polish descent – your forefathers should have told you that the Polish People had no “Polish Concentration Camps” on their soil. Unless they wanted to continue the misconception that ‘all’ Poles were the real killers of the Jewish people. This matter isn’t political correctness, it is considered rewriting historical fact to find fault with Poland and the People of Poland.

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