Fear and greed in the face of the unknown: The X-Men and Civil Rights

The X-Men film franchise has generated much of its conflict from the idea that the unknown nature of mutants ledas lead to fear, hatred, and inevitably, backlash. This is of course no accident – the X-Men were started in the … Continued

The X-Men film franchise has generated much of its conflict from the idea that the unknown nature of mutants ledas lead to fear, hatred, and inevitably, backlash. This is of course no accident – the X-Men were started in the 60s, in the shadow of the civil rights movement. The more recent movies were deliberately aimed at paralleling the struggle for gay rights. The “mutant” struggle has been used an allegory for prejudice in almost all of its various incarnations (comic, TV, movies, etc.) And in almost all of these movies, the conflict was driven by a simple idea – fear of the unknown.

Particularly in the post-9/11 world of “gritty” superhero movies, this is not unique to the X-Men franchise – Spiderman, The Dark Knight franchise and even last weekend’s Man of Steel have visited the idea that what we fear what we don’t understand. The trend has gotten to the point where even a supposed paragon of moral virtue like Superman is scared that the world is going to hate and fear him. Other “superpower” shows like Heroes and the vastly under-rated The 4400 have gone to this well as well. The “Normals” fear the new powered people. The government responds to the fear and cracks down – in no time at all you’ve got registration, segregation, round-ups and concentration camps.


These stories all make a basic argument about cause of effect: The unknown leads to fear; fear leads to hate; hate leads to violence. Consider these quotes from the various X-Men movies:

You see, I think what you really fear is me. Me and my kind. The Brotherhood of Mutants. Oh, it’s not so surprising really. Mankind has always feared what it doesn’t understand. (X-Men)

Tomorrow, mankind will know mutants exist. They will fear us, and that fear will turn to hatred (X-Men: First Class)

Since the discovery of their existence they have been regarded with fear, suspicion, often hatred. (X-2)

The quotes above highlight this theme – discovery = hate. And the implicit message is that the solution is understanding: If only we could understand that mutants are just people like us, then we’d be fine. Instead, we build giant robots to round up all of the new super powered people that walk among us (or just send Special Forces to go do it, depending on the budget of the movie involved.)

But take another look at the list in the last quote above – fear, suspicion and hatred. This misses the other way in which people react to the unknown: Greed. Opportunity. When European explorers “discovered” new lands, there were competing feelings – fear and greed. When Columbus came to America, there was certainly no shortage of fear and hatred for the people they found there – but even more, enterprising merchants were falling over the opportunity to earn a buck off of it, and kings clashed over who would control the new lands. Fear is powerful – but never underestimate the power of an opportunity to turn a profit to motivate the human spirit.

There’s a strong case to be made that the first instinct on encountering the unknown isn’t to kill or destroy it – it’s to exploit it. Humans aren’t known for their restraint in this regard. In the words of Ian Malcolm, we’re generally more interested in figuring out if we could than stopping to ask if we should.

Why would the government expend billions of dollars fighting the new powers on the planet – instead of recruiting them? The government would love to have some super powered folks fighting our wars, spying on our enemies and policing our streets. I’m fairly certain the “Mandatory Mutant Military Service” Bill would have a lot more support in Congress than the “Let’s round up and kill all the mutants” bill.


Pictured: A budgetary nightmare

Perhaps more importantly, how would corporations and private actors respond to the existence of super powers? The government is notoriously slow at responding to new “technologies” and opportunities. As Matthew Yglesias over at Slate points out, crime fighting is generally a poor use of superpower resources. Other than your generic “Super strong/Super fast” superhero, punching villains in the face really isn’t the best use of your average superhero’s time.

A quick look at the X-Men’s roster proves as much. Wolverine – welcome to Big Pharma. Storm – Monsanto would like to make a deal. Magneto – take your pick between ConEd and CERN. Charles Xavier could rewrite pretty much every psychology textbook, while he’s not serving as the world’s greatest lobbyist and/or jury consultant. Etc. etc. The X-Men franchise focuses so single-minded on the idea that humans are a fearful and xenophobic group without remembering that we’re also greedy and opportunistic. (Hooray!)

Which brings us back to the civil rights movement. X-Men was quite deliberately meant to parallel the civil rights movement. And fear of the other, fear of the unknown was certainly part of the desire for segregation and racial hatred. But it wasn’t the only motivation. Go back even further, to the first causes of the racial divide in America and greed is front and center. Segregation in 1955 was the end result of a bunch of European explorers looking at Africa in the 1600s and deciding it was just the perfect place to get a bunch of free labor. Slaves were brought to the United States because they were viewed as a resource.

In that sense, racism was a feature not a bug. Slave-holding society didn’t harbor racism against lack slaves because they “feared” them or because they “didn’t understand” them – racism was a strategy of justifying abhorrent moral decisions that happened to make a lot of money. And this strategy didn’t go away when slavery went away. Segregation wasn’t just some social accident because White society “feared the unknown” – it was an economic strategy aimed at ensuring that blacks would remain economically disadvantaged (and thus forced to work for reduced wages).

So why is that important? It’s important because it means that the story of X-Men is too simplistic. X-Men would largely have us believe that the problem of racism is insufficient understanding. It ignores the very real role that self-interest and greed plays in the perpetuation of racial animus – civil rights laws have gone a long way towards curtailing it, but there are still  people today that profit from propping up racial and other cultural biases. And it’s important because it ignores what would really happen if all of a sudden people started popping up with super powers. Sure, there would be fear – but even more powerful would the desire for greed; the desire for power.


Of course, this doesn’t meant that mutants wouldn’t have anything to worry about. The fact that mutants just became the most important resource for governments and corporations seeking an advantage also means that the other guy’s mutants just became target #1. And some of the mutants might not WANT to be taken advantage of – which is where the fear comes in. If there’s a politician whipping up fear of the mutant population, you can bet that he tried to recruit them first – the fear is a weapon to force the mutants to comply, force them to get in line and be exploited. So the extent that there would be demagogues whipping up fear of the “mutant threat”, you can bet there’s someone trying to turn a buck off of the situation.

Probably looks like this guy.

That said, the mutant population, at least as portrayed in X-Men have two substantial advantages. First, they can interbreed. All of the talk about mutants being another “species” is a much harder case to make when there’s no real biological difference. As far as I’m aware, the “mutant” gene is just one or two changes to DNA, and can be passed on either between two mutants, a mutant and a “human” and two “humans” – which means the distinction between mutants and “normal” is as arbitrary and meaningless as the difference between blond and brown hair.

Now, of course, I know the response – the fact that black and white people are scientifically the same species has not stopped racialist idiots from talking about the “White Man” as distinct from the “Black Man” for the last 500 years or so. But that’s where Mutant Rights activists second advantage comes in.

Because mutants can come from anywhere. Two “normal” parents can have a “mutant” child. Your co-worker can be a mutant and you might not ever know it. Your brother could be a mutant. Your husband could be a mutant, and except for the rare cases where the mutation is impossible to hide, you wouldn’t know it until they told you.

And in that sense, the mutant struggle really is more like the recent struggle for gay rights in the 00’s than for the struggle for racial equality in the 60’s. Look at the change in position from politicians like Rob Portman. People can have their opinions changed in an instant because someone they know is gay. That difference is important – no one ever woke up and found out their friend of the last 10 years was black the whole time, and you never even knew it. And that has a snowball effect – as coming out has become more socially acceptable, the chances of a given person knowing a gay person personally goes up; as their opinions change in response, it makes it easier for people to come out.

The issues is by no means settled and gays still suffer from prejudice in many parts of society, but the trend is clear. In just 10 years, gay rights has gone from a wedge issue used to assure the GOP’s continued stay in the White House to a major policy liability for conservative politicians. Anyone reading demographic data knows that in 10 or 20 years more the issue will be as uncontroversial as the idea of interracial marriage or racial equality.

And in that sense, the struggle of the super powered for equality in society will be much more successful than I think it’s portrayed in franchises like X-Men. The X-Men franchise has a somewhat simplistic view of prejudice and animus – what we don’t understand, we fear. There are two reasons why I think that’s wrong – one cynical, one hopeful. On the one hand, our desire for opportunity often outweighs our fear. On the other, the ability for mutants to dispel the idea that they are truly the “other” will mean that the unknown won’t stay that way for long.

21 Comments on “Fear and greed in the face of the unknown: The X-Men and Civil Rights”

  1. Lavanya #

    Anyone reading demographic data knows that in 10 or 20 years more the issue will be as uncontroversial as the idea of interracial marriage or racial equality.

    Perhaps not the most apt comparison. More Americans opposed than approved of interracial marriage through 1993, when such marriages were legalized by the Supreme Court in 1967:


    And even today, we still carry racist baggage in how we represent such couples in the media. You’re far more likely to see a WM/BF pairing than a BM/WF one. The only counterexample that comes to my mind are the Nevilles on Revolution, and they’re villains.


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      That’s interesting (ablbeit depressing) poll data, though I’ll point out that today, the idea really is uncontroversial – 86% support. And it’s interesting to compare to similar poll data for gay marriage:


      Support for gay marriage went from the mid-20s to over 50 in just 15 years. It took 25-30 years for interracial marriage to make the same progress, and all of that happened AFTER 20 some years of the civil rights movement.

      I think you’re right that people treat black men marrying white women very differently than they treat the opposite, but I can think of at least one prominent counterexample: Brad and Jane on ABC’s Happy Endings. They are not only hilarious, but are definitely the show’s power-couple. Although, sicne Happy Endings is getting cancelled, maybe they weren’t prominent enough.

      (Also: Stanley from “The Office”, though his marriage record is not the best)


      • Lavanya #

        With regards to the growing acceptance rates for interracial vs gay marriage, I wonder if “bundling” (for lack of a better term) has a lot to do with the latter’s faster acceptance. Interracial marriage legalization came alongside a host of major social reforms, ones that affected everything from whether there were signs above water fountains to if your kid was going to get bussed to a school distract two towns over to further the cause of integration. There were all those huge changes in everyday American life. Whereas with gay rights there’s not such a major impact comparatively; gays, lesbians, and bisexuals constitute a much smaller percentage of the population than African-Americans, and them gaining equal rights carries fewer public consequences. Or to put it more cynically, allowing gay marriage “costs” the majority far less.

        Which, to bring this back around to the X-Men, might help explain why mutants face so much flak in their quest for equal rights. Because of the extraordinary abilities that define them, accepting mutants into the mainstream means an across-the-board disruption to the way the human majority lives. Even accepting powerless Morlock-style “disfigured” mutants into the mainstream would mean challenging human notions of beauty and desire. “Mutant and Proud” doesn’t stop with the Sentinels being dismantled.


  2. Dimwit #

    This comes down to Tribal psychology. It’s as old as the hills and as pernicious. If you can paint your enemies as “the other” then you can defend “your” tribe easily and without making an I.D. mistake.

    Most propaganda is used to do just that. Identify the “other” by these telling signs, and out them. Gay, black, Jews, Communists, mutants, Catholics, Protestants, Dems, GOP, Labour, Tory,yellow, red, tall, short… whatever. There will always be something that can be focussed on and used to segregate.

    After all that, the biggest thing in the X-Men Universe is that the traditional power roles are changed. Mutants have power. Most to the extent that if the Government requests something, they can say no and make it stick. It’s a bitch if your platform includes waving the big stick and your target ignores you.

    The other point is that they were created just on the cusp of the general realisation that the government and figures of authority should not be trusted. Not only does Daddy not know best but he’s a fuckup and does not have your best interests in mind. Nowadays this is banal and obvious so greater efforts are needed to create the other with much worse attributes than the mistrusted government. They have failed for the most part. It’s also why there has been such a powergrab by the enforcement branches of the gov’t post 9/11.
    The X-Men are us. WE want the power to be able to stand up and say NO! The no-knock search warrant. The unreasonable search and seizures at airports. Border patrol stops 100 miles inside the country. DWB being a actionable offense.

    Where the hell are the X-Men when we need them the most?


    • TheBlackCat #

      I interpret this as a major source of the conflict at the end of the First Class movie. Both the USA and USSR try to use the mutants for their own ends. It is only when they realize that the mutants are not playing along, and instead are working towards their own objectives, that both sides try to destroy them.


  3. leo6 #

    It’s been a while since I watched an X-Men movie so maybe someone could tell me: Do the movies ever acknowledge the idea that people might be wary of mutants not necessarily because they’re xenophobic but maybe because they recognize the destructive potential a single mutant could unleash? For instance Nightcrawler almost assassinated the President with little effort and Charles Xavier was able to apparently stop time and appear before the same man before a press conference.


    • TheBlackCat #

      Yes, they made a big point of this. In fact the second scene in the first movie is a prolonged debate about this. The non-mutant portrayed as a villain in the movie wants all mutants to register so that any threat they may pose will be exposed. The non-mutant villain in the second movie is also largely motivated by this idea (or at least seems to have convinced himself he is).


  4. TheBlackCat #

    I never read the comics, but it is my understanding that much greater use of mutant powers commercially is present there than in the movies. There is even a country whose economy is based on using mutants for slave labor.


  5. Mishima #

    If the central premise of this article is that the X-Men story is too simplistic in its view of racism, then I have to strongly disagree on several grounds. First, your view of racism is itself limited. Racism’s history goes even further back than slavery, and to assume that all racism boils down to the economics of slavery is to assume that people have only been racist towards slaves or the descendants of former slaves. Michel Foucault does a good job of tracing the origins of racism to class struggles and discourses of war, used as a tool to divide conquered social groups brought together by war and preserve social class distinctions. And the point could be made that humans are rightly scared of mutant powers as they represent a kind of new biological class, an overturning of the social order, or a threat to the powers that be. But I think it goes even deeper than that. I think it touches on our natural fear of the “Other” (here used in the Lacanian sense). The fear comes from our projecting our own feared characteristics onto outsiders. So the justifications that humans use in segregating mutants can be themselves seen as reflecting our own deepest fears about ourselves. It explains why whatever the layers of justification or utility of racism (whether economic, political, or social) it always “looks” the same. It suggests that maybe there is some legitimate fear that is bound up with racism and that is also conveniently a good tool for those in power to use to divide society “in a binary mode.”

    Finally, because the X-Men comics make allusion to historical racial struggles, that does not mean they are simply about those particular historic moments. I don’t read X-Men as being “about” the Civil Rights movement, or about gay rights. I think they are more evocative of these things. They explore some of the ideas connected with the segregation of human beings, and the internal and external struggles that might exist in a world where super powered people exist. X-Men created a dialogue, or a fictional space where ideas of race might be explored. And all the literature that has come after it has been kind playing or creating in this same fictional space, and therefore speaks of these topics in the same way and on the same terms.

    I can certainly imagine scenarios where a natural fear of the unknown would provoke the kind of hatred that is directed towards mutants in the comic books. I think the comic books try to make a connection between that fear of the unknown and bigotry. And I think that is a valuable connection to be made, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story.


  6. Vietnam Visa for United Kingdom Vietnam visa for UK (Bristish) Citizens #

    Take the sky train to Ploenchit Station, get off and
    follow the signs to Wireless Road. But, please, don’t mistake me for the typically trigger-happy hothead, the kind who is really defending his gun, rather than any Principle; and who is automatically presumed, by the Brady Bill Bunch, to be necessarily rather than probably the very worst sort of creature, just because he “likes guns” in any way at all. Just as the same kind who typically, perennially call themselves “Christians” are the ones who murdered Christ, in the name of the authority of a Moses whom they would have also wanted to murder, had he been a contemporary, and thereafter no less lyingly and thievingly proceeded to appropriate His Name, the way they had done with Moses, due to the exploitably inescapable prominence bestowed upon it in the eyes of the world by the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11), while also of necessity correspondingly slandering the real people of God in the process (Isaiah 66:5); so, also, have these typically “tenured professors” of philosophy and religious studies, to my own equally and exclusively sordid experience, done the same thing with Socrates.


  7. Gab #

    Just to supplement the argument about exploitation of a specific group, it wasn’t until the settlers coming to the US realized that they couldn’t use Native Americans for that purpose that blacks were then shipped over from Africa. Or, well, ‘couldn’t’ isn’t the right word. It was more difficult because tribes were busy fighting each other- over slavery, ironically enough, because Native American tribes held each other as slaves, as well as Africans, once the latter were being brought over. Not every tribe, of course (I’m Sioux, I’m not pointing a white finger of hatred, here, or trying to say, “THEY DID IT TOOOO!”), but as has been pointed out, slavery was part of myriad human societies going back multiple millennia, and there isn’t a continent or culture that didn’t have it in some way- the Americas are no exception. Also, tribes were fighting both each other and settlers over the shrinking territory that the colonists were encroaching on as they expanded their settlements. And then, in the first half of the eighteenth century, a lot of tribes formed pacts and banded together to curtail Europeans from enslaving more Native Americans- they’d protect each other from Europeans, and it made capturing them even more difficult; they’d also, you know, not buy one another.

    There are some rather racist theories that say the main reason Native Americans weren’t used as slaves is that, essentially, they “couldn’t hack it,” as in they’d keel over in the fields faster than Africans. While I’m sure that had something to do with it, that’s a vast oversimplification with hints at the racist biology stuff you brought up in the article. There are also theories about how since Native Americans are, well, native, they were more likely to escape and survive escaping than Africans, and that Africans were less susceptible to some of the diseases colonials brought with them to the Americas. I’m sure that accounted for some of it, too. But I think the more prominent reason was, really, the geopolitical struggles going on between settlers and tribes and among tribes themselves- it was just plain easier to get Africans, because eventually Native Americans stopped selling one another to Europeans, and since they all knew what was going on, tribes would essentially be on guard, and with one another, to boot. This isn’t to say Africans were bad people writ large, or that they were always caught off-guard and didn’t put up a fight on their continent, but rather that I’d guess alliances among African tribes were less effective than were Native Americans, and I’m further guessing because the tribes in the Americas were in closer proximity on a regular basis to the colonists. I honestly don’t know as much about the African tribal alliances and such, or how the trading of other Africans really worked; and I’m sure there are more accurate reasons it was easier for Europeans to acquire Africans, but I’m more familiar with what made it difficult for them to acquire Native Americans, which isn’t the same thing (so please do inform me, someone, if you can give me a better idea).

    Of course, one distinction (and this is slightly pedantic, I realize) is that when Native Americans enslaved one another before European influence, it was as a result of victory (or loss, depending on whose perspective) in battle- they didn’t go raiding other tribes specifically for slaves the way Europeans did (sometimes) in Africa. They did, in a somewhat European fashion, though, buy each other from one another, and again, these sales were usually the result of some battle or another (or at least the people being sold were acquired at the end of a battle). But I guess my point is that Native American enslavement of Africans started as a result of the European market system being forced onto the tribes- no, it’s not okay that it happened, but they quite literally bought into the African slave trade as a means of adapting to the system in which they were entrapped by European settlers. Once the system relying on surplus goods was introduced, the Native Americans did less victory-acquisition and more business-transaction type stuff in getting slaves, and that meant getting humans they had never actually battled with as slaves. Sigh.

    So, basically, the first source of slavery, natives, proved too “costly” for settlers in the Americas, so the settlers started trickling Africans over after a while, and then they realized it’d be easier to just do that and give up (for the most part) on Native American as slaves, and turned the focus on Native Americans into one of conquering end elimination- Natives became more of a military target than an economic resource.

    ANYhoo. Great article. I read it today, the day after a bunch of Supreme Court decisions that speak to this were announced- really, I could go through and reply to specific people with specific ones. But, well, politics…


  8. Dimwit #

    The major force behind slavery was the Brits. They never went into Africa to capture slaves, they just “made a market” that used the tribal politics and fighting to make it more lucrative to sell your enemies than it was to kill them.
    Of course, once you have slaves, you need to use them. The colonies were perfect and they proceeded to make a market over here. Very lucrative and it worked so well logistically that any “native” slavery would be practically stillborn.
    Between that and the fact that the plains tribes were very nomadic so that meeting the same indian twice in a row would be difficult if they chose not to.
    When it’s all said and done though, I think that the point is moot. Indians that weren’t nomadic didn’t have it any easier than the ones that were and the slavery program was not an appropriate immigration programme either. You basically didn’t want the white man around anywhere you were. Contact sucked and you lost.
    I’m trying to think if anything has improved. I don’t have many good examples to go by, sadly.


    • Gab #

      Point of fact: The British did, indeed, have outposts for the Atlantic slave trade in Africa. Those outposts and such did make use of the selling of enemies you were talking about, though, so yeah, that’s probably what you meant. Not that pop culture is an entirely reliable source for fact-checking, but the film ‘Amazing Grace’ was about the Parliamentary debates to end the slave trade. For a more academic source, just read the first sentence in this paragraph:


      I hadn’t thought about the nomadic nature of some of the tribes before, and I’m sure you’re onto something about that being an additional variable that made enslaving Native Americans difficult. I’d be interested to see primary documents by colonials, baffling at the fact that they returned to the spot a Native American settlement had been previously, only to discover the Native Americans were… gasp… gone! Prolly a real hoot. Still, the territorial conflicts between tribes (that were, of course, encouraged by settlers) were over large areas of land that, if the colonists were willing to look hard enough around on, they’d be found- which makes the idea of some journal entry about missing savages even funnier. They were probably like two trees over (not literally, but you get the joke, I’m sure, heh).

      Also, for all my upset about how the tribes are still treated today (believe me, I could rant about that until the cows come home), I do know some tribes have it better than others. The Osage in Oklahoma, for example, are one of the few tribes with total control over any natural resources on their lands. But… I can’t really think of many more examples, either.


      • Dimwit #

        The Cree seem to have it better in the long run for some reason. If you hear about a band that is wealthy and in good shape it seems to be Cree based. Perhaps they got wise sooner and signed better treaties or just plain had better leadership. I don’t know.


    • leo6 #

      It’s important to note that even before significant European-African contact, slavery was generally a staple of African life because otherwise there weren’t enough people to get work done due to disease, drought, and famine. Europeans just started tapping into the already existing system and since many African civilizations initially benefited from this new arrangement, they found no reason to stop the slave trade.


  9. Baconthorpe #

    “Why would the government expend billions of dollars fighting the new powers on the planet – instead of recruiting them?”

    Why, indeed? Not one, but two X-Men films (X-2 and Wolverine: Origins) delve into the story of the Weapon X program – a military initiative that trains mutants for combat and deploys them in black ops missions. The fact that this doesn’t stand out to some viewers as clear government exploitation is a testament to how much some authors water down the Weapon X concept, using rogue-minded commanders to avoid coming off as the critique of the military establishment that the basic idea is.

    “Perhaps more importantly, how would corporations and private actors respond to the existence of super powers?”

    Here, the films do not come through with a strong concept. In X-3, pharmaceutical researchers develop a “cure” for mutanthood, but such a serum’s potential as a commercial product isn’t so fully explored as its potential as a weapon.

    When one looks to the comics, more examples of the economic X Gene emerge. In the story arc “The Man From Room X,” the criminal U-Men intend to harvest mutants’ unique organs (think Cyclops’ eyes) and sell them to a public currently fascinated by mutants. Earlier in X-Men history, the nation of Genosha enslaves mutants to exploit their exceptional labor potential. After said mutants are liberated, the country eventually becomes a separatist mutant nation, an interesting example of post-colonial efforts to reclaim identities born under oppression.


    • Jesse #

      Well said. The Weapon X Program and Genosha are the two biggest examples of mutant exploitation.


  10. Larry Lennhoff #

    I am reminded of a quote I saw from a Spanish priest who came to California in the early 1500s – We came here to serve God and also to get rich.” -Bernal Diaz del Castillo.


  11. Simply_Mahvelous_Dahling #

    The Marvel Universe mutant hate started in the 80’s with the AIDS crisis. But it has never made much sense. Mutants and mutant hate exist in the same world where governments all over the world are desperate to create super-powered soldiers like Captain America (or like the Hulk). Those who are not mutants (“normal humans”) and acquire superpowers via science have near rockstar fame and adoration of the public while those who are born with superpowers are reviled as monsters. It would make more sense if Marvel kept mutants and the Anti-Mutant League (Wolverine, Ororo, Magneto, Professor X, etc) in one world, in a separate universe from those with acquired powers (Captain America, Black Widow, Spider-Man, Hult etc) and their fan clubs.


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