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Howard Journal of Communications

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X-Men Evolution: Mutational Identity and

Shifting Subjectivities
Jason Zingsheim
College of Arts and Sciences , Governors State University ,
University Park, Illinois, USA
Published online: 01 Aug 2011.

To cite this article: Jason Zingsheim (2011) X-Men Evolution: Mutational Identity
and Shifting Subjectivities, Howard Journal of Communications, 22:3, 223-239, DOI:

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10646175.2011.590408


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The Howard Journal of Communications, 22:223–239, 2011
Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1064-6175 print=1096-4649 online
DOI: 10.1080/10646175.2011.590408

X-Men Evolution: Mutational Identity

and Shifting Subjectivities

College of Arts and Sciences, Governors State University, University Park, Illinois, USA

Discourses of identity, as articulated through media culture, are

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contested and unstable sites of struggle. Individuals are hailed by

multiple subject positions with varying degrees of recognition,
misrecognition, rejection, and=or identification. From this process,
identity continually (re)emerges as individuals accept, reject, and
negotiate a variety of subjectivities. To enact a critical intervention
adept at tracing these shifting discourses the author uses mutational
identity to analyze the politics of representation within the X-Men
trilogy. A specific focus on the mutational concept of evolution
directs attention to the mobility and mutability of subject positions
across space and time. The analysis highlights the role of citizenship
and mobility in constructing recognizable, heroic subjects before
turning to trace the racialized and gendered trajectories available
as discursive resources for identity negotiation. The resulting
insights of this analysis detail the strategies used to perpetuate domi-
nant discourses of identity, offering a nuanced illumination of the
processes used to continually re-imagine Whiteness, patriarchy,
and heteronormativity. The conceptual flexibility offered by muta-
tional identity highlights the speed and scale at which subject
positions evolve to maintain hegemonic relations, while also illumi-
nating subjective ruptures and the nodes of resistance already exist-
ing in=through discursive formations.

KEYTERMS citizenship, evolution, mobility, mutational identity,


Address correspondence to Jason Zingsheim, College of Arts and Sciences, Governors State
University, One University Parkway, University Park, IL 60484. E-mail: jzingsheim@govst.edu

224 J. Zingsheim

In an interview, Stan Lee, creator of the X-Men, remarked that the appeal in
creating the X-Men as mutants was part novelty, ‘‘I’ve run out of gamma rays
and cosmic rays,’’ and part potentiality, ‘‘I can get these guys to have any
power I want . . . Nobody can argue with that!’’ (DeFalco, 2006, p. 8). In this
article, I use mutational identity (Zingsheim, 2011) to analyze the X-Men film
trilogy for the same reasons—novelty and potentiality. Mutational identity
provides a useful way of looking at mainstream identity discourses, building
upon existing poststructuralist identity theories. In terms of mediated repre-
sentations of identity, the X-Men trilogy is ripe with potentiality. Just as the
concept of mutation offered Lee the chance to give the characters whatever
power he wanted, it also offers infinite options for identities. This premise,
coupled with recent advances in filmmaking technology, creates a context
in which creating and representing individuals on screen is bound only by
the imagination. These films offer a provocative entrée into contemporary
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media culture, and consequently into the current landscape of discursive

possibilities for constructing the self.
In discussions of the X-Men franchise, it is commonplace to remark on
the allegorical power of the story to represent progressive struggles for race-
and sexuality-based civil rights. Compelling readings in this vein have been
offered in both academic and popular press venues (DeBrandt, 2005;
Newman, 2003; Roberts, 2005; Skir, 2005; Surkan, 2004; Trushell, 2004;
Wright, 2001). Others dismiss the importance of these civil rights perspec-
tives, claiming that instead of representing a discrete minority, the X-Men
represent—and appeal to—everyone (Casey, 2005; Watt-Evans, 2005) by
playing ‘‘to young people’s feeling of alienation’’ (DeFalco, 2006, p. 35).
Certainly many, if not all, teenagers (and adults for that matter) experience
alienation. Yet, this interpretation erases marginalized subject positions in
favor of a neoliberal homogenization claiming not only that every teenager
feels alienated, but that this alienation is equally weighted across disparate
identities and communities. Such rendering is problematic as it equates differ-
ential oppressions to ‘‘just a phase’’ everyone goes through. Both of these
approaches—X-Men as metaphor for marginalized groups and as metaphor
for everyone—tend to ignore the filmic choices made in representations of
identity. The focus is limited to what the mutant subjectivity might stand in
for, while ignoring the politics of representing other ‘‘non-fictional’’1 subject
positions on the screen.
A critical intervention is afforded through the analysis of the multiple and
shifting subject positions offered by the media as discursive resources from
which historical individuals (re)construct their own identities (Kellner,
1995). In other words, the ways identities are represented in media culture
reflect, refract, and inform society. Consequently, in the ensuing criticism, I
use mutational identity (Zingsheim, 2011) to track the stabilizing and chan-
ging discourses of identity through the trilogy. Particularly important to this
project is Sedgwick’s (1990) universalizing principle, which claims that
X-Men Evolution 225

discourses of oppression affect not only those who are directly marginalized
but also exert influence over privileged individuals. Hence, I pay particular
attention to dominant subject positions, such as racially White, gendered mas-
culine, and heterosexual. These locations do not escape analysis; still they
must not delimit the analysis either, for a sole focus on subjectivities privileged
in these ways would reinscribe the very domination I seek to subvert with this
project. These subject positions are often discursively constructed and defined
in opposition to (and thus are always hinged to) marginalized subjectivities
(Carrillo Rowe & Malhotra, 2007). Any interrogation of Whiteness, heteronor-
mativity, and=or masculinity must also attend to the intersections, collisions,
and disjunctures with representations of marginalized racial locations, queer-
ness, and femininity. Further complicating these discussions, from a muta-
tional identity perspective, are the myriad other subjectivities (privileged
and oppressed) that may be called upon to join a particular identity at any
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given moment. While the primary concern is with the mutational trajectories
of race, gender, and sexuality, there are confluences where it becomes impor-
tant to trace the path of attendant subjectivities, such as class or nationality, in
order to understand the kinetic articulations of discourses of identity.
I begin with a discussion of the relationships between media representa-
tions and identity. This is followed by a brief overview of mutational identity,
specifically focused on the evolutionary and processual nature of subjectiv-
ities and identities. The analysis interrogates the representations of the trilogy
elucidating the role of citizenship and mobility in constructing recognizable
subjects before turning to trace the racialized and gendered trajectories avail-
able as discursive resources for identity negotiation. Through this analysis, I
demonstrate how the X-Men, which has been praised over the decades as a
‘‘progressive’’ text supporting equal rights, capitalizes on shifting identity dis-
courses to reconstruct White masculinity as the superior subject position. It
does so through the promise of citizenship, the freedom of mobility, the
threat of uncontainable femininity, and an underlying yet pervasive reliance
on racist stereotypes.


In today’s hyperreal world, media is no longer ‘‘an accompaniment to life’’

but has morphed into ‘‘a central experience of life’’ (Gitlin, 2002, p. 17). In
other words, ‘‘images, sounds, and spectacles help produce the fabric of
everyday life’’ constituting what Kellner termed our ‘‘media culture’’ (1995,
p. 1). It is a culture intimately tied to the (re)construction of subjectivities
and identities. Identity negotiation, while largely influenced by media
culture, is not overdetermined by it. The polyvocal and polysemic nature
of media constructs it as a site of struggle for identity negotiation, one ripe
with potential for resistance against dominant ideological formations.
226 J. Zingsheim

Media has come to occupy the preeminent location in today’s society,

‘‘dominating leisure time, shaping political views and social behavior, and
providing the materials out of which people forge their very identities’’
(Kellner, 1995, p. 1). Grossberg, Wartella, Whitney, and Wise (2006) have
gone so far as to claim, ‘‘there can be little doubt that the strength of the
traditional sources of identity—religion, family, and work—has declined in
proportion to the growing power of the mass media’’ (p. 220). The growing
influence in identity (re)construction is achieved through the media’s
representation of subject positions. As de Lauretis (1987) reminded us in
speaking of gender, its representation is its construction (p. 3). Specifically,
the construction of subjectivities ‘‘is both the product and the process of its
representation’’ (p. 5). Mediated representation arguably offers the most
potent modes of creating, legitimating, and disseminating subjectivities.
Subjectivities are ‘‘the vectors that shape our relation to ourselves’’
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(Rabinow & Rose, 2003, p. xx), the positions recognized as intelligible and
offered as discursively possible within the current conjuncture. Alternately,
identity denotes our relation to ourselves. Identity is where our sense of self
is continually (re)constructed among, over, and through various (and
variously shifting) subjectivities. These subject positions ‘‘are culturally con-
structed and can be understood only relationally. Consequently, they are
always in process and incomplete’’ (Grossberg et al., 2006, p. 234). Rather
than resulting in a singularly homogenous subject, this process of interpel-
lation hails one into ever-changing and ever-multiplying subject positions.
Subjects are ‘‘constantly being formed, never coming wholly to fruition’’
(Mankekar, 1999, p. 17). In this way, ‘‘not only are texts polysemic, but sub-
jectivities are multifarious as well’’ (p. 17). The subject positions offered by
media, and the meanings of these positions, are unstable (Kellner, 1995;
Mankekar, 1999). ‘‘Rather than constructing something like a subject, or inter-
pellating individuals to identify themselves as subjects, media culture tends to
construct identities and subject positions, inviting individuals to identify with
very specific figures, images, or positions’’ (Kellner, 1995, p. 259). These are
offered as archetypes on which personal identities should modeled (p. 247).
Yet these subject positions are ‘‘frequently contested by viewers who are
historical subjects living in particular discursive formations rather than posi-
tioned by a single text’’ (Mankekar, 1999, p. 8). Thus, individuals are hailed
by multiple subject positions with varying degrees of recognition, misrecog-
nition, rejection, and=or identification. It is from this complicated, contextual
process that identity (re)emerges as historical individuals accept, reject, and=
or negotiate a wide variety of subjectivities with which to identify.
Complicating matters, these subject positions are not static, stable enti-
ties. They are always already in process and produced in and through that
process. As a result, ‘‘ ‘subject positions’ of media culture are highly specific,
contradictory, fragile, and subject to rapid reconstruction and transform-
ation’’ (Kellner, 1995, p. 240). Representations do not function to re-present
X-Men Evolution 227

authentic complete individuals. Analyzing representations in order to

determine accuracy or distortion is misguided because there is no original
against which to make assessments. Instead, representation is about shifting
subjectivities that are constructed as tenable and taken up in and through the
practices of representation (Grossberg et al., 2006, p. 235).
Based on this conceptualization, Kellner (1995) posited ‘‘identity today
thus becomes a freely chosen game, a theatrical presentation of the self, in
which one is able to present oneself in a variety of roles, images, and activi-
ties, relatively unconcerned about shifts, transformations, and dramatic
changes’’ (pp. 246–247). This overly positive characterization of identity
draws our attention to two important points. The first issue concerns the role
of the audience in relation to the media. Although the media are ‘‘potent
creators’’ of subject positions, viewers are not passive recipients of these con-
structions of subjectivities (Kellner & Durham, 2001, p. 25). Viewers take
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active and creative roles in their readings of texts and their adoption, inter-
nalization, rejection, and resistance of the subject positions offered therein
(Fiske, 1996; Hall, 2001; Livingstone, 2006).
The second issue concerns the limitations or boundaries of such agency.
Kellner’s (1995) description neglects the material and symbolic constraints
faced by historical concrete individuals. Media culture is ‘‘a site of struggle
between dominant discourses and forces of resistance: popular culture con-
tains ‘points of resistance’ as well as ‘moments of supersession’’’ (Mankekar,
1999, p. 29). Still, this struggle is not evenly matched, nor evenly fought.
There are many who are not hailed by the symbolic resources and subject
positions that are represented in media. While all are hailed and disciplined
by subject positions, certain people are disciplined disproportionately and
inequitably. For example, the primary racial subject of television and film dis-
course is White (Dyer, 1997; Harwood & Anderson, 2002; Muñoz, 1998). For
those who are not hailed as White subjects, the available symbolic resources
and subjectivities are significantly limited and limiting (Hall, 2003). Non-
dominant subject positions are further marginalized through their absences
on the media screens of today’s world, ‘‘and being left off of the media’s cen-
ter stage is a form of symbolic annihilation’’ (Gross, 2001a, p. 117). As we are
all differently privileged and marginalized, the paucity of historically margin-
alized subject positions represented in the media culture harms each of us.
On the other hand, the limitations of our discursive resources negatively
affect even those whose identities are predominantly based on privileged
subjectivities (Gross, 2001b; Segrest, 2002).
My point here is not to argue that we simply need to develop more
accurate representations of marginalized subjects as if they were singularly
homogenous subject positions. As numerous studies have demonstrated,
increased visibility does not necessarily indicate positive or diverse portrayals
of subject positions (Dow, 2001; Gross, 2001b). Instead, the critical objective
is to further acknowledge and expand the range of possible meanings of
228 J. Zingsheim

subject positions, and thus identities, as well as admit to the ever-present

potential of those meanings to become something else. Mankekar (1999)
reminded us that the subject positions offered by media, and the meanings
of these positions, are unstable. This shifting instability offers a tactical place
for the critical imagination to intervene.


To enact this intervention, I rely on mutational identity (Zingsheim, 2011).

This poststructuralist approach to identity builds upon the traditions of ident-
ity as intersectional (Crenshaw, 1991), crystallized (Tracy & Trethewey,
2005), and assemblage (Puar, 2005). A mutational approach extends existing
identity theories to account for the overlapping (and contradictory) needs for
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multiplicity, coherence, movement, and temporality as features of identity.

While developed in detail elsewhere (Zingsheim, 2011), the key components
of mutational identity are evolution, multiplicity, embodiment, and agency.
This four-part framework directs the critic’s attention to identity as in process,
various and variable, tied to material bodies, and a site of struggle. Each of
these concepts offers the theoretical and discursive flexibility needed for a
pragmatic analysis of mediated identity; however, for this article I use the
conceptual tool of evolution to guide the critique.
Based on evolution, mutational identity suggests the invocation of ident-
ity is always already one of movement, development, and process. To char-
acterize mutational identity as evolutionary is not to imply that it is always
moving forward or is tied to biological essentialism, in some Darwinian
model. Mutation does not necessarily move in positive, beneficial, or even
new directions, but movement is nevertheless constant. The subjectivities
that hail us, and the identities we construct through them, are constantly
evolving. This evolution varies in both speed and scale, sometimes slowly
shifting undetected moment by moment in miniscule ways and at other times
being radically reconfigured in a split-second. As a result of these move-
ments, identity is constructed through différance (Derrida, 1982). As we
are continually hailed and interpellated by subjectivities, the meaning of
one’s identity at any given point in time or space is undetermined as one
waits in anticipation of future hailings. At the same time, our sense of self
is partially based on differences and exclusions from certain subject positions
that refuse to hail us. Consequently, any identity is tenuously occupied while
its meaning is continually deferred. It is to these kinetic processes we turn
our attention as we trace the shifting subjectivities over time and space
and elucidate their implications for the construction of tenable, though tem-
porary, identities. In this manner, mutational identity is concerned with pot-
entiality and futurity, to that which does not currently exist in present things
but is nevertheless present—to what may come (Muñoz, 2006, p. 11).
X-Men Evolution 229

Before moving into the analysis, it is important to clarify the relationship

between mutational identity and the mutant characters of the text. As a theor-
etical concept, it can be productively applied to a wide range of texts or beha-
vior to direct observation, organize experience, and enable a useful response
(Deetz, 1992). Mutational identity is not about the analysis of fictional mutants.
As mentioned earlier, the emphasis is not on the mutant quality of these char-
acters, but rather on the subject positions (re)constructed in media culture and
the resulting possibilities for identity. Given the narrative premise of mutants,
these films are hypothetically freed from the shackles of realism in terms of
constructing subjects. It is instructive to analyze what are ostensibly the
boundaries of representation in order to discover the limits of intelligibility.


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Any analysis of identity is a slippery endeavor. The object of analysis is

constantly shifting and morphing, so that once you get a grasp on it, it’s
no longer there. Accordingly, mutational identity directs attention to the
movements across time and space. It ‘‘has the power to address the move-
ment of flows, forces, and energies within identities, and to trace the lines
of flight and trajectories of the self’’ (Zingsheim, 2011, p. 29). One of the most
prevalent trajectories in terms of identity representation in the X-Men trilogy
(Ratner, 2006; Singer, 2000, 2003) is seen in the selection and transformation
of characters from the comic book universe for the screen. This process sug-
gests a clear positioning of American identity as the naturalized center for a
universal subject with limitless mobility. The films also demonstrate shifts in
the representations and meanings of racial and gendered subjectivities. This
evolution reinscribes a complex and shifting matrix of hierarchal relation-
ships. Subjectivities and identities evolve and morph not only from the comic
book to the screen but also over the span of the trilogy. At the eye of this
storm remains the normative, mobile, White, male, heterosexual citizen.
Along the edges, identities composed of racially marginalized and feminine
subjectivities are doomed to stagnation or death. In what follows I track
the path of this storm over the territory of citizenship and mobility and along
racial and gendered trajectories.

Citizenship and Mobility

The original X-Men team of the comic books consisted of five teenagers:
Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Angel, and Beast, who attended Professor
Charles Xavier’s (Professor X) school for the gifted. When the comic book
was relaunched in the 1970s, a new squad was created introducing an inter-
national dimension to the established form of the superhero team. The new
group included Wolverine from Canada; the Russian, Colossus; Storm from
230 J. Zingsheim

Kenya; Nightcrawler, who hailed from Germany; Japanese Sunfire; the Irish
Banshee, and Thunderbird of the Apache tribe. Choosing which characters to
include in the films is overwhelming as the X-Men universe has grown to
include hundreds of mutants. Rather than speculate on the rationale for
making these choices, particularly which characters to omit, it is interesting
to note the transformations that accompanied characters who advanced from
the comic book pages to the screen.
In the films, the main team of X-Men under Professor X’s leadership
begins with only Cyclops, Jean, and Storm. While Jean and Cyclops have
grown up, Iceman is still a teenager at the school, though not a full member
of the team until the final installment. Angel and Beast make appearances as
supporting characters in the third film. The original five X-Men, who are all
American, are included to some degree in the trilogy. Of the international
team, Storm plays the largest role in the films as a permanent adult member
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of the X-Men; however, there is a significant shift in her identity. In the films,
she is presumably transformed into an African American woman, no longer
suggesting any Kenyan nationality. She is represented as having no history
outside of the school. In The Last Stand, she tells the professor that they can’t
stay students forever (Ratner, 2006). He responds by claiming he hasn’t
thought of Storm as a student for years. This implies that within the filmic
universe she was a student of his instead of an African ‘‘goddess’’ in Kenya
recruited as a grown woman as the comic book details. Colossus is intro-
duced at a younger age and rises from student to team member through
the trilogy. He, too, has lost any connection to his Russian history, appearing
and sounding as a native U.S. citizen. Wolverine treks across the Canadian
and U.S. border without any obstacles before working with the X-Men. In
a spin-off film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, his citizenship is clarified as
Canadian, though he continually fights as an agent of the U.S. military. In
the trilogy, he displays no clear signs of Canadian cultural affiliations.
Australian actor Hugh Jackman plays the character, so Wolverine’s use of a
standard American dialect, instead of a Canadian dialect, is not accidental.
Avoiding the connotations of Canadians as nice or polite, this linguistic choice
locates Wolverine within the U.S. tradition of aggressive, violent, patriotic,
White masculinity. The Americanization of these three characters gestures
toward the nativist and xenophobic attitudes that have increasingly gripped
the post-9=11 U.S. society. Talk of securing our borders and homeland security
pervaded social discourse as the country engaged in the War on Terror under
President Bush’s foreign policy of ‘‘you’re either with us or against us’’ (Cable
News Network, 2001, Nov. 6). Within this cultural moment, it becomes
increasingly important to be American in order to be heroic. Although this tra-
jectory may be explained through the U.S.-based organizations that produced
the films, the implications of this construction are not bound by national
borders. The films were released worldwide, often within a matter of days,
and have collectively earned over one billion U.S. dollars globally.
X-Men Evolution 231

To effect this Americanization, the character of Storm is ripped from her

African roots and assimilated into American society as she dutifully serves
Professor X, watching over his students. This is a symbolic reenactment and
compression of the history of slavery sacrificing the tribal power and willful
nature of Storm’s comic book character while subtly reinforcing the power
and supremacy of Whiteness and masculinity. Whiteness is also expanded
to include eastern European ethnicities when Colossus’s Russian ancestry is
occluded and he is transformed into just another all-American White boy.
The only character on the side of the heroes who is not coded as American
is Nightcrawler who retains his blue skin tone, prehensile tale, three
fingers=toes, spirituality, and his German citizenship and accent. This charac-
ter appears only in the second film, X2, functioning as an accessory to the
X-Men team (Singer, 2003). During his brief engagement with the X-Men,
he does not enjoy the same mobility as his fellow characters. This is especially
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peculiar given the nature of his mutant power. As a teleporter, one would
assume him to be incredibly adept at transversing borders and boundaries
without detection. Instead, he is repeatedly trapped and used by others.
Nightcrawler was captured by Styker and programmed to attack the president.
Professor X then tracks him to Boston where he is quickly apprehended by
Storm and Jean. He is even unable to eavesdrop on a campfire conversation
without Magneto noticing him. The remainder of his time on screen is used to
explicitly move others to safer spaces, including Rogue, Professor X, and a
number of children. While he is constructed as one of the good guys, as a
non-White foreigner his movement is carefully monitored. Furthermore, he
is allowed to exist only insofar as he is useful to the true (American) heroes,
and then he is summarily discarded before the next installment.
While not a hero, Magneto also retains connections to his foreign roots,
though his character is carried closer to the heart of American Whiteness.
Magneto is a Holocaust survivor who is introduced in a Polish concentration
camp during World War II. These experiences are offered as rationale for his
conviction that mutantkind must be protected from the atrocities humans will
commit against those who are different. Curiously, apart from his explicit
statements or holocaust tattoo, his Eastern European Jewish culture is not
included in his expression of self. In X-Men, he reminisces about the hope
he felt in coming to the United States in 1949 (Singer, 2000). Presumably,
he was later naturalized as a U.S. citizen. This naturalization process success-
fully erased any outward traces of his ancestry. He speaks with the classically
trained British voice of Sir Ian McKellen with no hint of Polish as a first lan-
guage. Magneto, as a White Jewish European male, symbolizes the traditional
immigrant story of pursuing and obtaining legal U.S. citizenship. As a natur-
alized, and not native-born citizen, he also represents a threat to the country
by signifying its mutable quality. For the majority of the trilogy Magneto is
either a fugitive or a federal prisoner. This construction demonstrates the cul-
tural currency and hierarchy within citizenship. While naturalized citizens
232 J. Zingsheim

may be deemed dangerous, they are still afforded increased mobility when
compared to foreigners. Even Magneto—a (White) villain, an enemy of the
state, and an escapee from a federal prison—remains a naturalized U.S.
citizen with largely unfettered mobility across North America whereas the
good guy—but non-White foreigner—Nightcrawler is subject to surveillance
at his every move.

Racial and Gendered Trajectories

A significant evolution in the representation of identity can be seen along the
racial and gendered representations across the films. As the trilogy pro-
gresses, the films increase inclusion of female and racially marginalized char-
acters. Unfortunately, this shift is far from neutral as it performatively
reinscribes the illusory purity of Whiteness by locating evil in the bodies of
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racialized Others (Warren, 2003). The association of Whiteness with good

and heroic in conjunction with using racialized Others as evil is illustrated
in the progress and development of the two main teams of mutants
(Professor X’s X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants). In conjunction
with this progression of racial representations, masculinity as a subject
position is demonstrated as flexible, upwardly mobile, and progressive while
non-male subjectivities are offered as largely static and subservient. As
demonstrated in the following examples, these various racial and gendered
subject positions evolve in multiple and disparate directions, yet the move-
ments continually shift in ways that recenter the White male subject as
universally normative, morally good, and highly desirable.
In the first film, the only significant character who signifies as a racially
marginalized subject is Storm, who reads as an African American woman. In
X2: X-Men United, Lady Deathstrike appears as an Asian American hench-
woman under the control of William Stryker (Singer, 2003). Through both
of these first two films other racially marginalized subjects function as the
backdrop against which the primarily White characters are highlighted
(Merritt, 2000). They appear as security and prison guards who exist so that
the predominantly White mutants have a reason to use their powers. Lady
Deathstrike also functions in this way as she battles Cyclops and Wolverine.
Her only line in the entire film is directed at Mystique while she impersonates
a Latino janitor. At no point does she speak with White subjects, but at all
times retains the silence and dutiful obedience required to performatively
(re)construct the model minority myth and stereotypical submissive Asian
In the final film, there is a noteworthy increase in the number of signifi-
cant mutant characters, largely divided along racial lines (Ratner, 2006).
While this influx does increase the screen time devoted to characters of color,
it does not challenge the supremacy of Whiteness. To the side of the X-Men,
Colossus, Angel, Kitty Pryde, and Beast were added or received increased
X-Men Evolution 233

significance. Each of these characters is White or, in the case of Beast, is

played by a White actor. The Brotherhood saw the addition of White males
Juggernaut and Multiple Man, as well as a number of racially marginalized
mutants. While none of the new X-Men were other than White, Callisto
and Arclight are constructed as and played by Latinas; Psylocke reads as
Asian American and is played by an actress of Filipino, Chinese, French,
and Native American descent; and Quill is an Asian American male. A
number of other nameless mutants of color are visually included in the
Brotherhood during scenes depicting masses of mutants rallying in the forest
and attacking Alcatraz. The Brotherhood eventually fails in the war against
the humans because the increasingly White X-Men fight on the side of the
humans. Again, we see that in the casting decisions, the winners and heroes
are constructed as largely White while the ranks of the villains are con-
structed as predominantly racially marginalized. As the representation of
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racial subjectivities evolves across the trilogy, despite increased visibility

and multiplicity of racial subject positions, this specific trajectory functions
to maintain the ideology of Whiteness by securing White as the morally
defensible and successful position.
This evolution of racial subjectivities is also implicated in and enabled
by gendered representations. Not only is Whiteness offered as a powerful,
universal, and ultimately good subject position, but even within the ‘‘evil’’
Brotherhood White masculinity is (re)constructed as hierarchically superior
to men and women of color. Callisto, Arclight, Quill, and Pyslocke are
recruited to join the Brotherhood along with a horde of other mutants at a
community organizing meeting in an abandoned church. When Callisto
offers an example of her powers, Magento asks if she can locate Mystique
for him (she had been arrested and kept in a mobile prison). Callisto is
engaged with insofar as she is immediately useful to Magneto. No comment
is made about the power, value, or worth of the other new recruits. When he
rescues Mystique, only White male Pyro accompanies Magneto into the
prison trailer. Callisto, Quill, and Arclight are depicted for a brief moment
outside standing guard and then excluded from the remainder of the scene.
Inside, Magneto and Pyro release and meet Multiple Man and Juggernaut—
both White men. Magneto remarks on their talents and suggests they would
each make a fine addition to his growing army. Mystique is then shot with the
cure and loses her mutant status, revealing a White female underneath the
blue shape-shifting mutation. Magneto quickly and easily dismisses her,
essentially trading in one blue (White) female mutant for two White male
mutants. Shortly thereafter Magneto is strategizing with Pyro, Multiple Man,
and Juggernaut. Although they are the newest recruits, Multiple Man and
Juggernaut have quickly risen in the ranks of Magneto’s army becoming
members of his inner circle of advisors. Callisto, Arclight, Pyslocke, and Quill
remain excluded from this circle and enter the scene only to report news.
Before the end of the movie, these four mutants of color are killed on screen.
234 J. Zingsheim

Pyro and Juggernaut are both knocked unconscious but not killed, leaving
open the possibility of living through the battle. Multiple Man is kept safely
out of harm’s way as a decoy. In the final scene of the trilogy, we see that
Magneto, the most powerful of the White males in the Brotherhood lives.
In short, even within the side of the bad guys, White masculinity is the safest
(and thus preferred) confluence of subject positions.
The privileging of males and masculinity, particularly in conjunction with
Whiteness, is also evident in the trajectory of White female Jean Grey along
the three movie arc. She is initially shown as hesitant to use her powers
and unable to do so safely. She is chastised by Professor X for losing control
in the Senate hearing and by Cyclops for using Cerebro in X-Men (Singer,
2000). In the second film, her powers are rapidly expanding and she struggles
to keep them in control. The film ends with her rescuing the X-Men from
impending doom as a dam collapses; however, she seems to sacrifice herself
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in the process. This ‘‘sacrifice’’ sets up the story for Jean Grey to become the
Phoenix as she rises from an assumed death in the third film, where we learn
that her mutation is seated in her unconscious making her extremely powerful
and the only known Class 5 mutant. Yet she is unable to control this power.
Professor X had used mental blocks to prevent her from accessing much of
her power, leading to a split personality between Jean and Phoenix. Jean is
restraint, control, and obedience whereas Phoenix is all rage, lust, and desire.
This split mirrors, and reconstructs, the binary virgin-whore archetype.
Over the years, the creators of the X-Men comic books have attempted
to include strong female characters (Cooper, 2005; Marx, 2005). Yet these
attempts are still subjected to discourses of patriarchy that require the disci-
plining of femininity. Throughout the film trilogy, Jean evolves from a meek
and hesitant woman with marginal powers of telekinesis and telepathy into
the most powerful mutant on the face of the planet. Yet during this evolution
she is consistently subjected to the supervision and domination of White
males. As the naı̈ve Jean, Cyclops protects her, while Professor X mentally
cages the desire of Phoenix. After the rise of Phoenix, she joins Magneto’s
Brotherhood and follows his leadership. For the brief moment she is not
under any White man’s control, she returns to her childhood home and sits
alone in the corner. In the end, despite the enormity of her power she lacks
the ability to control it—becoming a danger to herself and to others—and
ultimately submits to the paragon of White masculinity, Wolverine, as she
repeatedly asks him to kill her. The narrative offers Jean space to explore
and advance in her powers. Rather than suggesting the empowerment of
femininities, this exploration demonstrates the risk of unsupervised sexual
feminine subjects. Ultimately, these experiences work to discipline femininity
as something that must be controlled by paternal White masculinity in order
to survive. Through the narrative arc of Jean’s character, we discover the
most powerful mutant in the trilogy has remarkably little agency. Despite
these negative implications for femininity, the evolution of Jean’s (White)
X-Men Evolution 235

femininity simultaneously works to shore up White privilege when compared

with the relative lack of movement in the character of Storm.
In order to sign on for the third film, Halle Berry reportedly wanted her
character of Storm to play a larger role in the film (Brown & Rich, 2003). While
creating increased screen time for characters is difficult in ensemble films, the
third installment enhanced visibility for Storm; however, I would suggest that
her significance remains incredibly stunted. Throughout the trilogy she pro-
vides fog cover for the team (at Liberty Island and Alcatraz) and cares for the
children. She does engage in minor combat with supporting characters, like
Toad or Callisto, but never with the primary villains. In X-Men, as Professor
X is explaining the school to Wolverine, he remarks that Storm, Jean, and
Cyclops were some of his first students (Singer, 2000). As this dialogue occurs,
we see Jean and Cyclops (the heterosexual couple) working together to
develop their powers, but we see Storm in a classroom teaching. She is shown
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momentarily and then her voice remains in the background while the camera
cuts to the White males Pyro and Iceman displaying their powers for and flirting
with White female Rogue. Storm is essentially asexual, expressing no romantic
desire or longing, yet she provides the background soundtrack to which young
White love emerges. In the second film, once the X-Men infiltrate Stryker’s
base, it is Storm who expresses concern for the kidnapped children and leads
the way to rescue them. In The Last Stand, Professor X remarks that she might
someday take over for him by running the school (Ratner, 2006). Eventually,
she does run the school, however not until all of the other members of the orig-
inal X-Men team are dispensed with. Jean loses control to the Phoenix, killing
the Professor and Cyclops in the process. Beast, who is the Secretary of Mutant
Affairs, suggests that perhaps the school should end with Professor X’s death.
Storm does not challenge this suggestion, despite the Professor’s earlier
remarks about his wishes for her to take his place. When Iceman protests that
most of the students have nowhere else to go, she still remains silent. Angel, a
young White male, arrives at the school claiming he heard it was a safe place for
mutants. Beast begins to turn him away, and it is then that Storm speaks up and
takes on the leadership of the school and the guardianship of the (predomi-
nantly White) children. The final scene of the trilogy shows her welcoming a
flood of student mutants to school. Over the entirety of the trilogy, Storm does
not significantly develop as a character and her identity remains overly simplis-
tic and static. Her mutant power of controlling weather is not expanded or
explored; it positions her as tied to nature invoking primitive, uncivilized
connotations commonly used in colonialist discourse. Similarly, she exists in
isolation, cut off from any romance, family, history, or larger African American
community or culture. She ends the trilogy essentially in the same position she
began it, as an asexual, isolated, maternal caregiver. Her identity is performed
in service to White males and caretaking White children—evoking a history of
Black women specifically (and working-class women of color generally) forced
into caring for privileged children of White masters.
236 J. Zingsheim


From its inception, over a number of reboots, makeovers, and spinoffs, and
recently in the transition to film, the X-Men franchise has offered enormous
potential for innovative representations of identity within our media culture.
Franchise characters are informed by science fiction and fantasy, theoretically
bound by only the human imagination; yet this analysis demonstrates just
how limited that imagination can be. While the promise of mutation led to
a vast array of superpowers, it has left hierarchical gendered and racial sub-
jectivities largely, and inequitably, intact. Analyzed through the lens of ident-
ity representation, Jean Grey may be the most powerful mutant ever created,
but she still lacks the power of equality. When it comes to the invention and
evolution of subjects, even fictional ones, existing hegemonic discourses of
identity function to shore up and defend the existing bounds of intelligibility.
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With an eye towards the evolution of identities and subjectivities, the

multiple and mobile ways through which these normative subjects are
(re)constructed become apparent. Through these racialized representations,
Whiteness is not merely framed on the pure and heroic side of a moral
binary, but its subject position is granted unquestioned citizenship, afforded
depth, motion, and nuanced incarnations. Racially marginalized subjectivities
are represented as static and stationary, foreign, isolated from larger com-
munities, and predominantly aligned with evil. Concurrently, within the post
9=11 context, issues of nationhood and disparate forms of citizenship receive
increased attention as significant heroes morph to become natural-born citi-
zens with unfettered mobility and even foreign-born heroes are subjected to
heightened levels of surveillance. In the end, White male citizens are most
likely to live to fight another day, disciplined White women assist them,
and the token Black woman watches over the White children. The oppress-
ive racial Black=White binary of America is reconstructed as other racial and
national subjectivities are coded as perpetual foreigners and dispensed with
(Latino=a and Asian mutants are killed, and German-accented Nightcrawler
vanishes). These rhetorical strategies ultimately work to reinscribe the limit-
ing discursive resources we have for constructing our own racial, gendered,
and national subjectivities.
Throughout its history, the X-Men franchise has been read as metaphori-
cally representing a progressive call for equal rights. However, a mutational
identity analysis demonstrates its literal representations evolve in ways diame-
trically opposed to this supposed call for equality and wholly in line with
contemporary racial and gender inequities. Mutational identity assists in high-
lighting the stabilizing and shifting of identity discourses. This approach fol-
lows the fluid lines of flight taken by identity and its representations. The
resulting insights detail the rhetorical strategies used to perpetuate dominant
discourses, offering a nuanced illumination of the processes used to continually
X-Men Evolution 237

re-imagine Whiteness, patriarchy, and heteronormativity in intersectional and

hegemonic configurations. While the text’s ultimately normative complicity is
anticipated (the films are Hollywood blockbusters), the rhetorical enactment
of this complicity warrants the type of interrogation afforded by theories as
mutable and adaptable as the discourses they seek to challenge. Mutational
identity is useful in understanding the shifting matrix of discourses-in-practice
(Holstein & Gubrium, 2000) and thus offers a view of the nodes of resistance
already existing in=through discursive formations. These nodes are ruptures-
to-be, potentialities awaiting subjects to become their effect and articulation
by inhabiting their space at the edges of intelligibility (Biesecker, 1992). As
subjectivities and identities (mutant and otherwise) perpetually shift, we must
continue asking, ‘‘How else might we occupy those spaces?’’
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1. I refer here to subjectivities that exist in dominant discourse as pertaining to real historical
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cate that from a poststructuralist perspective, many categories of subjectivity are fictional, though not
inconsequential. For example, Martin and Nakayama (2006) claimed race is ‘‘a fiction, but it is real’’ (p. 76).


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