Color & Control:

X-Men: An Allegory to Explore Belonging



Here’s a good article about the X-Men stories and their use as an allegory to explore differences in people and ultimately the need to belong.

About belonging: Thoughts on X2

By Max and Rus Cooper-Dowda

Mutants. Since the discovery of their existence, they have been regarded with fear, suspicion, and often hatred. Across the planet, debate rages: Are mutants the next link in the evolutionary chain . . . or simply a new species of humanity fighting for their share of the world? Either way, one fact has been historically proven: sharing the world has never been humanity’s defining attribute.

— Professor Charles Xavier, X2: X-Men United

The early 1960s X-Men comics series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was aimed at teens experiencing changes in their bodies and emotions that made them feel like the mutants in the stories. But it has become a series for anyone who wants to feel like they belong — including readers with disabilities.

X2: X-Men United, the movie, gives us powerful images of living with disability. Clear plastic wheelchairs, visors to shield one’s laser vision: adaptive equipment openly and casually used — no big deal. These mutants don’t just have mobility and vision impairments — their “gifts” include teleportation at will, ability to manipulate weather, skill at morphing into other people’s shapes.

The film says: Different is okay. People with those differences can support each other — and are stronger together when they do. Nobody with a mutation gets “fixed” — they’re not considered “broken.” In the movie we see families and communities having a hard time dealing with the perceived mutations of their members (usually due to lack of support and information) — just like we find in our own lives…

Are disabilities — “mutations” — a lack of something or really an addition of something else? That’s the real question X2 seems to be asking. “You wanted me to cure your son,” Professor Xavier says to the parent of a mutant child “But,” he explains to them, “mutation is not a disease.” Xavier, a wheelchair user himself, runs a boarding school for mutant young people, to teach them “to survive . . . to co-exist peacefully in a world that fears them.” Besides a good education, they learn about their unusual powers and how to use them responsibly.

Are the X-Men “disabled?”

The curriculum is both theoretical and practical. Teachers help newly discovered mutants come to terms with their powers. Just as we learn in physical therapy, the “disabled” students here learn how to best use their powers. Stretching exercises aren’t as far from teaching a boy to control the energy blasts from his eyes as you might think.

But are the X-Men “disabled”? What they have helps them, right? On the surface, maybe — but the mutants are persecuted for their powers. Prejudice and stereotypes about them run rampant. Nightcrawler is persecuted as a demon, based solely on how he looks — his three-fingered hands, two-toed feet, blue fur, yellow eyes and tail make others fear him, although in reality he’s the most centered and peaceful of all the X-Men, with a deep religious faith that helps to sustain the rest of the mutants in times of crisis. The mutants’ powers cause them problems as well — Cyclops’ laser eye beams can never be turned off. He uses a visor as adaptive equipment.

Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is far from the institution you might expect for children with disabilities. Students are not forced to attend; they can leave if they wish. In the “Danger Room,” they get to practice risky behavior under the supervision of trained staff, allowed to make major mistakes — and learn from them — before the consequences on the outside can harm them irreparably. It’s not a bad metaphor for how therapy can work if done well.

The school is a refuge from a world that distrusts them. But its goal is to have them go back into that world and make it a better place for other mutants. Would that our own not-so-special education were so well funded and run along the same lines! Though the trend these days is for mainstreaming disabled students, though “separate” usually means “inherently unequal,” we see the kids at Xavier’s school with the same sense of community that you can still see at schools for deaf students across the country. It is the same kind of community that was at work when the Gallaudet student body protested until it got its first Deaf president.

The need to belong has always been at the heart of the X-Men story. It is at the heart of the movie as well.

Should Professor Xavier be educating mutant kids away from their more “normal” peers? The answer, we think, has to do with the use of power. Power has been used to abuse the mutant children who need what Professor Xavier has to offer — a better, more humane educational experience. His school teaches the students how to use their powers with greater responsibility and ethics than they themselves have ever experienced. Does this make their own educational separation acceptable? If the end result is students sent out into the world with the tools they truly need? If those acquired skills then go toward making such segregation obsolete?.

The future is uncertain for X-Men with mutations, just as it is for those of us with disabilities. We mutants need to band together, says X2, pool our resources and never work alone if we can help it.

It’s a valuable message. We all have the potential to be mutants, to be disabled. Anyone can have the mutant pairings in their gene pool, become ill or have an accident at anytime. Or, as Professor Xavier puts it, “We’re not quite as alone as some of us might think.”


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