I’ll be up-front: I love superpowers. Sometimes I peruse this article just for funsies. There’s a few shows out there I watched that didn’t have any element of the supernatural or paranormal (Dawson’s Creek always comes to mind), but my very favorites tend to revolve around the superly powered, from Buffy and Charmed to today’s Teen Wolf. I trace my love of these types to early exposure to the world of The X-Men, the original superpowered team, who continue to hold a special place in my heart. Follow me after the jump as I look at some of the intersections of gender and superpowers in the comics of the X-Folk.
In Marvel Comics, men and women are equally likely to have mutations causing paranormal abilities. Throughout the years, have powers been inclined to support or play into gendered stereotypes? Mostly yes, with a slow crawl toward no. The biggest and clearest divide is that powers related to strength and physicality were long the domain of male heroes. After all, we wouldn’t want a maiden to muss her petticoats by engaging in some fisticuffs! The original X-crew, debuting in all their glory in 1963, was a perfect imagining of this.
Angel and Beast had mutations that were purely anatomical, expanding or adding on to physical capabilities of the human male. Iceman and Cyclops were both extensively powerful, though more in terms of energy than sheer physical strength. Both of their bodies had direct physical manifestations, however—Cyclops’s eyes were permanently altered and Iceman’s entire body was obscured when his powers were in full use. Marvel Girl’s power, however, left her pristine female form perfectly intact; there was nothing to impede the male gaze from admiring her body. As Phoenix, Jean Grey later became one of the most formidable characters in the whole Marvel universe, but when she first appeared, her
sole power was telekinesis—a somewhat weak telekinesis at that—a gift that let her move objects without lifting a hand (or breaking a nail).
I think it’s worthwhile to note the case of where Charles Xavier fit in this schema. His ability was purely mental, in contrast to the pure physicality of Beast and Angel, and it lacked the ability to influence the physical world in ways that Cyclops, Iceman, and even Jean could do. There is a certain ableist overtone to Xavier’s power—the idea that his inability to walk renders his whole body useless, so therefore his power must be mental in nature. I would argue in fact, that his whole characterization could be seen as that of a “defective” male; his disability distanced him from the ideal of an athletically perfect “intact” male body, and even his baldness could be seen as a failure of virility. Nevertheless, his telepathy gave him the patriarchal prerogative of invasive knowledge and dominance that could all too easily threaten individual privacy and autonomy.
The influx of the international cast of X-folk during the mid 1970s showed that not all mutants were white Americans, but in many ways continued some of the earlier stereotypes. Men were given powers of physical strength, for instance Thunderbird and Colossus, or powerful energy blasters, like Sunfire. Like Iceman, Colossus’s power literally covered up his body (not that his uniform left much to the imagination) and Nightcrawler’s anatomy deviated greatly from the normative, even more so than Angel or Beast’s (pre-Archangel and blue fur days, respectively). Since the male body is not the object of desire for a heteronormative male gaze, it is free to be covered up or altered in ways that could be seen as unappealing to conventional standards of physical attractiveness.
On the other hand, it would be hard to argue that Storm’s body wasn’t actively put on display for the male gaze with the few strips of fabric that comprised her first costume. However, the sheer power of Storm’s ability showed an important turn in the tide of X-Women: the female characters of the X-World would come to be known for being extremely powerful hard-hitters, not damsels in distress. For every “delicately” powered female mutant (not that there is anything necessarily “delicate” about their characters!), like Kitty Pryde, there were powerhouses like Rogue, who for many years was known just as much if not more for her acquired powers of flight, invulnerability, and super-strength than for her own inherent ability of life force/power absorption. Sadly, the uncontrollable nature of Rogue’s original power, which for most of her publication history made skin-to-skin contact draining and harmful, had the implicit message that the female body is dangerous, even if it is still tempting. Even worse, it is eventually revealed that this uncontrollable aspect of her power is basically due to her own psychological hang-ups, in effect blaming the woman for the hazardous power her body has over others.
Despite this, it would still be years, decades, until we would see X-Women whose bodies weren’t perfect physical specimens to be ogled. Marrow notably remains one of the few, if not only, main X-Women whose mutation made her not stereotypically attractive. (Throughout her years, she has gone through various storylines that would adjust her power in ways that let her appear more “normal”, i.e. sexy, but these changes came and went.) Granted, she was a Morlock, but a quick cursory look at this population easily reveals that even in this outcast society, the most extreme and grotesque physical mutations were almost always given to the men. Mystique is a female X-Character well known to the pop culture imagination who doesn’t look “normal”, but although her skin is blue, her mutation does not otherwise cause her anatomy to differ from an idealized female form. The film series makes her body even more accessible to the male gaze by making her naked all the time.
To wrap it all up, the intersections of gender and superpowers don’t have the best track record in the X-Men world. Too often, superpowers have ended up supporting stereotypical gender ideals. Even as through the years female characters have gained a greater array of power options open to them, including more offensive and combat-oriented powers, creators are still unlikely to do anything to make a female body deviate from the rigid standards of a desired, idealized norm. Equally as sad, the gendering of powers leaves little room for non-binary characters. Never have I ever seen a story about a trans or intersex superhero which could critically explore and help deconstruct outdated ideas about gender and what is gender-appropriate. If gendered powers just means more ways to encourage traditional gender norms, we don’t need any help with that.