Thoughts on privilege in “X-Men: First Class”Posted: June 24, 2011
Spoilers coming up.
I heard mixed things about “X-Men: First Class” before I went to see it the other day, so I had no idea what I would think of it going in. While I certainly wouldn’t call it an amazing movie, I did enjoy myself. It had some great character development, some pretty sweet action sequences, some phenomenal acting (as well as some crappy acting) and an okay story. Amanda Marcotte wrote about some of the problems with the movie, mostly regarding how good it could have been but wasn’t (spoilers over there too), and I agree with a lot of what she said, so I won’t repeat it. However, I do want to talk about how fascinated I was with the way privilege was explored and depicted.
I think privilege is most apparent in the relationship between Xavier and Mystique. They care deeply about each other, and they’re both mutants, but they’re coming from such different places that they just can’t understand each other. Xavier has promised never to read her mind, but even if he did, I don’t think he would actually understand her.
Xavier has privilege. He fits in the world around him. His mutation is invisible so he doesn’t have to hide it, but he can use it to gain a strategic advantage, either in a fight or when he tries to pick up girls. On top of that, he’s a white guy, he has a Ph.D., and people rarely tell him he’s wrong. Mystique doesn’t have these advantages. Sure, she can make herself look however she wants, and when she uses that to her advantage it often works, but if she wants to fit in with everyone else, she has to hide what she looks like. And because Xavier thinks he’s always right, he tells her she’s being unreasonable when she calls him on his “Mutant and Proud” hypocrisy. It makes perfect sense for Mystique to team up with Magneto in the end. Not only does he share her experience of having his mutation be a problem, and therefore also see Xavier’s bullshit for the hypocrisy it is, but he shows her way more respect than Xavier does, and he likes her most when she’s being herself.
I also think that some of the ways people of colour are depicted has a lot to do with privilege. When Shaw is recruiting and the only characters who leave Xavier and Magneto’s team for him are racial minorities, it makes sense to me that his claim that people will fear them and persecute them is sort of lost on all of the white people. Of course, that’s immediately followed by an absolutely pointless example of the Black Dude Dies First trope, which is just stupid and maybe shows that the writers are a little less aware of their privilege than they would have us believe. However, I was less disturbed than some by the fact that most of the non-white characters end up joining the evil team. It’s problematic, since it can send the message that white people are less susceptible to corruption, and that’s definitely false, but I can believe that people who have been mostly successful at fitting in with the rest of the world (even if they’re always hiding, like Mystique and Beast) would be more likely to assume that the rest of the world will be able to see them for the wonderful people they are on the inside.
Finally, I thought the development of Magneto’s character made a lot of sense given his relationship with privilege. I liked that they made him a complex character, rather than an obvious villain. It would be easy to fall back on the (mistaken) idea that being tortured turns someone evil. Instead, he seems genuinely scared that if he doesn’t get rid of the threat that regular humans pose, he’ll end up killed. He has concrete evidence of this, both as a kid during the holocaust and within the plot of the movie, when everyone decides to turn their missiles on the mutants instead of each other. Of course, he’s spent so much time looking out for himself that he’s stopped thinking (or maybe just caring) about how many innocent people his actions are going to hurt. At the same time, he’s tired of always being the one who gets screwed over by innocent people just doing their jobs.
“First Class” is by no means a perfect movie. There were serious problems with pacing during the first half, and there were so many hints throughout the entire movie of how much potential it had to be even better. Looking back, I think I enjoyed it as much as I did because I was imagining how good it could have been, and anticipating it eventually getting that good. Right after watching it, I was still on that anticipatory high, but looking back, it’s a little disappointing. But I’m impressed by the subtle ways it portrays privilege. I think the movie also forces watcherss to check their own privilege a bit. Since Xavier’s team is canonically seen as the good guys, and Mystique and Magneto’s people are villains, we’re challenged to examine what structures in the world support some people, letting them follow the rules without putting their lives in danger, while disenfranchising others, forcing them to break all the rules in order to survive.