The Broken Metaphor
The Problem of Metaphorical Representations of Race in Media
By Ian Whippie
“It’s an easy way of looking at racism that younger generations will find entertaining and almost universally relatable: Instead of it being their skin color, give them superpowers and spin a tale about discrimination and trying to make a better, more inclusive future. It’s a simple story seen most predominantly in places like Marvel Comics’ X-Men franchise, including long-running book titles and 7 blockbuster movie titles, or CW’s The Tomorrow People TV series, and in the grand scheme of things, it seems to work. Instead of being treated to harsh realities involved in civil rights cases the reader is treated to epic battles, larger-than-life heroes with incredible abilities as they shape-shift, teleport, and shoot lasers out of improbable places, with lots and lots of explosions. In doing so, storytellers are arguably making issues of marginalization more accessible to a wider variety of readers in an effort to promote understanding, but one has to wonder, in order to do that, is removing the realness from such a present issue as racism really the best way to do educate people?
Examined more closely, this dumbing down of the real life issue of racial oppression and marginalization seems to go beyond its shiny surface claim of inclusiveness and actually backfire horribly in its attempted message. Using characters with the ability to fly, read minds, and teleport as a metaphor for underprivileged racial minorities as they do in X-Men and The Tomorrow People and countless other science fiction media, for a variety of reasons, simply doesn’t work. In the case of Marvel’s X-Men and The Tomorrow People (the two works of which this paper will focus), the claim to represent all facets of marginalized culture shows a refusal to admit the difference from one form of marginalization to the other and the different necessities for representing each, leaving the message unfocused and confused…”
“…Raising this question of privilege illustrates the next problem with the metaphor, namely that the misunderstanding on the part of the writers, when transferred to the readers/viewers creates a misplaced sense of inclusion in the ranks of the often ‘feared and hated’(as mutants in X-Men are often referred) group out of a similar sense of mere social distance, resulting more in what Neil Shyminsky would argue in the appropriation of racial struggles by a largely white male adolescent audience, leaving their original supposed focus behind and forgotten, also seen exampled in Astonishing X-Men in the opening of the third issue as the readers are introduced to the character Wing, a white male teen mutant with the ability to fly, as he voices his concerns that he might be made to give up his powers due to outside influence, his argument seeming to relate more to a white male reader with their inherent privilege than it would a black man being made to give up the stigma attached in society to his racial identity.(Whedon, 2004:48). Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the problem of equating race (more specifically racial minority status) with superhuman abilities is just that; they’re SUPERhuman. This representation paints marginalized racial populations as inherently differently abled from the rest of the population, often times in dangerous ways, as seen in Astonishing X-Men issue two through the character of Tilde Soams, a child whose mutant power to manifest her nightmares uncontrollably costs the lives of both her parents and a police officer, and threatens nightly to harm those around her (Whedon, 2004:27). As Gene Demby points out in his NPR article “Who Gets to be a Superhero?”; “many fans point out that the government does have a security interest in monitoring citizens who can level city blocks by accident. People of color or LGBTQ folks — whose identities are mined for narrative effect in these stories — hardly pose the same societal threat.” (Demby 33).”
Tilde Soams mutant power: (Whedon, 2004:16)
This understanding of Wolverine to be a symbol not of an oppressed people but of white male power brings certain interactions with others’ in the Astonishing X-Men series into a new light, such as when confronting Beast, a character that can be identified as the second class of mutant discussed before—a mutant whose mutation causes him to fear he is devolving into an animal thus losing his humanity—over his consideration of using the cure to retain his faculties. Wolverine, whose mutation has never threatened him as such and can be hidden by a simple *snikt* of his claws (the onomatopoeia associated with his claws retracting or detracting) pushes Beast to destroy the cure to despite his voiced concerns; “What am I supposed to do, Logan? Wait until I’m lying in front of the students playing with a ball of string? I am a human being.” (Whedon, 2004:32). Wolverine takes Beast’s potential endorsement as a threat to his power as he refers to Beast’s decision as “An endorsement stamp for every single mutant to be lined up and neutered” (Whedon, 2004:33), and it becomes clear that his own representation of white male power is more important for him to retain than another mutant’s humanity—That it is more important that the type 1 mutants retain their privilege than the type 2 mutants be able to function in society. At the same time, while type 2 mutants may share more in common with real life racial minorities, to compare them is still erroneous, as these type 2 mutants are nearly always portrayed as hideously disfigured, unstable, and a danger to those around them, with few exceptions who are usually shown as “good” despite their disfigurements. The best case type 2 mutants can claim for representation is as a caricature, and an outdated, racist one in which unwanted disfigurements and debilitating abilities are equated to being born with brown skin in a white-dominated society.
Wolverine (right) confronting Beast (left): (Whedon, 2004:46)
More type 2 mutants rioting for cure: (Whedon, 2004:67)
“…At the heart of this entire argument for how the mutant metaphor causes more harm than understanding is the idea of the language having an transitive property, like in mathematics, in that assumptions and stereotypes are being transferred through the media from producers to consumers, and that assumptions made of the media are being fed into real life public perceptions while the media itself draws from the readers’ preconceived cultural assumptions, creating a two way flow of information between book and reader, pieces of information on the page being used to justify certain trains of thought while external events encourage mis-identification and self-insertion and vice versa. The effect that media has on society as a whole is well documented and irrefutable, so the real danger of the mutant metaphor is revealed when the question of what exactly we are learning from it?
The social repercussions resultant from media utilizing the mutant metaphor in order to depict racial or marginalized struggles with “normal” (white) people to make the message relatable to “normal” (again, white) audiences , and a general lack of sensitivity to race issues in our culture, are vast. The failure to differentiate between types of discrimination and oppression in media leads us gradually to forget the differences, encouraging ignorance while promoting stereotyping, misunderstanding, and racial insensitivity.
The appropriation of oppression for the sake of claiming victim status, as stated before redirects sympathies to white readers and creates misunderstanding of the attempted message. This appropriation can be seen to lead to a lack of genuine representation of racial or social minorities in media, with their messages instead re-purposed and packaged by white producers, with white characters, for white audiences. Conversely, this appropriation can serve to cause dominant audiences to assume that real world discrimination is even overplayed, as their exposure to black stories or immigrant stories or LGBTQ stories are presented through the lens of white characters each packing their own “invisible knapsack,” discouraging sympathy and causing audiences to disregard the need for equality. As for the social repercussions of this idea that equates people suffering from real life marginalization to people with different, superhuman abilities, there have been far too many examples in the last year alone of someone in a position of authority looking at an unarmed black man and deciding that a higher degree of force was necessary to deal with him than they would a white counterpart.”
Casey, Joe. “Playing God and Discovering My Own Mutanity.” The Unauthorized X-Men. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books Inc., 2005. Print.
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Demby, Gene. “Who Gets To Be A Superhero?” NPR.org. 11 Jan. 2014. Web.
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