Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


MUTATIS MUTANDIS: An Emergent Disability Aesthetic in "X-2: X-Men United"

"X-2: X-Men United," 2003.Twentieth-Century Fox. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Daniel Harris, Zak Penn, and Michael Dougherty. Produced by Lauren Shuler-Donner, Ralph Winter, and Avi Arad.

Reviewed by Michael M. Chemers, Center for Arts in Society, Carnegie Mellon University

"You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different."
     -Magneto, an older mutant, to a young mutant

The recent blockbuster from Twentieth-Century Fox, "X-2", the sequel to the phenomenally popular "X-Men," is a film that solidifies the growing legitimacy of disability-related discourse as part of American aesthetic and historical discourse, if for no other reason than that it attracted not only two of the greatest living Royal Shakespeare Company veterans (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) but two of the commonly acknowledged "most beautiful" supermodels (Halle Berry and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) to its cast. This is primarily a fantasy-adventure film, but the affirmative representation of genetic anomaly, physical difference, and disability that this movie provides is unprecedented in its color and clarity.

At the 2004 Society for Disability Studies (SDS) national conference in St. Louis, prominent scholars David Mitchell and Susan Snyder will deal critically with Armand Marie Leroi's book Mutants (2003), in which Leroi argues that beauty is an empirical quality quantifiable by the scarcity of visible mutations a given person exhibits. Granted that all humans exhibit many natural mutations, Leroi's argument, Mitchell and Snyder argue, appears inextricably mired in the worst aspects of eugenics and attempts to naturalize an illegitimate definition of difference as flaw, and beauty as flawlessness. "X-2" seems to provide a particularly vivid response to this neo-eugenics by celebrating, instead of demonizing, physical difference. "X-2" thereby creates "a counternarrative of peculiarity as eminence," like that described by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in Extraordinary Bodies (1994, p. 17).

The X-Men are a group of superheroes created by Marvel Comics in the late 60's, before "political correctness" demanded equal representation for the marginalized, and yet each "mutant" character suffers from some kind of disability, perceived or actual, mental, physical, or behavioral. The stories focus on how each character copes (or fails to cope) with his or her uniqueness. Unlike conventional superheroes who are really aliens, like Superman, or who "acquired" their powers, like Spider-Man, the mutants of the Marvel universe are anomalies, genetic detours from the "norm." Mutants are freaks, born of human parents and discovering their powers as they age. Mutants are heroes and villains, rich and poor, native and foreign, very much postmodern fusion-creatures, and it's often very difficult to tell them from "norms" in the comics and films.

The X-Men confound the hyper-ableism that many superheroes of that era promoted. Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men, better known as Professor X, cannot walk and makes use of a wheelchair, which does not prevent him from going toe-to-toe with some genuinely world-shaking nasties. His team is made up of outcasts and orphans, despised by the very world they strive so mightily to protect. Like real disabled persons, as a group they are divided by disparate loyalties, backgrounds, philosophical outlooks, and opinions about the best path forward. Like real disabled persons, they feel alienated from the mainstream. Like real disabled persons, they use a lot of prosthetics (in the case of the central figure, Logan, these take the form of six-inch razor-sharp indestructible claws). The mutations aren't always sexy and superheroic, and some of the mutants are extremely disabled. In this film, Xavier's upstate New York "school for gifted youngsters" (read: mutants) enrolls one little boy who doesn't sleep, a forked-tongue youth who is weak on his feet, and a young lady who steals life from whomever she touches. The diversity of the X-Men and their school includes mutants of all races, nationalities, and economic backgrounds, just as the disabled minority does.

The film's presentation of disability-related discourse is if anything even starker and more vibrant than the comics'. The horrors of eugenics, genocide, and "normal" society's fear of the "abnormal" provide major themes for the film. The bad guy this time is Stryker, a military scientist who is America's answer to Josef Mengele. His military-built base is festooned with hideous medical devices, like a combination operating theatre and torture chamber, putting the viewer in mind of Hadamar and Auschwitz. Like Mengele, Stryker experiments on children. Like Mengele and the historically unsung American eugenicists, Stryker controls his subjects by keeping them drugged-up. Stryker sent his extremely disabled mutant son, Jason, to Xavier years previously, but was unhappy with the result: "You wanted me to cure your son," says Xavier, "but mutation is not a disease." "You're lying!" screams the scientist. This discourse evokes one of the most provocative debates in disability studies: the effects of socialization on the defining line between "disease" and "difference." Stryker has dehumanized his disabled son, who is now voiceless and identified by number like the inmates of Nazi death camps.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one where young mutant Bobby "comes out" to his parents, who react in a way that rings chords for disability aesthetics, while Bobby's fellow mutants, Rogue and Logan, rush to Bobby's defense:

BOBBY'S DAD: You have to understand we thought Bobby was going to a school for the gifted.
ROGUE: Bobby IS gifted.
DAD: We know that. We just didn't realize he was-
BOBBY'S MOM: We still love you, Bobby. It's just this mutant problem is a little-
LOGAN: What mutant problem?
MOM: Complicated... Bobby, have you tried... NOT being a mutant?

The scene is familiar to anyone who has "come out" with a disability: the disabled person is often met with denial, disbelief, or disgust, especially if the disability is one not widely recognized as "disability," but as some sort of character deficiency, like depression or obesity. Raising the possibility, as this scene does, that disability might be a "gift" seems to many nondisabled persons to be a celebration of disease. In the film, we find out a few minutes later that the family consists of card-carrying mutant haters: Bobby's brother, obviously wracked with fear that he, too, may be the thing he fears most, turns our heroes in to the police.

Mitchell and Sharon Snyder write in Narrative Prosthesis that art involving the bizarre and grotesque human body "proffers an ability to externalize colliding systems into a metacritical allegory" (2000, p. 158). "X-2" provides an excellent example of this kind of metacriticism, especially in the character of Kurt Wagner, a mutant whose "deformities" are so strange that no amount of spandex or molded leather will disguise them. This character actually worked as a professional freak before joining the X-Men, a position where he, like many historical disabled persons, says he found acceptance and a positive sense of purpose. Kurt has a bizarre appearance: three-fingered and three-toed, with dark blue skin and pointed ears, Kurt has covered his body with ritual scarification. As one of the most severely persecuted characters in the film, he tells another character, Storm:

KURT: You know, outside the circus most people were afraid of me. But I didn't hate them, I pitied them. Do you know why? Because most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes.
STORM: Well, I gave up on pity a long time ago.

The language here seems consciously steeped in disability politics; pity, of course, being one of the most serious points of contention for modern disability activists and scholars (in this case, of course, the object of pity is quite refreshingly reversed from the usual trope). Pity mingles with fear in the films, and the characters debate (as I have with my own colleagues at SDS) whether or not radical ideologies might not be the most reasonable path forward for such a marginalized group. Mystique, played by supermodel Romjin-Stamos, is blue, has strange catlike eyes, and is covered with what appear to be scales, spines, and ridges. Despite her visible deformities, she is one of the sexiest characters in the film, which rather effectively puts the lie to LeRoi. Kurt approaches her near the film's end:

KURT: They say you can imitate anybody, even their voices.
MYSTIQUE: (imitating him) Even their voices.
KURT: Then why not stay in disguise all the time? You know, look like everyone else?
MYSTIQUE: Because we shouldn't have to.

I shouted, "You go, girl! Crips strike back!" in the theatre, which earned some weird looks. But the enthusiasm and the affirmative message of the film are contagious, providing a disability-positive aesthetic paradigm that borders on the liberation of the "abnormal" body envisioned in the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin. It showcases mutation as the key to human survival, and posits "birth defects" as markers of a leap forward in evolution, that we, in the fog of politics and other social constructions, cannot properly discern. Mutation is a natural phenomenon, which even eugenicists admit is key to our survival as a species, and yet, the film suggests, mutation is only as frightening, socially destabilizing, or hideous as it is interpreted to be. It is a glyph seeking a hierophant. In Mitchell and Snyder's words, "mutancy can be beautiful."

"Nature Laughs Last" is the other moral of the story, graffiti-ed on a fence in this film. In the final analysis, "X-2" conjures a world in which freaks, crips, gimps, and other associated weirdos cultivate a unique power and perspective outside the stultifying conformity narratives of the "norm" world. It conjures a world in which mutants are cool. And so are professors.

Works Cited:

LeRoi, A. (2003). Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body. New York: Viking.

Mitchell, D. and Snyder, S. (2000). Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Thomson, R. (1994). Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.