This week, Marvel comics revealed that the popular X-Men character Bobby Drake, AKA Iceman (or at least his younger time-traveling doppelganger—don’t ask) was gay. The announcement was met online with politically correct fanfare, homophobic disgust, and all things in between.
A few things that I’d like to preface about myself before getting into where exactly in between my feelings rest:
- Iceman is my all-time favorite superhero.
- I fully support and love my LGBT friends, family members, and neighbors and think there SHOULD be more LGBT superheroes.
- I appreciate intelligent, effective storytelling and solid characterization.
Having said that, think pieces about pop culture aren’t normally my thing, but even though I gave up on X-Men comics years ago for being painfully slow-paced and driven purely by uninspired gimmicks, I can’t help but be upset by this move of Marvel’s.
I applaud the sincerity of progressive-minded fans, but here’s what disturbs me:
1.) Marvel’s ploy to get a little buzz going online and spike sales for a month or two is so transparent.
2.) This is textbook BAD writing (I’ll explain below).
3.) The backwards logic that fandom is using to make sense of this “outing” is shallow and actually downright insulting to LGBT people who deserve better.
Let’s briefly discuss good characterization. When creating, writers must discover who their characters are, what makes them tick, and how they grow and develop as human beings. Some traits change, evolve, and adapt over time. Others are immutable: eye color, body type, gender, race, cultural origin, and *drum roll please* sexuality. Sexuality is not something that real people get to change on a whim. If you are born gay, you’re stuck with that. If you are born straight, nobody can “turn you gay.”
It’s insincere and inorganic for a writer to retcon any well-developed, established characterization. In the case of sexuality, it even sends a backwards message that what homophobes actually believe is true: “Sexuality is a choice.”
It’s not a choice for real people, so why should it be for writers who steward intellectual property?
Comic book superheroes and other pop culture icons present an even harder sell, because people have been reading about them for decades. They have established personalities with established character traits, flaws, and strengths. Fans have even been inside Bobby Drake’s head and literally read his thoughts as he fell head over heels for women, struggled with his status as a social outcast (as a mutant), and grappled with various insecurities.
Certainly there are gray areas here. People experiment, become curious, live in denial, etc. However, good writers have thought about that well in advance. In this case, Iceman was created, conceived, developed, and adapted across many mediums as a straight character very consistently for fifty years!
Again, I appreciate why people want to embrace this change as a progressive development. And yet, as I read fan reactions and reasons for how and why this story “makes sense,” I become even more unnerved by the—unintentional—insensitivity and stereotyping at work.
In addition to some pretty flimsy, often out of context, samples from comics history (this
article does a nice job of giving an overview), I’m seeing some pretty shallow reasons presented about how and why “Iceman has ALWAYS been gay!” Here are some of my favorites:
- In the X-Men movies, he dates women he “can’t touch,” Rogue and Shadowcat–who by the way in real life is played by openly gay actor Ellen Page.
- He has a “coming out” scene in the movie X2.
- The guy runs around in nothing but a speedo sometimes (I wish I was kidding, but I’ve seen this presented as evidence of his sexuality).
- In the comics, Iceman is traditionally portrayed as a lonely heart, with many insecurities.
- He can’t seem to “make it work” with a woman.
It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to comb through fifty years of X-Men in all media and read into “evidence” like this, and I will resist the urge to write a psychological dissertation about a beloved childhood hero. Suffice it to say I see the following presumptions in the way “progressive-minded” fans are defending this revelation:
- Association in film with LGBT actors has relevance to the sexuality of the fictional character they portray or vice versa (I hope all intelligent people know that’s not true!)
- The metaphor of X-Men/mutants as outcasts who struggle with their identities pointedly precludes gay—instead of representing ALL who struggle with fitting in socially, religiously, culturally, racially, or sexually (i.e. Bobby’s scene in X2 is an insightful metaphor, but metaphors are not to be taken literally.)
- People who are unlucky or unsuccessful at love are probably dating the wrong gender (Don’t even know where to start here!)
- People with self-esteem issues or angst are more likely to be gay/in the closet (Not true!)
I truly do not want to rain—or snow–on anyone’s parade. My hope is that, if nothing else, people can appreciate the dangerous presumptions that come into play when you make a cheap grab for political correctness.
The same backwards reasoning can be applied to almost ANY comic book character who has social problems, is unlucky at love–or apparently dates Rogue! At what point was it far-fetched that Iceman was just an angsty guy struggling to master his full potential who had a hard time with the ladies? I’m honestly not sure, but just for fun, let’s apply this logic to a few other characters.
Gambit is a snappy dresser with a fabulous pink chest-plate who is conveniently obsessed with Rogue—a woman he cannot touch. One time in an obscure comic he kissed a male shape-shifting mutant who happened to be in the form of a woman (here’s the page).
Magneto never had a successful relationship with a woman either, and his most meaningful relationship is with his “good male friend” Charles Xavier. He had a fling with Rogue in the comics too and wears a flamboyant purple cape. On film he is portrayed by famous openly-gay actor Sir Ian McKellan.
Okay, first let’s get this out of the way: Rogue is a charming, tough but vulnerable southern belle who most straight men would be attracted to, not some kind of gay barometer. And even if we wanted to point out flamboyant wardrobe choices as proof of sexuality—don’t all comic book characters dress colorfully?
All kidding aside, the logic I’m pointing out here is insulting and stereotype driven. Again, I’m talking about how fans are adapting and reacting to this revelation as much as I am about the random, unconsidered writing they’re responding to in the first place.
Of course these conclusions are much more benign than those jumped to around the time of the Comics Code Authority’s introduction in the 1950s. However, the logic of how and why to turn a straight character gay for PC purposes is eerily similar to what pop psychologists and concerned church marms were spewing back then: “Batman hangs out with young boys in his dark cave all day, and Bruce Wayne refuses to settle down with a nice woman!”
Now we’re jumping to the same unfair conclusions . . . but in a congratulatory fashion?
The bottom line is that comics need more gay superheroes. However, making straight characters gay is a shallow solution A) because it’s insincere and B) because it’s unlikely to hold up over time (case in point when hotshot writer Grant Morrison outed the X-Men’s Beast in the early 2000s, only to say “just kidding he’s straight” a few issues later).
If you’re not familiar with Northstar, he’s a Marvel superhero who was a member of both Alpha Flight and the X-Men. Creator John Byrne imagined Northstar to be gay from the ground up. In the early 1980s, Byrne was seriously writing against the grain, playing his cards close to his chest, and truly pioneering something special. In the long run, fans picked up on Northstar’s sexuality and embraced the character.
Many of today’s writers have introduced more gay characters, but they never seem to get any traction or attention—or perhaps the stories they are featured in just aren’t that exciting?
Why aren’t Northstar and other gay characters more prominently featured either in the comics or in cartoons, videogames, and movies? Why aren’t there better stories about these characters, or more brand new LGBT characters?
How come when Mystique–one of the only strong LGBT villains in the history of comics–was finally given the spotlight in X-Men First Class, they straight-washed her?
Because today’s comic book and film creators lack courage. They’re afraid to create new superheroes who break the mold because they know that the A-Listers are safer. They pack more punch. They get people talking. There are also rights issues of course—any new X-Men characters that Marvel creates have movie rights that instantly transfer to Fox. But is that an excuse? Marvel makes the same kinds of arbitrary “shake-ups” with all of its properties.
It’s easier to make an alternate African American Spider-Man than it is to create a brand new superhero who happens to be African American. It’s easier to have a woman take over for Thor for just a little while. It’s easier to say that Iceman’s younger self is gay and take it from there. It gets people talking on Buzzfeed and Facebook. It drives up sales for a minute or two.
It’s harder to be a trailblazer like the people who pioneered Marvel to include stronger roles for women and people of color. To put it bluntly, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum didn’t create Storm by having a strong African American woman borrow Thor’s hammer for a few issues—they made a NEW icon. If today’s writers are sincere about being progressive, then they need to roll up their sleeves and truly create.
Marvel’s readers shouldn’t settle for cheap tricks. They should be demanding more Northstars and better storytelling.