Calling All Mutants: X-Men remains prevalent in fight against inequality


Storytelling in pop culture often takes on a role much larger than whatever its concrete subject happens to be. The X-Men, a group of characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, perfectly exemplify this important role.

In the past, these mutants and their struggles with/against society have been seen as allegories for the Civil Rights movement, Apartheid South Africa, the AIDS epidemic and the ongoing battle for LGBTQ+ equality. The new Netflix series about the characters, “The Gifted,” shows promise in this vein by portraying the personal and familial drama associated with being a member of one of these groups.

The X-Men and accompanying Marvel storylines are nothing new. First appearing in 1963, they increasingly drew comparisons to the most famous (or infamous, at the time) Civil Rights leaders of that era. Martin Luther King Jr. was likened to Professor X, the telekinetic mutant leader striving to convert the antagonistic populace to accept and achieve his dream of peaceful coexistence. Malcolm X, a more militant figure, is mirrored in Magneto, who rejects Professor X’s approach in favor of a by any means necessary tactic.

When the zeitgeist shifted to focus on the struggle of LGBT individuals, the X-Men shifted in sync. A long storyline involving a mysterious disease called the legacy virus which seemingly affected only mutants drew strong parallels to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. In the X-Men movies of the early 2000s, the characters have to essentially come out of the closet to their parents and friends after their powers manifest during puberty. One especially poignant scene in “X2” involves Iceman (Bobby) coming out to his parents about his abilities, culminating in his shocked and exasperated mother asking “Bobby… have you tried not being a mutant?”

The new show focuses less on the grand battles between mutant camps and more on the personal drama of its main characters. On the run from the government, the characters offer an examination of the effects that being a member of a marginalized group have personal and family dynamics.

The X-Men are a particularly powerful force in pop culture because of their mass appeal; collectively, the movies have garnered about $5 billion worldwide over the years. They present a massive audience with a simple question: is it just to treat people poorly simply because they are different? By crafting complex and compelling characters, the writers of these stories make the audience sympathize with the plight of the mutants. The malleability of the X-Men, able to represent everything from transgender issues to racial inequality, also enhance their importance to society. That common people are threatened by the mutant’s powers is also an important aspect of the way these stories preach equality and self-reflection; often, rights are denied to groups such as the LGBTQ+ community because those in power feel threatened by them.

In an age of seemingly increasing intolerance and discrimination, America needs these heroes now more than ever. They are an especially powerful way to break down the barriers to empathy and to overcome the hurdles to an egalitarian society in which mutants of all kinds are treated with respect and dignity.