X-Men and Representation
Marvel’s X-Men are a symbol for the struggle of people who are seen as different to achieve equality. Created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men weren’t created in a vacuum. They were written into existence during a time where the civil rights movement, the fight for racial equality and the end to racial segregation, was reaching its peak. The struggle of the X-Men being ‘mutants’, and putting up with those of society who hated them, and discriminated on them simply because they were different was an effective way to get readers who might not have experienced racial or cultural discrimination, to put themselves in the shoes of, and to care about those who do.
The comics gave people who had experienced that kind of discrimination a form of representation, while giving those who might not have faced it an understanding of the ever-present situation of minorities in America. Marvel Comics are also known for its social commentary in a lot of their other properties too during various time periods, but the X-Men perhaps delves the most deep into those issues, and is perhaps the most inspired by those real world issues in comparison. In the series, the topics of racism, diversity, and antisemitism are explored.
Going further than just connecting the issues between in the comics and real life, characters are even heavily paralleled to real life figures that really embody the issues being explored. The leader of the X-Men and the Leader of the opposing team of mutants, Professor X and Magneto, respectively, are representations of their real world counterparts, the Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Professor X has connections with Martin Luther King Jr. in that their ideologies share hope that everyone can coexist peacefully in the future despite the hostile discrimination occurring in the present, while Magneto and Malcolm X hold the more opposing ideology; they’re inclined to the notion of embracing their differences but they advocate for separating from the rest, and don’t shy away from violence as an end to their means due to the discrimination.
Some might argue that: because they incorporated these issues into a comic book during a time where these issues were serious, that they made light of these issues. But in reality, including something serious like this in a comic book or a similar piece of entertainment allows it to reach more people, and its demographic being younger, it can influence and teach the next generation to be greater. It can give those who are able to relate some representation, and lets them know that their problems do matter. On top of this, it can be a lot more impactful by getting a reader to care about the characters, and then by effect, getting them to care about their problems. It gets the reader to do something watching or reading the news might not be able to for them; it takes a magnifying glass and helps the reader understand why those problems matter.
And representation in pop culture can be a wonderful experience for people who don’t normally see people like themselves in those mediums. Looking at today and our modern pop-culture, with films like Black Panther giving people African descent representation by having a blockbuster superhero movie with a black lead and mostly black cast, and having so many show up, and having it happen with female-led ones too, with Captain Marvel, there’s something about being represented in a medium you enjoy that’s so thrilling, and having the X-Men first appear and embody the struggles of those who were discriminated on probably was probably even more thrilling and satisfying for those who struggled, and also enjoyed comics. Even taking a look at one of the most iconic superhero characters from today, Spider-Man was created to be a representation of the everyday man. In contrast to the problems of heroes like Superman and Batman, Spider-Man was mean to have struggles just as much outside of his superhero life as within. His emphasized problems with his relationships, school, having to keep a job to help his aunt pay rent and time-management all while having to be a superhero were revolutionary in that he was someone everyone could relate to, and at the same time, having him be a superhero that was a kid, and wasn’t a sidekick gave younger readers representation too, and it’s one of the reasons Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time.
Dotting our i’s and crossing our x’s, the X-Men contributed a lot to the discussion of racial and cultural politics, and did a fantastic job of introducing the topic to young readers, allowing them to empathize with and understand what is so wrong with racial and cultural discrimination, and still with one stone, giving minorities representation and letting them feel like they could be superheroes too.