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«Lewis Call “That Weird, Unbearable Delight”: Representations of Alternative Sexualities in Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men Comics [1] What does ...»

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Lewis Call

“That Weird, Unbearable Delight”: Representations of Alternative

Sexualities in Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men Comics

[1] What does it mean to be a mutant? This has always been the central question

of Marvel's X-Men comics, which tell the tale of a team of

young mutant superheroes. Clearly, to be a mutant is to be

different. Douglas Wolk has argued compellingly that X-Men

stories tend to be "allegories about difference and identity

politics"; for Wolk, the stories are "often specifically about sexual identity" (95). Most crucially, the X-Men model a world which neither understands nor tolerates sexual difference.

[2] This intolerance becomes most clear in the "cure narratives," those X-Men stories which propose that it may be possible to eliminate the gene which causes mutations. "What's next?" demands Joss Whedon's Emma Frost, "eliminating the gay gene?" (Whedon and Cassady, Astonishing X-Men #5). As longtime comics editor Louise Simonson says, "the urge to eradicate those who are different—and the utter wrongness of this urge—is one of the central themes of X-Men" (139). Mutants who seek the cure represent closeted members of sexual minorities (gay, lesbian, bi, trans, kinky, etc.) who try to conform to heteronormative cultural standards. Those who refuse the cure represent the political members of such minorities, who accept their sexuality and embrace the identity which that sexuality implies. Here the comics play up the crucial tensions between those whose subtle differences allow them to pass as normal, and those who are too queer to pass. Patrick Hopkins argues that in Whedon's "cure" story, the mutants who line up for the cure are mostly those who cannot pass (11). Hopkins concludes that Whedon's comics endorse only those forms of difference which allow one to be powerful, to be beautiful, and to pass (12). I argue, however, that Whedon's representation of sexual difference is actually far more radical than that. Whedon's award-winning Astonishing X-Men (2004 – 2008) endorses not only the subtle difference of those who can pass, but also the radical difference of mutants who cannot pass, e.g.

the Beast.1 [3] Ramzi Fawaz has argued persuasively that the X-Men's female characters visualize the comic's absorption of gay and feminist public cultures (362; see also Vary).

I would add two things. With Joss Whedon at the helm, the male characters visualize these things just as effectively. And while Whedon's comics certainly continue the XMen's longstanding tradition of endorsing gay and feminist cultures, Astonishing X-Men also offers important endorsements of several other alternative sexual cultures. These include the sexual culture of the disabled and those who desire them, the sexual culture of the human-animal hybrids known as furries and the "furverts" who desire them (Gurley), and the culture of erotic dominance and submission.

[4] Through the relationship between Kitty Pryde and Peter Rasputin, Whedon's XMen comics affirm the sexuality of disabled people. While Kitty can usually control her mutant phasing power, she phases involuntarily during her first sexual encounter with Peter (#14). This dramatic event sets the tone for their subsequent sexual relationship.

As Kitty and Peter work together to devise a sexuality compatible with Kitty's occasional impairment, they model a successful, mutually satisfying sexual relationship between a disabled woman and an able-bodied man. Since popular culture rarely represents such relationships at all, and almost never represents them as potentially successful, Whedon's representation of Kitty/Peter holds considerable potential for disabled people and disability theorists. Whedon Studies should therefore add a consideration of Kitty/Peter to the excellent work which Whedonists have already done on disability narratives in Whedon's television shows Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse (Iatropoulos 2012, Burnett 2012).

[5] Through the relationship between Emma Frost and Scott Summers, Whedon's comics endorse the kinky public culture of sexual dominance and submission (DS).

Scott's submission to Emma helps him learn to control his mutant power, helps him become a better team leader, and satisfies his erotic needs. Emma's dominance gives her self-respect and confidence. The sexual power she enjoys as Scott's Mistress merges with the social and cultural power she enjoys as Headmistress of the Xavier school, enabling her to be successful in both the sexual and professional realms. Emma, Scott, and their colleagues benefit from Emma's dual dominant identity as Mistress and Headmistress. Not bad for a former supervillain! Whedon's representation of Emma/Scott presents erotic DS as an ethically viable sexuality with substantial benefits in all areas of life. Thus Whedon makes this important minority sexuality available to an audience of mostly young comic book fans.

[6] Through the relationship between Hank McCoy and Abigail Brand, Whedon's XMen comics endorse the sexuality of the Furry Fandom subculture. This culture includes "furries" who often dress in head to toe animal costumes or fursuits, as well as "furvert" fetishists who are attracted to furries. Hank resembles a full-time furry in some ways. In the Giant-Size #1 issue of the Astonishing X-Men Omnibus, he is a self-described "blue furry monster" known as the Beast (Whedon and Cassady). McCoy's would-be lover, Brand, is like a furvert. Brand desires McCoy not despite his Beastliness, but rather because of it. The comics authorize her Beastial desire. Whedon's representation of Beast and Brand endorses that most marginal of sexual minorities, the furries and the furverts who love them.

[7] In the 1980s, Gayle Rubin famously described modern American sexual culture as profoundly hierarchical. For Rubin, the "charmed circle" of "good, normal, natural" sexuality stood in opposition to the "outer limits" of "bad, abnormal, unnatural" sex (281). Similarly, Jeffrey Weeks pointed out that sexual thinking has been dominated by a "grand polarity" between the normal and abnormal (85). Astonishing offers radical endorsements of the sexually abnormal. The furvert Brand provides a positive representation of female fetishism. The DS relationship of Scott and Emma expands the "outer limit" of sadomasochism; Rubin described this limit in the early 1980s, but by the early 2000s, SM had joined forces with DS and BD (bondage/discipline) to form the "coalitional" acronym BDSM (Weiss 231). Astonishing's treatment of disabled sexuality adds an entirely new element to Rubin's outer limits. Though not mentioned in Rubin's original model, disabled sex clearly exists outside the charmed circle. By expanding and enhancing the categories of the outer limits, Astonishing challenges the very notion of a normal sexuality, suggesting instead that sex is always socially and historically constructed. This in turn enables "a more realistic politics of sex" (Rubin 277). While the notion of a "natural" sexuality has been central to sexology (Weeks 68), Kinsey already knew in 1948 that the concept of the normal blocked the investigation and understanding of sexuality (Weeks 89). As Weeks points out, the limits of this normalizing, nature-seeking sexology have clearly been reached (95). Astonishing challenges the hegemony of the normal by celebrating the abnormal. Whedon's X-Men comics present disabled, DS, and furry sexualities as sensible, ethical responses to erotic, genetic and political needs. Astonishing's sympathetic portrayals of mutant sexual relationships imply that unorthodox human sexualities should also be viewed in a positive light. Astonishing X-Men thus promotes acceptance and tolerance of radical sexual difference, both in the fictional Marvel Universe and in our world.

"Everything Is So Fragile": The Disabled Sexuality of Kitty Pryde and Peter Rasputin [8] I read the relationship between Kitty Pryde and Peter Rasputin through the lens of disability theory. Specifically, I invoke the influential "social model" of disability, which holds that "disability is socially constructed not biologically determined" (Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells, and Davies 2). In this model, people are disabled not by the malfunctioning of their bodies, but rather by the cultural prejudices and psychological pressures which those malfunctions inspire. The social model allows us to read Kitty Pryde as a disabled woman. She occasionally loses control of her mutant phasing power; when this happens, she experiences a lack of bodily control. Many reallife disabled people experience the same thing (Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells, and Davies 74). This lack of control leads many real-world disabled people to dissociate from their bodies (Ibid.). Kitty represents this dissociation in a most radical way: when she experiences involuntary intangibility, her body temporarily ceases to exist. Sometimes Kitty becomes solid when she intends to remain intangible. Either involuntary intangibility or involuntary solidification can provoke profound anxiety in Kitty; either condition can inspire grave concern in her teammates. Kitty is like a disabled person whose impairment manifests only intermittently—an epileptic, for example. Just as the mere possibility of a seizure in enough to code the epileptic as disabled, the possibility of uncontrolled phasing, and the anxiety which that possibility produces, code Kitty as disabled.

[9] Like a person with an intermittent impairment, Whedon's Kitty is usually, but not always, in control of her body. In this as in most things, Whedon is very faithful to the original spirit and history of the Kitty Pryde character. Writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne introduced the character in their classic 1981 story “Days of Future Past.” Claremont's Kitty phases "with an ease that thrills and excites her more than almost anything she's ever known" (69). Yet part of that "thrill" comes from the fact that "she's not used to her nascent superpowers" (163). Young Kitty can't always control her power. When she gets scared in the Danger Room, she's "too rattled" to phase (114).

Whedon's Kitty also occasionally finds herself unable to phase when she needs to do so.

[10] The social model suggests that people can be more disabled in some contexts than in others. The impaired or uncontrollable body is especially susceptible to sexual disability. Someone who might be considered able-bodied in other contexts can be sexually disabled. Kitty may be perfectly able when she is teaching class or going on a mission. But she can still be disabled when she is in bed with Peter. Her sexual relationship with Peter is largely defined by their mutual anxiety about her phasing power. Kitty experiences performance anxiety; she worries that without full control of her body, she won't be able to please her lover. Peter worries about his lover's health and safety; he fears that sex will hurt her, emotionally or physically. Thus Kitty and Peter represent the anxieties which typically inform relations between the disabled and the able-bodied.

[11] They also resist these anxieties. Kitty challenges the presumed asexuality of the disabled. Tom Shakespeare and his colleagues point out that disabled people are often infantilized; like children, the disabled are assumed to have no sexuality (Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells, and Davies 10). Kitty Pryde was always the littlest X-Man.

As a young, female "X-Girl," Kitty has always projected a certain aura of sexual innocence. Her fellow X-Men tend to see Kitty as passive and asexual, as did comic book fans until Astonishing. But Whedon's Kitty Pryde is an active sexual agent. She boldly initiates sex with Peter, and works with him to make the experience pleasurable and satisfying for them both.

[12] Kitty and Peter have a longstanding romantic relationship, but they never actually managed to consummate that relationship until Whedon's Astonishing X-Men.

This was partly due to the fact that Peter was dead, until Whedon brought him back.

Kitty wants to resume their relationship, but fears that she is crowding Peter. He assures her that she is not crowding him "nearly enough" (#11). Artist John Cassady provides a full-width panel of Kitty's face as Peter says these last two words, so we have a full view of her wide-eyed astonishment. The next time we see the couple alone together, they are cuddling under a tree. Colorist Laura Martin uses a brilliant palette of oranges and yellows to give the scene a lush, vibrant look. "So what do you think?" Kitty asks. "Does this qualify as 'crowding' you?" (#13). "It is what I would call a good start," Peter replies, smiling. "And uh... what would you call a good finish?" Kitty inquires awkwardly. This is where Kitty first hints at the idea that she may experience a disabled sexuality. The phrase "good finish" is a clear reference to male orgasm, comparable to the "happy ending" of sex work. Kitty may already suspect that her sexual disability could make it difficult to give Peter the "good finish" she so clearly wants to give him.

Peter's response is equally awkward: "Uh, I'm not sure I—" Peter doesn't actually know how sex with Kitty should conclude.

[13] The scene is interrupted by the arrival of Kitty's dead father, and we learn that we have been watching Kitty's nightmare, which Emma prompted telepathically.

Since Emma presumably drew the raw material for this nightmare from Kitty's subconscious, the dream provides evidence of Kitty's anxiety about having disabled sex with Peter. The real Peter, unsurprisingly, turns out to be far more understanding than his dream doppelgänger. Kitty awakens, shaken, to find herself in the real Peter's arms.

His first thought, as always, is for her safety: "Are you all right?" Smiling, she nestles in his huge arms and replies: "Gettin' better already."

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