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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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[14] Peter and Kitty attempt to negotiate their reborn relationship with spoken language (#13). Naturally, these efforts end in spectacular failure. (Think Buffy and Riley in "Hush" [4.10].) Kitty threatens to go through Peter's body. Her anxiety tempts her to abandon self-definition. Peter expects to get yelled at some more, and so stands around "like a big dumb big guy." Finally they abandon their futile efforts at spoken communication, and suddenly everything works. Cassady spends a full wordless page on their kiss. He shows the two lovers embracing from the side, then from behind Peter's head. He provides a tight close-up of the lovers staring adoringly into one another's eyes. The final panel on the page shows Emma walking by in the hallway outside Peter's room. As the architect of Kitty's recent nightmare, Emma is in some sense midwife to the disabled sex which follows this kiss.

[15] Peter and Kitty have sex for the first time. Meanwhile, an unsuspecting mutant student is watching television on the lower floor of the X-Men's mansion headquarters. Suddenly Kitty Pryde's naked body falls through the floor (#14). Kitty races back upstairs to Peter. When she reaches the bedroom, a wide-eyed Peter deploys his go-to question: "Are you all right?" (#14) "Oh my God!" Kitty gasps. "I phased!" Peter is an unstoppable Colossus of care. He must ascertain Kitty's mental and physical health before pursuing any other topic of conversation. "Are you all right?" he repeats, gazing deep into Kitty's eyes. "Are you?" she replies. Kitty's question is a manifestation of her anxiety about disabled sex.

[16] It seems likely that Kitty phased before Peter reached orgasm. "It was strange," he admits. He does not say that it was scary, grotesque, or horrible. Kitty continues to obsess about her involuntary intangibility. "I can't believe I phased just then! That's never..." If Kitty is being honest here, the word "never" suggests that masturbation doesn't trigger involuntary phasing, though great sex might. Here Kitty stumbles upon an effective cure for the guilt that derives from her (mis)perception that she can't please Peter. If it truly takes a superior orgasm to activate Kitty's phasing power, then her bout of involuntary intangibility is grounds for celebration, not guilt. "It was totally your fault," she concludes. "I like to think so, yes," Peter agrees. Peter understands that he should take pride in his ability to activate Kitty's phasing power.

The bedroom door closes, separating the audience from the delighted lovers. Kitty giggles through the door: "Tee hee." She has every reason to be happy.

[17] Kitty and Peter enable a powerfully progressive transformation of our concept of sex. Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells, and Davies note that sex is often taken to be synonymous with heterosexual penetrative intercourse; they argue compellingly that this "fucking ideology" is particularly oppressive to disabled people (97). Kitty's involuntary intangibility may have caused coitus interruptus, but neither she nor Peter experiences this as a tragedy. Instead, and again like real-world disabled people, they recognize and enjoy a "continuum of sexual practices—of which penetrative sex is only a part" (Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells, and Davies 99). Although Kitty and Peter are straight, their sexuality is thus fundamentally queer.2 Indeed, it has strong structural similarities to lesbian sex. As Corbett Joan O'Toole observes, there is no requirement, in lesbian sex, for both partners to climax (213).

[18] Kitty and Peter encourage their audience to develop a broader understanding of erotic love. Much like real-life disabled people (Siebers 151), Kitty and Peter find that sex may not conclude with an orgasm, may extend beyond the limits of penetrative sex, and may seem kinky compared to what others are doing. But perhaps these are good things. Kitty, in particular, provides a perfect representation of Anna Mollow's idea that sex is disability. As Mollow argues, we desire what disables us (301). The pleasure that Kitty shares with Peter has the potential to disable her in a very literal sense. Indeed, that pleasure can cause her to lose her body altogether. Margrit Shildrick suggests that the coming together of bodies "is encompassed within an implicit anxiety about the loss of self-definition"; she argues persuasively that this anxiety "is at its most acute where the body of the other already breaches normative standards of embodiment" (226). It is hard to imagine a more perfect illustration of this argument than Kitty and Peter. Their first sexual encounter radicalizes what always happens during (good) sex: the dissolution of the boundary between self and other.3 Kitty and Peter confront their mutual anxiety about this dissolution together, as lovers.

[19] Peter and Kitty travel to the alien Breakworld, where they make love again.

Sex with Kitty remains confusing for Peter, which is typical of disabled sex. Whedon and Cassady spend two pages on the negotiations which precede Peter and Kitty's second sexual encounter (#21). Peter is "so confused...so tired." The top third of the next page features Peter, wide-eyed in the background. Kitty stands naked in the foreground, facing Peter, her back to the audience. The remainder of the page consists of three fullwidth panels, all tight close-ups: Kitty's bedroom eyes, blue-eyed Peter saying "now I am more confused," and finally Kitty looking down, smiling, powerful, triumphant, as Peter concludes: "...but somehow not as tired." Already Peter has learned not just to accept the confusing strangeness of sex with Kitty but to cherish that strangeness, to desire it. He understands that a successful, satisfying sexual relationship with Kitty must be based, in part, upon that strangeness.

[20] The off-screen sex which follows these negotiations appears to have been highly satisfying for both partners. We see Kitty and Peter in bed together, big smiles on their faces (#22). Kitty is on top of Peter in this panel. Like many real-life disabled people, Kitty may have discovered that her impairment is more compatible with some sexual positions than others. She seems to have remained substantial long enough for both her and Peter to reach orgasm. Kitty says "Whoof." Peter wants to talk. He has important questions: why so soon? So suddenly?

[21] Peter's questions allow Kitty to articulate the central thesis of Whedon's Astonishing X-Men: "Everything is so fragile...If happy comes along—that weird, unbearable delight that's actual happy—I think you have to grab it while you can. You take what you can get, 'cause it's here, and then..."4 Clearly, the happiness that an occasionally intangible woman shares with her sometimes steel boyfriend is both weird and unbearable. Yet Whedon's Kitty Pryde insists that people have not only the right but the responsibility to seek such happiness. The audience may be reminded here of Dracula's exhortation to "find what warmth you can" in the Buffy Season Eight comics, which date from the same time period as Astonishing; Buffy fulfilled that imperative with vampire Slayer Satsu (Whedon, Goddard, and Jeanty).

[22] Kitty and Peter successfully build a sexual relationship which unites her phasing body with his metal body. This turns out to be good news not only for the triumphant lovers, but also for the Earth itself. The narrative of Whedon's final story arc, "Gone," hinges on Kitty's ability to phase through the weird alien metal of the Breakworld. Kitty initially finds this difficult and painful. She must phase herself and Peter through the strange skyscrapers of the Breakworld when their spaceship crashes.

Kitty protests: "The metal—like Ord's ship, it's...I can't..." (#20) Kitty inadvertently solidifies. Kitty and Peter crash into a window and through a floor, coming to rest stunned but unharmed.

[23] The Breakworlders fire a massive planet-smashing bullet at the Earth. When Kitty phases through the bullet, the alien metal provokes an existential angst. Kitty struggles to phase the deadly bullet through the Earth. "Come on..." she growls. "I can't be that weak." (Whedon and Cassady, Giant-Size #1) The point, of course, is that she is the opposite of weak; she is, in fact, the strongest member of the team. This is consistent with Whedon's overall interpretation of the Kitty Pryde character. That character served as the inspiration for Willow Rosenberg, another tiny, courageous Jewish girl of immense, sometimes uncontrollable power (Kaveney 210).

[24] As Kitty speeds towards Earth inside the alien bullet, she tries to explain what is happening telepathically. "Not pain, not...just like it got in me. Like I'm meshed to this metal. It wants me here." Kitty speaks of her physical relationship with the metal in surprisingly intimate terms. This is also the first time she speaks of the metal's desire. If the Breakworld metal got in her and if it wants her to be inside it, then this metal sounds an awful lot like a lover. Unsurprisingly, this is the moment when Kitty associates the Breakworld metal with her metal lover, albeit initially in negative terms: "I'm in the cage I freed Peter from." If Kitty can associate the weird alien metal with the metal man she loves so much, she can reciprocate the Breakworld metal's desire, and save the earth. Having learned to love a metal man, she consummates her relationship with the Breakworld metal, phases the bullet, and saves the world. "Disappointed, Ms. Frost?" she asks Emma. "Astonished, Ms. Pryde," Emma replies. If even Emma can say this of Kitty, then Kitty is truly the most Astonishing of the X-Men.

"Such a Submissive": Dominance and Submission in the Sexuality of Emma Frost and Scott Summers [25] Emma Frost was created by Claremont and Byrne in the 1980s in Uncanny XMen. The adolescent Joss Whedon was a fan of the classic Claremont/Byrne X-Men comics (Kaveney 204).5 Claremont and Byrne created the villainous Hellfire Club, and gave the Club a strongly fetishistic look. Claremont populated the Club with dominant women such as Emma Frost. Grant Morrison built upon Claremont's fetishy aesthetic during his own run on New X-Men (2001 – 2004), which immediately preceded Whedon's run (Morrison and Quitely).6 Whedon has confirmed that he saw his work on Astonishing as a direct continuation of Morrison's work (Whedon, "Joss Talks"). Yet in the first issue of Astonishing, Whedon seemed to be stepping back from Morrison's fetishistic style. Whedon's Scott Summers admits that "quite frankly, all the black leather is making people nervous" (#1).7 But it soon becomes clear that the fetishism is not disappearing; it is simply taking a different form. "Do you at least like the costumes?" asks a delirious Scott, as he hallucinates himself a nice pink tutu (#5).

Scott's fetishism has a very specific shape. He is strongly submissive; as a sexual submissive, he has a fetishistic desire to be dominated, especially by Emma.

[26] Emma clearly recognizes Scott's submissive nature. By the end of Whedon's run, she is able to acknowledge that nature explicitly: "If I'd known you were such a submissive I'd've gone with an entirely different wardrobe" (#21). Over the course of Whedon's Astonishing, Emma and Scott discover what many real-world DS couples have learned: that "perhaps the single most important element in the power exchange is the solid emotional bond that develops between dominant and submissive" (Brame, Brame, and Jacobs 77). Once they've acknowledged the DS which binds them together, Emma and Scott are able to profess their mutual love for one another. "Stop pretending everything's the way it was," Emma insists (#21). She knows that things have changed between them, and she knows why: because of the DS. Scott agrees with her: "It's not!

That's the point! I'm in love with you now." Since this love has taken the form of a DS relationship, Scott's expression of love for Emma is also an endorsement of DS. Scott is wounded in battle. "He said he loved me," Emma marvels, tears streaming down her face as she stands over Scott's unconscious body. "This man, this extraordinary, ordinary man is in love. With me." Emma clearly loves Scott's love, and reciprocates it.

Their mutual, reciprocal love constitutes an endorsement of consensual DS.

[27] As the X-Men's team leader, Scott resembles real-world submissives, who frequently have "weighty responsibilities" in their daily lives (Brame, Brame, and Jacobs 74). Real-life submissives do not give up their personal power when they submit sexually: "the submissive in a consensual relationship does not relinquish social or professional power" (Brame, Brame, and Jacobs 54). Indeed, submissives often gain such power. Certainly Scott does. After a particularly intense DS scene with Emma, Scott experiences a dramatic sense of clarity. "Emma broke me right down, and I'm...

I'm seeing really clearly" (#18). Scott suddenly becomes much more confident, more decisive, more self-assured. He retains these positive traits throughout the remainder of the series. As Roz Kaveney quite rightly argues, this new Scott "is a significantly more effective leader than he has been for some time" (222). He owes it all to Emma, and to the DS relationship he shares with her.

[28] Emma gains as much from this DS relationship as Scott does. Liz Highleyman observes that "erotic dominance may provide the taste of power and agency that enables a woman to empower herself in other areas" (169). Emma fits this model.

Formerly evil, she now enjoys a "growing sense of responsibility" (Marx 182). She is a teacher respected by everyone (except Kitty), and a team leader respected by all X-Men (including Kitty). When Emma says that she is "clearly the only adult on this entire team," Kitty is deeply skeptical, but the line is funny because the audience knows that Emma can actually make a pretty strong claim to be exactly that (#3).

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