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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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[43] The figure of Hank McCoy gives Whedon and Cassady an excellent opportunity to critique the pathologization of furries. Representations of furries in popular culture are at best "unflattering" (Gerbasi et al. 199). At its worst, as in the perpetually pathologizing police procedural CSI, pop culture portrays furries as "sexcrazed fetishists who lose all control and inhibition when they see someone dressed in a full fursuit" (Caudron 182). Sadly, scholarly representations of furries are no better. The only significant scholarly study of furries (Gerbasi et al.) attempts to construct a "furry typology" based upon a comparison between the individual's self-perception and the "objectively human" species identity of the person (214). The concept of an objectively human identity is deeply essentialist. This concept also does not take the furries' descriptions of their own identities seriously.

[44] Postmodernism and queer theory have shown that gender is a kind of performance (Butler). I maintain that species identity is also a type of performance.

Furries perform a hybrid human-animal identity. They do so because, as Caudron argues, they "like what these human-animal hybrids say about human values" (182).

Thus the furries implement Donna Haraway's famous call for "lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines" (154). The lived realities and experiences of real-life furries certainly do not justify the creation of a new diagnostic artifact such as "Species Identity Disorder" (Gerbasi et al.

220). Ever since Stonewall, sexual minorities have been struggling to get alternative sexualities and minority gender identities out of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We certainly do not need to add more.

[45] The most radical forms of furry culture go beyond fursuited roleplaying to embrace a full-blown posthumanism. For some furries, furriness is about embracing the connection between human and animal, and erasing the distinction between the two.

The Beast models this radical posthuman furriness. Beast is a "monster" in Donna Haraway's sense: a "boundary creature" that destabilizes conventional biological narratives (2). Specifically, the ape-like Beast is what Haraway would call a "simian" (2).

A monstrous simian like Beast is politically significant: such simians breach the boundary between human and animal (Haraway 151). Haraway finds feminist pleasure in the connection of human and animal (Haraway 152). The gender-queer Beast contributes to feminism by disrupting normative models of masculinity. Similarly, Brand's desire for Beast disrupts heteronormative models of sexuality. Haraway suggests that "bestiality has a new status" in cycles of marriage exchange (152). We could say much the same of Brand's Bestial sexuality: it redefines the exchange of sexual desire in posthuman terms, subverting the heteronormative to promote a radically pluralist sexuality.

[46] Hank McCoy's furry identity comes, initially, from an accident of birth. But Whedon's "cure narrative" presents Hank with the option of abandoning his furriness. In the end, he chooses to remain a furry. This sends an important message to real-life furries. When Hank chooses to remain the Beast, he is asserting that there is nothing wrong with being a furry, that furriness is not a sickness, that furries can and should find happiness with furverts. This is a message which the real world's Furry Fandom is likely to embrace. It is also a very positive message for members of other sexual minorities. Real-life furries often integrate other alternative sexual practices such as DS into their culture (Caudron 203). Beast and Brand illustrate this inclusiveness nicely: he is sexually submissive, while she is strongly dominant. Like many real-life furry/furvert relationships, Beast/Brand contains a definite DS dynamic. Like Emma/Scott, the Brand/Beast relationship is configured as female dominant/male submissive. Whedon seems to recognize the feminist potential of such relationships.

[47] Until Brand comes along, however, Hank and his colleagues assume that Hank would have to overcome his Beastly nature to attain what Kitty calls "actual happy." Logan spins out the scenario: "Lose the fur...nice girl, couple of kids and a teaching job somewhere that doesn't get blown up too often?" (#4). Hank initially shares Logan's assumptions and attitude. At first, Hank equates furriness with the impossibility of sex. "I used to have a mouth you could kiss," he growls (#3). His subsequent relationship with Brand will likely reveal that he still does, but at first Hank would rather assert a human identity than embrace a furry one: "I am a human being," he declares. "Wrong," Logan replies. "You're an X-Man." Here Logan reminds us that any mutant is always already inhuman. And the inhuman is not far from the animal.

Eventually Hank chooses to embrace his inhumanity. He witnesses a gang of miserable mutants attack the Benetech genetic research facility, demanding access to the cure. He decides that he will not take the cure himself. "I've seen so much self-loathing, these desperate people," he reflects (#6). He assures Scott that "an X-Man doesn't quit. Not with the world watching." If his decision is informed by the fact that the X-Men are under heavy media scrutiny, then that decision is at least partly political, and the kind of politics it points to are the kind that flow from a minority identity: species, gender, sexual, or all of the above.

[48] In a nod to real-world furverts, Whedon argues that Hank McCoy will find happiness not by losing the fur, but rather by finding someone who will love the fur.

That someone is Abigail Brand. Brand is hard-nosed, inflexible, and abrasive. Hank is the only X-Man who is not immediately put off by this blustering bureaucrat. Cassady draws the back of Brand's head as she introduces herself to the X-Men; the audience looks over her shoulders, at the mostly dubious faces of the team members (#6). Brand announces that she is head of the Sentient Worlds Observation and Response Department (SWORD). "The government and their acronyms...honestly, it's adorable," Beast purrs. Hank's attraction to Brand is clear from the beginning.

[49] Hank becomes even more fascinated with Brand when he discovers that she is not quite human herself. When Beast and Brand are trapped under a massive snow drift, Brand removes her glove and produces a brilliant flash and (presumably) a wave of heat. The usually verbose Dr. McCoy is rendered almost speechless. "Oh," says his astonished face, and then in the next panel, from beneath the snowdrift, "My" (#21).

Why is Hank McCoy so impressed with Brand's superpower? After all, he has met the Human Torch; Brand's discreet blaze can't hold a candle to that. What impresses Beast is not Brand's power but its significance. Brand can pass for human when she wants to.

But her power means that she is not quite human, and when she comes out of the closet about that, she comes out to Hank. This is simultaneously a major act of trust on her part, and an assertion that as a superhuman, she is already outside the mainstream economy of desire. The implication here is that Brand would actually make a suitable companion for the more dramatically inhuman Beast.

[50] Brand is briefly captured by Breakworld soldiers. The soldiers threaten to rape her. Brand informs them that there are "two things you should know about me... I never get gang-raped on a first date... And 'Brand'... is not my given name" (Whedon and Cassady, Giant-Size #1). She then proceeds to use her flame powers to incinerate the would-be rapists. But there is more than righteous "take back the night" rage at work in this scene. Hank McCoy is watching from above. "And to think, I wasted concern," he muses. But of course, his concern is not wasted. It is likely that Brand intended Beast to witness her act of superpowered self-defense. Coming so soon on the heels of her cozy flame-kissed encounter with Beast beneath the snowdrift, Brand's dramatic and effective act of resistance suggests that her power is not only a valid physical basis for a possible consensual sexual relationship with Hank, but also a viable defense against non-consensual sexual assault.

[51] Hank's Beastly aspect finally begins to decode Brand's desire. "As a cat...

The lady is lying," Hank informs Scott. "She's hiding something big" (#24). It makes sense that the animal part of this furry would sniff out Brand's dissembling desire, particularly since it is Hank's Beastliness that drives Brand's desire in the first place.

Still, the full truth comes out only when Brand commits an uncharacteristic act of selfsacrifice. She takes a laser blast meant for Hank (#24). He is mystified: "why'd you take that hit?" Hank's the kind of genius who can figure out anything but love. When he pushes her, she finally reveals the truth: "I am so hot for you right now I could frikkin' pass out" (Whedon and Cassady, Giant-Size #1). Hank is entirely unprepared for this stunning revelation: for once in his life, the good Doctor is completely speechless.

[52] At the very end of Whedon's run, Beast and Brand acknowledge their mutual desire, and negotiate the terms of their budding relationship. Hank starts by admitting that he hates her. She not only acknowledges his hate but invites it: Brand loves the hate. As for her erotic desire, she pretty much wants to break him like a pony (Whedon and Cassady, Giant-Size #1). Suddenly it all makes sense. Just as Emma learned to speak explicitly about her DS relationship with Scott by the end of Astonishing, Brand has learned to acknowledge that she sees herself as dominant in her potential relationship with Hank. Like Emma Frost, Abigail Brand recognizes the benefits of female sexual dominance. She seems to understand that such dominance can challenge gender inequalities. It is especially tempting for Brand to take the dominant position in her relationship with Hank, given that he is so much more powerful than she in every arena other than the sexual. Brand's minor flame powers are no match for the awesome physical strength which Beast's mutation gives him, nor can Brand match the intellectual power of Hank's brilliant scientific mind. Luckily, Brand's sexual power mitigates the inequalities which exist between her and Hank. By assuming the dominant role in their sexual relationship, Brand creates the possibility of balance and equality between them.

Hank recognizes the value of Brand's dominance. He does not reject her offer. His only objection to her proposal is based upon his insecurity regarding his own furriness: "I'm a blue furry monster" (Whedon and Cassady, Giant-Size #1). This turns out not to be a dealbreaker. Brand's a green-haired alien, on her father's side. She insists that she and Hank are compatible in ways he does not have words for. The audience may be inclined to agree.

[53] The story of Beast and Brand suggests that a mutant furry and a half-alien furvert can successfully share dominance, submission and love. Whedon's story concludes with a scene of Beast and Brand teaching the next generation of mutants, while a voice-over repeats Kitty's words of wisdom: "If happy comes along, that weird, unbearable delight that's actual happy—" Clearly, Beast and Brand have been offered an opportunity for "actual happy." They should grab it while they can. They model this ethical choice for their young mutant students—just as Whedon and Cassady have modeled it for the young people who make up X-Men's real-world audience.

[54] In the end, perhaps the most astonishing thing about Astonishing X-Men is its powerful affirmation of minority sexualities. Whedon and Cassady have harnessed the unique power of the comics medium: its ability to unite words and pictures into a coherent, consistent statement of an idea. In this case, that idea is the simple but crucial notion that people should celebrate their sexualities rather than fearing them.

Whedon and Cassady make it clear that this idea is important to the disabled, the perverts, the furries. By implication, it is also important to anyone else whose sexuality is a bit different from the rest—which is to say, almost everyone. The lasting gift of Astonishing may be its contribution to a radically pluralist sexual culture. Our world needs such a culture at least as badly as does the world of the X-Men. Thanks to Joss Whedon and John Cassady, both worlds just might get what they need.

Works Cited Brame, Gloria G., William D. Brame, and Jon Jacobs. Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission. New York: Villard, 1993. Print.

Burnett, Tamy. "'I've Got Evil Hand Issues': Amputation, Identity, and Agency in Angel."

SCW5: The Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, 12-15 July 2012. Lecture.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:

Routledge, 1999. Print.

Call, Lewis. BDSM in American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Basingstoke, UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Caudron, Shari. Who Are You People? A Personal Journey into the Heart of Fanatical Passion in America. Fort Lee: Barricade Books, 2006. Print.

Claremont, Chris, and John Byrne. Uncanny X-Men. New York: Marvel Comics, 1977-81.


--. “Days of Future Past.” Uncanny X-Men. Issues 141-42. New York: Marvel Comics,

1981. Rpt. 2011. Print.

Cooper, Carol. "Leading by Example: The Tao of Women in the X-Men World." The Unauthorized X-Men. Ed. Len Wein. Dallas: Benbella Books, 2005. 183-200. Print.

Fawaz, Ramzi. "'Where No X-Man Has Gone Before!' Mutant Superheroes and the Cultural Politics of Popular Fantasy in Postwar America." American Literature 83. 2 (2011): 355-388. Print.

Gerbasi, Kathleen C. et al. "Furries from A to Z (Anthropomorphism to Zoomorphism)."

Society and Animals 16 (2008): 197-222. Print.

Gurley, George. "Pleasures of the Fur." Vanity Fair (March 2001).


Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Highleyman, Liz. "Playing with Paradox: the Ethics of Erotic Dominance and Submission." Bitch Goddess: The Spiritual Path of the Dominant Woman. Ed. Pat Califia and Drew Campbell. San Francisco: Greenery Press, 1997. 153-73. Print.

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