Last month, the fourth sequel in the profitable 20th Century Fox and Marvel Studios X-Men movie franchise was released to the home video market, selling over half a million units in the Blu-Ray format alone. X-Men: First Class continues in the spirit of the preceding films and its comic book origins by addressing social issues, most prominently civil rights, through the veil of a super powered conflict between the ideologies of peaceful versus violent methods of social change. Critics and audiences alike gave the film positive marks, lauding the filmmakers for threading the film’s themes through a multiethnic cast that reflected the central metaphor. Despite such an effort by the filmmakers and producers behind the franchise, among the myriad characters introduced in the five X-Men blockbusters, not one has been an American Indian.
If such a gap in representation was isolated to a single film franchise, we could likely attribute the failure to 20th Century Fox or Matthew Vaughn, the director of First Class. Unfortunately, the multimedia X-Men franchise, representative of a dozen others that principally target children and teenagers, struggles mightily to find ways to fairly represent American Indian characters.
While projects in other media have foregone American Indian characters, writers working with X-Men have at least tried by creating the characters of Mirage and Warpath in the 1980s. With the New Mutants title, Marvel wanted to explore further than ever before how each team member’s ethnic makeup contributed to the group and its success. This would seem to be an opportunity to introduce young readers to subtle traits that make cultures unique and valuable not just to the story at hand, but to society as a whole. It would be an opportunity to surprise the reader with cultural revelations that he or she may not have even encountered in a U.S. history classroom.
Instead, the writers largely succumb to the Hollywood expectations. Mirage is respectful of the ways of both modern America and her Cheyenne ancestry, but traditional Cheyenne chants are employed as little more than magic spells, their cultural significance degraded to a plot device. Warpath is a vengeful, powerful Apache warrior with a misplaced vendetta against the X-Men, a warrior whom, of course, also possesses the acute senses of a tracker. The two characters, as they were established, represent the polar notions of “Indianness” that have kept the American Indian a staple in storytelling for so long; nobility and savagery.
As the years passed, they both flowed toward the center, but at that point cultural ties are all but a backdrop for the drama of shifting personality and allegiances. The opportunity to forego stereotypes and develop powerful, meaningful representations of these perpetually misrepresented cultures had been missed.
Why is the popular culture inclusion and treatment of an ethnic group that makes up less than 2% of the American population important? It is not simply an esoteric question of representation within a pluralistic, democratic society. It is essential and pragmatic because these are the stories and images that the American people, especially young people, associate with reality.
Astoundingly, American youth are exposed to almost nine hours of media content every day, and this content becomes an inalienable facet of the paradigm through which they view the world.
The most popular attribution of this effect, for parents and policy makers alike, is the “mean world syndrome.” Resulting from findings of media scholar George Gerbner’s Cultural Indicators Project beginning in the late 1960s, the theory portends that exposure to mass media causes consumers to believe that the outside world is more dangerous than it actually is. A particularly disturbing example is that every capable woman seen on television there are 16 female victims.
This effect is called cultivation, and it extends beyond media violence. Minorities in particular grow up feeling hopeless, as they believe that the representations they witness on the screen are reflective of their own roles in society.
Because the media can have such indelible effects, and due to the pervasiveness of heavy media consumption in today’s youth, proper representation of minority groups becomes paramount for two reasons. First, media consumers use these representations to build their understanding of the world, including the minority groups that they will interact with; and second, because we reflect upon ourselves through the media we consume.
If the X-Men franchise truly wants to represent the best intentions of humanity through an American lens of multicultural cooperation, then they should start with the first Americans. As the media embodiment of the franchise that, by far, receives the most resources and broadest appeal, the next film about super powered mutants has an opportunity to address the missteps of the past. 20th Century Fox and Marvel have a unique opportunity to inform and surprise moviegoers by rejecting misleading stereotypes in favor of an honest reflection of a life lived as an American Indian and the strength that can be drawn from it. And the fulfillment of that opportunity is a more admirable power than any superhero will ever possess.
Eric Olson is a doctoral student in his first year in the Cultural Studies Program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. His current research interests include representation of Otherness in popular culture and media literacy pedagogy.