The Performative Horniness of Dawn of X

Adjoining bedrooms. That was all it took for the X-Men’s most infamous love triangle to suddenly become a canon poly triad in the minds of fans everywhere. Elsewhere in the same issue, we bore witness to Corsair’s partner hitting on Rachel Summers, his granddaughter, another character generally accepted as queer despite only the most subtextual information.

In the next issue, when asked if he loves someone, Cyclops demurrs, answering that he does indeed love a single someone, and implying that he loves more than one. In that same issue, we see the sentient island of Krakoa find its mate in Arakko. There is a very suggestive scene of tendrils entwining as the two islands come together, followed by a panel of flowers blooming whilst the mutants present (including both Rachel and Cyclops) comment that they “don’t want to know.” The implication is that we are witnessing the copulation of these islands, and that is borne out by the artwork; entwining limbs and a visible climax in the blooming of flowers.

Earlier, in the formation of the Quiet Council, Kurt Wagner declares that one of the primary laws of the island must be the propagation of the species–Make More Mutants. It’s a tacit admission that these mutants have sex lives, and when paired with this particular tweet from scribe Jonathan Hickman:

The clear implication is that the massive group party that both miniseries end in is just that: an orgy. But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s an implication. It’s not said on the page, in the story. It’s hinted at, it’s joked about by the series’ writer, but it’s not official. What is official is Rogue and Gambit talking about sex, the potential of having children. Their straightness makes it safe for them to do so. What’s also official is Sebastian Shaw implying octogenarians are whores and those same octogenarians slut-shaming Emma Frost, in a truly awkward scene from X-Men #3.

Excalibur #1 (Marvel Comics, October 2019)

Northstar, a gay man, was married in 2012, and as is the way of marriages, kissed his husband at the ceremony. We do not see evidence of his husband here. It’s a small blessing that husband is still alive I suppose, although he hasn’t been seen since a few panels in Iceman #9. Speaking of, Iceman gets some clever lines about wanting a “top man” in Marauders #1 (with no follow-up). He also had a relationship with Daken for a bit back in that solo title. Daken himself is allowed to be canonically bisexual in an overt way that women are not—he’s also allowed to be terrible in a way that women are not, fulfilling every predatory negative stereotype that surrounds bisexual people. In Marauders #2, Iceman is seen kissing a random club-goer. Shatterstar and Rictor have gotten together and broken up a few times, but first kissed in X-Factor volume 3 #45…in 2009.

Now, think back. Name one queer female couple that’s been allowed to actually kiss in the new X-Men paradigm. I’ll help: Mystique and Destiny, long partnered and assumed to be a couple since the 1980s, finally got confirmation this year; decades after one of them had died, and some months (presumably) before she is resurrected. That confirmation didn’t even occur in the current X-Men lineup—it was outside of it, in a History of the Marvel Universe. There is one other on-panel depiction of two women kissing: In alleged sexual harasser Brian Wood’s X-Men run, he wrote young mutant lesbian Bling kissing Jubilee (a thus far canonically straight woman)  without her consent.

Other—more subtextual—queer hallmarks from that ’80s era are the above-mentioned Rachel Summers, Storm’s outings with both Callisto and Yukio (as well as her overall adoption of a traditionally butch aesthetic), and this infamous scene from Excalibur.

Excalibur Vol 1 #24 Late July, 1990 Information-silkEditor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco Information-silkCover Artists Alan Davis [hide] "Tempting Fates" Information-silkWriters Chris Claremont Information-silkPencilers Alan Davis Information-silkInkers Paul Neary Information-silkColourists Glynis Oliver Information-silkLetterers Tom Orzechowski
Excalibur Vol 1 #24 (Marvel Comics, July 1990)

Kate Pryde’s queer childhood is rife with this sort of depiction, all of it problematic in some form. Chris Claremont is a straight man, and while his attempt to push for queer inclusion in the ’80s was admirable, every single potential relationship involving the character contains a level of age-inappropriateness; Illyana Rasputin is a decade younger than her, artificially aged up, Rachel Summers is older and fresh out of a relationship with an even older future version of Kate herself, and “Courtney Ross” above (actually the villainous Sat-Yr-9) is an adult improperly seducing her on her fifteenth birthday. Even her primary male crush, Piotr Rasputin, is approximately five years older than her, putting him above the age of twenty-one to her fifteen.

For all that many queer girls craved representation in Ms. Pryde’s apparent bisexuality, this element of her romantic life is a deeply troubling one; it equates her queerness with a kind of deviancy bordering on the illegal. Even were her queerness allowed to be made apparent, this would still be an issue in need of confronting. Since Claremont’s departure from the book, Ms. Pryde has had a few more boyfriends (again, men who were active adults during her teen years), but has only flirted with women twice in the intervening decades; once, in 2002, with Karma, and another brief bout with Rachel. Both were written by a returning Chris Claremont—no one else has explored this side of her or indeed of any of the subtextually queer characters listed above.

Karma would later come out as gay in a 2003 issue of New Mutants, and then never date a single person. This panel is from X-Treme X-Men: Mekanix #1 (Marvel Comics, 2001)

Rachel Summers (later Grey), intended by Claremont himself to have been the love of Pryde’s life (age dynamics aside), has not had a single real relationship since, in all that time; she got some brief flirting with Nightcrawler and a relationship with a Shi’ar named Korvus, but that in turn was revealed to be the result of Phoenix Force shenanigans. Once again, both of those followups were men. A version of Illyana Rasputin from an alternate universe fell in love with the Asgardian Leah during the Battleworld event, but were never seen again after the end of that event.

Aside from this year finally confirming the relationship between Mystique and Destiny, I’ve only been able to find one confirmed instance of a queer female pairing on panel. That’s between Betsy Braddock and Cluster, the female clone possessing one of Fantomex’s three brains (it’s a whole thing). That relationship is an outpouring of Betsy’s existing relationship with Fantomex; she dated him when all three brains were in the same body, and it was only after they were separated that one of the brains, revealed to be a woman, revealed that she was the one who was in love with Betsy.

Uncanny X-Force #7 (Marvel Comics, 2010)

Within a couple of issues, that would turn into a complicated game of the three versions of Fantomex each attempting to claim Betsy for themselves, as though her love—her very personhood—were a token to be won. Betsy would end up leaving them behind, and she, of course, has not been shown to be interested in a single woman since.

It all adds up to a picture where queerness and alternate sexuality for women is hinted at, implied, but never acted upon. There’s always this level of plausible deniability. We’re allowed to have outwardly queer creators on the series, but those creators aren’t allowed to be honest about their lived experiences in the work they create. The end result is a company and a product line that is braver about depicting a pairing of islands than it is about female characters dating. Queer men, meanwhile, are allowed to be promiscuous; dating, hooking up, kissing, discussing sexual preferences.

This isn’t about fucking, not really; it’s just that the question of Who Gets To Fuck has been inextricably linked to identity for time immemorial. I wrote recently about how the mutant metaphor isn’t a perfect one, and this is another way in which that’s true. These mutants are marginalized along an imaginary axis, and that axis is the only one that seems to really get properly explored. But X-Men has been as much about the personal dynamics as it has been about the superheroics, since its inception. With multiple heterosexual relationships depicted on panel during its storied history, why can we not have one queer relationship that lasts? Why can we not have one indication of a couple (or triad, or whatever!) in a long-term and stable relationship? Why can we not see it on panel? Of the queer relationships we do get to see, why are they exclusively male? It’s honestly weird, because several canon female/female relationships have been confirmed to exist outside the X-Men, in the pages of Runaways, Angela, and others. So why does this particular franchise, famous for flirting with the concept decades ahead of every other under the Marvel banner, refuse to simply lean in to what they’ve already built?

It’s further exacerbated in the question of bi- and pansexual characters, as much as any of us who use those terms will tell you in real life, we don’t stop being bi or pan just because we’re dating a person of a specific gender. It’s a part of us, it’s a part of our lives. But in fiction, especially in monthly, serialized fiction, the amount of space given to tell a story is limited, and even more so the amount of space given to depict a bi or pan character’s personal life. These characters do not become less bi or pan because they’re depicted in heterosexual-passing relationships, but those relationships are the only ones they get to be in for years on end.

Betsy Braddock and Daken aren’t going to be any less bi, but for those of us craving representation, what does it matter that they are if we’re not allowed to see it? There is so much more to being queer than dating and relationships! Queer people, gay people, bi and pan people, they form their own communities, their own found families. They consume (and create) different types of media from straight people! They have discussions about subjects straight people never would, because they are made to think about those things by a world that does not consider them. All of these things are part of queerness, and so I ask, if another straight white man is writing the X-Men in 2019, hinting at things that are not allowed to be, then in what way is the metaphor working?

I’m annoyed that I even have to be annoyed by this. Why do I even have to mention it? What’s the point of a jokey diagram of adjoining bedrooms if we don’t get to see the intimacy of that relationship? Why is the only potentially queer moment between two women framed in such an inappropriate manner? Why do these things happen while another straight couple is allowed to jump directly to the question of procreation? Why are two female bisexual writers currently associated with the X-Office when their very selves aren’t even explicitly allowed on the page? Dare I ask, what is the point of hiring them, if not for the unique experiences they bring to the table? Why do queer people keep having to ask these questions, and when will it finally be our turn?

When we’re profitable enough, I guess.

Nola Pfau

Nola Pfau

Nola is a bad influence. She can be found on twitter at @nolapfau, where she's usually making bad (really, absolutely terrible) jokes and occasionally sharing adorable pictures of her dog.