Avengers Assimilate: Identity Politics in ‘Uncanny Avengers’
Uncanny Avengers #5 was mostly a strong issue, the best of the series so far, in part because it gave readers the clearest sense of the team's dynamic and purpose, and in part because the guest art from Olivier Coipel was exceptional. Yet there was one part of the issue that didn't hit its mark.
Uncanny Avengers #5 features the formal unveiling of the Avengers Unity Team, the public name of the book's Avengers/X-Men mash-up roster. As part of the big reveal to the press, team leader Havok gave a little speech. And in that little speech he shredded the central thesis of minority identity politics. And that is a problem.
The pertinent section of the speech, by series writer Rick Remender, reads as follows: "I don't see myself as born into a mutant cult or religion. Having an X-gene doesn't bond me to anyone. It doesn't define me. In fact, I see the very word "mutant" as divisive. Old thinking that serves to further separate us from our fellow man. We are all humans. Of one tribe. We are defined by our choices, not the makeup of our genes. So please, don't call us mutants. The "m" word represents everything I hate."
One can see the outline of good intentions in that speech. The fight for equality is predicated on the idea that our differences should not divide us. Minorities should not be defined by difference, and equal rights and opportunities should include freedom from the expectation that one will think or act a certain way based on one's minority identity.
On Formspring, Uncanny Avengers editor Tom Brevoort suggested this reading; "I think that the point of Havok's speech is that people aren't all just one thing, and need not be defined by one aspect of who they are." Others have framed the speech in similar terms; "How can anyone argue against someone wanting to be identified as a human being first? It's a message of inclusion." Remender himself said that Havok is "trying to make people stop seeing a 'mutant' and start seeing a 'person.'"
All of which is admirable, but that's not actually the speech Havok gave. Havok's speech makes a huge leap from, "my minority identity doesn't define me" to a rejection of minority identity. Havok is a mutant, but he says the word is divisive and that it represents everything he hates. He asks people not to use it. He is, definitively and explicitly, self-loathing about his identity.
There is an implication in Havok's speech that "mutant" is a slur, "the "m" word," -- which, whether the writer intended for it to or not, very obviously draws parallels to the n-word -- but it's the word mutants use to describe themselves. It can be used pejoratively -- as can "gay", "girl", "black", "Jew" -- but it's still the definitive linguistic presentation of a minority identity.
Even if "mutant" were a slur beyond reclamation, Havok presents no alternative language. The movement away from the terms "negro" and "colored" to identifiers like "African-American" wasn't about rejecting labels. It was about rejecting the labels forced upon you and choosing your own. But when a reporter asks Havok what he wants to be called, he says, "How about Alex?"
The speech leaves us to believe that Havok doesn't want there to be any word that describes his minority identity. He's not saying that he's not just a mutant, but that "mutant" is not among the things he wants to admit to being.
That's not a message of inclusion. That's a message of assimilation. That's a message of erasure.
That's not good policy for any minority group, even a fictional one that exists as metaphor. It's not a position that any credible spokesman for a minority group would advance. Yes, equality means we are not defined by our differences, but it also means that we can embrace and celebrate our differences, and that we are not proscribed from thinking or acting differently. Equality means black is as visible as white, straight is as visible as gay, Muslim is as visible as Christian. No one is defined by their differences, but no one is denied them either -- and no one feels hounded into denying that their differences are part of them, part of what made them.
Visibility is a crucial component of equality. In the week that the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether couples should be denied the rights attendant to marriage because they are the same gender, polls show that a majority of Americans support marriage equality. We would not be here -- and the court would not be considering this question -- if we hadn't seen a massive shift in people's acceptance of gay rights, and that happened because of visibility. More people know someone who identifies as gay or bisexual, even if those people are just people they think they know, like Ellen, Anderson, Kurt, Mitchell, Rachel and Jodi.
We have a word for gay people who don't acknowledge their minority identity. Closeted.
The closet is a poisonous place that does nothing to advance gay rights; it's a place that holds us back from equality. By rejecting his mutant identity, Havok means to build a closet for mutants, or possibly a whole Morlock tunnel. He wants to be seen as no different from other superheroes, even though his experiences make him different.
Speaking of Morlocks; what makes this call for assimilation especially upsetting is that it comes from a character who, in every regard other than his fictional minority status, is emphatically representative of the majority. Remender, an able-bodied straight white man, uses Havok, an able-bodied straight white man, to tell people who don't have his advantages that they should assimilate. He's the majority in minority drag, or as ComicsAlliance Editor-in-Chief Joe Hughes put it, "he's a guy who looks like Matt Damon trying to talk like Chuck D." (Note: that link is NSFW if you aren't wearing headphones.)
Havok is literally the lead Aryan in a team that, when the series first launched, boasted more blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans than it did women or persons of color. (Havok used to have brown eyes; not anymore.) That makes the speech presumptuous, because Havok can pass.
If he takes off his tights and puts on normal clothes, he's another generically handsome white man, treated as such wherever he goes. His speech doesn't take account of mutants who can't choose not to be defined by their difference. His speech sends Artie and Leech scurrying back into the sewer. That's one of the many problems with assimilation; it only accepts those who are fit to be assimilated.
So the speech doesn't work in a fictional context. Is it fair to say that it also doesn't work in a real context, when mutants are not a real minority?
We hear that argument a lot, the "it's just a story" defense. But that argument does a disservice to the power and importance of fiction, and a writer advancing that position is saying they would rather be a hack than have to worry about the value and meaning of their work. Decades of Marvel stories are built on the established metaphor of mutants as a minority. One can't suddenly pretend it doesn't apply because it's inconvenient. One especially can't ignore it in a book like Uncanny Avengers, which is tacitly about minority visibility, and which launched with a fight with comics' foremost bigot, the Red Skull (though Red Skull's team was more diverse than the heroes).
So is it unfair to draw direct parallels, given that mutants are not an exact fit for any real world minority? Sure, it's unfair if the parallel doesn't resonate. But no one gets to tell an audience when they're allowed to identify parallels between a story that talks about mutants as a minority and their own experiences as a minority, and you'll find that mutants resonate in a lot of different ways. Kids growing up to be something different to their parents? Entire groups treated differently as a class? People being judged for their appearance and not their actions? It's not a thin line. A statement about minority identity resonates directly with all real world minorities. When a character stands up and makes a sweeping statement about identity politics, that's not subtext; that's text.
Havok's speech is disturbing as text, but readers have also criticized it specifically for appearing inconsistent with previous versions of the character, who once berated a teammate by saying, "You make it sound like being a mutant is something to be ashamed of."
It's perhaps a mistake to get too hung up on continuity like that. Writers should be just as free as artists to bring their own interpretations to a character, and readers should be free to accept or reject those versions depending on how it synchs with their interpretation. That's a pragmatic necessity of the form. Havok is one of my favorite characters. I don't like this version of the character, but I accept it as an interpretation. I hope the character's next writer is more in synch with my take.
But there is a fundamental inconsistency here that is more troubling given the character's role as a spokesman. By placing himself at odds with the principle of minority rights, Havok becomes unheroic and unsympathetic, and his beliefs sit at odds with his experiences. In a book that's rooted in integration, we're told that the Marvel civil rights message has shifted from, "Everyone is entitled to be recognized and accepted" to, "I don't mind minorities, but I wish they didn't have to be so in-your-face about it."
All that said, mutants do not have to be approached as a metaphor for minorities. Jason Aaron doesn't touch that theme in his X-Men work, and he still tells great stories. But Remender is seemingly using them as a metaphor in his series, per his recent interview with ComicsAlliance:
The idea of the team is, the Avengers have never helped the Mutants, and the Mutants are the minority in the Marvel Universe.
He went on to say:
There's never been a public team in the Marvel Universe that's dealt with it. It's always been, "The mutants are on their own. Life sucks for them." You've never had this big public Avengers team address the fact that these mutants are minorities, that there's a lot of hate and prejudice directed at them. The Avengers had never done much to combat that. Captain America realizes the mistake and he brings in some X-Men, he brings in Cyclops' brother Alex to lead the team and away we go.
Again, mutants don't have to be approached as a metaphor. But if you're going to do it, you need to make sure you know what you're doing, and if you're someone for whom identity politics is not a personal issue, you have to show special deftness and consideration, especially if you care to be taken seriously by an audience for whom this is very personal. You should probably also have the commitment and maturity to follow through on that conversation.
This was Rick Remender's response to initial criticism of Havok's Uncanny Avengers speech:
That is not an appropriate response from a person who chose, of his own free will, to engage with this topic through his work. This is a subject that matters profoundly, that people think about deeply. There's no room for dilettantes.
Rick Remender is a talented writer who clearly meant to say something positive. But if he's not able to engage with the topic of minority identity, he needs to leave it out of his work.
(This is not the first time Remender has advanced a hobo urine strategy for dealing with problems, by the way. Last week he tweeted, "If I'm ever a bitter old man fixated on mainstream comic work of my youth I hope God does the right thing and drowns me in cold hobo urine.")
All of this will pass, of course. Havok's bizarre speech struck so many readers as tone-deaf precisely because it is out of step with a culture that is increasingly receptive to minority visibility. Progress comes at a snail's pace, but it is still progress, and future writers will have more sensitivity to identity politics simply because they'll have had more exposure.
One day some other writer will write Havok in a way that is inconsistent with his current characterization. That's the beauty of taking a flexible approach to continuity. When that day comes, we fervently hope we will not find Rick Remender face down in a bath of cold hobo urine.
Additional material by Joe Hughes.