Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Pour One Out for 1990s Feminism

So, I was watching cartoons the other day. And I had such feels that I had to interrupt my Oblivion craft breakdown and talk about it.

I watched the pilot of the X-Men series, which aired in 1992 and ran until 1997.

Then, for contrast, I watched the pilot of the X-Men: Evolution series that aired in 2000 and ran until 2003.

And the difference between the two has a lot to do with just the style of popular TV and world-building that was common in TV shows of the different times…but there was something more, something about the female characters I wanted to try to explain.

X-Men (1992)

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This series starts with the titles–showing all of the X-Men with their branded logos: Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Storm, the Beast, Gambit, Jubilee, Jean Grey, and Professor X. This seems like a direct descendant of 80s TV shows that were designed to sell toys. But I digress.

The opening image of the show is a TV that’s running a news program about a dangerous mutant tearing things up (it’s Sabretooth).

Then we zoom out and see Jubilee’s foster parents watching the program and arguing about whether or not to register Jubilee with the mutant control agency. Jubilee is the Wesley Crusher of the series, both in that she’s the youngest character meant to be a viewpoint character for the kids watching the show, and also that she can be pretty annoying. Still, take note: The “viewpoint” character we are first introduced to is a Chinese-American girl.

Jubilee flees a Sentinal

The first action sequence in the series is when Rogue and Storm interrupt a Sentinal that’s in the middle of trying to abduct Jubilee. They beat up the Sentinal until they are thrown out of a window. Jubilee continues to run away from the Sentinal, eventually aided by Gambit and Cyclops, who psi-blasts off his head. Let me rewind for a second there. The first action sequence is three women and a robot. And yes, Storm and Rogue are in a mall, ’cause they’re shopping, like girls. But they’re shown as quick-thinking and powerful.

Storm and Rogue prepare to take down the Sentinal that's holding Jubilee

In the first episode, there’s a lot of talk about the relationship of the mutants with the rest of the world: the Mutant Control Agency (which is a “private company occasionally assisted by the government.” Blackwater, anyone?) has a secret agenda, people hate and fear mutants, etc. This is a world with mutants firmly established as a thing, a thing to which the world is reacting in a variety of helpful and destructive ways.

Callisto

A couple of episodes in, Jean Gray and Cyclops are on a date, and end up running into a bunch of sewer-dwelling mutants known as the Morlocks. Their leader, a brash, semi-masculine woman named Callisto, takes Cyclops hostage. When Jean comes back with the cavalry to save him, Callisto makes it clear that she doesn’t care about Cyclops’ powers or anything, she just wants someone to impregnate her. So, Cyclops is reduced to a hunky sperm-bag in her eyes, even though we know about his power, leadership abilities, and relationships with other characters. Nobody says to Cyclops, “Well, it must have been that tight costume. That’s what caught her eye. If you didn’t wear such a sexual costume…” They rescue him, no big deal, and carry right on.

To recap:

  • About half of the X-men team is female. They are team leaders, powerful, and integral parts of the plot. Jubilee is not a leader yet, but she is the viewpoint character.
  • The first action sequence in the whole show is three women fighting a Sentinal.
  • There is a lot of casual inclusion of women in the show: main characters are female, side-characters are female, random walk-ons are female.
  • The gender-reversed Damsel in Distress episode with Cyclops pokes fun at the trope as a whole: “See how ridiculous it is that this evil lady only wants him for his body? When we know he is so much more than that?”

A scene like that would never happen in cartoons these days. It would be considered too…blatant? Are we too cool to directly gender-swap sexist tropes? Is that passe now? Do we use “ironic” sexism now? ‘Cause frankly, I don’t see nearly the representation now in TV shows that there was in the 90s.  I’m not just talking about X-Men and cartoon shows. I’m talking about Xena, Buffy, Daria, and Aeon Flux. These are all mainstream or popular alternative TV shows that featured women as leads, and often had female side-characters as well (in contrast to the plethora of “woman makes it in a man’s world” shows, *coughCastleAliasMadMencough*). I mean, maybe my perceptions are skewed, but can anyone name off some TV shows from this decade, or even the 2000s, that featured female leads (not a female half of a duo, but actually a female main character)? In the world of animation I’ve got My Life as a Teenage Robot and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I know there are others, so help me out in the comments.

X-Men: Evolution (2000)

This series is a reboot of the whole show, in a very specific context: high school.

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The opening image of this show, before the titles, is a high school football games. First, cheerleaders. Then, football players: the home team makes a touchdown. Then we see Jean Gray taking photos.Then Cyclops, watching. Then, Todd Tolanski (a.k.a. Toad) stealing wallets. Three of the football players notice Todd’s thieving and go to beat him up.

"Hey, I gotta go beat up some kid I don't like or understand. BRB."

“Hey, I gotta go beat up some kid I don’t like or understand. BRB.”

Cyclops ends up sticking up for Toad, suggesting that they settle the issue peacefully and return the wallets. Instead, the football players beat up Scott/Cyclops, knock off his glasses, and there are eyebeam explosions and shit that Storm and Professor X have to clean up after the titles happen.

Welp, that was awkward.

Yes, instead of one Wesley Crusher character, there are a whole slew of Wesley Crusher characters. Each of the first several episodes introduces a new character: Shadowcat, Spyke, Rogue, Nightcrawler, and more. The adults in the series are Storm, Logan/Wolverine, and of course Professor X. We also get to see Mystique revealed to be disguised as an administrator in the high school. Yep. The high school is the battle ground. And that, I think, is where this series breaks down. Fundamentally, it seems like school administrators are battling over teenagers and using them as weapons against one another. Which I find kind of depressing, perhaps because it hits too close to home in the world of educational politics; we just have test scores instead of mutant powers.X-Men-Evolution-x-men-6480523-889-700

In general, I think the series is served poorly by its beginning in this world where mutant politics are not out in the open and already a thing. In X-Men, we had a whole world, even a planet as a setting. It felt like these mutants really did have the fate of the world in their hands. In X-Men Evolution, the setting is greatly reduced, to just a dang high school. And while the male:female ratio is about the same, the girls don’t get screen time in that same effortless way. We don’t see Storm leading teams, we see her standing next to Professor X like he needs her to push his wheelchair or something. The Shadowcat introduction involves a lot of Naughty Mutant Boy trying to corrupt Kitty Pryde and her trying to run from her own powers.

Seriously. I know she'll all undercover and stuff, but in the '92 series she straight up spontaneously costume changed and zapped a robot. This is much less badass.

Seriously. I know she’ll all undercover and stuff, but in the ’92 series she straight up spontaneously costume changed and zapped a robot. This is much less badass.

While the X-Men are still about 50% X-Women, the relationship with women in X-Men: Evolution is subtly less empowering enough to make the series disappointing, along with the great shrinkage of the mutant world. Did you want a world of drama and high-stakes big mutant battles? Welp, you get high school. The end.

8 Comments

  1. Anne Bean

    May 27, 2013 at 10:32 am

    After perusing lists of animated shows on Wikipedia, I can add Legend of Korra to my list of cartoon shows with female main characters. This was one of the only ones that had a female main character and was aimed at a girls over the age of 7. There were quite a few shows for little girls that featured girl characters, and most of them were from PBS kids. Examples: Nihao, Kai-Lan; Dora the Explorer; WordGirl; SciGirls. I am disappointed in the lack of animation aimed at middle-grade or teen girls, though. I guess they’re expected to like the shows that have primarily male characters, to get them primed for the rest of adult television. (/Dariamonotone)
    Now, there are some shows that have strong female characters as part of a team, like Teen Titans. But the point remains: representation! Wouldn’t that be nice?!

  2. Anne, excellent post. I have some thoughts on the shift from 90’s battle show to 00’s teen drama.

    The move doesn’t surprise me. There was a fantasy bleakness, starkly different than American reality, that the Xmen cartoon exposed in the 90’s, in an era when it was acceptable to show children a team of racial minorities, sponsored by a billionaire genius, who literally have to fight to stay alive in a world that hates and fears them. Very September 10th.

    Post 9/11, this couldn’t work. The 90’s push for inclusion made an Asian female p.o.v. character right for the times, which was definitely groundbreaking. It could still work in the following decade, but the paramilitary struggles of a minority group had to shift to a more “safe” version. 90s Xmen were Hunger Games, 00s Xmen were Hogwart’s. Now, in the comics, it’s all over the place: safe kids books for some X-teams, other teams are literally black ops assassins that Cyclops sends in to kill the greatest mortal threats to the team. Bye bye apple-pie Jean Grey (who is occasionally possessed by a star-eating alien goddess), hello ice-queen Emma Frost (who is occasionally possessed by a star-eating alien goddess).

    The look of the 90s X-women has always troubled me. I guess they got makeovers from Jim Lee and Rob Liefield, whose artwork is so sodding turgid that every body part looks like a gun (on the men and the women as well–is it any wonder how many cyborgs show up in this era?). This was the era in which every male character had abs, unless he had some sort of fat-power like Blob. Even the kids of Generation X had abs. Synch had them, and he was supposed to be about 14. Not-so-side note: Generation X was evenly divided male and female, but more than half female if we count a character like Penance, who was more like a mysterious mascot who didn’t see many battles. Once Synch was killed, the team was overtly female dominated (as I recall).

    Back to my earlier point, the 90s female Xmen look like porn stars. Psylocke didn’t make it onto the tv show, but Storm, Rogue, and Jean Grey did, and they all have flying abilities. Curiously, despite the fact that they all fly, they also all have approximately 1/3 of their body mass in hair, and another 1/3 in breasts, making them all distinctly non-aerodynamic. Psylocke was slightly more sleek and aerodynamic, but she didn’t fly (she was a psychic ninja, because she’s Asian. Or rather a British WASP whose mind was transferred into the body of an Asian ninja to create more “diversity” on the team. And busty ninjas).

    The tv show, as you point out, both overtly and subversively empowered female characters, but their appearance, with the overemphasized hair in particular, has always perturbed me.

  3. Anne Bean

    May 27, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Well said, Evan.

    Interesting to think how 9/11 influenced TV and representation. We stopped pushing a lot of envelopes, as a culture. We wanted safety. Or some whitewashed version of it.

    The explicitly sexual costuming, especially in the 80s/90s bothered me generally, but at least it felt like both male and female characters were being sexualized, even if it was a male gaze that was oversexualizing everyone. The male characters become all abs and pecs. (Which is not really how many women sexualize their male characters: Look at the number of women fawning all over The Hulk versus how many women fawn all over the Doctor.) The female characters become all breasts and hair.

    I had never thought about the hair thing. That’s fascinating. And very true. Except maybe the unsexed teenage Jubilee, the hair thing is huge.

    Psylocke is certainly a collective facepalm. I think some of the empowerment I see in the show falls through in the comics.

    And I’d like to think there is a special, special place in Hell for Rob Liefield, in which he is forced to draw realistic, anatomically correct bodies all day. And practice drawing lots and lots of feet.

  4. ” I mean, maybe my perceptions are skewed, but can anyone name off some TV shows from this decade, or even the 2000s, that featured female leads (not a female half of a duo, but actually a female main character)?”

    Lost Girl. If you have yet to see it, check it out. I believe season three is on tv right now. The first two seasons are on Netflix. Yes, she is a succubus and sex is a large part of the show (she swings both ways as she is a magical creature who feeds on sex), but she is one half of a pretty kick ass Fae fighting and mystery solving duo, both of which are very strong, independent and intelligent women and I would be very curious to see your take on it. The episode where Kenzie gets taken by Baba Yaga comes to mind as one that I particularly enjoyed.

    • Anne Bean

      May 29, 2013 at 12:04 am

      Lost Girl is fan-fucking-tastic. In my admittedly skewed (for wanting female characters that don’t die) opinion, it far outshines Supernatural. (Gasp! I know!) I’ve seen what’s available on Netflix and I love it. I especially love that Bo’s superpowers are sexual, and yet she does not suffer from too much male gaze.

      …It’s also a Canadian show. Quite frankly, I think American studios are a ways away from buying shows like that.

  5. Reverse Damsel-in-Distress roles post 90’s?

    X-men evolution, there is an entire episode where Mystique breaks out of prison and kidnaps Cyclops with the intent to torture him by leaving him stranded in various hostile environments (She was getting revenge, as Cyclops had abandoned her to get caught in the prison in the first place).

    She pretty much beats the tar out of him, and he ends up having to be saved by Jean Grey.

    Another way in which evolution excels over the 90’s show in terms of female representation? (at least in my opinion)

    Mystique as a self-motivated, in-control badass villain. The 90’s show had no female villains who didn’t already server someone else (ie Mystique was a slave to apocalypse). And in fact, how many shows can you name in the past 30 years even (or perhaps at all) that feature female villains who are NOT subservient to some greater evil male villain? They’re as rare as diamonds.

    Starting in season two of X-MEN evolution, and all the way up until the finale of the last season, Mystique is a villain who not only answers to no one, but even has her own gang of mutants who follow ‘her’ (the Brotherhood). Magneto is around, but he has a separate faction that he leads (the Acolytes) and Mystique is gutsy enough to make moves against him. She manipulates everyone and majorly influences the arc of the show, including single-handedly destroying the Xavier institute (where else in X-MEN cartoons and movies do they actually blow up the X-MEN’s base? I can’t think of any…) However, Mystiques’ black leather costume (or lack thereof) could definitely use some work….

    I’m not an Evolution fan and definitely prefer the 90’s cartoon, but I have to give Evolution props for making a pretty darn good main female villain, which I feel, are even more rare than main female protagonists. On a side note, if anyone can list some other recent primary female villains (ie, ones who do not answer to or serve a male villain), let me know. Maybe I’m just blind. Probably am.

    Also, very nice article.

    • Anne Bean

      August 19, 2013 at 6:25 am

      Great points/further analysis, Greg. I’m glad to have perspective from someone who’s watched more/further in the shows (X-Men:Evo in particular) than I have. That’s an interesting point about female villains and their possible male overlords. I’m gonna have to track that in some comics and see what I find…

  6. Also, this is just my personal view, but I didn’t think the 90’s characters were all that sexualized. If you look at common every day citizens in the show, they look like normal people.

    But the X-MEN? Its natural for them to have incredibly tone bodies and enough abs of steel to build a battleship. They’re the X-MEN, they train in the danger room. I feel like that’s like training for the Olympics, except on steroids (not literally). Villains would have the same reason to be in ridiculous shape – maybe even moreso, since they operate mostly on their own. Point being, the X-Men and the major villains are remarkable characters, and their super-fit bodies, at least as I saw it, was just them working really hard to stay in serious shape.

    I mean, just look at the Morlocks. They’re not all abs of steel…. probably because they’re not X-MEN trying to save the world on a daily basis.

    However, their costumes (X-men and villains) were certainly tight enough to ’emphasize’ how fit they were. But I think its a bit unfair to assume its with the intention of sexualizing them, as opposed to simply trying to convince the audience that, “Wow! Theys guys (and gals) really work out!”

    My own perception could be skewed, but when I watched the 90’s, I saw the latter point, and didn’t think they were sexualized at all. (Maybe because their bodies were still all covered up – look at storm, all white neck to toe with a badass cape).

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