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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.