The (racial) truth in popular fiction's lie

Movie Poster Image for X-Men.  Poster design by BLT & Associates  Source IMP Awards.
Movie Poster Image for X-Men. Poster design by BLT & Associates Source IMP Awards.

by Mikhail Lyubansky

“Fiction,” said Stephen King, “is the truth inside the lie.” The problem is (apart from the necessary mental calisthenics involved in deciphering this comment) is that, for many filmgoers, it may well be the only truth they get, at least about some issues. It is therefore noteworthy that recent films (and of course the books and comics that spawned them) such as X-Men and Harry Potter have explicitly taken on racial issues and race relations. As a result, important issues such as blood purity, group prejudice, and even eugenics have become part of the dialogue – both online and at the kitchen table. With several more Harry Potter and X-Men films currently in production, these themes are likely to remain in our cultural dialogue for the foreseeable future.

Good stuff, dialogue. But what exactly does a popular franchise like the X-Men teach about race and racism? As just one example, what precisely does it mean when Magneto, the principle villain in the X-Men comics/films, tells Xavier, the leader of the X-Men, that he will fight for the liberation of his people (mutants) “by any means necessary”? Despite what are probably noble intentions on the part of the creative teams, for this generation of filmgoers it likely means a distorted view of Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement, an unrealistic understanding of contemporary race relations, and an unintended promotion of the racial status quo. That dialogue at the kitchen table? Unless it brings a critical focus to the films, it’s likely little more than a recapitulation of common racial mythology, which bear little semblance to the real world. In this space, I briefly examine two specific racial myths perpetrated by the X-Men franchise. For those interested, a much more detailed discussion of this topic, including an in-depth examination of the Magneto-Malcolm X parallel, is available here.

Myth #1: All oppression is the same

One of the most popular themes in popular fiction’s depiction of group prejudice is the drawing of explicit parallels between the plight of the fictional group and real-world historical oppression, most commonly the Holocaust and the legalized segregation in the South under Jim Crow. Although the comics pursued both analogies at length, The X-Men films have so far focused primarily on the latter, drawing a variety of explicit and unmistakable parallels between Xavier’s and Magneto’s fight for mutant rights and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. On the surface, the parallels seem well-informed. The mob violence and the hateful slogans (e.g., “The only good mutant is a dead mutant”) are remarkably familiar, and the anti-mutant hate groups, such as Friends of Humanity and the Church of Humanity, are clearly intended to represent real oppressive forces like the Ku Klux Klan and a variety of other Christian Identity and White Supremacy groups.

This is fine as far as it goes, but the parallel is built upon the flawed premise that the mutants’ experience of prejudice is analogous to the oppression experienced by Blacks and other racial minority groups. It’s true, of course, that both mutants and Blacks experienced prejudice, but the specific prejudicial attitudes that people hold and express toward these groups is often very different. Consider a 2002 study by Susan Fiske and her colleagues in which racially diverse samples of undergraduate students and adults rated 23 different out-groups on the basis of how society views them on two dimensions: expressed warmth (i.e., how positively people feel toward out-group members) and perceived competence (i.e., how competent they perceive out-group members to be).

Results consistently revealed three different types of prejudice: paternalistic prejudice (high warmth towards the group with low perception of the group’s competence); contemptuous prejudice (low warmth towards the group with low perception of the group’s competence); and envious prejudice (low warmth towards the group with high perception of the group’s competence). While this study did not include mutants in their list of out-groups (clearly a glaring oversight!), X-Men fans know that though mutants tend to be regarded with little warmth by humans, they are nevertheless perceived to be high in competence. This combination would place them squarely into the envious prejudice category, quite far from how “Negroes” were perceived by the White majority prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement. Which brings us to Myth #2.

Myth #2: An oppressed group is in some way responsible for its own oppression

The distinctions above are highly relevant. Although oppressed groups that are viewed by the dominant majority with contempt are not necessarily powerless (even nonviolent protest is a show of power), unlike mutants, they typically lack the physical force or political power to stop their own oppression. Under these circumstances, placing the burden of peace and tolerance on the oppressed group (this is essentially Xavier’s agenda) can itself be seen as a subtle form of oppression, for this expectation blames the victimized for their own victimization. Thus, while it’s reasonable to expect super-powered mutants to make certain accommodations in order to fit into mainstream society, this expectation is hardly reasonable in the real world, where ordinary human beings comprise both the oppressed and the socially privileged. Even if we believe (as I do) that those with less power vis-à-vis mainstream society deserve greater protection, no oppressed group should ever be expected to bear the burden of accommodating to their own oppression.

Applied to real history, Xavier’s mindset would have blamed Jews in Nazi Germany and Blacks in the antebellum South for their victimization--and would have expected them to make accommodations for the sake of peace, rather than demanding that the society itself become more accepting and less oppressive. In fact, this is what actually occurred as Nazis blamed the Jews for their condition and slave owners rationalized the institution of slavery by arguing that the “uncivilized” Africans needed the firm hand of the slave masters to lead happy and productive lives. These arguments are ridiculous, of course, but less extreme versions are still consistently used to justify current racial inequities in education and income (e.g., “they [African Americans] should spend more time doing homework and less playing basketball”), as well as incarceration rates and other important outcomes. By comparing mutants to Black Americans, the X-Men franchise unwittingly endorses this conservative agenda.


This propagation of racial mythology is not a minor flaw, and the resulting probable harm to readers’ and viewers’ thinking about race relations should not be dismissed or minimized. And yet, unlike Marc Antony, I come mostly to praise Caesar, not to bury him. There are frequent moments when the X-Men creative teams manage to turn a superhero soap-opera into an opportunity to meaningfully engage readers and viewers of all ages with social issues that are too often ignored by both the mainstream media and mainstream educational institutions. Even if the X-Men comics and films at times fail to adequately or accurately convey what scholars have learned about prejudice and group relations, they nevertheless open the door for historians and social scientists to weigh in and provide their own perspectives. What I'm saying is this: Have fun at the movies. Just don't expect them to deal with serious and controversial issues with much subtlty, finesse, or even accuracy -- even if they seem like they really want to.

This essay is adapted from a longer chapter in The Psychology of Superheroes published by BenBella Books.

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Comments 18 comments

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

This an interesting hub.  I doubt many comics, movies or books produced for the audience X-men was pointed at would hold up under deep psycho-social analysis very well.  Subjected to academic rigor on some premise or another upon which they may have been loosely drawn, these light entertainment pieces can't help but fall apart.  The target audience is neither inclined to read that deeply into the story nor, likely, equipped.  Criticism often digs so much more out of things than was ever put in, assigning values and making connections beyond authorial intent... it's like a rorschach test.  I recognize that in the life of a literary piece (a stretch for X-men but play along), authorial intent frequently means squat.  We're left with what's implied.  But, that gets back to the inkblot. 

I believe for most viewers not so attuned to the nuance of ethnic study, the movie was simply about carving out space and respect.   I don't honestly believe that the average 15-24 year old is going to be damaged by the message X-men brought.  Nor will the movie move our race issues backward or even stall them at all.  Frankly, I doubt there is any impact at all.  It is fine fodder for a thesis though.

Good hub, nice start to your hubbing carreer. I'm glad you're here.  I look forward to reading more. 

lyubansk profile image

lyubansk 8 years ago from Urbana, Illinois Author

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Shadesbreath. It's really awesome to hear what readers think. And thanks also for the supportive comments!

I agree that the movies are probably mostly seen as being "about carving out space and respect" (nicely put, BTW). But I maintain that it is partly through popular fiction like this that we learn what we believe about race and race relations. Most of the learning, as you suggest, takes place outside our level of awareness. My purpose, in part, is to try to make myself and others aware of what we're learning

desert blondie profile image

desert blondie 8 years ago from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen

Although you don't mention too much about the Harry Potter books/movies here, you did include them in your premise. As a mother who pre-viewed and/or pre-read the books/movies of her children, I admit I was impressed by the wide diversity of appearances of the 'good' characters in Harry Potter, and by the "oh so normal and nice" appearances of some of the most horrid characters. Loved the emphasis that author JKRowling put on teaching young readers to  not assume too much just from outward form, and to seek deeper to discover another's good values or 'evilness.'

Hill Country profile image

Hill Country 8 years ago from San Antonio

I haven't read all of this yet but I can immediately debunk Myth #1. Much has been written before this of the subconcious envy of the white man of the black man's purported sexual prowess and, particularly in the Fifties, if they didn't outright steal the black mans' form of music and turn it into rock'n'roll, then they sure took a lot of crib notes.

Also, don't forget the mainstreaming of black traditions like 'slapping fives,' 'giving dap,' 'bein cool' in the forties and fifties.

Your arguments are very intelligent, but for you to say there hasn't been a subconscious envy of the black male -- on a level so deep it's unconscious -- is to miss a glaring point. We take for granted that the very term "rock'n'roll" originated out of the black vernacular. 

A latter day example might, say, be the period between 1971's "Shaft" and the emergence of Eminem in the late nineties.

lyubansk profile image

lyubansk 8 years ago from Urbana, Illinois Author

Hill County, thanks for the comment. I want to reply to its substance, but first I just want to be clear that I'm debunking Myth #1 too. :)

That said, I never said that there has never been unconscious envy of the Black male. Now would I say that, because I agree with you entirely (both with the argument and with the excellent examples). But this unconscious envy is not relevant here for two reasons: 1) It is unconscious...and the research participants were asked to report on their conscious attitudes (it's actually possible to measure unconscious attitutes using tools like the Implicit Association Test, and I promise to write about this eventually) and 2) Even if we accept (as I do) the notion of unconscious envy, it has to be noted that envy of Black men only exists in very specific domains, namely sports, entertainment, and sex. Elridge Cleaver, among many others, wrote about how White men were willing to concede Black superiority in these areas in part to emphasize White superiority in the things that really mattered, like intelligence. The point being that even a White person who expresses envy of Blackness in the domains listed here would not usually be willing to switch places with him.

lyubansk profile image

lyubansk 8 years ago from Urbana, Illinois Author

Desert Blondie,

I just posted a hub specifically about Harry Potter. See

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

1) A typical man is envious of any other man that he FEELS is superior to him in anyway, race is incidental and applied after the fact (whether accurately or not). 

2) Is it always going to be the case that when some aspect of humanity contributes some idea to the world, whether small like a hand gesture or dance or large like a principle of physics, we're going to argue like craven jackals over the scraps of credit rather than simply embrace and enjoy another victory for humanity?

An Again profile image

An Again 8 years ago from Boston

Very interesting hub. My argument with it (in addition to what you're already discussing with Hill Country) is that you're forcing the X-Men to fit into a box of your own making. For instance, the most poignant scene to me is the one where Storm declares that they don't need to be fixed--both the cure and her lovely response to it make a strong argument that it's all about homophobia.

Magnito's origins and his 'never again' stance makes it at least as much about the Holocaust as about black/white racial tensions. I think the greater truth is that the trilogy is about prejudice and hate; it lends itself to any prejudice that the viewer happens to be grappling with.

funnebone profile image

funnebone 8 years ago from Philadelphia Pa

Umm shades took my answer two above...

Very well done. I reject your implication that the conservative agenda is about supressing blacks. I feel that welfare programs supress people much more than expecting them to live up to their potential. The problem with any discussion of race relations is the powder keg atmosphere which prevents any real discussion. When addressing any miinority or percieved minority, the ice becomes too thin for any honest discourse.

As I have posted on several other HUbs, race relations will only improve by attrition. Each generation becomes more familiar and accepting of others because due to forced assimilation. I personally have no recollect of the 50's or 60's because I wasn't born. I am no more accountable for the actios of other white people are than I am for what phase the moon will be tonight. Much of the racial issues we face today are brought on by forced awareness of issues that otherwise we wouldn't be aware of. White people are condemed to be white no matter how much guilt is expressed upon them. To continually back them into a corner by pointing out instamces that they are not inolved in only serves to further racial isolation. I am impressed with Tiger Woods as a golfer, not as a black golfer. When some henious crime happens to a person I feel sorrow for the person, not for the racial implications.

Obama had a chance to move these isues forward but took advantage of perceived discrimination by bringing up the race issue. I never once saw a interview with anyone saying they wouldn't vote for him because he is black but I saw plenty of interviews with talking heads saying that this would be an issue.

Racial divide has become an enterprise that feeds an prospers off keping division stewing. Through law suits, publicity and politics, the gap never closes.

For all of the talk about not seeing color, color is the first identifier pointed out.

Have faith in humanity and in the individuals. Through interpersonal contact and acceptnce is how we will progress, not through bludgeoning with past regressions and gererational accountablility.

An Again profile image

An Again 8 years ago from Boston

Since I was passing by...

"Obama had a chance to move these isues forward but took advantage of perceived discrimination by bringing up the race issue." Actually, no he didn't. Through much of his campaigne, if he spoke about race at all, it was to say that this is one America. The less he talked about it, the more everyone else did until he had to say something.

"I never once saw a interview with anyone saying they wouldn't vote for him because he is black but I saw plenty of interviews with talking heads saying that this would be an issue."

Relatively few people would get on TV and say, "Yes, I'm racist. Please run this repeatedly across the nation." However, there have been many articles and TV news spots about the anonymous exit polls where people have seemingly reported how race factors into their vote--or lack there of.

"For all of the talk about not seeing color, color is the first identifier pointed out."

I've always hated that, "I don't see color" thing. It sounds like a medical problem. What these well meaning people mean is, "I don't care. I don't judge anyone based on their color." Which is pretty. Personally, I'm a bit near sighted, but otherwise, my eyes are just fine. I can see people who are black, white, and various shades in between or around.

Most importantly, while I don't think you should be blamed for things that happened before you were born, or even things that have happened since that you didn't do, racism won't be healed by pretending the past didn't happen. Nor, in my opinion, will it be healed by ignoring the emotions of those who feel still effected by what's gone before.

lyubansk profile image

lyubansk 8 years ago from Urbana, Illinois Author

I couldn't agree more with An Again's response to Funnebone -- with every single sentence. But in regard to your earlier comment, I'm not forcing the X-Men to fit into my box. The box was made by the writers (see quote below from wikipedia). I'm just responding to their intentions. As for the homophobia, that was present in the film, of course, but it was a much less important thread in the actual comics, in part because there was an industry prohibition in effect for a long time (since dropped) that prevented this kind of content.

The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice. Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont, 1982

An Again profile image

An Again 8 years ago from Boston

...The box still stands.  Racism *bigotry and prejudice*,the quote goes.  Unless sexism, homophobia, nationalism, even classism have ceased to be bigotry and prejudice, this is still a metaphor that can work well with any hatred or intolerance. 

I think, essentially, we agree.  But where you see a flaw of "premise that the mutants’ experience of prejudice is analogous to the oppression experienced by Blacks and other racial minority groups.." I see the beauty of not being *only* about race.

lyubansk profile image

lyubansk 8 years ago from Urbana, Illinois Author

An Again: Agreed...the films (and the comic books) are not *only* about race, and I do think there is beauty and power in having films that deals with multiple forms of oppression. But race is their central thrust and my primary interest, so that's what I focus on. Thanks for your excellent points!

Hill Country profile image

Hill Country 8 years ago from San Antonio

lyubansk, I never knew Eldridge Cleaver said that! Must have been Soul on Ice. I'm amazed at the breadth of your knowledge on these subjects. I'm already positive that the Autobiography of Malcolm X is in your top 5 or 6 all-time list, as it is mine. I love Alex Haley's prose in it.

As to your response to my comment, I'll concede. Plus you pointed out (I guess reminded me) of the White man's already conceded in those areas so it's a moot point. If you never have, you must read Chester's Himes classic "If He Hollers Let Him Go"! I put it up there with Native Son (although not Invisible Man).

lyubansk profile image

lyubansk 8 years ago from Urbana, Illinois Author

Thanks for the nice words, Hill Cuntry. Yes, it was in Soul on Ice, specifically in the chapter: "Allegory of the Black eunuchs" I've read Native Son (didn't enjoy it, though I realize that probably is not the point) and Invisible Man, which I liked a lot. I'll have to check out If He Hollers Let Him Go. I'm also very fond of Roots (speaking of Haley), Black Like Me, and Life on the Color Line by Greg Williams. This last one is not nearly as well known as the rest, but describes the biracial experience better than anything else I've seen.

bill yon profile image

bill yon 7 years ago from sourcewall

speaking of the X-men,I always assumed that proffesor X was cast in the role of Martin Luther King and Magneto was cast in the role of Malcom X

Valerie F profile image

Valerie F 7 years ago from Idaho Falls, ID

Shadesbreath, I think you underestimate comics' target audience when you say comic readers aren't generally inclined or equipped to read deeply into them.

Comic book readers are older and much more sophisticated now, and comics written for kids have been the exception rather than the norm for maybe 20 years now.

Mr. Lyublansky, I do think you are being overly harsh of Professor Xavier in saying he'd blame the Jews for the Holocaust or African Americans for slavery. He, like Martin Luther King, Jr., supported making society more accepting of mutants through education and non-violent means. He opposed Magneto not because he was opposed to mutants taking their rightful place in the world, but because he did not believe mutants were inherently superior and therefore had a right to assert their superiority through violence.

lyubansk profile image

lyubansk 7 years ago from Urbana, Illinois Author

Thanks for the comments Valerie. I take your point but maintain that the extreme views above are nevertheless implied. This hub comes from a longer book chapter I published a couple of years ago. If anyone is interested, the chapter can be found here:

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