X-Men, Mystique, and Identity Politics: A Transgender Metaphor

Recently, I saw a YouTube video that broke down The Matrix as a trans woman’s coming-out metaphor.  The movie, made by two trans women, certainly holds up to that interpretation.  It lead me to thinking about my favorite subplot in the X-Men Cinematic Universe — that of Mystique and her relationship to her body.

I submit that Mystique, likely unintentionally, represents the experiences and hypervisibility of trans people.  Her arc, particularly in X-Men: First Class and subsequent movies, draws heavily from trans people’s reality.

Allow me to explain:

X-Men: First Class — Mystique, Beast, and the Authenticity of Flesh

To begin with, Mystique begins her chronology in the series as a street kid who steals to survive.  When Charles accepts her into his home, she can survive, but only by hiding her true self.  She ‘passes,’ and that means no one sees her for who she is except Xavier.

Additionally, the form she chooses says a lot about acceptable beauty looks like in that time and place.  Raven Darkholme is white, blonde, blue-eyed, and curvaceous.  Her beauty makes her unthreatening to a society that she and Xavier both believe will want to hurt her if it knew the reality of her body.  That fear defines her childhood with Xavier, and when she reaches adulthood, it becomes clear how traumatic that fear was.

She asks Charles “Would you date me?”  After recoiling because he sees her as a sister, he tells her he would.  She turns to him in her real form.  “Like this?”

Charles Xavier can’t reply.  The implication, obviously, is that no, he couldn’t.  In his eyes, the reality of her body is something that he wants to hide, even from himself.

This theme of hiding carries forward into her interactions with Hank McCoy, whose physical mutation is just as easily hidden, making him just as closeted.  Hank, as the subject and unknowing maker of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ joke, does not get to choose his moment of revelation.  Xavier takes that away from him by assuming that a space is safe by virtue of mutants being present in it.  This is a problem Xavier continues to have, and one I’ll have to analyze some other day.

But Raven sees him as beautiful because he is like her.  The world would recoil in disgust at the reality of their authentic bodies, and she thinks that means they should love each other anyway.

But Hank can’t love her any more than Xavier can.  In fact, he makes use of her blood to try and create an antidote to the visibility of his own mutation.  This fills Raven with a sense of increased self-loathing, but all is not lost.  She chooses to reject him, ultimately, for rejecting her reality.

Mystique is also the character who insists on new names.  She names herself, Alex Summers (“You have to call him Havok, that’s his name now”), Xavier, and Magneto.  Her choice to take these new names obviously reflects a common trans experience.

But the clinching thing about Mystique as a trans metaphor, or even an implicitly trans character, is her choice to force the world to see the reality of her body.

When she stands before Xavier in the nude, she’s forcing him to recognize her for her real self.  Mystique is not Raven Darkholme, Charles Xavier’s buxom, retiring little sister: Mystique is something else.  She makes him confront that before she can leave him successfully.

Mystique forcing the world to reckon with her body comes back in a big way in X-Men: Days of Future Past, so let’s move on to that film.

X-Men: Days of Future Past — Public vs. Private and the Body as the Political Act

Days of Future Past is one hundred percent about Mystique’s body.  The objectification of the mutant body, represented by the corpses of Angel Salvadore, Azazel, and Sean Cassidy, spurs her to action.  Mystique’s body in particular has the capability to save or doom mutantkind.  The villain, Trask, seeks to have Mystique’s body under his control.  Mystique revealing her body in public creates the climactic tension of the film.  In fact, Mystique’s body and what happens to it defines the course of mutant history.

In the dark timeline, Trask Industries obtains access to Mystique’s body (living and dead), and from it makes the Sentinels that wind up destroying mutantkind.  This inspires the entire plot of the movie — which is for Wolverine to prevent her from murdering Bolivar Trask, the man behind the company.

But in the bright timeline, Mystique’s potential for vengeance must play out in public rather than in private.  In a situation with the whole nation watching, Mystique must decide whether her vengeance is worth proving to the government and the human public that mutants are dangerous.

She chooses, instead, another path.  Dropping her weapon at the critical moment, she chooses to walk away.

And in so doing, she creates the way humankind sees mutants, or at least sets the tone for discussion.  As a hero, she averts the suffering that would have come with the violation of her body.

The results of this public self-revelation inform the cultural context of X-Men: Apocalypse, too.

X-Men: Apocalypse — Hypervisibility and Heroism

In XMA, we see Mystique at work rescuing mutants.  She saves Nightcrawler from an underground fighting ring and brings him back to the Xavier Institute.

However, Mystique is far more present in the flesh of Raven Darkholme for the first two acts of the film.  Her natural body only appears without her consent until the time comes to actually fight Apocalypse on the ground.

Prior to that, though, we learn a lot about her reasons for being uncomfortable with that body.  In the intervening ten years between Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, Mystique has become hypervisible.  The reality of her body comes with scores of politicization and opinions put onto her body by others.

Like a trans person who has come out of the closet to find that now everyone they know comes to them about the smallest trans-related issue, Mystique has become a public face to a whole slew of mutant-related issues.

Mystique is tired, burned out by her own visibility.  She draws strength, however, when the young mutants remind her that that moment of revelation meant the world to them.  Her sacrifice of her privacy showed them that they were not alone.

No surprise, then, that Mystique chooses to stay and lead the X-Men at the end of the film.  Her survival and leadership set an example that is desperately needed for her people.

Overall, Mystique’s arc in the most recent three X-Movies very much parallels her to the experiences of trans people.  Notions of passing, of being in or out of the closet, and the hypervisibility that comes with being publicly ‘other’ are all dealt with extensively in her story.

My hope is that later installments of the franchise will choose to explore this more explicitly — Mystique would be an excellent character to ‘make’ canonically transgender.  But, until then?  Her story can allegorically give hope to trans kids who never get to see themselves as anything but jokes or monsters.

After all, that’s what she did for me.

Murphy Leigh

Murphy is a vaguely femininish malady who spends most of their time worshipping at the altars of Lois Lane, Chloe Sullivan, Jean Grey, and Wanda Maximoff. Their first confirmable event-memory is Princess Leia at the start of A New Hope. Has more in common with Lex Luthor than Lex Luthor would probably like to admit.

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  • Carley Scott

    There’s actually a scene in the first movie that makes this pretty explicit. When she propositions Magneto, he refuses until she shows him the reality of her body, at which point he declares her perfect. There’s a very strong trans allegory here — you don’t have to be “passing” to be beautiful or sexy.

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