Rick Remender, the Mutant Oppression Metaphor, and the ‘M-Word’

Captain America, Wolverine, Thor, Havok, Rogue, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, SunfireIn Uncanny Avengers #5, writer Rick Remender included a speech advocating cultural assimilation and the abandonment of a minority’s cultural identity. Needless to say, this has caused a bit of an uproar.

Before we get to the speech, here’s a little background.

For decades, mutants have served as an oppression metaphor in Marvel comics. The term “mutant,” unlike the derogatory “mutie” or “freak,” is the culturally accepted term used to refer to an individual who naturally develops (i.e. is born with) active or latent superhuman abilities. These individuals are largely marginalized and discriminated against.

More recently, in an effort to promote human-mutant relations, Captain America assembled an integrated team of humans and mutants with the expressed purpose of advancing relations between the two groups. Dubbing the team the Avengers Unity Squad, Cap then appointed former X-man Havok (Alex Summers) as the team’s leader. At the group’s first press conference, Alex had this to say:

Havok's "M-Word" Speech in Uncanny Avengers #5

This, is not OK. This is not a message of inclusion but rather a complete rejection of cultural identity. What’s worse is that this isn’t just one mutant’s personal rejection of his culture. He clearly says “please don’t call us mutants,” not “please don’t call me a mutant.”  As a public leader for his group, Alex is claiming to speak for all mutants and is thus undermining the entire group’s identity.

you make it sound like being a mutant is something to be ashamed of

Compare to Havok’s stance on the term “mutant” in the ’90s

But, the big problem here is the real world implications of such thinking.

As Steve Morris points out, if the word “mutant” is replaced with the preferred term of a real world minority “the scene becomes downright offensive.”

Imagine Remender having Kitty Pryde or the Thing say “please don’t call us Jewish. The ‘j’ word represents everything I hate.” Or imagine him writing Storm or the Black Panther as saying “please don’t call us Black. The ‘b’ word represents everything I hate.”

To be fair, mutants aren’t always used as an oppression metaphor. Sometimes they’re just a bunch of people who shoots lasers out of their eyes and punch bad guys really hard. But the issue here isn’t whether or not we should be viewing mutants as a minority within the content of the story. While promoting the series in an interview, Remender explicitly stated that “mutants are the minority in the Marvel Universe.” He then when on to say that the team would “address the fact that these mutants are minorities, that there’s a lot of hate and prejudice directed at them.”

This is how you address minorities being the subject of hate and fear?

The presented solution is for them to simply stop identifying (or being identified) as members of their minority. What’s worse is that there’s reason to believe that this isn’t just the views of one misguided character but rather the way Remender actually thinks.  As Remender put it, “I’m writing Havok and he’s really becoming a representation of me.”

So how did Remender respond to this criticism? By encouraging the people he upset to go kill themselves.

rick remender responds to Uncanny Avengers #5 controversy

Since then, Remender has deleted the tweet and apologized on his personal website for his “unfortunate choice of words” in the tweet (not in the comic).

While defeating the “M-Word Speech” in an interview with Newsarama last week, Remender argued that people shouldn’t apply “their personal interpretation of the mutant metaphor” (e.g. mutants as a metaphor for race) to Havok’s statements.

Aside from Remender’s previous remarks indicating that the story would deal with mutants as a minority, Havok’s speech clearly draws parallels to race by using the “m-word” as an allusion to the “n-word.”

As David Brothers puts it, “You can’t tell me that ‘the n-word’ has no influence on ‘the m-word.’ That’s crazy… ‘The m-word’ is related to ‘the n-word’ because it’s a euphemism for a hurtful word introduced with the idea of decreasing the power of the original word. Arguing that it isn’t related at all requires some pretty amazing mental gymnastics.”

If Remender didn’t intend for the “m-word” to be an allusion to the “n-word” then he’s a shitty writer. If he did, then he has some very misguided views about race relations and assimilation.

Cyclops slapping Havok for Uncanny Avengers 5 speech

Stephanie Lantry’s reaction to the ‘M-Word Speech’

It also doesn’t help when the character telling people to ignore a minority group’s identity is the blonde, blue-eyed leader of a team that’s 88% white and 66% male. Especially considering that the previous issue had the team fighting the Red Skull, whose team was more diverse than the Avengers Unity Squad. If the Nazis you’re fighting are more diverse than your “unity squad,” you may want to reconsider a few things.

Red Skull's diverse S-Men

Seriously, the Nazis are more diverse than the Avengers Unity Squad

I honestly believe that Remender thought he was saying something beautiful and wonderfully inclusive. That’s why he reacted so poorly when instead of getting a great big cookie for his efforts– he was met with criticism.

But, when writing a fictitious story specifically about an oppressed minority, you really shouldn’t get angry when people apply the story’s point of view to real world minority groups. If the sentiments don’t hold up in the real world, chances are they don’t really hold up in the story either.

Rick, from one able-bodied, white, hetero cismale to another, before writing about otherness and oppression, please do a little research. And if people get upset about something one of your minority characters says — instead of telling them to go kill themselves — shut up the hell up and listen to what they have to say.

19 Responses to “Rick Remender, the Mutant Oppression Metaphor, and the ‘M-Word’”

  1. 1 satanicpanic April 10, 2013 at 11:16 am

    People who say things like “we’re all just humans” give me the impression that they just want to avoid the subject altogether.

  2. 3 xmenxpert April 10, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    I agree. I feel the same way about the issue. I understand where Remender was trying to go, but it was phrased really poorly, and even offensively. It came across as the sort of view that only someone in the majority can have. Worse, it was idiotically naive. You can’t talk about mutant issues if you can’t talk about mutants. His response to the reporter was cute, but it also missed the point of the question.

    And yeah, the lack of diversity in the cast – a whopping two minority characters out of a cast of nine, in a book about promoting tolerance for an oppressed minority – is also terrible. Remender has a problem with diversity in his books. His hero teams are always made up of white people, and his villain teams are always far more racially and ethnically diverse. UA is just the worst offender, based on the concept, and the fact that his villain team were Nazis.

    • 4 Daniel Amrhein April 14, 2013 at 11:35 pm

      “You can’t talk about mutant issues if you can’t talk about mutants.”

      That’s an excellent point. You can’t talk about mutant discrimination without the word “mutant,” just like you can’t talk about racism without “race.” Stigmatizing the word “mutant” (or “black,” “gay,” etc.) doesn’t empower the oppressed minority but rather the privileged majority.

  3. 5 Jada M. April 10, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    First off, I love this reflective article on the topic of Mutants.

    But I’m a bit confused and maybe it’s because my understanding of the definition of culture is limited. It seemed Alex was rejecting that he’s defined by his genetics, that it was becoming a race issue, and was not remaining a cultural issue. It read like he was insisting that we’re all humans, except some of us are telepathic and some of us aren’t. But that insisting that it’s mutants or humans, there’s a construct forming, a definition that will cause discrimination.

    Thanks for your clarification!

    • 6 Daniel Amrhein April 14, 2013 at 11:26 pm

      Some of the confusion may be because using mutants as a metaphor for race isn’t perfect. In the comics, “mutant” is used both in a scientific and cultural context. Scientifically, mutants are a group with certain genetic traits but they also belong to their own cultural group. Unlike mutants, race is not scientific but rather a social construct.

      Mutants aren’t merely a group of people with an active X-Gene, but also a group with shared norms, values, beliefs, etc. (i.e. culture).

      It’s understandable that Alex wouldn’t want his identity solely defined by being a mutant but there’s a big difference between not wanting to ONLY be defined by your culture and completely removing it from the equation. Alex didn’t say “don’t think of me as ONLY a mutant,” (i.e. think of me as an individual who is also a mutant) but rather “don’t call us mutants” (i.e. there are no mutants). Without mutants there can’t be a mutant culture.

  4. 7 The Salty Runback April 19, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    I feel like Remender made the statement that much worse by not actually addressing what he’s getting at. I like the idea that someone is being a public figure for mutants in a team that isn’t the X-Men (although the cynic in me says they’re just trying to squeeze the X-Men into EVERYTHING) but it’s hard to take seriously when, as you said, the old diversity crew is anything but.

    I really enjoy Remender’s work. Fear Agent and Uncanny X-Force were great. I’m really enjoying this Red Skull in Uncanny Avengers, but man he’s kind of missing with the team he’s got here. Thank god Captain America is just crazy enough for me to really get in to.

    Or maybe his editor should have the wherewithal to make sure he’s getting a proper point across.

    • 8 Daniel Amrhein April 20, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      I agree. I like the over-all idea of the team a lot; it’s the execution that’s the problem.

      I think you hit another very important point about this issue. The fact that no one questioned this scene before it saw print is just more evidence that the comic industry could benefit from some more diversity among the people that actually create them. Gathering more people from different walks of life with different points of view and experiences would not only help prevent embarrassing things like this but would also promote more creativity.

      • 9 The Salty Runback April 20, 2013 at 11:34 pm

        An industry run by white folk tend to not notice when they’re being offensive. White men writing about women and minorities is just kind of funny after a while. For instance, Miles Morales being black and Hispanic doesn’t matter because he’s so non-racial. In a bad way. I mean this is a kid growing up in NYC who had a super-criminal uncle and they aren’t touching on any deeper issues?

        I get that the Ultimate Universe is just super hardcore but COME ON.

  5. 10 Charles Lominec April 20, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    While I understand the purpose of the mutant/oppressed minority metaphor, I have had trouble accepting its validity. How does one oppress someone with super-strength, invulnerability, telepathy, mind-control, magnetism-control, etc? They can only be oppressed if they allow themselves to be. Real oppressed minorities obviously lack those fantastic abilities. Still, I appreciate how the metaphor could open the mind of a reader, who maybe before didn’t think about or care about oppression, but maybe now does.

    • 11 Daniel Amrhein April 20, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      It’s not a perfect metaphor and you make a valid point. However, you have to look at mutants within the context of the fictional world in which they reside. Some mutants may have super-strength, invulnerability, telepathy, etc., but so do many non-mutant individuals. When government sanctioned super teams like the Avengers are coming after them (Avengers vs. X-Men or even more recently in All-New X-Men) I think there’s a pretty good argument that they’re effectively being oppressed. You also need to consider that the oppressing class has giant mutant-hunting robots, mutant-power-nullifying collars, mech suits, laser guns, and other sci-fi gadgets that even the odds.

      There’s also the fact that not all mutant powers lend themselves to combat situations. The X-Men might be able to take care of themselves but think of the scared teenager that just discovered that he’s grown extra eyes (Eye Boy), a fleshy beak and too few feathers to fly (Beak), six feet of extra-flappy skin (Skin), etc. The X-Men are just the mostly normal-looking, sexy mutants with badass powers and the training to defend themselves.

  6. 14 dosayit April 24, 2013 at 11:57 am

    I’m glad you were on the fresh pressed page, I found you through it. You’re my new hero, thanks for being a lovely and considerate human.

  7. 16 CainTheConqueror May 16, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Maybe if Alex had used whatever derogatory word they’ve come up with instead of “Mutant” it would’ve made more sense. I do know in the DC universe they’ve said that Mutant sounds bad so they call people like that “Meta-Humans” but these are two different universes. (Plus I think they did that as a dig at Marvel’s universally accepted term anyway).I agree I think he thought he was doing something amazing and when people were like, uh no, he got all pissy himself and sent out a tweet faster than chris brown leaving the NBC studios.

    • 17 Daniel Amrhein May 16, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      Lol, exactly. Marvel uses “mutie” and “freak” as derogatory terms for mutants. As written, it’s kind of the exact opposite the “mutant and proud” sentiment from “X-Men: First Class.”

  8. 18 J.D. Cook June 30, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    I respectfully disagree and think you missed the real point of his speech and Remender’s sentiment. I recently wrote an article on the same topic but from a different point of view. Care to see things from the other side of the looking glass?


    • 19 Daniel Amrhein July 2, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      Thanks for commenting! I’m always happy to discuss another point of view.

      I checked out your article and agree with your basic assessment of what Remender was trying to say but I strongly disagree that at all helpful. In fact, being “colorblind” actually favors the privileged group over the oppressed group.

      When an individual chooses to “not see race” this does nothing to actually combat racism. Instead, it allows white people to ignore history, dismiss examples of racism, and deny the oppressed group the means to unite under one banner and discuss shared experiences. Beyond The Gamer (http://beyondthegamer.com/2013/06/24/the-problem-with-uncanny-avengers/) sums up that last point perfectly: “MLK didn’t go up and say, ‘Call me Martin.’ He said what was happening to his people, why it was wrong, why it needed to change, and why his people were not going to stop until it did.”

      You can’t see racism or racial oppression without first seeing race. Right now, our prisons are disproportionally full of people of color. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (http://www.bop.gov/news/quick.jsp), the prison population is 37.2% Black (compared to only 12.6% of the US population) and 34.9% Hispanic (compared to only 16.3% of the US population). By not seeing race, all you’re doing if refusing to acknowledge that.

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