I’ve previously discussed several ways mutants are persecuted in the Marvel Universe. Since the X-Men are superheroes, most of these systems of oppression tend to take the form of things that can be punched into submission. Unfortunately, most real world modes of oppression aren’t so easily overcome.
Systemic oppression occurs when the established law, customs, and practices of a society systematically mistreat members of a particular group based solely on their inclusion in said group.
This oppression doesn’t make an exemption for physical prowess. Nightcrawler may be a badass on the battlefield but that doesn’t mean he — and those like him — don’t face discriminated in the job market, courtroom, and political arena based solely on his inclusion in the group.
This is true oppression. It doesn’t matter that a few mutants can shoot lasers out of their eyes when so many other are denied access to gainful employment, government representation, and equal protection under the law.
There’s a reason why the only mutant politician I can name is closeted. Before his death, Leonard Gary was an extremely unimportant Representative (it took him eight years to get the floor) who went to great lengths to pass.
Most mutants have neither the powers afforded a sitting congressperson nor the reality warping abilities that Gary used to help him pass.
In addition to a lack of economic and political opportunities, society also oppresses mutants through violence (both state-sanctioned and the illegal vigilante variety) .
I’ve already covered some of the more fantastical types of violence mutants face such as Sentinels, magic commandos, and government licensed super-humans along with some more mundane types of violence such as police brutality. (Yes, I realize how disturbing it is that police brutality can be described as “mundane.”)
Police brutality (as well as inconsistent application of the law) serves another function of oppression beyond a simple physical assault. It isolates the group’s members by turning their putative protectors into violent aggressors.
A Note on Cultural Appropriation
I would be remiss if I presented this entire series without a brief note on cultural appropriation.
The mutant oppression metaphor has been strengthened by creators making parallels between Marvel’s mutants and real world oppressed groups. I don’t think that this is a bad thing when done allegorically with transparency and — most importantly — with respect.
Fiction can be a powerful tool in calling attention to real world social injustices. However, when done incorrectly, this can quickly turn into cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation occurs when the group in power (i.e. the oppressors) steals a fragment of an oppressed group’s history or culture and strips it of its original context and meaning. This is not an acceptable practice.
Many of the forced analogies between Charles Xavier and Martin Luther King are blatant appropriation. Xavier is a terrible civil rights leader. His approach to civil rights (hiding and training child soldiers for combat) is absolutely nothing like MLK’s (living openly and nonviolent protesting).
Mutants are an oppressed people on Earth-616. This is apparent in the profound difference in the treatment of mutants compared to that of similarly powered individuals. The few mutants with enhanced combat capabilities tend to be the group’s extraordinary exceptions and do not reflect the normal experience of the group members. Even the power of these sparse individuals is relative and doesn’t change the general lack of economic and political opportunities or the lack of protection and stability afforded other members of society.
When done with transparency and respect, the systemic oppression that Marvel’s mutants face can — and often does — reflect some real world injustices faced by persecuted groups in a way that is culturally relevant and valuable.