Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Professor Charles Francis Xavier the SuperCrip

Note: I have not read the comics and so all of the commentary in this piece is about the Xavier I have come to know in the multiple X Men movies.

Last week, I wrote about talking to my child about appropriation, and this conversation began during a viewing of the first X Men movie.  At the time, I mentioned the ableism in the film, and since have received emails questioning this assertion. I believe that the best place to start this conversation is with a discussion about Professor Charles Francis Xavier.

Let's begin with the fact that Xavier is both White and male.  Disabled people are often erased from pop culture, but in the few instances in which we appear, we are far more likely to be portrayed as White and male.  Just as in any other oppressed group, the White male is the one who is most likely to rise to the top and to be visible. Not only is Xavier White and male, he is well educated and has class privilege.  I am aware that his disability occurred when he was a young man, which of course gave him plenty of time to use his various privileges to accumulate wealth.

I know from personal experience that going from an able bodied experience to a disabled one is extremely difficult.  There is the constant reminder of the things that you can no longer do, and of course dealing with the ableism that suddenly becomes an active part of ones life.  We never get to see Xavier's struggle with this change. He is far to busy trying to avoid the potential of a war between mutants and humans.  He never really experiences disableism, despite the fact that he is a wheelchair user. He is looked to as a leader by all who surround him.  Even the major antagonist Magneto, clearly respect Charles, though he disagrees with his position on mutants.

Charles is one of the most powerful mutants, and his abilities were not hampered by his disability in any way.  There is no challenge that Charles cannot overcome with the help of his X Men and cerebro. While more accommodations would lead to greater opportunities for disabled people, the fact of the matter is that the world is not designed for us, and the accommodations that Charles has managed to create for himself, are a direct result of his class privilege.  It is not an accident that Charles rarely has forays outside of his mansion that are visible on screen, where he has to face a world in which not even his great wealth can over come the institutional ableism of society.  Xavier never has to deal with the fact that disabled bodies make people uncomfortable. I highly suspect that we never see this simply because it would detract from the powerful leader that he has been constructed to be.  Seeing him having to struggle to get something from a shelf, or coming across a door that does not automatically open at his presence would make him appear weak in the minds of many, though what it would represent is the reality of an ableist world.

Xavier never talks about ableism, or the challenges he faces specifically as a disabled man.  He absolutely fulfills the role of the quintessential supercrip. In the media, when disabled people are featured, it is often the story of a person doing great things in spite of their disability, or asserting that they can do anything and everything without aid, thus lending credence to the idea that disabled people just need to try harder. Xavier's model is different because his version of rising above happens because he exists in a vacuum in which he does not have to interact with a larger society. In the real world, most people don't have the option to simply lock themselves away, and not deal with whatever isms that they have to negotiate.

I know that the X Men movies are pure fantasy; however, they continually have plots that supposedly make analogies to the real world.  The mutants themselves are constructed as oppressed, despite the fact that they are all hyper able, and do in some cases represent a legitimate threat.  A girl that can kill you with a simple touch, a woman that who can control the weather to the point of creating tornadoes, or a man who can shoot lasers from his eyes, are terrifying and society would have rationale fears about the potential for harm, and yet the real oppressed walking the earth, people of colour, disabled people, the GLBT community, and women do not present a threat by their existence.  If X Men is going to put itself into a position to moralize to people about what it is to be "othered," then as far as I am concerned, that leaves the creators of the movies open to a critique of their treatment of the actual marginalized people that they choose to portray.  If they have so many gaping holes in their treatment of Xavier, how am I to take their analogies on "othering" seriously?

To watch and enjoy fantasy, one constantly has to suspend belief and unfortunately, this suspension of belief has become a true barrier for historically marginalized people to either be made visible, or to have accurate portrayals of our lives.  The very nature of fantasy for some people means that an introduction of isms would force them to deal with the ugliness of the real world, thus detracting from their tidy little escape, yet the continual promotion and empowerment of historically privileged bodies is not distracting and seen as normal, because these are the bodies that count.  Who is seen and how they are seen is important, no matter what genre we are discussing.  Fantasy is pop culture and that means that it is far more likely to be consumed than some dry text by an academic, and in turn this means that the ideas that it chooses to express are quickly disseminated to the public.  

Having a disabled character who never has to confront disableism and is largely sheltered, does not do justice to disabled people.  I highly suspect that I am meant to be grateful for the appearance of a wheel chair user, though we share no common experiences, beyond both being dependent on a mobility device, simply because of constant erasure of disabled people in pop culture.  

Xavier never has to negotiate the rampant paternalism that is often aimed at disabled people, though he is continually surrounded by hyper able people.  I suppose that one could argue that because he is in a leadership position, that this makes him immune to such occurrences, but that would in fact be a fallacious argument.  Xavier may have the class, gender and race privileges to differentiate his experiences of disableism from say a disabled person of colour, but that is no way means that his privilege in and of itself would be enough to continually shelter him from such attitudes.  We all experience our isms differently based in many factors, but we all experience the ism in full.  Just as rich Black men are still being pulled over for driving while Black, one can be certain that Xavier, a disabled White man of class privilege, could not go through the entirety of his existence without interacting with someone who believes the best approach to disabled people is to embrace paternalism for all they are worth. 

Finally, it is telling that any oppression that Xavier faced is not because of the actual disability that he has, but for being a mutant. There are no mutants walking around who would benefit from social representation or discussions of "othering", but I can guarantee you that this is not the case for disabled people. If they are going to go to the trouble of giving us a wheel chair user, they should have given us a disabled character that had to deal with disableism.