Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The X-Men Theory of Human Relations

It's hard to imagine how homo sapiens managed to do “myth” without the benefit of cross-media promotional tie-ins, but they managed. We have our modern myths, we are told—big, sprawling projects by fat, bearded white dudes. We have films people want to live in, and worlds people want to play in, and behave like jerks. Myth is four letters long and a mile wide, and it's one of the things we're pretty great at. Give yourselves a hand, people.

My metaphysical ideas are confusing, but if I were to settle on a particular myth or mythic structure for our present day—not so much a religious pantheon as a collection of symbols we all agreed to behave as if our anscestors used as a religious pantheon—it would be the X-Men. Not so much for the inherent cleverness of the concept, or the writers who've ably employed it over the decades, but because it's flexible, renewable, and strong. In the sense that, with a cast that big, it has to hold an awful lot of fuckin' weight.

In the most famous of the various stories that circle through the various media of the franchise, such as the Mutant Registration Act, the Weapon Plus project, the Cure, the rise of the sentinels, etc., there's invariably one particular villain who anchors the action, and a bigger, vaguer villain painting the scenery. The government, the army, men in black. Frightened teenagers all over the world, many of them with hilariously silly names and fashion choices, cowering in fear that some unstoppable entity is going to take them out of their homes and away from their families, to be put in a cage where...

...where what, exactly? What exactly is the concern with any large-scale investigation into these loveable superbeings? Why does Sanctuary need to operate in secret? Why do the diamond-realdoll vampires of Twilight give a shit if people find out they exist? Why all the hiding?

Sure, people want to kill them. But that's not the fear. Plenty of our supernatural heroes face the prospect of violent death every day; so do plenty of people here in the really real world, and the supernatural heroes are a hell of a lot better equipped to deal with that fact. Cassandra Nova's inspirations aside, the sentinels aren't interested in genocide. There's no profit in it. Whereas there's quite a bit of profit in a prison full of properly licensed, corporate-owned mutants? Now that's something special. Not in the sense of being interesting to read about, as it ends the story. But there's money to be made.

The common element of all of our fabled supernatural warriors--the reason we like reading about them, dress up as them for Halloween, etc.--is that they're unique and useful. They can do things we wish we could do. Which means they can do things we wish we could have done for us. Often, there are things we'd like to do to/with them. Many of the people in their diegetic worlds feel the same way. People want them. And when people want something, there's an awful lot of money to be made in procuring it for them.

At risk of going in way over my head, things aren't valuable because of inherent qualities, or because they're useful, or because they're rare. Market theory holds that things are valuable because someone's willing to pay for them, i.e. make a sacrifice proportional to the assigned value. I need not have an opinion on the theory, which is fortunate, because I am untrained and it wouldn't matter anyway. For my purposes here, however, I will amend it to say that what ultimately makes things valuable is want. People sacrifice for things they want, and you can make a very nice helping to assuage that want.

There was another plagiarism scandal today, so I'm going to have to link to the generally execrable article I'm going to be quoting:

Go look outside. See those cars driving by? Every car being driven by a man was designed and built and bought and sold with you in mind. The only reason why small, fuel-efficient or electric cars don't dominate the roads is because we want to look cool in our cars, to impress you. [...]

All those wars we fight? Sure, at the upper levels, in the halls of political power, they have some complicated reasons for wanting some piece of land or access to some resource. But on the ground? Well, let me ask you this -- historically, when an army takes over a city, what happens to the women there?
It's all about you. All of it. All of civilization.
How one gets from the first paragraph to the second without noticing a rather disturbing analogy, I can only presume. Suffice to say, the car isn't about women. It wasn't designed to impress women. It was designed to be sold at a profit. In this case, sold to men, who tend to have more money. And who tend to want women.

The second paragraph demonstrates a purer form. Property comes from a prior agreement to honor the concept of property with violence. In its absence, it amounts to whatever you can seize, whatever you can hold. Whatever you can carry off. The word in Latin is raptus. Historically, the opportunity for mass rape is part of how mercenaries are paid. The prospect of owning a woman motivates car-buying and mercenary warfare, in these examples, but neither of these things is about women, unless you've already accepted the idea that the defining characteristic of women is that men want them.

It applies for basically any group that can be seized, carried off, exploited, enslaved, or generally exploited by another, but X-Men seems to dramatize it in a way we're all comfortable with, so that's the label I go with. The X-Men theory of human relations is this: if your value as a thing that is wanted exceeds your value as a thing that acts--if what you are is seen as more important than what you can think or do--you're fucked.

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