Gwen is on a bit of a vacation this week, so I’m taking over writing duties for the one column on the site that forces us to ogle and think deeply at the same time. Hopefully I do it justice.

Hopping into a cinematic time machine to set a film in a different decade is always a precarious occupation, but for X-Men: First Class (a movie that doesn’t seem exactly topical despite coming out two months ago), the danger of portraying the men and women of 1962 was even more difficult. Sure, Mad Men had come along and made the sleek chauvinism of the 60s chic again, but Matthew Vaughn and company had to juggle the suspension of disbelief inherent in spotlighting mutants alongside the possible cartoon that forms whenever a guy in a tight cummerbund slaps a woman on the ass and goes back to enjoying being white and male in America.

So is X-Men: First Class anti-feminist or a sexy love note to the powerful women of our world? That’s a tough call. And since it’s a tough call, here’s an attempt at giving both arguments equal weight.

First Class Sends a Message of Female Empowerment

Even a quick look at the bigger movies of this summer reveals a startling lack of female characters. Cowboys & Aliens has Olivia Wilde in the token role. Blake Lively takes that honor for Green Lantern and has no character to show for it. Michael Bay cast a breathing clothes mannequin for his token position, and even though she proves she’s strong, Hayley Atwell is surrounded by men in Captain America. The Deathly Hallows Part II is a welcome exception to the gender balance, but considering screen time and character arcs, it would still be hard to beat X-Men: First Class.

If you put Prof. X, Magneto, Beast, Banshee, Darwin and Havoc on a balance beam with Moira MacTaggert, Mystique, and Angel – it almost balances out. At least, it balances out a hell of a lot more than other films. And that’s just the good guys. Aside from the grunting henchman (with admittedly cool powers) Emma Frost brings a welcome femininity to Sebastian Shaw’s diabolical plans.

Put simply, this movie gives a lot of heavy lifting to the women.

That means even more considering the time they live in. Sure, Moira strips down to her garters to infiltrate a club, and Emma wears little more than a giant bra while she’s on screen, but these are both great examples of them using their feminine mystique to get the upper hand. Moira shows she’s a quick thinker, and Emma is able to use her sexuality as a trap for even the most traditionally powerful of men.

Sex is also the stage in which Mystique’s character comes of age. Instead of a love triangle, this film focuses on a conflict of dedication between Mystique, Xavier and Magneto. Allegiances are made and broken and reformed between the three, but after struggling with her appearance and the need to mask who she is, Mystique finally takes a bold step by sneaking into Magneto’s bed without her clothes.

It’s a move that’s greatly rewarded when he confirms that he finds her more beautiful when she’s not wearing the mask – blue skin, scales and all. It might be easy to twist this scene into a moment where a fragile, weak girl needs the approval of a big strong man to validate her existence, but it’s much more than a man and woman making love – it’s one person telling another that she’s wonderful just the way she is.

In a sense, the women of First Class survive the 60s male onslaught. Had it been set in modern times, the swingin’ Playboy-style club; the ass-slapping, get-me-another-drink attitude; and the CIA openly mocking a female colleague probably wouldn’t have made the cut. However, the story takes place a year before Betty Friedan published her magnum opus that revived modern feminism, and there are conceits that go along with that. In what could have been a domination by men, this film becomes a journey for its women. Angel casts off her career as a stripper and finds her place in the universe. Emma Frost uses her breasts as much as her brains. Mystique finds her own beauty and brawn. Moira is a catalyst who sets the entire affair in motion.

When read correctly, X-Men: First Class is all about female empowerment.

First Class Is Anti-Female Empowerment

As noble as it is for a comic book movie to feature more than a handful of female characters, it’s almost more criminal that the movie squanders all of those characters either in the writing or in the casting process. This is, like most films, a movie about two men and their relationship. It focuses most strongly on them, and the result is a group of side characters that do the minimal amount of development in order to serve the plot’s momentum.

What’s most damning is that this movie ostensibly features four female main characters, and still manages to fail the Bechdel Test (unless you believe that Mystique rhetorically asking Angel if she can fly counts as a conversation). Yes, it has more than one woman in it, but they never talk to each other. Thus, while it might have set itself up for success, it still fails miserably on something incredibly fundamental to feminism.

Instead, they are relegated to sexual objects meant solely for the male gaze. Angel introduces her power to Xavier and Magneto – as they lounge in a sleazy, lap-danced-upon bed – by removing her bra seductively and watching their eyes light up when she lifts off the ground. Emma Frost is in her underwear the entire film. Yes, her character was drawn that way in the comic book, but does that mean the filmmakers are shackled to that costume design? They couldn’t have made it more realistic? Of course not. They threw up their hands and said, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to have this woman walking around in revealing lingerie the entire time. There’s just no way around it!”

Perhaps the most flagrant violation here is our introduction to Moira. The very first thing we learn about her is that she wears sexy lingerie to a stake out, and she’s willing to remove her clothes to get a job done. What results is yet another extended sequence where a woman proves she’s good at her job only when her cleavage and inner thighs are showing.

If there’s one moment that can give that sequence a run for its money, though, it’s when Emma Frost is robbed of her power by Sebastian Shaw. He’s the villain, and as such, he’s meant to do some heinous things, but for a woman who spends the bulk of her time in lacy underthings, is there a more direct message than Shaw inventing a helmet that makes her power useless? He demeans her, demands she get him some more ice for his drink, and she stays by his side even after he literally makes her powerless.

At that point, her last strength is in her body and the way she uses it. Beyond her sexuality, she’s just another human being in a world of mutants.

Speaking of which, sex is used for Mystique in a disturbing way. Whereas Sebastian’s actions can still be seen as the colorization of a bad guy, Xavier is supposed to be our hero, and yet he 1) womanizes at the bar and 2) ignores his “sister” Mystique. It’s this feeling of neglect that sends her into the arms of Magneto, desperate for some sort of validation for her being that comes solely from her looks. It might be easy to twist this scene into one where a woman learns that she’s fine just the way she is, but at its core, it comes in the wolf’s clothing of a man ogling her as she lies naked in his bed. She doesn’t want to be told she’s strong, smart or interesting. She just wants to know that she’s beautiful.

It’s understandable that the setting changes the way that women are portrayed, and the way that men act toward them, but First Class does a great disservice by loading the film with female characters that exist solely to be objectified, who matter in the beginning and then disappear, and who appear either nude or near nude a disproportional amount of time (not only to the men, but also disproportional to reality). Even when these women are shown to be strong, they are cut off at the knees and shown in the same light that the early 60s would have. With a chance to share the reality of female strength, First Class ends up echoing an antique sentiment.

When read correctly, it’s anti-feminist.

Which one of me is right?

Strap on your garters and read more Reel Sex


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