It hit me the other day that my X-Birthday came and went with no fanfare (despite it being a very important birthday, I’m the only one that seems to keep track of it). 20 years ago this past February, I read my very first X-Men comic. I remember getting 1993’s “X-Men Adventures” #5 after being cautiously interested in the Fox cartoon. Whatever caution I had was SNIKTed right in the face after that, though. I haven’t looked back and now, twenty years later, I’m still an X-Men fan. Looking back on the state of the X-Men of 20 years ago, I realized that the X-Men played a key role in making me a feminist.
My first introduction to the X-Men came in the form of “Night of the Sentinels,” the two-part pilot episode of Fox’s “X-Men” cartoon that aired in late October 1992. I remember watching it debut, as I was a devoted Saturday morning Fox viewer. But I had grown up with Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Ninja Turtles and Captain Planet. The only comics I had owned prior to that October were adaptations of those franchises. The world of Marvel Comics was unknown to me.
X-Men was a totally different thing. They had code-names like G.I. Joe, but they hid their identities for fear of persecution. They were mutants like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but the Turtles didn’t come up against nearly as many angry mobs. They were a team like the Planeteers, but they didn’t have a Superman-level eco-guardian to summon when things got rough. They had to depend on each other, which didn’t always seem like a sure bet when you consider how much the X-Men bickered with each other. Sure, it was a Saturday morning cartoon, but it added a whole other layer of maturity that had been absent from everything else I loved.
The X-Men also did something different from every other franchise eight-year-old me had loved up to that point. The team had four diverse, strong women who were all treated as equals. I’m not knocking Princess Leia or Lady Jaye, not at all. But as strong and progressive as those two characters are, no “Star Wars” movie and hardly any episodes of “G.I. Joe” pass the Bechdel test (a test passed by featuring two named female characters talking to each other about anything other than a man). Of coursem I didn’t realize this when I was a kid. I just knew that Rogue was a hero who got things done.
Jubilee acted as our entry character into the world of the X-Men. The first two X-Men we see in action are Rogue and Storm. In fact, in that opening scene, Rogue puts down her shopping bags to punch a Sentinel in the face. If that’s not symbolic of how “X-Men” would go on to subvert gender expectations over the course of it’s five seasons, I don’t know what is. “X-Men” was not a cartoon wherein the women exclusively played the role of sidekick or damsel in distress. They weren’t tangential to the action like April O’Neil and they weren’t completely forgotten like in “Transformers.” They were powerful, in charge, essential and diverse. The women of “X-Men” had bigger differences than just hair color, unlike their counterparts in “G.I. Joe.”
There’s a reason “X-Men” featured strong female characters. It’s based on one of the most feminist comic book series of all time. Writer Chris Claremont made sure that the women of the X-Men got as much attention as the men, adding Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Rachel Grey, Psylocke, Dazzler and Jubilee to the team and making them as three dimensional as their male teammates. The X-Men comics that I first read 20 years ago followed in Claremont’s footsteps, and characters like Rogue and Domino quickly became my favorites alongside Gambit and Nightcrawler.
The deeper I went into the X-Men’s world, the more I found female characters that I cared about. The women of “X-Force” and “Generation X” were as diverse as those in their parent book. Feral was as ferocious as Wolverine. Siryn overcame a rough childhood and decades on the periphery to become X-Force’s field leader. The real Domino’s initial appearances during Fabian Nicieza and Greg Capullo’s run is fascinating in retrospect (yes, I recognize the ’90s-ness of having to clarify her as the “real” Domino). She was tough, witty and commanded nothing but respect from a team of roughneck Stallone-abes like Grizzly, Kane and Cable.
When “Generation X” finally debuted in 1994, after a big crossover event and hype from Marvel, it opened up with a scene wherein Jubilee, Husk and M talk to each other. For pages. About each other. Jubilee’s more concerned with Husk blaring workout tapes in the early morning than she is with what cute boys have enrolled. They relate to each other as independent human beings and not objects to be put in peril later in the issue. In fact, when Husk does get injured at the end of the issue, it’s Jubilee that saves her.
If you started reading comics when I did, maybe you read these same issues. Maybe you didn’t notice these things, either. I only notice it now that I’m an adult and have seen the way women get treated as second-class citizens. I’ve heard stories about street harassment from every single female friend I have. The funniest people I know put up with questions like “are women funny?” simply because their brain isn’t in a man’s body.
This manifests itself in a number of ways in the comic book industry, the very industry that gave me a feminist foundation 20 years ago. Books with female leads have a hard time surviving. All-female team books are viewed as a gimmick or criticized for not having men on the team (did Jonathan Hickman’s “New Avengers” dude-fest get anywhere near the criticism Brian Wood’s “X-Men” has gotten?). Female characters are expected to show skin on the battlefield, and when they get a practical redesign, fans lose it. Team rosters feature three men to every one woman almost as a rule. It took over 70 years for a woman to draw Batman in an issue of “Batman.” Seventy. Years. The label “fake geek girl” exists, with no male analogue. As a nine-year-old boy watching an episode of “X-Men” where the men go on an underground rescue mission, leaving the women above ground to fight an army of Sentinels (which they do, by the way, with ease because they’re superheroes), I had no idea that all of this stuff existed.
There’s a misconception amongst comic book fans that feminist creators and characters means that their comics will change for the worse. There’s a fear that women reading comics will fundamentally change some ill-defined something. The truth is, the X-Men prove that feminist creators and characters lead to success. Having a team composed of strong men and women doesn’t dilute the action. As a kid reading these comics, I didn’t realize how feminist they were. I just knew they were awesome.
Feminism doesn’t mean “anti-men” — it means pro-equality. It means Mary Jane exists for something other than just Spider-Man. It means Wonder Woman makes national headlines for something other than whom she’s kissing. It means movie studios green light a Black Widow film based on the strength of her role in the third biggest movie of all time. It means Lois Lane gets a birthday celebration from the company that publishes her. It means every comic book fan gets representation, and it means every comic book fan gets comics that they love. The X-Men did it in the ’90s, and comics should be doing an even better job of it now than they are.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).