The year was 1992. Mutants were accidentally zapping their VCRs, using clever comebacks like, “...NOT,” and dealing with unwarranted prejudices while trying to save angry white dudes from themselves. The symbolism of X-Men has been pretty obvious for decades: trying to belong in a world that doesn’t seem to want you, fighting for your right to live, and reckoning with your identity. But what's remarkable about X-Men: The Animated Series, the classic FOX Kids cartoon that debuted 25 years ago today, was that it was about a ragtag group of social justice warriors dealing with their warring feelings towards the majority, and it was made for kids.
When you’re a 9-year-old black girl watching a woman with your same skin complexion controlling the weather and using it to trip up a group chanting NO MORE MUTANTS, it’s pretty satisfying. And when that same 9-year-old is now 18, and quietly writing up an email to her very first girl crush, she remembers the cartoon, because queer representation is still scarce in 2001, so she’ll take the symbolism where she can get it. And today -- during a fraught era, in which tiki-wielding neo-nazis protest in polo shirts, members of the queer community fight to go to the bathroom in peace, and people of color have to actually tell the world that they matter -- the show feels even more important.
The X-Men fight the good fight via epic guitar riffs and spandex. They’re led by Charles Xavier, whose goal is to have a world where mutants and humans coexist. He feels that this can be accomplished peacefully, but there are others who feel that this dream is impossible. Enter mutants like Magneto, who are past the point of peaceful protests, because in the first two episodes of the first season we’ve had a mutant die (Morph), a mutant wrongfully arrested (Beast), and a mutant kidnapped, strapped down to a table, and told that she should’ve never been born (Jubilee).
Magneto would be today’s media obsession, plastered across every news station while he’s out there breaking windows and lifting cars. Then, of course, there’s the villainous mutants who make Magneto look like his biggest crime is jaywalking. Can’t you just hear reporters calling it mutant-on-mutant crime, even if the X-Men are trying to stop the Juggernaut from raging through the streets? Wolverine and Sabertooth would be the poster boys of in-group fighting, surrounded by negative hashtags of their names. And don’t get me started on Apocalypse... on second thought, he may be the great evil that gets the anti-mutant crowd to change their ways, but by then, the damage is done and we’re traveling through time to try and fix the world.
Unlike your current news stations, this '90s cartoon shows how Magneto and other “I’m done with the bulls***” mutants reached the point of absolute doneness. It shows the mutual respect that Xavier and Magneto have for each other, even if they are on different sides of the protesting fence, because the truth is, they’re fighting for the same
cause, even if their methods are polar opposites. This is arguably the main theme of the series: No one mutant handles the whole “mankind hates you” thing in the same way.
This theme goes beyond Wolverine’s mantra of “going where he wants to go,” because mutants like Rogue actually want to get rid of their powers, while the Morlocks seek a place to just be themselves, away from the hostility of humans. Even mutants who are on the same side as the professor have moments where they question and even defy his peaceful ideology, because who wouldn’t? The series encapsulates the struggles we see every day with identity, civil rights, and struggling to survive in a world that seems to despise the very existence of “the other,” even if that other makes up a good chunk of the population.
As a kid, it was terrifying to think that, someday, I’d have to face a variety of groups
that hated me. There’d be the obvious torch-carriers who’d I’d be able to spot from a mile away, but there’d also be those who called themselves “friends” but didn’t have my best interests in mind. And if I ever spoke up for myself, there’d always be someone to pick apart my feelings, under the guise of “helping,” in an attempt to dictate how I deal with the nastiness of the world. It was something my parents warned me about, and cartoons like X-Men depicted their words in every single episode.
Looking back as someone who is seen as the “other,” I want the peace that the professor spoke of, but, at times, I also want to use magnetic forces to crumble the groups that tell a teenage girl that she should’ve never been born. My feelings range from Magneto’s magnificent rage to the Morlock’s desire to stay hidden underground; hell, some days, I would go through a Rogue arc, where I’d wish I could just blend in with everyone else. The show illustrates all of these things, and it doesn’t belittle anyone’s feelings; it validates them. The X-Men didn’t just fight prejudice, they lived it. They were otherworldly beings fighting against regular, everyday issues that girls like me faced, that women like me still face, and they were depicted as heroes whose voices vitally mattered, not just to mutants, but to the very humans who hated them.