Everyone loves a hero, but we worship a good villain. Strong women come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, and sometimes that means looking up to a character who has no interest in being your role model. All this month, we're presenting Not Your Shero, a series that celebrates anti-heroes, villains, and all the women way too busy wreaking havoc to save you.
Introduced in Uncanny X-Men #129 during the infamous Dark Phoenix Saga as the White Queen, a member of a group of rich, unethical mutants called the Hellfire Club, Emma Frost might not have been the first X-Men villain, but she quickly became one of the most memorable. She ambushes and kidnaps the X-Men, leaving a 13-year-old Kitty Pryde to save the team. Unfortunately, Kitty’s in way over her head, and the X-Men go on to have to deal with a Phoenix who has been driven mad by her own power, but that’s a story for another day. For the sake of this piece, Emma, in her very first appearances, was portrayed as being inexplicably, irredeemably evil, going to some lengths to enslave and destroy the X-Men — and very nearly succeeding.
There’s always a bit of a mystery of what exactly goes on in the Hellfire Club, but the concept was based on an S&M club in New York, and most members walk around in various states of undress, so it can be safely assumed that, whatever it is, it’s sexy. Emma joins the club after leaving a mental institution where her family had abandoned her. She escapes and refuses to return home for obvious reasons, working as an exotic dancer, rising up through the ranks quickly due to her ruthlessness and her impressive psychic powers. Terrified of being returned to the institution or finding herself homeless, Frost chooses to adapt and became a powerful villain.
In addition to her membership at the Hellfire Club, Frost is also the headmaster of the Massachusetts Academy, which is like the Xavier Institute, but eviler. There, Frost teaches a team of mutants known as the Hellions, who for some time are the adversaries to the Xavier school’s New Mutants. Emma convinces a young woman named Angelica, also known as Firestar, to attend her school, intending to use her as a weapon against her enemies, a story which takes place in the 1986 Firestar series. As one of the most outrageously awful villains imaginable, Emma torments the cringe-inducingly naive Angelica by entering her dreams at night to say terrible things and, at one point, killing her pony in order to increase Angelica’s dependence on her.
Emma also encourages her students to behave immorally, although years later context is given in the admission that she felt like cruelty was the only thing that had helped her survive and that her students would likewise need it to live in a world that hated them for their abilities. Her student Empath, already an awful person, helps Emma by subtly controlling people when she cannot. Empath’s name is deceiving, as his mutant power is the ability to overpower others with the emotion he wishes for them to feel rather than experience any empathy himself.
When the Uncanny X-Men series began to see a creative change for the first time in over a decade in 1991, the Hellions were slaughtered en masse by Trevor Fitzroy, a now all-but-forgotten mutant from Lucas Bishop’s future. Not only were their deaths unnecessary and seemingly arbitrary, the only person that ever seemed very deeply affected by them was Emma, who was in a coma for a few years afterward.
The next time we saw Emma in a major role, it was in Uncanny X-Men #314, attempting to escape her comatose body and possessing Iceman as a means to do so. In his body, Emma Frost unlocks the potential that he had never dreamed of, and not-so-gently criticizes him for failing to utilize the full extent of his power. (This is very typical of Emma — after being in a coma for a very long time, she shows up just to possess a person and then chastise them for not being better at their jobs.)
Shortly thereafter, Emma joins up with the former X-Man Banshee to help save a small group of teen mutants when the X-Men are otherwise engaged during the Phalanx Covenant storyline. This leads to the two mismatched adults to step in and begin teaching duties for a new team of students known as Generation X.
Emma’s time with Generation X might be where we see her greatest character growth. While Banshee is good-intentioned and likable, it’s clear from the start that he believes leadership will mostly fall upon his shoulders, and she promptly corrects that belief by refusing to play by his rules and occasionally undermining him in front of the students. The two of them remain one of my favorite match-ups in comics because they’re incompatible but in a mostly benign, kind of charming way. As such, they encourage new growth in one another throughout the series.
After Generation X disbands, Emma becomes a teacher on the mutant island Genosha, which is then leveled by attacks. Emma develops a secondary mutation in the ability to turn into diamond and survives, but everyone around her has died, including the students she’d been teaching when the attacks occurred. She begins working with a group of identical twins named the Stepford Cuckoos, who reflect her ruthlessness and are one of the best concepts to emerge from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. She joins the X-Men and begins a telepathic affair with Scott Summers, who was, at the time, married to Jean Grey.
Emma’s adversarial relationship with Jean Grey starts when Phoenix, who based her persona on Jean, was manipulated by the combined power of Mastermind, an illusionist, and the White Queen. Later, Emma and Jean become trapped in each other’s bodies for a short time, and later still, during Grant Morrison’s run, their general disdain for one another builds into a full-blown antipathy. Emma and Jean’s dynamic is fascinating, as Jean holds Emma in the utmost contempt, but Emma’s view of Jean actually contains a bit more nuance.
To Emma, Jean is someone that everyone will always automatically side with, who has the instant love and patience of all around her, who is babied and protected and forgiven, while Emma finds herself to be the one person to whom Jean’s compassion and patience absolutely do not apply. Jean is more powerful than Emma, and she bullies her, time and again. Jean also weaponizes her goodness against Emma, and when she discovers Scott and Emma having a telepathic affair, she almost completely ignores Scott to fully lash out at Emma, attacking and traumatizing her after trapping her in a room that she prevents the other X-Men from entering. In desperation, Emma tells Jean that she clearly has the upper hand, and she’s just being a bully, but Jean doesn’t care. In her own strange way, Emma adds depth to Jean by identifying the very worst part of her character in a way that no one else, save Wolverine, ever really does.
Scott and Jean break up, and Jean dies shortly thereafter. Scott and Emma end up in a long-term relationship, and Scott’s personality changes in ways that are, for a time, surprisingly healthy. His relationship with Jean was often marked by his fear of her incredible power, and to his discredit, he seemed to inhibit her from learning how to experiment and utilize those powers. Emma and Scott had a relationship plagued with problems, but it was a lot more equal than his marriage to Jean. Meanwhile, Scott is the only person that we ever really see Emma forge any kind of a real connection with besides her students. He appears to be the only person that she allows into her heart throughout her long history in the comics.
When Scott dies by being exposed to the Terrigen Mists, Emma snaps and blames Black Bolt for his death, urging the X-Men into a full-out war with the Inhumans as some kind of byproduct of her grieving process. However, more recently, we saw Emma putting everything on the line to fight the Nazi Hydra. Although Emma is amoral and even evil, she remains charming and likable in her hatred of fascism, which she fights against despite her relatively privileged place in society. Across realities, Emma Frost is shown as having a complete disdain for dictators, and in Age of Apocalypse, despite having been robbed of her telepathy, she still throws herself into the fight against Apocalypse.
In the end, Emma Frost has done a lot of terrible stuff, but so have a lot of X-Men, and people are sure a lot more forgiving to them than they usually are to Emma. She’s tough as nails, but it’s because she has to be. She’s rude, but she’s protecting herself from false friends. Despite the fact that she doesn’t need to work a day in her life, she volunteers her time to teach her students how to survive. Her students have died in front of her now countless times, and she had her entire mind turned inside out by either the Phoenix or Jean Grey more than once. She held the only person she ever really seemed to like very much as he died in her arms. This is a woman who has been through the ringer, and she’s still managed to rise above it at important times to fight for what she believes in with surprising levels of selflessness. If Wolverine gets to be a beloved antihero despite going rogue multiple times, then so does Emma Frost.
All that said, she did definitely still kill a teen girl’s pony, so take it with a grain of salt.