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The secret world of Psylocke

Contributed by
Nov 22, 2018

All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy, and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.

Of all the Chris Claremont creations, Betsy Braddock is one of the most difficult to explain. Initially the lavender-haired sister of Captain Britain, it was in his comic during Claremont’s run that Betsy made her first appearance as a bitingly cynical and occasionally mean-spirited model. She joined the X-Men, but for many fans of the book, she was the weakest link. The choice was made to revitalize her, but the method taken to do so is one of Marvel’s most controversial moves in its very long history. Yet, through this transition, Betsy became an infinitely more interesting character, although much of what makes her interesting is addressed more by writers outside of Marvel than it is by Marvel itself.

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The Braddock family has a longstanding tradition of being rich, privileged intellectuals with mean streaks about a mile wide, and Betsy is no different, but the early days of the character are marked most of all by her relative lack of interesting features. She has two brothers with incredibly strong personalities, and as such finds her own voice reduced. She had a brief stint as Captain Britain, standing in for her brother Brian temporarily. She joins the X-Men in a leadership capacity, but her powers aren’t strong enough that they would allow her to join them on the battlefield, and she instead guides them from their home base. Her romantic interests aren’t compelling, and there is even a brief flirtation with the much younger Doug Ramsey that is more off-putting than anything.

In the late ‘80s, many of the X-Men were faced with the choice to change by stepping into the Siege Perilous, a sort of tangible Deux Ex Machina of the X-Men universe. Betsy's eyes had been replaced by mechanical ones that were given to her by the interdimensional villain known as Mojo, and that became just the start of her interest in body modification. In her perfect image of herself, Betsy did not have a body at all and was instead a cold, steely, sword-wielding warrior woman, a far cry from the relatively soft physical form she occupied. Open to giving up her entire identity as a sought-after model and privileged rich woman for the chance to become a true warrior, Betsy stepped into the Siege Perilous and was forever changed.

She came out on the other side having swapped bodies with a ninja named Kwannon, who was completely used and discarded as a plot device for Betsy’s character development. Kwannon was given Betsy’s body, which quickly deteriorated and died due to having contracted the mutant-specific Legacy Virus, and Betsy went on to a different life. She became more integral to the X-Men and began a longstanding relationship with Warren Worthington, otherwise known as the Angel. Over time, her own displacement and transformations came into play as she helped him through much of his ongoing identity crisis.

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As for the clearly problematic nature of taking a white woman and placing her literally in Kwannon’s skin to make her more compelling while Kwannon herself ultimately died a death intended for Betsy Braddock, there have been a lot of discussions. The reasons for the transition from a creative standpoint have generally been reduced to Jim Lee wanting a sexy ninja to draw and Claremont finding himself at an impasse with Betsy Braddock in general. The story was intended to be brief, but the new version of Braddock was kept due to her sex appeal, which made an already upsetting creative choice even more questionable. Yet, as problematic as it all was, attempts to amend the situation have been equally upsetting. Betsy’s relationship with her newfound heritage was almost never addressed, although her slow adjustment to her new body was. Recently, Betsy was somewhat unceremoniously returned to her own body, but again Kwannon was barely given any focus at all.

The most complicated part of Psylocke’s legacy is that the vast majority of her character growth occurred while in the body of Kwannon, but almost none of that was directly related to Kwannon herself, nor did it have anything much to do with any of the problems that women of Asian descent deal with in the United States. For many readers, their first introduction to Braddock was in Kwannon’s body, and as such, despite her problematic nature, Psylocke was still a major part of the X-Men's diversity.

It’s likewise important to note in conversations about Psylocke that over-sexualization of women of Asian backgrounds remains a huge problem that has led to a great deal of dehumanizing rhetoric over many decades. Not only is it noted that she was given an Asian body in part to make her seem sexier and therefore more interesting to young men, but the anatomically improbable poses and lack of clothing for Psylocke is a noted departure from the willowy elegance of Betsy’s original design. The willingness of creators to specifically sexualize her when in a Japanese body obviously sends a bad message.

While Betsy was in Kwannon’s body, she again served on the X-Men, mostly as a background character. Her longstanding feud against Sabretooth came under focus briefly when Creed was kept on the grounds of the Xavier Institute for treatment of his homicidal urges. Betsy had fought him in her original form in a very interesting story years before, in which she had fled throughout the mansion and eventually hit him with a superpowered jolt of energy, “the focused totality of her psionic powers,” which reduced him to a docile state. Suddenly, after years, Braddock discovers that this trick no longer works, and Sabretooth very nearly kills her after one of the most epic one-on-one battles of the superhero genre. While Wolverine is unquestionably Sabretooth's primary foe, the dynamic between Psylocke and Sabretooth is equally compelling, and their fights are always legendary.

When Betsy heals and returns to active duty, it is as a member of the mercenary X-Force, where her ruthlessness has increased substantially. She is completely casual about killing her enemies, and even on a team of notoriously violent characters, she stood out as one of the most extreme. Her dreams of becoming a warrior were fulfilled but at a great emotional cost. She stands by Angel as he goes through his greatest struggle against his own dark nature, but loses their relationship in the process. She becomes romantically involved with Phantomex but leaves him when he reveals his own manipulative streak. When Phantomex is suddenly split into three bodies, Betsy begins a relationship with his female form, Cluster, revealing herself to be one of the X-Men’s few openly queer characters. Unfortunately, that plotline goes nowhere, and we have seen increasingly less of Psylocke's development since. Noted to struggle with her bloodlust, she begins referring to it as an actual addiction in the Sy Spurrier run of X-Force. Over the last several years, she has squared off against many of the X-Men's most notoriously deadly foes, including taking on the Shadow King one on one, someone Xavier himself lost battles with.

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Overall, Psylocke has long been a character that writers have struggled with. Opting to ignore her relationship with her host body due to its obvious potential for controversy, writers likewise neglected to approach much of the character-building that would have made her story more relevant and less problematic. By failing to consider Kwannon much at all and imposing the persona of a white woman over her own, creators did succeed in making Betsy infinitely more interesting, yet it was entirely at the cost of Kwannon. This, in and of itself, is an active metaphor for the erasure of other cultures, specifically as a result of British imperialism. Still, it was seldom approached, seemingly because writers and publisher alike were interested in distancing themselves from the incredibly uncomfortable aspects of the transition. In the end, no amount of body-swapping will “fix” the overall storyline of Betsy Braddock. Only by recentering focus on Kwannon and telling her side of this convoluted and upsetting tale could there be any hope of redemption for one of the X-Men’s most problematic arcs.

Regardless of this complex history, Betsy Braddock was a character who wished to be more interesting, and that was ultimately what she became, although as noted the methods of getting there led to the creation of some of the most cringe-inducing comics of the early ‘90s. She was a princess who had everything but yearned for life as a warrior. Although her skills as a fighter could have developed in any way other than the way they did and it would have been a better story, in the end, she did get her life’s wish. However, she did so by erasing another woman’s identity entirely. Her addiction to violence has taken the forefront in her characterization during her time in X-Force. Wherever she goes next, Betsy became a warrior over her time in Kwannon’s body, and she’s likely to stay one even as she’s returned to her own.

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