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The X-Men and the power of chosen family

Contributed by
Nov 27, 2018

Family can be amazing, and people that are born into loving homes are indeed fortunate, but, counterpoint - families can also be pretty awful. It’s pretty much a flip of a coin as far as who gets a great family and who doesn’t, and for most of us, it’s somewhere in between. That’s where our chosen families come in - despite not always being born with the support system we needed fully intact, we get to build on our families over time. Generally referred to in the context of queer people who have had troubled home lives moving out and finding friends that treat them better than their families do, the term has grown to be applied to just about any relationship that resembles a family bond that isn’t with a blood relative.

The mutant metaphor is applied in X-Men comics as an analog for bigotry of all kinds. Despite the X-Men being predominantly white and heterosexual, not to mention mostly drop-dead gorgeous, and that conversations of sexism almost never come up at the Xavier Institute, all X-Men are persecuted due to their status as “other.” In Marvel continuity, mutants are hunted and killed by humans due to intolerance. There has been a lengthy discussion among X-Fans, notably throughout the many episodes of the podcast Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, addressing the ways in which the mutant metaphor succeeds and how it fails. One of its successes is its assurance to readers that they are not alone and that no consequence of birth makes them a lesser person. Indeed, the X-Men tells us that we all deserve a family, chosen or not.

While most superhero comics have an element of chosen family, with Batman adopting Robin and the Kents adopting Superman with open arms to fill their own emotional voids, perhaps none rely on the theme quite so much like the X-Men. The mutant metaphor has many times been compared to coming out as queer - mutant attributes manifest themselves in puberty, and some mutants have passing privilege while others don’t. Again, it is used as a blanket term for oppression, but queer fans have often found their own chosen family in the X-Men, albeit a fictional one. Much of the X-Men cast of characters have struggled with parents that thought there was something terribly wrong with them, and so they would join the X-Men, where their teachers would definitely endanger their lives on a regular basis, but for much more wholesome reasons than bigotry. For queer kids, this could serve as a blueprint for how they would escape their own troubled homes and become productive members of society despite being born into a less than ideal environment.

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The Original Five

In the beginning, the X-Men came together because of a dream - the idea that mutants and humans could coexist in harmony, envisioned by Charles Xavier. While Xavier’s motivations and practices have certainly come under a more questionable light in recent years, there was at least a hint of altruism to his initial intentions with the team. Positioning himself as the sole authority figure in their lives might not have been the best move, but the original team of X-Men was the group that received the most of his attention, and they had unique experiences with him as a father figure as a result that the ensuing X-Men did not necessarily always get.

The original X-Men were distinctly marked by their inability to function in society, a problem that would have been further exacerbated had they not been taken in by Xavier. While the Beast had relatively affable and loving parents and enjoyed a great deal of popularity in high school as a star quarterback, his brilliance set him apart and left him feeling alienated. Even as the most socially capable original X-Man, he struggled. Meanwhile, Angel and Iceman were born to families that expected different from them than what they could reasonably give, and lived much of their lives in secret, hiding certain truths about themselves from their families. Warren learned to fold his wings around his body so that they could fit under a suit without detection, which caused him a great deal of physical discomfort.

Perhaps the most relevant example of chosen family and queer identities in the X-Men, Iceman was seen many times over the years having frustrating conversations with his bigoted parents. They could not accept his life as a mutant and were deeply disappointed in him for choosing to be a superhero rather than the relatively boring life they had mapped out for him. When he brought his girlfriend Opal home, she was exposed to racial prejudice from them. Later, when a time-displaced version of the original X-Men was brought into the present day, an incredibly tactless Jean Grey openly tells Iceman that he’s gay, which leads him to confront his older self. Iceman of today confesses that he is indeed gay and that he’s been hiding it for years. Thereby, Iceman is one of the few X-Men characters whose identity politics come under focus outside of the mutant metaphor, and his desire to be accepted into a chosen family reflects his anxieties not only about his sexuality but over the judgment of his parents.

For Jean Grey and Scott Summers, much of their relationship seems to have been based on their mutual alienation from the standard model of heterosexuality and family. Though Jean was a beautiful, charismatic young woman and Scott was nicknamed “Slim” and known for his social awkwardness and inability to connect with others, they were forever tied together as the 2 original students incapable of controlling their powers. While their peers had home lives outside of the mansion, Jean and Scott were on their own, unable to function in the regular world. While Xavier did give them a great deal of attention in their early years, it significantly waned as time went on and tragedies mounted. Indeed, looking back, they were very much the students that Xavier expected the most from and gave the least. Xavier expanded perpetually to reach towards new ambitions while Scott and Jean clung to each other as well as they were able to. When they ultimately separated, it was after years of unwittingly holding each other back via emotional codependency. Scott and Jean defined a lot of their own personalities based on how they saw each other and how they had seen each other since their teen years. Their love was real and true, and it remains one of the great romances of the superhero genre, but in order to grow as characters, they had to move away from one another. Cyclops became more self-motivated, while Jean dedicated herself even further to acts of kindness and altruism, embracing her chosen family as Scott helplessly pushed it further away.

Cyclops eventually discovered that his father was alive, and just happened to have taken up a life as a pirate in deep space, while Jean’s relationship with her family was ever complex. Her parents and sisters did what they could for her, but she was intrinsically a problem that they could not understand. Many people can relate to having a family that cares but simply can’t be there for them in the way that is needed. The development of Jean’s powers and her life with the X-Men had catastrophic effects on her family, eventually leading to the deaths of her parents when they were later targeted and eradicated due to their affiliation with her.

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New Mutants

In the New Mutants, chosen family took on the central theme but it was paired with an intrinsic distrust of parental figures that the original X-Men had not had. In the early days, Xavier served as a mentor to the new students, but quickly his mind was taken over by the alien species known as The Brood. As a Brood, Xavier tormented the only psychic on his team, Dani Moonstar, whose parents had gone missing and whose grandfather had recently died. Traumatized by the machinations of her supposed mentor, Dani stepped into a leadership role over the New Mutants alongside her friend Cannonball, and the two effectively served as a parental unit for the only slightly younger rest of the team. Cannonball had been born to a sprawling family in the south but had joined the New Mutants in hopes of controlling his powers. When Xavier left the planet, the team was left under the watch of Magneto, who tried but ultimately failed them. They learned to depend on themselves.

Other New Mutants had deep issues with the environments they’d been born into. Wolfsbane had been adopted by a religious zealot and led to believe herself a demon, deserving of punishment and misery in life. The after-effects of this early life continue to trouble her to this day, but her sister-like friendship with Moonstar was likewise integral for her development. Karma had been terribly hurt and abused in her early life but became one of the few X-Men that didn’t immediately bond with her team. The scars she bore were too personal, and she had to go her own way, which eventually found her in a mentorship role over her 2 younger siblings.

Sunspot was born privileged and rich, with an ego and a temper, but it covered a deeply felt insecurity. His mother was an archeologist that often left him to his own devices for months at a time while his father was a cruel and cold businessman with relatively little care for his son beyond his role as an heir. Sunspot continues to struggle with the legacy he was born to and that of his chosen family. Throughout it all, his relationship with Cannonball has humanized him and made him a better person. Seemingly at totally opposite ends of the spectrum, Sunspot is a brash rich kid from Brazil while Cannonball is a dirt-poor altruist from Kentucky, but Sunspot in his own way idolized the slightly older Cannonball. They became best friends, and even they are seldom seen apart. They’ve followed one another from the New Mutants to X-Force to the Avengers. Cannonball has served as a moral grounding point for Sunspot, who otherwise might have been drawn into the amoral world of his father.

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Orphaned

Xavier had a particular penchant for approaching children from broken homes, but many of the early X-Men had lost their parents entirely. Storm was born to apparently loving parents, but she lost them to an act of war when a bombing in Cairo left them dead and Ororo trapped under rubble for days before finally escaping certain death. After that, she took to the streets, wandering alone through a city that she did not know until she was eventually adopted by a small caravan of thieves and pickpockets. Sharpening her skills with them, she eventually left them behind to be closer to nature. In the wilds of Africa, Storm was worshipped as a god for her weather powers until Xavier came and called her out on it. Seeing that he was correct and that she needed to reign it in a bit, she joined the X-Men.

One of the most important members of the team over its many years, Storm is interesting in that her adopted family means all of the world to her, but she remains seemingly emotionally distant or disconnected from the others. This is an intrinsic personality trait — her need to remain in constant control of her emotions is important, not just to her but to the entire world. Any failure on her part could be catastrophic for the greater ecosystem of the planet. Storm’s way of interacting with the others is through calm, steady dedication, and intentional displays of incredible kindness and openness. When a young, struggling Kitty Pryde first came to the X-Mansion, it was Storm that she clung to and idolized. Though their personality types and backgrounds were incredibly different, Kitty needed someone to look up to, and Storm was happy to be looked up to. Their friendship was always much like that of an older sister or aunt taking a struggling teen relative under her wing, and they remain close to this day despite a stunning amount of disruption in their lives throughout the years. Kitty had parents but their divorce had left her essentially orphaned herself, and the bond that developed between them became unbreakable.

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The Student Becomes The Teacher

For years, Wolverine was known as the mysterious, temperamental loner of the X-Men, refusing to bond with anyone much beyond sharing beers with Nightcrawler and giving creative nicknames to the rest of the team. When Kitty Pryde joined, she bonded emotionally with Storm, but Wolverine took a surprising interest in the development of her skills. Concerned to see a relatively naive kid thrown into battle with the rest of the team, Logan took a special interest in helping to train her and advise her away from violence and anger.

This surprising tendency to care for young mutants by teaching them to care for themselves grew when he met Jubilee. Having lost her own parents and then taken up residence in a local mall where she would entertain groups for cash donations, Jubilee stowed away with the X-Men and began living instead inside their home without their knowledge. When Wolverine was kidnapped, crucified, and nearly killed by the Reavers and Lady Deathstrike, it was a completely untrained Jubilee who saved him by helping him flee. Although he attempted to push her away for her own safety, Jubilee clung emotionally to Logan with the all the loyalty of a child for a distant parent. He helped her grow, and years later, when she was turned into a vampire and struggled with bloodlust, it was Logan who came to save her, coaxing and helping her and convincing her not to give in to her dark desires.

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The X-Men might not always be the greatest superhero team, and they make a lot of mistakes, but they do take care of each other in the absence of their respective families like nobody’s business. Although adopting kids to enlist them in an ongoing struggle against oppression might not be the most caring thing to do, the family that each member of the team discovers along their quest helps them grow. Intentionally or not, the franchise has thus helped many struggling people find their own chosen family along the way.

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